Rod Dreher

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Siena’s Glory

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No matter what they tell you, when the horse shits in the church, it is no guarantee of anything. I’ll explain this later.

Today was Palio day in Siena. I began by going into the nearby church of San Domenico, and praying for a few people back home in front of the Holy Head of St. Catherine of Siena. She died in the 14th century in Rome, and was buried in the church of St. Maria sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon. The Sienese wanted their beloved saint back home, but the Romans wouldn’t give her up. So a delegation went to Rome, asked for some time alone with her body, severed her head, put it in a sack, and lit out for Siena. The story goes that when a guard stopped them and asked to see what was in the bag, they opened it, and saw nothing but rose petals — a miracle. The Holy Head can now be seen inside a reliquary on a high altar in a side chapel. I offered prayers for a friend’s recently dead grandfather, and for my family.

This is normal in Siena. God, I love this place.

I made my way up and down the steep medieval streets and over to San Giuseppe, the parish church of the Onda contrada. Onda commissioned the church in the 1500s, and finished it a century later. Like every other contrada, the Onda devotees gather on Palio day in their contrada church for the blessing of the horse.

“If the horse leaves a little present on the floor of the church, it’s an extremely good omen,” said a contradaioli, standing next to us in the massing crowd. “If Onda wins, the droppings will be preserved, and treasured.”

A nonna opened a side door to let people in to the small church. She shoved Sordello and I to the side, telling us that only baptized members of the contrada were allowed in to see the rite. Our contradaioli friend very generously pulled some strings, and convinced nonna to let us pass after the locals were inside. Had we not been able to go in, I would have been fine with it. I admire a woman who knows her neighborhood, and who won’t let stranieri in on the neighborhood’s high holy day.

But it was a true blessing that we did make it inside, because what I saw was one of the most exciting and moving things I have ever witnessed. The crowd fell silent when Onda’s horse was led in. The stout Monsignor Gaetano, the barrel-chested dean of the Duomo cathedral and Onda’s chaplain, stood in front of the altar with a coterie of contradaioli in traditional medieval costume, awaiting the steed. In came the horse, and Don Gaetano, wearing an aquamarine-and-white Onda fazzoletto (scarf) over his vestments, invoked the Holy Trinity and began his prayers.

The horse raised his tail and shat on the floor of the church. Don Gaetano smiled as he walked delicately around the horse, blessing him with holy water from the aspergillum, invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit over and over. The monsignor returned to the altar, said his final prayers, and in a booming voice, ordered, “Go forth and bring back a victory!”

Not a word was said until the horse was led out, but once that had happened, the crowd burst into a stentorian performance of Onda’s Palio hymn that shook the church to its foundations. The contradaoli bared their souls. I have never heard an actual hymn sung with so much heart, with so much force. I took a video of it, but there’s no way to capture the power of that moment, in that little church on top of a Sienese hill. I am certain that this is one of the most extraordinary moments of my life, a small ritual that made this entire trip worth it.

As we left the church, Sordello and I inspected the equine augury. The men of the contrada had already begun surrounding it with prayer benches to protect it:

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This is normal in Siena. Did I mention how much I love this place?

We stood in front of the small piazza outside San Giuseppe to watch the flag bearers of Onda perform, accompanied by a snare drummer. How long has this ritual been here? Who knows? It was impressive:

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After the flag display ended, family members embraced the costumed men and teenage boys, wishing them well. Here is mamma telling her son how proud she is of him. Look at those Sienese eyes:

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It was by then four o’clock, in the highest heat of the day. We went back to our hotel to cool off for a bit before the race itself. If you want to be on the campo for the race, you need to arrive early, and prepare to wait in the center field for a long time. You get to see the amazing parade of contradaioli in their medieval costumes, but Europe’s heat wave kept us away. Neither one of us Palio rookies had the stamina for that, so we made our way down to Onda to watch the race on TV in a bar.

The bar, a simple, everyday neighborhood hangout, had a tiny TV hanging on the wall. The nervous bartender served us red wine in plastic cups, and we stood with a surprisingly sparse crowd — everybody else was in the campo — staring at the TV, waiting for the race to begin. Though there are 17 contrada in Siena, only ten horses run in each Palio. Their placement on the track is decided by drawing lots at the last minute. The tenth horse has to stay back, which means he almost certainly can’t win, but he does have the power to start the race. Sometimes he holds the race start for a long time — this, to try to get some other rider with whom he might have made a deal into a good position. Tonight’s Palio didn’t start for an hour.

Suddenly, the rope dropped, and the horses and their jockeys were off. The entire race takes about 75 seconds, and involves three laps around the perimeter of the Campo. The jockeys ride bareback, which is very tough. Plus, there are two harsh 90-degree turns on the track. As the last lap began, Torre (Tower), the hated rival of Onda (Wave) was in the lead, but Onda was coming up fast, and looked as if he would overtake the Torre horse. But then, at the last sharp turn, Onda nicked the sharp edge of the side wall, throwing the horse off stride. Torre galloped across the finish line a winner. Onda was second.

This was literally the worst thing that can happen to a contrada. The loser is not thought to be the last horse in the race, but the one who came in second. So Onda lost the Palio to its bitter enemies, the scoundrels from Torre.

The somber Onda crowd tumbled out of the Campo and down solemn via Giovanni Dupré. Some were zombie like; others were openly weeping. “Everything! We’ve lost everything!” wailed a teenage boy, his palms flat against his cheeks. Little girls slumped against the brick walls, sobbing. The phrase “the agony of defeat” came to mind, and I thought about photographing some of the startling scenes of human vulnerability, but Sordello warned against it. He was right. These people were hurting badly. It didn’t feel right to expose them.

I ran into our old contradaioli friend in the street, looking very low indeed. “This is just about the worst thing that could have happened,” he said. To come in second place to Torre — that’s harsh.

“All the other contrada will be partying in the streets all night,” he said, “but not us. Not after this. Nobody will be in a mood to party. Right now, Torre is going over to its church, and everybody will sing a Te Deum. Then the party will begin. They will open up to the whole city, and there will be lots of food and wine. You might want to go over to the church to see what that’s like.”

“We can’t do that,” I said. “It’s Torre. That wouldn’t be right.”

The contradaioli smiled, signaling that he appreciated our loyalty.

“There are two times when you can say that you have really seen the Palio,” he said. “When your contrada wins, and when it loses. This is a hard thing for all of us, but we are here. We celebrate together when we win, and we comfort each other when we lose.”

Sordello and I felt out of place standing around any longer, like strangers at the funeral of someone we barely knew. The Contrada dell’Onda needed to mourn with itself. It was time for the strangers to bow out. We walked up the hill past the church of San Giuseppe, took off our Onda fazzoletti — the custom is that only the winning contrada has the right to show its colors after the Palio — and meandered over into the Tortuca quarter, where we found a table in an osteria and ordered food. I had pasta with pesto:

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The TV at the end of the room replayed the race over and over, but damned if it wasn’t interesting each time to watch how the Torre and Onda jockeys competed. The Siena TV channel switched to live coverage of the crowd carrying the Torre jockey through the streets on their shoulders, and into the contrada church. As we sat eating our pasta and watching TV, the people jamming that church were waving contrada flags and going berserk with joy. The palio — a large painted banner showing images of Siena, and dominated by an image of the Virgin Mary, was carried into the church on a long pole. People reached out to touch the garment. It was put in place next to the altar, and the jockey kneeled at the altar to pray. The camera held a close-up of him giving thanks, his head in his hands crying, then raising them to the sky, speaking to God and the Holy Virgin. He finally crossed himself. It was an almost unbelievable event. The crowd was so passionate you would have thought the nation had won a great war.

We paid our bill and walked toward home before the Te Deum started, but I loved thinking about how the first thing a winning contrada does is return to its contrada church and offer a Te Deum to God for having granted victory. This city is indescribably Catholic. It’s like a fresco; Catholicism has seeped into the fabric of their everyday life in ways that astonish. You don’t see this in France, for example. The Italians have a genius for religion and culture. I never thought I would have so much fun at a horse race, but the Palio has been more of a religious event, or at least a liturgical one. I am in awe of it, and of these Sienese people.

“What is it about Italians?” I told Sordello, over pasta in pesto. “They don’t know how to govern themselves, but man, they sure know how to live.”

“Can you think of one people that can govern itself, but also knows how to live?” he said. Sordello lives in New Orleans, another city with bad government, but good living.

I could not. I do believe that if you are born in Siena, or baptized into a contrada, you would never want to leave something so special, and people so dear. Holy Heads of medieval mystics, blessing the horse in the church, then protecting horse shit as a potential relic, the medieval parade, the race itself dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, the running to the church to sing a Te Deum before feasting.

This is life as it ought to be lived. And I got to see it, and even be a part of it. Thanks be to God — and thanks to my wife Julie for letting me come here, and for Ron Herzman and his amazing team for inviting me and making it special for us.

Hide your quenelles, we’re off to Lyon tomorrow.

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Contrade & the Common Good

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From a reader:

“A true city is not an encampment for transient visitors, nor a complex of motorways, nor an ephemeral agglomeration of living quarters. It is a long-standing human settlement, a community spanning generations, a complex social organization inspiring commitment and pride. Every architectural blight, every symptom of social breakdown, should pierce deep into the heart of its citizens and provoke a salutary reaction. Siena, in Italy, is perhaps the best example of a healthy city. That is why it has maintained social stability and a negligible incidence of crime.” — Sir James Goldsmith, The Trap

As a visitor to Siena, observing the rituals of the city’s 17 contrade — the communal organizations (though that word is far too inorganic) tied to geographical areas of the city — is charming, even, at times, thrilling. Take a look at this:

The contrada is a truly unique unit of social organisation. Each has its own church, its own museum (filled with the spoils of previous Palio triumphs), as well as its own hymn, motto, insignia, patron saint, etc. The contrada is not only a form of local government, it is also a form of mutual aid society and social club. Contradaioli may receive financial and emotional support, often without asking for help as the officers of the contrada keep well informed about their fellow contradaioli’s lives.

The contrada raise money from subscriptions, personal pledges, contributions, and social events and create a specific reserve for Palio expenses that builds up over time.

It is difficult to convey the impact the contrada has on the individual. Every major rite of passage, from birth to death, falls under the jurisdiction of the contrada which sends a delegate to each contradaioli’s christening, first communion, wedding, twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, fiftieth wedding anniversary and funeral.

On Tuesday night, walking back to our hotel from the street banquet in Onda, Sordello and I took off our blue and white Onda fazzoletti (scarves) as we walked across the Campo. We had been warned by several people that if people from Torre, the rivals of Onda, spy us and happen to be in their cups, they could start trouble. The hotel warned us not to take this kind of thing lightly. Apparently it’s hard for outsiders to grasp how real the contrade rivalries are, and how passionate contradioli can be during Palio.

It’s not common, but it’s not rare either. Someone was telling me that Istrice (the Hedgehog) has been suspended from competing in the next few Palios because some of its supporters severely beat a jockey who sold them out to ride for their archrivals, Lupa (She-Wolf). “These weren’t street thugs who beat that jockey, but men in Armani suits,” said my source.

This is the shadow side of contrada life, one that we don’t like to think about. As Americans, we find the contrade to be so romantic. Compared to the Italians, we have much less of a felt bond to history and place. It’s fun to participate in their civic rivalries as outsiders, and one can be forgiven for being a little sad that one can never have an authentic part of these passions. They don’t belong to us, and to watch how much the contrade mean to those who are members by birth is to reflect on how very little we have in our own modern American lives to give us this kind of grounding in community. Whatever else you might say about Siena, this place is the absolute opposite of the Geography of Nowhere.

But is there too much “somewhere” here?

In the Dante seminar today, the group discussed Inferno X, which is the episode in which the pilgrim Dante encounters Farinata, the magnificent Ghibelline bastard who taunts the Guelph Dante from his own open tomb in Hell. Here is my analysis of this canto from last year.  This is a political canto, in which the poet Dante confronts what he considers (not for the last time in this poem) the great fault of Italian politics in his day: factionalism. In the poem, Farinata, who had been a successful Ghibelline general (versus the Guelphs), is in Hell because he did not believe in the afterlife. By this the poet is telling us that Farinata’s political sin was to believe that there is no good greater than the good of power and status for one’s own family, party, place, and tribe. To Farinata, the material world, the present world, is all that exists, and the point of life is to increase the power and prestige of one’s own people.

There is no room for the common good in Farinata’s conception of politics. Politics — broadly speaking, the way we manage our common life — is not built around principles, but identity. And this, says the poet Dante, guarantees factionalism, which is a primary source of the destructive disorder in Italy. Later, in Purgatorio, Dante will learn from Marco the Lombard that the ultimate source of factionalism is the corruption in human hearts, a selfishness that has no charity, no love for others, and no love for God. It’s a perverted love that places love of Self above all other loves. It’s Pride, the core Satanic vice.

Loyalty to one’s tribe — family, party, place, et cetera — over the common good was, as far as Dante was concerned, at the core of the violence and disorder that devastated Italy in his time. You might think that the contrada passions here in Siena — something that no other Italian town has — are a contemporary example of this sort of thing. When you hear about things like the fistfight that broke out on the campo last night between partisans of rival contrade, it’s easier to think the worst.

From what I can tell, though, the contrada experience has a lot more to do with what Sir James Goldsmith wrote than with the fistfights and the factionalism condemned by Dante.

My friend Sordello and I have were drawn to the contrada called Onda (Dolphin) because the American Dantist Ron Herzman and his magnanimous mafia from Geneseo, NY, invited us to participate in Onda’s rituals. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the main street in the Onda contrada — the via Giovanni Dupré, which links the contrada to the piazza — is lined with tables and chairs for a giant communal feast. Everyone watches the prova (test runs) of the horses that evening in the piazza, then disperse to their own contrada for feasting. Here’s what it looked like in Onda last night as the crowds began to filter down from the campo:

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About an hour earlier, this was the scene on the inner field of the campo:

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All the people on the inside are facing the track, which runs around the perimeter. On the outside of the track, bleachers have been set up with reserved sections for children from each competing contrada (not all contrade compete in each Palio), where they sit and sing the contrada songs and cheer for their jockey and his horse. Here are the children from Onda. The ritual helps initiate them into the culture of their own contrada, which has been in their families for many generations:

photoAs I stood in the center of the campo waiting for the ponies, I noticed a 12-year-old Italian boy doing his best to impress the girls around him. At one point he gave me the stink-eye. What the hell? I thought. Then I saw that he was wearing a fazzoletto — scarf — of Torre (Tower), the hated rivals of Onda, as I was wearing my Onda scarf.

Here’s the scene from the top of the piazza, looking down into the valley of the via Giovanni Dupré, into the heart of Onda territory. Notice the dolphin streetlamps (the dolphin is an Onda symbol). Each contrada has streetlamps in its own symbol, and that’s a way of telling when you have passed through one contrada into the next:

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Because I had watched the prova so close to the Onda entrance, I was early for the feast, so I walked to the other end of the street and paid my respects to the street image of the Holy Family, with the Christ child blessing Lady Onda:

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Finally we got down to eating. I had the good fortune of being seated at a table across the narrow street from three tables of Onda men who routinely broke into lusty singing of the contrada‘s hymns. It was thrillingly old world; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like that in the United States. It conveyed a feeling of masculine force, of valor, and of passion, and above all, it seemed old. You had the feeling of being in the happy, festal parts of The Godfather. I could have stayed their all night — and in fact, it felt that we might. The feast didn’t end until after midnight, after much Chianti, pasta, ragù, and spumante.

During the dinner, my friend Ron Herzman, the American Dantist whose Great Courses lectures on the Divine Comedy were such a big help to me, indeed an inspiration, introduced me to his co-teacher on that course, Bill Cook. I was able to meet him, and to thank both these good men for the gift of Dante that they gave to me, an American in the middle of the journey of his life, who had no idea how radically different that journey would be once he encountered the Commedia. Ron is on the left, Bill on the right:

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It turns out that Bill was the first of the SUNY-Geneseo clan to claim a beachhead in Siena, having arrived in 1978. Over the years, he introduced its

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Onda’s fountain

glories to his colleague Ron, and to many others among their students, including Wes Kennison, who made it possible for Sordello and me to buy tickets to Onda dinners. It turns out that Bill, Ron, and Wes are baptized members of Onda. Each contrada has its own church, and outside the church is a fountain. Before Palio, all the babies born into the contrada, or born of contradaioli (members), are paraded out of the church to the fountain in front of the parish, and, in a secular way, “baptized” into membership in the fellowship of the contrada. This week, Ron had the unusual honor of being present as his baby grandson was baptized into Onda. Every time this child comes back to Siena, he will have brothers and sisters who live in a tiny district of this small medieval Tuscan hill town, who will welcome him as one of their own — all because of what happened here this week, and, tracing it back, all because Bill Cook fell in love with Siena back in 1978, and spread the good news.

My dining companions last night included Barbara Rosenblit and her husband Ish, from Atlanta, and an Italian journalist named Luca Fiore, from Milan. Barbara is a graduate of the National Endowment for the Humanities summer Dante program that Ron helps run here in Siena. It’s a program that takes 15 or so American school teachers to Siena for six weeks, and leads them on an intensive course of Dante study. The idea is to prepare them to go back home on fire for teaching Dante to American kids, to give them a deeper grounding in one of the greatest works of Western civilization. In a subsequent post, I’ll tell you of the marvelous things Barbara has done with what she learned here back in 2003. She teaches Dante to her students in a Jewish school. How do you teach an arch-Catholic poet to Jewish kids? She told me, and it was amazing. It once again reminded me of Dante’s universal greatness — and it reinforced the tragedy that the NEH has decided not to fund this program anymore after this year, at least not overseas. Again, I’ll write more about this subsequently, but boy, it’s hard to express how much more vivid and realistic is the imaginative world of the medieval poet when you encounter the Commedia inside a well-preserved medieval Tuscan city — and when you have an insider’s access to some of its culture. The contrade have been here since the Middle Ages, and are still going strong, a living link to the times of Dante. You’re not going to get this in Buffalo.

Here are Barbara, Luca, and Your Working Boy:

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I wish I could figure out how to embed video I took of the Onda men bellowing the contrada‘s hymns. Later in the evening, Wes Kinnison stopped by the table, and I asked him to translate the words. For some reason — perhaps because it was dialect, or perhaps because of the men’s phrasing — Luca couldn’t pick out the lyrics. Wes, who knows the songs by heart, said it may sound like they’re singing the same song over and over, but in fact it’s different lyrics to the same tune. The lyrics are all what you would expect: boasts about our contrada‘s greatness, and taunts having to do with the no-count nature of the hated Torre contrada. I mentioned to him the stink-eye the Torre ragazzo gave me in the piazza earlier, and how I figured it was because of my Onda fazzoletto (scarf).

“It’s because you had the silk version,” Wes said (I had bought it from the Onda headquarters the night before). “If you had had the polyester version they sell everywhere to tourists, he wouldn’t have given you a second look. The fact that you had the silk version told him that you have skin in this game.”

Ah.

Wes told me something else really interesting about the contrada hymnody. I had noticed in the piazza that crowds of different contrada supporters will burst into song, obviously to back their own horse and jockey, but the tune is always the same. Yes, says Wes, and that is by design. Every contrada uses the same tune, but modifies the lyrics to suit their purposes.

“You want to see a little Sienese kid get disciplined in the street?” said Wes. “Let him start monkeying around with the tune. They take that very seriously here. You don’t fool around with tradition.”

Wes says each contrada has endless lyrical versions of the Palio hymn, and there exists one version with lyrics that all Sienese use, to celebrate the unity and greatness of their city. A few years ago when he was living here, Wes went to a high school basketball game or some similar sporting event, in which a Siena team competed against an Italian small town in an away game. Though the Siena fans took up three-quarters of the seats in the gym, the other team was feeling cocky, and started singing songs taunting the Sienese.

“All of a sudden, every Sienese in the gym burst into our song” — the Palio song of Sienese unity — “and we blew the roof off the place. We reduced the taunters to a puddle of goo. I tell you that to show you how despite the rivalries among the contrade, beyond these city walls, Sienese stick together, because they’re so proud of their city.”

As well they should be. What a rare privilege it has been to have spent Palio week here in Siena with these people, and to get a glimpse of what community and tradition can mean. Reflect again on the words of Sir James Goldsmith:

“A true city is not an encampment for transient visitors, nor a complex of motorways, nor an ephemeral agglomeration of living quarters. It is a long-standing human settlement, a community spanning generations, a complex social organization inspiring commitment and pride. Every architectural blight, every symptom of social breakdown, should pierce deep into the heart of its citizens and provoke a salutary reaction. Siena, in Italy, is perhaps the best example of a healthy city. That is why it has maintained social stability and a negligible incidence of crime.”

I would not necessarily have seen it before, but now it’s clear to me: the ponies of the Palio, this centuries-old, crazy, Kentucky-Derby-meets-Mardi-Gras celebration, is what binds and deepens and lifts up this ancient hill town in Tuscany, and its people. Tonight will be the running of the Palio, and naturally I hope Onda wins, but no matter which horse and jockey cross the finish line first, it seem clear to me that all of Siena wins, simply by being Siena, and having such a splendid feast for its people and all of us lucky enough to have shared their company this week. I’m sure there are lots of Farinatas among all the contradaioli of Siena, but there are far more good men and women who love their city, love their country, and love their world because they first loved their neighbors in the contrada. In any case, it’s a fine way to live. Neither Sordello nor I will ever be baptized into Onda, but I think it’s not too presumptuous to say that we leave Siena tomorrow with a little bit of Onda baptized into us.

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Sex & the Kingdom of the Self

Sara Burrows, a libertarian, follows the logic of autonomy to its natural end. This is not, in fact, a joke:

I had freed myself from the grips of government, religion, and parents. The only chains left to throw off were those on my sexuality—particularly the chains of monogamy.

The first authority I came to see as illegitimate was government, shortly after discovering Ron Paul in 2008. I stumbled upon his campaign like a rabbit hole that led me to question all of society’s rules. Soon after, I started to question my religion—Christianity. How much of it had been made up, twisted, and contrived—in collusion with the government—to support the powers that be?

Along with the fear of God, I cast off any respect for parental authority I once had. Since the punitive, authoritarian man in the clouds was no longer real to me, who was to say children should obey their parents? I educated myself about peaceful parenting and became determined to treat my daughter as a free, autonomous person with inalienable rights, not as my property.

She and her partner Brad decide to spice up their marriage by going full polyamorous:

We’re actually looking forward to the rest of our lives together now. When we were monogamous, our future seemed pretty mapped out: have a baby, get a better job, buy a house, get a promotion, buy a better car, start our own business, buy a better house, make more money, go on vacation, make more money, buy an even better house… grow old in it together.

Since we’ve discovered polyamory, we don’t care about new houses or new cars or vacations. What really makes us tick is the idea of falling in love, over and over and over again. Now, we have the best of both worlds: the security of a steady, stable partner, to have and to hold, and the sense of adventure and excitement at the thought of the unknown, the possibility of new romance around every corner, the butterflies in our stomachs we never thought we’d get the chance to feel again.

We’ve gotten a lot of warnings and admonitions from well-intentioned friends and family members that we’re going to destroy our relationship and hurt our daughter, but we feel exactly the opposite. For us, this is the perfect opportunity to save our relationship, spare our daughter from the heartbreak of a broken family, and give her the blessing of happy parents and extended family. Wish us luck!

What could possibly go wrong?

Once the Self is enthroned as sovereign, the logic is inexorable. She talks about how she has been liberated from the slavery of marriage, but in fact she is a slave to her passions.

Our fuel is running out. Brad and I have tried all the tricks. We’ve fanned the flames. We need more logs—new energy, a fresh perspective. It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, or that we are done with each other. It just means we need something new.

“Need.” She wants to be a perpetual teenager, where the world is ever-new. She goes on to talk about how destroying the (common-law) marital bond will actually save their relationship, or so they figure. And if you read the essay, it’s transparently a Randian self-justification of a woman who really and truly wants to get laid by as many guys as she can manage. What makes this something more than a Jerry Springer Show episode is that Burrows’s core conviction — that marriage is something entirely about accommodating the desiring individual Self — is also at the core of our fast-evolving understanding of marriage (and not just same-sex marriage, but marriage in the age of no-fault divorce). Burrows is an outlier, certainly, but the radical “freedom” she embraces is logically consistent. That is, she follows a concept of liberty that many contemporary Americans actually believe in, to its end.

I read this while eavesdropping on a Siena seminar discussion of the Francesca episode of Dante’s Inferno. They’re sitting around the table talking about how Francesca rationalized her lust, and committed an act that destroyed their family. There are no victimless crimes, there are no sins that we own ourselves. As the utopian libertarian Sara Burrows will eventually learn — as will her child.

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Onda, Baby

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So that’s Sordello and me, at the street banquet tonight in the contrada of Onda (the Wave). We were seduced into pledging allegiance to Onda through the ministrations of the baptized Onda member Ron Herzman, the eminent American Dantist, with whom we drank a grappa today.

Here’s a View From Your Table at the street banquet in the Onda quarter tonight:

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It’s hard to express the strangeness but also the wonderfulness of being in such a small place, but where people take their contradas with utmost seriousness. Domenic Canonico, a Notre Dame student and a reader of this blog, and I were wandering through the back streets around the Campo, and caught men of the Torre contrada marching out behind their horse, singing at the top of their lungs (they appeared a minute after this selfie was taken):

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Here’s a long view of the street dinner in Onda tonight:

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It’s funny, but after 36 hours here, I couldn’t tell you one street from the other, but I already know where most of the contrada are, having walked through them.

What a great town Siena is! The city is getting ever more pumped for the big race on Thursday. I will have to go down the street to consult the exposed head of St. Catherine of Siena to ask her for advice on betting. I love me a Catholic country, for sure.

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L’Opzione Benedetto

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Page 3 of today’s edition of Il Foglio, a national Italian daily. Truly strange and wonderful to go to a newsstand in Italy and buy this newspaper and read about oneself … or rather (because I don’t read Italian), to know that one’s ideas are being given so much prominent attention in somebody else’s country. Thanks to the reporter Mattia Ferrarese for his interest in my work.

(I think the headline is a clever pun on a line from the Italian national anthem, “Siam pronti alla morte” — “We are ready to die.” The literal translation of the headline is, “We are ready to cut,” or “to break with.”)

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Cooking St. Catherine’s Goose

That’s the official flag of Oca (Goose), one of the 17 contrade of Siena, which date to the Middle Ages. It turns out that St. Catherine of Siena was born in the 14th century within the boundaries of Oca. Her body is in Rome, but her head is preserved in the Dominican church here, and can be seen inside a reliquary. She is not only one of the Catholic patron saints of Italy and Europe, but also, naturally, the patron saint of Oca.

The story goes that when she was named by the Pope in 1970 as one of the “Doctors of the Church” — a very rare honor — Siena celebrated by declaring an extra Palio. As fortune would have it, Oca drew the best horse of the lot that year, and paid handsomely to hire the best jockey. St. Catherine’s triumph would be Oca’s triumph.

But Oca did not win.

Shocked and appalled, the priest who served as Oca’s chaplain is said to have gone into the church of San Domenico, where the saint’s head is exhibited, turned out all the lights around her, and spat, “You whore! If you cannot give a victory to your people, you deserve to sleep in the dark!”

They take their contrade very, very seriously in Siena. Here, there’s a saying: “Va bene, presto c’e la terra in piazza.” It means, “Everything’s fine, soon the dirt will be in the piazza.” That is, no matter how bad your life is going, before long, they will put dirt in the massive public square at the heart of the city, so the horses can run the Palio. The idea is that the Palio is a communal rite of exaltation and absolution, the day on which all is well.

At lunch today, my traveling companion Sordello, a New Orleanian, said the contrade are like tribes of Mardi Gras Indians. If you saw the HBO series Treme, you’ll remember how the Big Chief lost nearly everything in Katrina, but as long as he had his tribe, and Carnival, all was well.

That.

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David Brooks on ‘The Next Culture War’

David Brooks points out that orthodox Christians have lost the culture war decisively, and ponders three futures for our tribe. Excerpt:

The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision landed like some sort of culminating body blow onto this beleaguered climate. Rod Dreher, author of the truly outstanding book “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” wrote an essay in Time in which he argued that it was time for Christians to strategically retreat into their own communities, where they could keep “the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness.”

He continued: “We have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist.”

Most Christian commentary has opted for another strategy: fight on. Several contributors to a symposium in the journal First Things about the court’s Obergefell decision last week called the ruling the Roe v. Wade of marriage. It must be resisted and resisted again. Robert P. George, probably the most brilliant social conservative theorist in the country, argued that just as Lincoln persistently rejected the Dred Scott decision, so “we must reject and resist an egregious act of judicial usurpation.”

Brooks says that most conservatives he’s read since Friday’s Obergefell decision are vowing to continue fighting the culture war. As a self-described “friend and admirer” of social conservatives — and I should say that David is a valued friend of mine, and I am indeed an admirer of his — though not one of us, Brooks suggests doing a different thing.

Consider a different culture war, one just as central to your faith and far more powerful in its persuasive witness.

We live in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed. Millions of kids live in stressed and fluid living arrangements. Many communities have suffered a loss of social capital. Many young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms. Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.

Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society. They already subscribe to a faith built on selfless love. They can serve as examples of commitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.

The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.

Read the whole thing.

 

Two thoughts occur to me.

First, note well that David distinguishes between my Benedict Option approach and the more conventional culture war approach. Continuing the “war” metaphor, I am recommending a strategy for resisting, enduring and thriving under the reality of occupation. This is not what Robbie George et alia are endorsing. I think mine is more realistic, and stands the greater chance of success. Ultimately, I think, we agree on moral truth, but strongly differ on how best to live that out and to advocate for it under present conditions.

Second, and of much more importance, is that I don’t believe my friend David understands the inseparable connection between Christian sexual morality and the familial and social instability David rightly decries. Family and social breakdown is inextricably linked to the abandonment of Christian sexual ideals — specifically, the idea that sexual passion should be limited to expression within the bounds of marriage. Chastity — which is not “no sex,” but rather the right ordering of the God-given sexual instinct — is a Christian virtue. It is not the most important Christian virtue, but it is not one that can be discarded, either.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, explains this kind of thing well. This link takes you to a long excerpt (be sure to read down to the section on Christian sexual morality, especially the part in which he points out that you can be perfectly chaste and still go to hell if you have a cold heart). This earlier, broader discussion, applies here:

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.

You may have noticed that modern people are nearly always thinking about the first thing and forgetting the other two. When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing-the tidying up inside each human being-we are only deceiving ourselves.

What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.

But I do not think we can stop there either. We are now getting to the point at which different beliefs about the universe lead to different behaviour. And it would seem, at first sight, very sensible to stop before we got there, and just carry on with those parts of morality that all sensible people agree about. But can we? Remember that religion involves a series of statements about facts, which must be either true or false. If they are true, one set of conclusions will follow about the right sailing of the human fleet: if they are false, quite a different set. For example, let us go back to the man who says that a thing cannot be wrong unless it hurts some other human being. He quite understands that he must not damage the other ships in the convoy, but he honestly thinks that what he does to his own ship is simply his own business. But does it not make a great difference whether his ship is his own property or not? Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord? If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself.

Again, Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse -so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be. And immortality makes this other difference, which, by the by, has a connection with the difference between totalitarianism and democracy. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.

It seems, then, that if we are to think about morality, we must think of all three departments: relations between man and man: things inside each man: and relations between man and the power that made him. We can all cooperate in the first one. Disagreements begin with the second and become serious with the third. It is in dealing with the third that the main differences between Christian and non-Christian morality come out. For the rest of this book I am going to assume the Christian point of view, and look at the whole picture as it will be if Christianity is true.

Christianity, properly understood, takes a more holistic view of the human person. David rightly causes us to think of how few conservative Christians consider the role that economics and economic policy plays in breaking apart families and communities. But liberals, Christian and otherwise, fail to appreciate the extent to which abandoning sexual restraint results in broken families and broken societies. “Different beliefs about the universe lead to different behavior,” Lewis writes. The Sexual Revolution teaches something different about sex, the body, desire, and identity. Christianity opposes it — and Christian chastity cannot be isolated from the overall Christian conception of what the body is and who we are as incarnated eternal beings.

The point is, there is no way for Christians to undertake the task of nurturing stable families, as David correctly wishes for, without making the teaching of Christian chastity part of the mission. This is the one thing the world cannot accept — and in fact, finds a form of madness, indeed of bigotry.

I’m writing this moments after finishing a seminar discussion of Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, which is about lust as a distorted version of love. Because Francesca and Paolo construed lust as love, their sin led to violence — Paolo’s brother, discovering that his brother and his wife were sleeping together, killed them both — including the breaking of the family, and to the damnation of them all. Lust is one of the least bad of all sins in Dante’s conception … but it is enough to earn hell all the same.

The romanticization of sexual love is no new thing. But it continues to seduce us and to confuse us, and, along with economic individualism, has become on of the two dominant ideologies of our civilization.  This bad idea has consequences. The destruction of the family and the sundering of social bonds are among them.

UPDATE: Patrick Deneen responds thus on his Facebook page:

Much of this column by David Brooks resonates. He is absolutely correct that the wider culture has changed, and rather radically, and that Christians have generally been unprepared and inept in responding to those changes. And he is absolutely correct to note the echoing hollowness of that culture, and the deep need for meaning, purpose, aspiration beyond hedonism, consumption, irony, detachment and – yes – loneliness.

But his analysis seems to miss the mark to this extent – in my view, it’s not Christians who have been perpetuating the “culture war” over sexuality (I know many will disagree, but hear me out). The origins of the “war” was arguably launched by Roe v. Wade, which was, for the Christian, less about sexual morality than protecting the life of the unborn. It was a human rights battle, not a battle over sexual propriety (though, of course, there were implications there as well). But in recent years, from whence has the aggression come? Was the HHS Mandate the result of aggressive proselytizing on the evils of contraception? Was the SSM battle engaged by the mainstream of religious believers premised on the view that homosexuals were the equivalent of racists (I would simply point to leading voices like Robert Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson who have been models of civility, attempting to offer reasoned argument in the face of accusations of bigotry)? Have Christians threatened to wipe out the livelihood of rural pizza makers who didn’t conform to their views, or even launched boycotts against the likes of Apple, etc.? Or, we might even ask, when is the last time someone heard a sermon about sexual morality from the pew?

Brooks is correct that Christians need to repair their own house. And I think this impulse accounts for much of the attraction for many to Rod Dreher‘s “Benedict Option” – less as a reaction of “taking our ball home” than the realization that we have a lot of work to do on our own house. But what Brooks simply neglects to talk about is that Christians are not going to be allowed to depart from the battlefield. Once the atomic weapon of “bigotry” has been used, you can’t just contain the radiation. Christians will be occupied for years yet to come defending their institutions – not because that’s what they want to do, but because they will be forced to. I wish that the sides could stand down now – truly I do – but I simply think the logic is inexorable. I hope and wish I am wrong. But I fear I am right.

I am certain Deneen is right, and this is another reason for the Benedict Option: to build in the resilience within ourselves and our communities to hang on to the truth when the going gets very rough.

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The Guns of August 2015

Are you paying attention to this? I had not been. Max Fisher:

It was in August 2014 that the real danger began, and that we heard the first warnings of war. That month, unmarked Russian troops covertly invaded eastern Ukraine, where the separatist conflict had grown out of its control. The Russian air force began harassing the neighboring Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are members of NATO. The US pledged that it would uphold its commitment to defend those countries as if they were American soil, and later staged military exercises a few hundred yards from Russia’s border.

Both sides came to believe that the other had more drastic intentions. Moscow is convinced the West is bent on isolating, subjugating, or outright destroying Russia. One in three Russians now believe the US may invade. Western nations worry, with reason, that Russia could use the threat of war, or provoke an actual conflict, to fracture NATO and its commitment to defend Eastern Europe. This would break the status quo order that has peacefully unified Europe under Western leadership, and kept out Russian influence, for 25 years.

Fearing the worst of one another, the US and Russia have pledged to go to war, if necessary, to defend their interests in the Eastern European borderlands. They have positioned military forces and conducted chest-thumping exercises, hoping to scare one another down. Putin, warning repeatedly that he would use nuclear weapons in a conflict, began forward-deploying nuclear-capable missiles and bombers.

Europe today looks disturbingly similar to the Europe of just over 100 years ago, on the eve of World War I. It is a tangle of military commitments and defense pledges, some of them unclear and thus easier to trigger. Its leaders have given vague signals for what would and would not lead to war. Its political tensions have become military buildups. Its nations are teetering on an unstable balance of power, barely held together by a Cold War–era alliance that no longer quite applies.

If you take a walk around Washington or a Western European capital today, there is no feeling of looming catastrophe. The threats are too complex, with many moving pieces and overlapping layers of risk adding up to a larger danger that is less obvious. People can be forgiven for not seeing the cloud hanging over them, for feeling that all is well — even as in Eastern Europe they are digging in for war. But this complacency is itself part of the problem, making the threat more difficult to foresee, to manage, or, potentially, to avert.

“There’s a low nuclear threshold now that didn’t exist during the Cold War”
There is a growing chorus of political analysts, arms control experts, and government officials who are sounding the alarm, trying to call the world’s attention to its drift toward disaster. The prospect of a major war, even a nuclear war, in Europe has become thinkable, they warn, even plausible.

What they describe is a threat that combines many of the hair-trigger dangers and world-ending stakes of the Cold War with the volatility and false calm that preceded World War I — a comparison I heard with disturbing frequency.

They described a number of ways that an unwanted but nonetheless major war, like that of 1914, could break out in the Eastern European borderlands. The stakes, they say, could not be higher: the post–World War II peace in Europe, the lives of thousands or millions of Eastern Europeans, or even, in a worst-case scenario that is remote but real, the nuclear devastation of the planet.

More:

In Washington, the threat feels remote. It does not in Eastern Europe. Baltic nations, fearing war, have already begun preparing for it. So has Sweden: “We see Russian intelligence operations in Sweden — we can’t interpret this in any other way — as preparation for military operations against Sweden,” a Swedish security official announced in March.

In May, Finland’s defense ministry sent letters to 900,000 citizens — one-sixth of the population — telling them to prepare for conscription in case of a “crisis situation.” Lithuania has reinstituted military conscription. Poland, in June, appointed a general who would take over as military commander in case of war.

Though Western publics remain blissfully unaware, and Western leaders divided, many of the people tasked with securing Europe are treating conflict as more likely. In late April, NATO and other Western officials gathered in Estonia, a former Soviet republic and NATO member on Russia’s border that Western analysts most worry could become ground zero for a major war with Russia.

At the conference, Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow spoke so openly about NATO’s efforts to prepare for the possibility of Russia launching a limited nuclear strike in Europe that, according to the journalist Ahmed Rashid, who was in attendance, he had to be repeatedly reminded he was speaking on the record.

One of the scenarios Vershbow said NATO was outlining, according to Rashid’s paraphrase, was that Russia could “choose to use a tactical weapon with a small blast range on a European city or a Western tank division.”

And:

“You don’t get to walk this back,” Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Kennan Institute, warned in comments to the New York Times about what could happen if the US armed Ukraine’s military, as Congress is pushing Obama to do.

“Once we have done this we become a belligerent party in a proxy war with Russia, the only country on Earth that can destroy the United States,” Rojansky said. “That’s why this is a big deal.”

Read the whole thing, if you can stomach it.

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Brendan Eich Writes

Apparently the heated nerd discussion about the merits of Java JavaScript brought him to this blog. BTW, he’s not a fan of the Benedict Option, though I don’t think he understands what it is. From his comment in another thread:

All right, this is ridiculous. I appreciate “Weasel Hunter” (whom I probably know, but who could be one of several people) carrying my water, but I’m going to comment once only here, and not on _Obergefell_ or my situation at Mozilla. I came to find this blog post via a Google Alert I have for my name and “JavaScript”.

(On _Obergefell_ and the inevitable SSM story, I do wish Rod would not drop my name so much, because while I did lose my job, and also FYI I did have to face a blackball-dropping event at one other Valley big company, I’m not a martyr. We should all pray for greater faith, hope and charity, and stop whinging about SSM or the US-based global elite that’s pushing it as just one step along a revolutionary road. More and worse is coming, and complaining is far from being ready. Pulling out of society also isn’t going to work, or satisfy Christ’s injunction to be “salt and light” to the world.)

“EngineerScotty” accuses me of intransigence and asserts that I have extraordinary influence with the W3C (www.w3.org), which is not the body governing JavaScript, but whatever. This is not a new complaint, you’ll hear it on Hacker News from time to time. It’s still all obvious bunk.

If Google could not replace JavaScript even in their own browser Chrome (even by adding DartVM as a first step), as their explicit words in the leaked “Dash memo”[1] stated that they fully intended to do with Dart (neé Dash), then blaming me is just whipping a convenient devil. Show some backbone, Scotty, and take on the big devils: Microsoft in its heyday, and now Google. Or to be fair to them, pay attention to path dependence in evolving systems. JS is very, very hard to replace.

Indeed my latest work, with many others doing the heavy lifting (I’m just playing Tom Sawyer organizing the fence-painting), on WebAssembly[2], promises to produce polyglot-programming-language browsers in a few years, by evolving JS and its one and only browser-embedded engine standard (multiple browsers in a competitive market [thanks to Firefox, mainly] = multiple engines, also a good thing in spite of the retromingent complaints about inevitable portability bugs across browsers — such bugs are much worse across silo’ed languages such as C and C++).

Only through something like WebAssembly might JS, in the far future, actually be replaced over a long evolutionary path. Don’t believe intransigent-me? Ask Steve Lucco at Microsoft, or Fil Pizlo at Apple, or anyone at Google. I can connect you, although it’d be a short and embarrassing conversation.

But enough from me and techno-politics. Surely you people have better things to discuss!

/be

[1] http://lambda-the-ultimate.org/node/4355
[2] https://brendaneich.com/2015/06/from-asm-js-to-webassembly/

“More and worse is coming.” We definitely agree on that. Anyway, Brendan, I keep bringing you up not because I think you are a “martyr” but because what happened to you is what’s going to happen to many of us: being driven out of corporate life by completely legal means because we don’t conform our consciences to the Zeitgeist. People need to stop thinking of prisons for themselves (not going to happen), and start thinking about what happened to you as a more realistic picture of what is likely to happen to them, and to those they know, who don’t conform.

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From Siena’s Palio

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It seemed like it took my friend Sordello and me forever to get to Siena, but we arrived late Monday afternoon, after a long flight and series of trains. I’m here to sit in on a Dante seminar Tuesday and Wednesday, and we are both here to see the Palio. It’s a horse race they have been doing in this small Tuscan city at least once a year since 1648. When I was here last fall for the day, someone told me, “You have to come back for the Palio.” I never thought I would, but here I am.

I don’t much care about horses, but I really care about the work of local culture. From what I could tell just walking around this afternoon and early evening, the Palio is a cross between the Kentucky Derby and Mardi Gras. Siena is a medieval town of warren-like streets that snake up and down hills. It is divided into 17 districts called contrade. Each contrada has its own colors, its own symbol, its own church, its own songs, its own traditions, and so forth. Most of them field a horse and rider each year for dangerous bareback race around the city’s enormous piazza. There’s lots of pageantry and parading leading up to the Palio, and that’s where the fun is. From a website’s description of the contrada system:

Siena is made up of seventeen districts or ‘contrada’. Each has its own flag, seat of government, constitution and geographical boundaries. Contrada affiliation is so strong that individual Sienese think of themselves as belonging to their contrade first, then to Siena and then to Italy.

A Sienese’s love sometimes for their own contrada is only exceeded by their hatred for their enemy contrada. Understanding the complex system of alliances and enmities is crucial to grasping the essence of the Palio.

Each contrada sees itself as a small republic or city-state, and as such it has diplomatic relationships with its neighbors. Possible relationships fall into four categories: alliance, friendship, no relationship, and enmity. Enmities are constant while other relationships change over time determined by the actions in the Palio.

While no one knows officially why many of the rivalries started, it is thought that most of the rivalries were formed over boundary issues, or insults that occurred during past Palios. The members of the rival contrade have, quite literally, been known to come to blows over the Palio.

The number of contrade has changed over the years, but since 1729 there have been seventeen. Each contrada has a name based upon a specific symbol or group of symbols, and also a set of associated colors.

The contrada is a truly unique unit of social organisation. Each has its own church, its own museum (filled with the spoils of previous Palio triumphs), as well as its own hymn, motto, insignia, patron saint, etc. The contrada is not only a form of local government, it is also a form of mutual aid society and social club. Contradaioli may receive financial and emotional support, often without asking for help as the officers of the contrada keep well informed about their fellow contradaioli’s lives.

The contrada raise money from subscriptions, personal pledges, contributions, and social events and create a specific reserve for Palio expenses that builds up over time.

It is difficult to convey the impact the contrada has on the individual. Every major rite of passage, from birth to death, falls under the jurisdiction of the contrada which sends a delegate to each contradaioli’s christening, first communion, wedding, twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, fiftieth wedding anniversary and funeral.

Alongside the day-to-day governance structures of each contrada, they each choose a captain whose only responsibility is to see that the contrada wins the Palio. This captain is elected by the contrada to serve for the year, and is assisted by two helpers; it is expected that special political and financial maneuvering will be required if the Palio is to be won.

See those kids above? They are boys from the Chiocciola (Snail) contrada. They are learning the ways of their contrada from an early age. I believe we caught them either assembling for a parade or breaking up from one. Look at these little guys’ faces:

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Sordello and I walked through several contrade this afternoon. We could tell when we had crossed into a new contrada because the flags hanging from the buildings changed. Sometimes ornaments affixed to the sides of the medieval structures announced which contrada you were in. For example, the dolphin is the symbol of Onda (the Wave):

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We sat at a block-long picnic table in Onda and had a drink of Prosecco and Aperol with them:

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On the street, Onda has a sort of outdoor fresco depicting a lady representing Onda presenting herself to the Holy Family for a blessing. The Palio is a very Catholic event.

Later, we joined thousands of our new friends in the campo to watch the horses and their costumed jockeys take a trial run around the track:

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It was so much fun to stand in the center of the track and hear children sing the songs of their contrada from the bleachers, and then to hear young men with strong voices bellowing the same. The actual horse race is on Thursday, but there’s going to be a lot going on between now and then. What a great city, Siena.

Sordello and I don’t have a contrada to root for yet. Our hotel is in Drago, but they’re not running a horse this year. I think my Dante class is in Onda. We’ll see.

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