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Contrade & the Common Good

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:


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


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:



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:


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:


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

Onda's fountain
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:


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.”


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.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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