Siena Side Story

A cantrada drummer and flag bearer practicing for the Palio (shot from my apartment window).

While being an artist-in-residence at the Siena Art Institute in Italy means I get to spend a good part of each day working on small gouaches inside my light-filled studio, or tracking down as many of the tenderly moving Sienese paintings in situ as I can, it doesn’t mean I leave no time to meander the streets and observe the city and its people more generally. Al contrario.

While the thousands of Sienese swallows swoop about the sky in search of flying insects, I relentlessly hike up and down the steep and narrow streets trying to feel my way to what I know, in the end, can add up to only a partial understanding of this city. By dint of timing, I’m taking a crash course in the Sienese system of contrade and the famous Sienese horserace—Il Palio, which takes place in the Piazza del Campo on July 2 and August 16 of each year. The very spirit of the Sienese is expressed in this short and brutal race (the jockeys are frequently injured, and it is not uncommon for horses to break their legs either in the race or in training for it), along with the dazzling city-wide display of parades, flag-twirling, and drumming during the day and early evening in the weeks leading up to the Palio.

Since the middle ages, Sienese citizens have been organized into 17 neighborhood groups, known as contrade, each of which has an animal name associated with it (my apartment is in the “owl” contrada, but the Siena Art Institute is located in the “tortoise” contrada). Other names include the “porcupine,” the “panther,” the “wave,” the “eagle,” and the “snail.” (I asked someone from the “eagle” contrada how anyone from the “snail” contrada would be able to hold up his head with a name like that; her answer was a sly smile.) If you’re born in Siena, you’re born into a particular contrada, and you remain in that contrada for life. It’s extremely rare for outsiders who weren’t born into a contrada to join one, and it seems that it can even be touchy for a man and woman from different contrade, if the contrade aren’t allies, to marry one another.

The contrada, it turns out, is a neighborhood organization the likes of which appear in no other city or place. (We’re not talking the Elks or Masons in the States; if the contrade are similar to anything, it’s the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story.) The contrade compress patriotism into the most local expression possible—injecting it into even the smallest conversations. It’s not uncommon for a member of one contrada to casually make a snide aside—half jokingly, half wholeheartedly—about another contrada or a neighbor who’s in another contrada. Everything from baptisms, marriages, and deaths to food festivals, church holidays, and, of course, the Palio, occurs under the umbrella of one’s contrada.

During the weeks leading up to and including the two Palios, emotions and passions about one’s contrada, which lie more or less dormant most of the year, rise to the top and push reason to the side. Although nowadays the worst that seems to happen is some hurling of insults and a few nasty fistfights between antagonistic contrade members, up to the 1980s, the Palio preparations, and the Palio itself, were often accompanied by serious violence.

In the Palio, 10 of the 17 contrade sponsor a horse and professional jockey, and the day of the race sends the city into a mad, frenzied spirit of competition in which coming in second is almost as bad as losing, but coming in first leads to a night-long celebration with people wandering about singing (and fighting) in the torch-lit streets all night long.

As an outsider writing about my observations of the goings-on in preparation for the July 2 Palio, I feel very much like the fictional Persian Usbek in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, who traveled to France and then wrote home about the customs he observed in the West—particularly in Paris. Even though Usbek grasps much about the alien West by simple observation, and though he has an admirable philosophical distance that lets him see what is good and bad about the West, he cannot help but miss the heart of what makes for the Western mind. As a visitor from a faraway place, he cannot feel the culture from the inside.

Although much puzzles me about the contrade system, like Usbek, I have developed a degree of conceit that I “get” this foreign custom. To me, the contrade and the Palio add up to a way of life that channels natural rage into a healthy, if pugnacious, neighborly competition. But claiming any deeper understanding beyond this would be sheer hubris, and I have traveled enough to temper what I think I know about a foreign culture with knowledge that it is impossible to grasp the deeply particular meaning embedded in other people’s customs and beliefs.

If I leave aside my dislike of horse racing (I think most of it is cruel), and just look, listen, and enjoy what’s in front of me, I am thrilled to be here during the preparations for the Palio. Each week, different contrade strut their stuff by parading through the city streets. Dressed in medieval outfits and twirling large medieval-style banners that mark their individual contrada, the men march to the relentless military beat of their drums (a beat that’s now taken root inside my brain). Sometimes they hurl their flags high up in the air, like batons, then catch them. And then there are individuals who will step outside a door for an hour, at any time of the day, simply to practice on their drums. I’ve seen teenagers teaching young boys around 10 how to handle the drums or the flags. I’m not rooting for anyone, but it’s impossible not to feel the surge of excitement and a vague, unruly passion that I can’t identify or fix on anything specific.

In Siena, even the smallest bambini, tucked in their strollers, are in training for becoming full-fledged members of their contrada. Decorated with the colors of their contrada, they are pushed along by their mothers behind the parades. I can only watch.

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