Wonderful Italy

Exploring Italy via our travels — places, people, things…

The Palio of Siena

On July 2, 2007 we experienced the Palio! This exuberant pageant, centuries ancient and pitting the 17 Contrade of Siena against each other in a 90 second dash of a horse race in the Piazza del Campo, cannot be caught in a few paragraphs. For us, being in Siena for this event felt dream-like, since we’ve wanted to go for many years and one of Keith’s graduate school advisors had written a book on the topic decades back.

The Palio is really just a culmination of a full year’s worth of events among Contradioli, members of the district guilds of the town. There are street dinners and other festive events after the race each year, but before long the Contrade begin planning for next year. Costumes might be redesigned, strategies for the race planned, jockeys one might hire discussed. Fund-raising meals, sales and auctions are held. In April, young drummers and flag teams begin training and the echoing of drums is heard throughout Siena’s narrow cobbled streets. In May a ceremonial lottery determines which Contrade will take part, for the circuit can only accommodate ten riders and jockeys — seven won’t run. Streets bedecked with elaborately painted lights and guild flags become the norm in June, for the race is now just weeks away.

Finally, in the last few days of on June, Siena is given over. Many central streets are blocked, the huge Chianina white oxen to tow the ceremonial cart bearing the Palio banner are stabled right off the main square, race horses are sequestered lest some treachery befall them, and trial runs are staged in the Piazza. The square itself is transformed, into a race course set off by stout wooden rails, lined with packed sand, surrounded by steeply tiered bleachers. The glitterati of Siena will look down on the spectacle from the balconies of the elaborate palazzi that surround Campo, each balcony now featuring hanging banners of various colors.

Luckily, our apartment was only a five minute walk from Campo, so we could make our way to the plaza around 2pm and still hope to find standing room. We knew that once inside the inner ring we would not be able to leave until the race was over around 8pm, so we took water and snacks, reading material, our hiking binoculars, and some picnic cloths to sit on. Time passed. Families from Belgium, South Africa and France were near us, as were many Italians. Soon the crowds thickened to standing room only, a sea of people such as we’d never experienced. About 5pm the slow paced Palio procession entered the piazza and made a circuit – a two hour process. The various entities processing included town, regional and state dignitaries, representatives of all the medieval guilds, delegates from towns that had come to Siena’s aid in the battle of Montaperti (1260 A.D. — info at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Montaperti ), contrada no longer in existence, the seven that would not be racing, and finally the ten horses and riders competing today. Good thing we brought snacks!

After about ten efforts to line up the impatient horses and three false starts, the race began. Two horses fell on the first turn, the jockeys unhurt and the horses running with the pack. Two laps, then three, 90 seconds gone, and the winner was……well, the initial call was the Pantera (Panther) district, but after a minute or two of confusion, its flag was pulled back into the Palazzo Publico and out came the flag for Oca (Goose) — disappointed Pantera fans stopped running around the race course and were replaced by Ocaioli – members of the Goose district. It was a jubulent time, a great time to belong to the Oca Contrada. We made our way home, but the city of Siena was up almost all night with drums, bells ringing (even at 2:30 a.m.), celebrating in the streets, and with hundreds of Sienese donning Oca green and yellow scarves if they had any connection to this Contrada. For the next few days it seemed ever third person in Siena, down to infants being pushed in prams, wore the Oca scarf.

The Palio has been the subject of dozens of books and hundreds of other publications — a couple of these include Alan Dundes’ and Alessandro Falassi’s La Terra in Piazza: An Interpretation of the Palio of Siena (Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1975) and Mauro Civai and Enrico Toti’s Palio: The Race of the Soul (Siena, Edizioni AL.SA.BA, 2002).


December 10, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Language and Culture, Siena | , , , | Leave a comment

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.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Language and Culture, Siena | 1 Comment