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How A Great Design Inspired An Illustrious Horse Race

The Piazza del Campo in Sienna Italy hasn’t changed much since medieval times. Its design is significant and timeless and continues to work well today as the city’s center for civic life. The open plaza is located at the physical and cultural heart of the city and is distinguished by its red-brick fan shaped paths. This spoke-like paving pattern was commissioned during the early 13th century by Siena’s then ruling government, the Council of Nine, to symbolize their significant power.

When I visited Siena and the Piazza del Campo, I was immediately struck by the curved or banked design of the square and how it made me feel. I remember sitting on the bricks and experiencing the sensation of actually being on a country hillside, sans the vegetation. It was such a unique space—so much so that I could actually felt its “power.” After centuries, the Piazza del Campo remains a very alluring public gathering space that provides a sense of comfort and a desire to linger longer.

Palio

Palio

So it was no surprise that a great public space became the backdrop for a great sporting event—the Palio, a totally unique horse race steeped in local competition, pageantry, and passion. Since all of Siena’s main streets lead into the circular curved square, the Piazza del Campo has always been the perfect setting for the city’s major games, events, and festivals. Spectators at the Palio can view the race from the safety of the surrounding buildings or from the square itself. The square’s architecture, physical dimensions, and access are reminiscent of a stadium or large, outdoor sporting venue.

It’s interesting to note that at the same time the World Cup took place this year, the Palio was off and running in Siena. An estimated 30,000 people recently crammed into the small square a few feet from racing horses. The event is divided into two annual races—one that takes place on July 2nd and the other on August 16th. To prepare a track for the horses, the curved ring around the Piazza del Campo is covered with clay. At race time onlookers, horses, organizers, and vendors fill the square for a grand parade, open air dining, and the race itself.

I’ve been to Siena several times, but unfortunately never during race time. If you ever get the chance to go to Siena for the Palio, do it. My niece is currently there with a group of Oregon college students for summer educational programs and work experience. She sent this photo on for me to share in our blog.

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