Though Florentines bear the right to the title “Italian” as much as any, tourists in Florence may find their interactions with said Italians less than genuine. Because Firenze is such a popular destination, the Italy you see here is much different than what you’d find in a smaller, quieter town. In my travels around this country, I’ve had a few very noteworthy experiences in which I found myself thinking, “Now this is Italy.”
One of these experiences took place in one of my favorite cities in Italy. Siena is a quaint little town with a gorgeous cathedral and expansive main piazza called the Piazza del Campo. Twice each year, the Palio is run in this piazza. The Palio, named for the painted silk banner that serves as the winner’s prize, is a horse race. That, though, may be the understatement of the century. The Palio is constantly on the minds of every citizen of Siena, occurs along with countless traditions, ceremonies, and dinners, is a connection to Siena’s medieval origins, draws thousands to Siena to witness the spectacle, and leaves a wake of three straight months of celebration for the winners. This horse race is not only run round the Piazza del Campo, but it also runs hot through the veins of the Sienese.
When I visited Siena, I had the unique opportunity to meet the author of a book I’d recently read. Dario Castagno, who wrote Too Much Tuscan Sun, is the member of the Caterpillar contrada in Siena. Siena is split into seventeen contrade, or districts. Each citizen belongs to a contrada, which essentially functions as his second family. It is between these contrade that the Palio is raced. In meeting with Dario, my class and I got to tour his contrada’s headquarters and learn more about the ceremony, history, and significance of the Palio.
After Dario’s tour, I wanted more than anything to join a Sienese contrada. The contrada holds daily dinners which the members take turns cooking and the teenagers volunteer to serve and clean up. Before the Palio, the contrada allows members to bring guests and the dinner can end up seating five thousand! The young children of the contrada are taught the medieval art of flag throwing in the afternoons. We got to see the medieval style costumes worn for the Palio and parades, the heaviest of which are two hundred pounds. We saw the beautiful paintings won in past races. We saw the contrada’s chapel in which the horse is blessed before the Palio. We learned about how contrade have “enemies” and “allies” and about the underhanded deals, euphemized as “strategy,” that result from these relationships during the Palio. We saw clips of Palios past, where the passion of the Sienese was so apparent it made you want to jump through the screen to join them in their moments of triumph and despair.
It is this passion and the love each contrada member has for the next that fills one with the desire to take part. I’ve never experienced that sense of community to such an extent. It almost brings tears to my eyes. Every contrada member has duties to perform and dues to pay, especially if their contrada wins the Palio and has to shell out millions for the celebrations that follow, but no one complains. Everyone, the young and the old, gives all of themselves to their contrada, not because they are forced but because they genuinely want to. It is for the sake of love and tradition that these sacrifices are willingly made. Even winning the Palio doesn’t come with any monetary prize; it is the symbol of another painted cloth hanging in their headquarters that stirs each contrada member’s desire. In considering all that it means to be in a contrada, I find myself inspired yet at a loss for words, which is a state I rarely find myself in.
There have been instances where people from outside Siena have been “adopted” into contrade. I’m so tempted to attempt following in their footsteps. Maybe someday I will, but for now I’m content in simply visiting Siena as a tourist and soaking in the spirit of the place. As the flags of the contrade flutter airily in the breeze, so too will my contented soul.