Il Palio dell’Assunta

In April, it was revealed that the winning flag – or drappellone – for the August Palio di Siena would be painted by Sinta Tantra, who was residing at the BSR at the time as our 2016—17 Bridget Riley Fellow. After months of preparation and research and many trips to Siena, the drappellone was presented at Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, and six days later claimed by Onda (Wave), the victorious contrada (district) of the race. Here we take a look at a week in the world of Palio.

While the elements that are to be included in each drappellone — the symbols of the competing contrade, the symbols of the city and government, the image of the Madonna — are always featured, the design, colours and content of the drappellone was shrouded in secrecy. Only a small handful of people were allowed to see the flag in its various stages of development before its presentation in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, six days before the race. Each drappellone has a theme, and Sinta was charged with dedicating her flag to the Sienese sculptor Giovanni Duprè to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth. The drappellone is hugely coveted by each contrada, and the victorious district which claims it as their own hangs it with pride in their own museum.

On the evening of 10 August, Sinta joined a panel of the Palio committee to present her drappellone to the press and the people of Siena. The Mayor of Siena, Bruno Valentini, was the first to introduce the drappellone. He commented,

‘In the era of Brexit, the choice of a British artist corresponds to the desire to keep the ties between our city and the United Kingdom strong, and to seal a historic and cultural link which must not weaken. I therefore thank the ambassador of the United Kingdom, Jill Morris, a great friend of Siena, for the collaboration with the artist which she presented to us’.

You can read the full text of his speech (in Italian) here.


Mayor of Siena Bruno Valentini presents the drappellone.

The art historian Margherita Anselmi Zondadari, who acted as a mentor to Sinta throughout the process, then explained the artist’s practice, the inspirations behind the design, and the various elements of the drappellone. You can read the full text of the speech (in Italian) here.


The ‘drappellone’ designed and painted by Sinta Tantra

The arc of painted circles at the top of the flag represent the barberi, wooden or earthenware balls, whose colours indicate the contrada to which they belong; top-centre is the Madonna dell’Assunta, to whom the August Palio is dedicated, and who takes her form from that of the Madonna in the stained-glass window above the altar in Siena’s Duomo; the architectural elements are inspired by a fresco from the Piccolomini library, and by a 1971 drappellone which also took inspiration from this fresco; below the arch are the contrasting energies and elements of the moon and the sun; the central figure depicts Saffo Abbandonata, a sculpture by Duprè, which happened to be located in the archives of the BSR’s neighbour, the Galleria Nazionale D’Arte Moderna; the symbols of the city and government are shown on the band below; the bottom section is a recreation of the paved floor of the Duomo. The drappellone combines the traditional elements of the city and the festival with Sinta’s contemporary style and the bright, bold colours that are characteristic of her work.

Sinta gave the third and final speech, in which she thanked those who had supported her throughout the process and reflected on the time she had spent in Siena and the impression the city and the Palio had made on her.

Drappellone presentation

Sinta delivers her speech to the Comune. To the right is art historian Margherita Anselmi Zondadari

Saturday marked the day on which the pool of horses put forward to run is narrowed down from around 40 to the final ten. A spell of rain meant that all those who had arrived at the piazza at 5 a.m. eager to see the first test runs were turned away disappointed, returning in the afternoon once the track was dry.


Lining up for the first test-run

In the three days following the selection of the ten horses for the Palio, two prove (trials) take place each day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Shortly after the first prova, the Mayor conducts a lottery which assigns a horse to each contrada. The test runs of the previous day meant that the best-performing horses were highly sought-after, and each assignation was greeted with cheers or groans by the respective contrade. Once the horses are assigned, each contrada sets about trying to obtain the best possible jockey and forming alliances amongst themselves: if they cannot win, the next best result is that their rival contrada lose.

Palio lottery

Crowds gather for the lottery assigning a horse to each contrada

A great deal of Italian media attention is given to the Palio, and during the days in between the unveiling of the drappellone and the race, Sinta was interviewed for various media outlets. Click here to read some of the features on the drappellone from the Italian press.

On Monday, with two days to go before the race, the drappellone was carried from the Comune to the Duomo in the corteo storico, a procession through the streets of Siena of drummers, trumpeters and flag-bearers, all in traditional medieval costume. Once at the Duomo, a service took place in which each contrada and then the drappellone were blessed.


The procession (corteo storico) which leads in the drappellone

On Tuesday evening the prova generale took place. Being the day before the Palio, the jockeys take care not to push the horses too much in this trial. This prova also features a display by the mounted carabinieri. A formal dinner in each contrada follows the prova generale, and in the competing contrade speeches are made by the priore, capitano and fantino (jockey).


The mounted carabinieri in the prova generale. Photo by Alessia Bruchi via

On the morning of 16 August – Palio day – the final prova was run and the jockeys were blessed in a mass which took place outside the Palazzo Pubblico. Shortly after this, the drappellone was retrieved from the Duomo and taken to the Comune in another procession of drums and trumpets. In the meantime, each horse was taken into the church of its respective contrada to be blessed in advance of the race.


The blessing of the horse in the church of the contrada of Selva

The grand event began in the late afternoon. For around two hours, another corteo storico featuring musicians, flag-displays from all the contrade (not just those competing) and the mounted carabinieri paraded around the piazza, with the final circuit before the horse race featuring Sinta’s drappellone pulled on a carriage by four enormous oxen.

After so much build-up and anticipation, it all came down to the horse race. Tensions rose as the starting line-up was determined by a lottery, and the excitement of the horses meant that the line-up had to be disbanded and reformed several times before they were controlled enough to start. The tenth contrada to be drawn from the lottery stands a short distance behind the other horses, and determines when the race starts. This jockey therefore aims to start at the moment that is most advantageous for their own contrada and those it is allied with.

The race, which lasts just some 70 seconds, was this time won by Onda (Wave) – an unexpected victory, and a first-time win for both the horse and jockey. Madness ensued in the piazza, with huge celebrations by Onda and the drappellone victoriously claimed and paraded through the streets, first to the Duomo and then to Onda’s church, carried by a mass of cheering, singing and crying contradaioli.

In the end it was very fitting that Onda should win, as Duprè, to whom the drappellone was dedicated, belonged to the contrada of Onda! Many who congratulated Sinta told her with delight Duprè è tornato a casa – Duprè has returned home.


Sinta raised aloft in the celebrations in the church of Onda

Ellie Johnson (Communications & Events)