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From Siena’s Palio

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.

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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