Palio pic



For two days this summer — on July 2 and August 16 —
centuries slipped away, and all eyes in Italy again turned to
il Campo (the
, as the natives of Siena call
their piazza, for the running of the Palio (horse race). Just as they did in
the first Palio in 1656, race horses (
and their bareback riders representing the city’s
contrade (wards or neighborhoods) whipped madly around the edges
of the Piazza del Campo.

Each of the contrade has its own symbol: aquila (eagle), bruco (caterpillar), chiocciola
civetta (little owl), drago (dragon), giraffa (giraffe), istrice (crested porcupine), unicorno (unicorn), lupa (wolf), conchiglia (seashell),
oca (goose), onda (wave), pantera (panther), selva (forest),
tartaruga (tortoise), torre (tower) and Valdimontone (“Vale of the Ram”). However, the stars of the Palio
i cavalli. The prize goes to
the first horse to cross the finish line with its head ornaments intact — with
or without its jockey. As the winning
contrada celebrates raucously, those who backed i cavalli
(the losing horses) plan for next year’s race.

You don’t have to wait that long to encounter a cavallo
— be it a cavallo da
(saddle horse), a cavallo
di razza
(thoroughbred), a cavallo
da corsa
(race horse), a cavallo
da tiro
(draught horse), or a cavallo
da carrozza
(carriage horse).
Where there are
cavalli, you’ll
finimenti di cavalli
ferri di cavallo
(horseshoes) — and
mosche (horse

You also might run into a horse dealer (mediatore
di cavalli
, cavallaio or cavallaro). A cavaliere
is something
else entirely: a horseman, a rider, a cavalier, a knight and the Italian
press’s nickname for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A
cavaliere servente (ladies’ man) may never montare un cavallo (mount a horse) but may prefer to correre la
(run the young mare, or
sow wild oats).

“Siamo a cavallo!”
(“We are on the horse!”) Italians say when things are going well — or at least
heading in the right direction. But they also caution, “
Campa cavallo
che l’erba cresce
.” (As the horse is
resting in the field, the grass grows…) Things may be going well now, in other
words, but don’t trust any long-term promises And while you’re at it,
remember this timeless advice: A caval
donato non si guarda in bocca
. (Don’t look
a gift horse in the mouth!”)

Da bambina (as a child), I loved to ride a cavallo a dondolo (rocking horse), and I’d beg my father to  play a cavalluccio (make like a little horse and carry me on his back).   At the beach we’d watch the
huge breaiers sailors call 
(big horses) and look for  a cavalluccio marino
(sea horse) in the sand. At the end of the day we
andare con il cavallo di
San Francesco
(go with St. Francis’s
horse — on foot, as St. Frances and his begging brothers did).

and Expressions

cavallina —
horse or whooping cough

cavallo del  secolo
  — at
the horse (turn) of a century

di battaglia
— battlehorse, in the
sense of an old chestnut, a favorite song or show, a very strong quality in

cavallo di troia
Trojan horse


Click below to watch two-and-a-half minutes of last year’s
stirring race, won by
la Nobil Contrada del Bruco, the noble contrada of
the caterpillar, whose horse was anything but slow.