Visiting the Contrada of Val di Montone
Visiting the Contrada of Val di Montone
May 7, 2007
Today we had a treat – the students in program director Silvia’s class were to visit one of Siena’s ancient guilds, one of its 17 Contrade, and we were joining them. A Contrada, technically one of seventeen districts of the city, is more like a city or state within this city. Every Sienese is born into a Contrada, has a secular baptism formalizing this, and grows up with loyalty to the Goose, the Tower, the Unicorn, the Porcupine, the She-Wolf, or one of the other colorfully named groups. Most friends and from one’s own Contrada, and ideally so is one’s husband or wife.
The Contrada don’t really have any equivalent in life most anywhere else in the world. They are age old, dating back to the middle ages (1200’s) at least. Back then, each Contrada supplied a military contingent to the city’s army. Each had its elected leader and council, its bylaws, colors, standards, flags, patron saint, songs, and its headquarters. Also its social hall, a museum, a church, a fountain, and a stable for the horse (more about the horse below). They still do. The headquarters and museum was what we would visit today, of the Contrada called Val di Montone, the Valley of the Ram. The ram, mountain sheep, features in all of this Contrada’s emblems.
As we walked across Siena, past the Piazza del Campo (reputed to be the ancient Roman Forum), and along the ancient “Via Francigena”, the French road that led from northern Europe to Rome and beyond and passed right through the heart of Siena, we began to see elaborate yellow and red flags and light standards mounted high on the stone buildings on either side of the narrow canyon like main street. We were in the Val di Montone district and since it is springtime and the Palio is coming, the flags were out.
Our group of over 40 students was ushered into a modern addition at the back of the Contrada’s church, Santa Maria dei Servi. As we went down the stairs to an ultra modern hall with raised dais and table where the Contrada’s leaders meet, we found ourselves sitting in an exceptional blend of old and new. Stark white curved steel supports opened this room and allowed it to be three or four stories high, lit by high windows. But the walls were ancient rock and at the rear we could see the bare “tufo” packed soil that Siena is built on – so stable that the Etruscan tombs dug into it need no reinforcing and are still used as storerooms in many parts of the city.
With Silvia translating, we heard one of Val di Montone’s leaders tell us in eloquent Italian about the history of this and the other Contrade, and of the importance of the upcoming Palio horse race slated for 2nd July, as it is each year. The Palio, its origins centuries old, is far more than a race pitting 10 of the Contrade against each other. It is, he said, a sort of mini-war in which the horses fight instead of the members of the Contrade.
We’ve not seen a Palio yet (but will this July), but it is one of Siena’s most famous features. Sienese, many of them anyway, take the race, and the medieval costumed pageant leading to it, very seriously. Winning the Palio (a cloth banner with the Virgin Mary’s image on it) is an event that is remembered for centuries – as we saw from the banner of 1806 proudly on display in Val di Montone’s museum. Tears are shed (of joy or despair depending on who wins), street feasts are held, and tales are told. In some cases, where bribery is suspected or the jockey is thought to have thrown the race, post race violence may take place.
And the horses? They are bred in the Maremma, the rural grasslands of southern Tuscany. Contrada are assigned their horse each year by lot, but then care for it as if it were sacred. It has its stall, and on an assigned day before the race, it is led into church and blessed. Getting the beasts up the stairs into the building is said to be a struggle, and its exceptionally lucky if they leave a horse mess behind.
From now until the actual running of the Palio in early July the streets of Siena will be colorful with banners and light standards lining them, making clear which district is which. There will be street banquets and dinners (some open to the public for a fee), mini-parades in costume and with flags and drums, and much practicing of the elaborate flag acrobatics and drumming that is part of the lore of each Contrada. Siena is alive now with Contrada activity, helping remind us that its ancient past is really still here, in some ways. And, importantly, the Contrada pageantry is put on by the Sienese for themselves, not for outsiders.
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