Palio of Siena
Dragon, Porcupine, Caterpillar, Owl...these are just some of the 17 names of the contradas or neighborhoods into which the city of Siena is divided, small parts of the city which are really towns unto themselves, each with its own church and leader of the local political entity. And each with its own heart and special sense of belonging to the neighborhood, even more than to the city.
How were the Contradas born? According to the most reliable hypothesis, the Contradas are direct descendents of ancient military companies into which the city and medieval Sienese army was divided. The Palio could have come from the competitions between companies that took place in times of peace but there are possibilities that its origins are even older, that it might even date back to the Etruscans.
The current 17 Contradas were created during the first half of the 1700’s to be able to take part in the festivities in the Campo di Siena. During these festivals, each Contrada appeared in the Piazza accompanied by an allegorical presentation, a sort of float, that bore a particular symbol: a Panther, a Giraffe, a Tower...and it’s from these images that the Contradas inherited their names.
The Contradas, historically, are rivals, often considering each other arch enemies. This hostility many times dates back to ancient border disputes or even to things that happened during the historic races of the Palio. But the members of the contradas, even if rivals, do not hesitate to put up a common front whenever something threatens to disturb the regular course of the Palio!
The Contradas that do not have hostile relationships between them say that they are “at peace”, almost a way of underlining warlike origins that, although in good rapport at the moment, are only momentarily quiet.
The spirit of the contradas wakes up twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th, for what has been the most important event in the city ever since 1644: the PALIO of SIENA.
The Palio has always been a festival of the masses where, as opposed to medieval tournaments, it was the common people and not noblemen who competed. The three days prior to the Palio are, for the Sienese people, a long and anxious wait. Until the race has been won, that is, when the winners let out their joy and the losers vent their pain. Because the Palio, no matter what happens, is an intensely felt, authentic festival, powerfully connected to the strength and pride of the city.
It’s an ancient tradition that takes place in the public salon of Siena: the Piazza del Campo. It is announced early in the morning by the bell of the Torre del Mangia, the “Sunto”, as the Sienese people call it. It starts with the bang of a firecracker and the horses and riders that represent the ten contradas that have been called to compete, begin to enter the piazza one at a time, in a precise order decided by chance, with the last one entering at a gallop and determining the beginning of the race.
The Palio is a festival that sometimes can become dangerous and cruel: even a horse that’s lost its rider can win!
But it’s impossible to understand the Palio if you don’t live it “from within”, together with the Sienese people. That’s the only way to comprehend that the Palio is a little of everything: a sporting event, a tournament of the people, but above all, something indispensable for the city.
Saint Catherine, the famous sienese mystic, used to say: “Run! And make sure that there is only one who wins!”
Photo copyright: M. Rohana