Palio drawing of lots

The last Sunday in May is normally a much awaited, special day on the Sienese calendar, when we finally discover which contrade will race the Palio. Covid19 has changed many things in 2020, even the Palio was not spared.

Palio drawing of lots

Missing the Palio drawing of lots

Normally, the last Sunday in May is a special day in Siena, one that the Contradaioli or neighbourhood members wouldn't miss for the world. It's a special day on the Sienese calendar because the Contrada neighborhoods that are able to participating in Siena’s favorite event, the Palio horserace, is decided in a drawing of lots held publicly in Siena's main square, Piazza del Campo. Up until the then, we only know that the Palio takes place; it is only on the last Sunday that everyone discovers which Contrade will actually take part, and their flags would hang proudly from the windows of the facade of Siena's Town Hall.

We are all familiar with the Palio horserace that takes place twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th in Siena's main square. Jockeys riding bareback on horses must complete the square's track three times, in a much-anticipated and deeply-felt tournament between the city's 17 Contrada neighborhoods. Yet the race track can only accommodate 10 horses, so only 10 of Siena's 17 neighborhoods are able to participate on any given Palio. No two Palio races are the same, because the combination of 10 participating Contrade is always different.

If a Contrada is unable to paricipate in July, surely they only need to wait until August for the next Palio race?? Unfortunately, it's not that straight-forward and simple. The system for choosing which 10 Contrade will take part in a Palio tournament is a combination of rights and luck; the 7 contrade that were unable to participate in that Palio the previous year have the right to participate, whereas the other 3 participating contrade must be chosen, and that choice is made by luck in front of the eyes of all contrade members young and old, in Siena's public square. From the windows of the facade of the Town Hall hang the 7 flags representing the 7 Contrade that are participating by right. The other 3 to join those ranks are the blessed, lucky ones whose names will be drawn first, in a drawing of lots, from an urn that contains the names of all 10 potential Contrada participants. These 3 flags are added to the windows, and the 10 participants are finalized. The draw continues, but the other 7 contrade that must wait a full year, will have their flags displayed from the same building, but from windows on a higher floor.

The July Palio goes with July, and the Palio in August goes with August, so any contrada may participate in only either Palio, depending on when they raced the previous year, and the element of luck of course. Any contrada might participate in both the July and August Palio, or in none at all. When a contrada will not race at all during the year, their members are teasingly referred to as tourists. This system might not sound straight-forward nor simple, but it's strangely fair and just, because the system is the same for everyone. All Contrade have the same rights, and have the same chance at luck.

The Covid19 pandemic has changed many things in 2020, and the Palio was not spared either. For the first time since WWII, it was decided that there would be no Palio tourmanets this year. Everyone in Siena agrees that it's the right decision, since it would be impossible to keep the necessary social distancing. But now that it's the last Sunday in May, we cannot help but wonder, which Contrade would have been blessed by luck today, which would have been able to participated in the July Palio?

Normally, all Contrada members young and old remain in the city on this day, waiting for this much anticipated event. Those who choose to leave for a Sunday excursion or to spend a day at the beach, always return to Siena in time. The drawing of lots takes place at 7pm, but the square is usually crowded before then, with people seizing the opportunity to enjoy an aperitivo on one of the many tables in the square while waiting for the event to begin. The crowds grow and the tension of the anticipation thickens; everybody watches the windows, waiting for the flags to be displayed.

Not today. Today no Contrada flags will be proudly displayed from the town hall, because there will be no Palio tournaments this year. Looking around the square, we are however consoled by the many children that play and run around this safe haven where cars are not permitted to enter. Some children wave their contrada flags as they run, and luckily they are tireless, as it'll be a long wait until this time next year.

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