New work: Palio di Siena 2011

I just returned from a trip to photograph the centuries-old Palio di Siena horse race and festival, which is held every summer in Siena, Italy. While tourists tend to show up just for the final race, that’s only the conclusion of days of test races, processions, feasts, blessings in churches, and other colorful pageantry and ritual that have always been part of Il Palio. We arrived earlier in the week so that we could take it all in, and this was definitely the right way to do it because we could see how the traditions that make up the Palio come together to form a dramatic final event.

In the final race of Il Palio (The Prize), there is no money to win, only first place counts, and there are no stopwatches. If you win, you take the trophy banner that represents Il Palio for that race, and more importantly, you bring your contrada (neighborhood) extreme prestige and serious bragging rights over the other 16 contrade until the next race. In Siena, that’s worth so much that each contrada enshrines every one of its Palio victories for all time.

I wanted to find a photo workshop this year, and when I was invited to photograph the Palio I realized it would be like creating our own workshop. And it kind of turned out that way, with such a rich cultural background to explore. Here’s a preview sampler of my images from Siena (requires Flash):

Keep in mind that these images are works in progress, so what you see in this slide show may not represent the images in their final form. In fact, just as with each exhibition, I ended up editing each image’s appearance to make them all appear consistent with each other, within the format of this small slide show. For example, many are cropped much more tightly than they would be on a large wall print.

I’ll soon be telling stories with the images through photo essays, prints, blog posts, and other content. While I’m working on all that, I’ll continue to roll out more digital media/Mac tips over the coming weeks.

Many thanks to my friend Céline for inviting me to the Palio, an event she has photographed for several years; and for providing all kinds of valuable assistance, advice, and background information about Il Palio.

Preview image


  1. Conrad, I don’t know whether to thank you or curse you–your photos and video/audio are so excellent they’re making me a bit melancholy missing Siena. I was also there for the month of August last year while conducting research for a book in which the Palio is central. I was living in the Oca contrada, which had won the July Palio, so there was no sleep for anyone–drumming and singing at all hours. I was never so happy to be so annoyed and sleep-deprived. 😉 One thing you mention–that there is no money to win–is only sort-of true. Jockeys who win are paid handsomely, though it’s true that the contrada itself doesn’t win any purse. Victories actually cost them more than a loss would. . . perhaps even greater testament to their devotion to their traditions. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend Alan Dundes book, “La Terra in Piazza”, which was recommended to me by Senio Sensi at the Consortium for the Preservation of the Palio. The book is old, but the traditions hold strong, so it’s still pretty on-target. The chapter about the Partiti (deals among the fantini) is fascinating and jaw dropping.
    I blogged a little bit about the trip. My photos are not as good as yours, but hopefully the words make up for it.

    1. CL, thank you for your comment and your clarifications about the fantini. That was the first time I attended the Palio, so it was all new to me, and I can tell you’ve spent a lot more time studying the event and the culture. I was lucky to travel there with European friends who go every year and could fill me in on a lot of the background and history.

      Each time I learn something about the Palio, it usually reveals another, deeper vein of Siena that I know nothing about, so I appreciate your suggestions for additional reading, including your own posts. Because one person can’t see all sides of the Palio, I enjoy reading about others’ experiences there. By the way, the restaurant name in your blog post sounded familiar, so I looked through my photos and sure enough, we ate at Osteria Nonna Gina on the night before the final race!

      We stayed in a hotel in Bruco, close enough to the piazza that like you experienced, there were drummers and singers marching outside our window all night long. But I did bring earplugs.

      I’m not sure which year I’ll be able to return to see Il Palio, but I certainly would like to. Thank you for letting me know how much you liked the work, and best of luck with your book!

  2. I just thought of another book I read recently that was published in 2011. It’s by Robert Rodi, and it’s called “Seven Seasons in Siena: my quixotic quest for acceptance among Tuscany’s proudest people”. It offers many insights into contrada life (involving the Bruco contrada especially), and even more laughs. He writes very well, is quite funny and willing to laugh at himself most of all. He wants to be a Brucaioli so badly, and goes to such lengths, it’s quite comical.

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