Strangers in a strange land – learning lessons in the night |

Strangers in a strange land – learning lessons in the night

Story and photos by Andy Stone
Aspen Times Weekly
The Piazza del Campo is the heart of Siena, a gathering place by day and night. Late at night, the cafes close and things grow quiet - unless contradas decide to parade.
Andy Stone |

SIENA, Italy – We woke to the distant sound of a drum in the dark. A muffled marching beat echoing through the narrow stone streets. Sitting up in bed, I could hear a ragged chorus of voices, singing an unrecognizable tune. As I listened, the sounds grew louder, closer. A single drum. Many voices.

I checked my watch. It was two in the morning.

It might have been our first night in our apartment in Siena. Or maybe the second. Excited about just being there, thrilled at the astonishing view out our window across the Piazza del Campo, the ancient heart of the city, we had fallen asleep perhaps two hours before.

We struggled out of bed and hurried to the window, taking care not to trip in the dark in our still-unfamiliar apartment. We opened the shutters and looked out. The cafes that ringed the piazza were all closed, but the buildings were still floodlit, an impressive sight: centuries-old palaces embracing the large, shell-shaped piazza, with the astonishing Torre del Mangia rising more than 300 feet – 30 stories – into the night.

As we watched, the singing throng – 40 or 50 men and women – emerged from a side street and marched into the piazza, led by the drummer and two men carrying flags. They stopped almost directly below our apartment, sang several rousing choruses, gave a cheer and marched off again into the night.

That was our first lesson about the true nature of Siena.

We learned our second lesson – actually, the exactly same lesson a second time – the next night. This time at about three in the morning.

And that lesson came by again – with drumming and singing and flags in the dark – the night after that. And then again, and again, several times a week, sometimes late at night, sometimes in the early evening, for the entire month we lived in Siena.

In fact, it was a good thing that lesson was repeated, because it took us a while to figure it out.

At first, we assumed it was all about the Palio. That was an easy mistake to make.

The Palio is Siena’s signature event, a wild, recklessly exuberant horse race around the Piazza del Campo.

Twice a year, in early July and again in mid-August, the town is swamped as thousands of tourists and, more importantly, tens of thousands of Sienese turn out to fight for space, cheer, scream, pray, cry, mourn and celebrate as the horses gallop around the piazza.

The August 2010 race had been run six weeks before we got to town, but it seemed reasonable to assume that spirits were still running high. Victors seemed likely to still be celebrating, losers likely vowing very publicly to do better next time. And, Italians being, after all, Italians, how could all that be done any better than with parades and drums and loud singing in the middle of the night?

As I said, it all seemed reasonable and logical and, in fact, it was to some extent right.

But as we learned, that explanation didn’t go nearly deep enough.

Because the Palio is more than a horse race. It is more than four days of pageantry, feasting, drinking and near-violent intensity twice a year. It is more, indeed, than the months of build-up before the races and the weeks of celebration and recovery afterward.

The Sienese like to say that the Palio runs all year long. But the real truth has a little twist to it: The Palio is a reflection, an expression of a basic fact of Siena that runs not just all year, but more or less forever.

At the heart of it all is a simple enough fact: Siena is divided into 17 “contradas.” (Language note: The Italian singular is contrada; the proper Italian plural is contrade. But we’re speaking English here, so “contradas” will be our plural. Thank you.)

The contradas might be described as “neighborhoods,” but they are more than just that. To begin with, contradas are much more formal than vague “neighborhoods.” They have very exact, legally defined borders. Every building in Siena is specifically in one contrada. Most street corners have little wall-mounted signs, bearing the symbol of their contrada. So, in that legal sense, you might consider them “wards” or “districts.”

But, again, they’re more than that.

A teacher at our language school – born and raised in Siena – gave a lecture on the Palio and, in the course of explaining the race, spent most of her time talking about the contradas.

What I gathered from her talk was that the best English word to describe a contrada is “tribe.” That begins to get at the feeling of intense connection between each Sienese citizen and his contrada.

A Sienese is born into a contrada and remains a member of that contrada for his or her entire life. Membership in a contrada is determined absolutely and exactly by where a child is born. Every contrada has its own church and, with that church, a baptismal font, where every baby born in the contrada is baptized. After that, a Sienese can change where he lives, but he can’t change his contrada. The birth of a new contrada member is announced with a notice – adorned with blue or pink ribbons, as appropriate – posted in the contrada’s central piazza. And an enormous floral arrangement is presented by the contrada to the new mother, no matter what contrada she may belong to. The celebration, after all, is for the contrada’s newest citizen.

Membership in a contrada is not inherited from a baby’s parents. Families are often divided – a mother belonging to one contrada, a father to another and, depending on where the parents are living, the children may wind up belonging to yet a third contrada, all based unalterably on where they were born.

That, in fact, was the case with our teacher. She described how her young son, who shares a contrada with neither of his parents, often goes off to contrada events, sometimes for days at a time, without his parents. He is safe and happy, of course – surrounded by loving members of his contrada. His tribe.

Our teacher noted that she enjoys her multi-contrada privileges: She gets to go to parties and celebrations for her husband’s contrada as well as her own. And, when her husband’s contrada – or their son’s contrada – wins a Palio, she joins in their happiness. But she also made it very clear, with a wicked smile, “That is nothing like the happiness when my contrada wins.”

And, just as membership in a contrada begins with birth, it extends throughout life. Every contrada has a social center where the aged contradaioli can go to sit and chat and pass the time with other members of their tribe.

And, when a Siena native dies, the contrada flag will be prominent in the funeral procession. Often, in fact, those processions pass through the Piazza del Campo and the coffin is tilted up so the deceased can enjoy one last sight of the Palio track.

And so, it is this central fact of the town’s identity that was the point of the lesson we were being taught, night after night, at two or three in the morning.

The parades, the drumming, the singing, the flags and banners were not “part of the Palio”; all of that and the Palio were part of Siena’s identity as a city divided into 17 fiercely independent tribes.

The contradas have a history that goes back to the Middle Ages, when Siena was a powerful city-state battling with Florence – and any other would-be contenders – for supremacy in the region. Those warring city-states needed armies to defend themselves and the contradas were established to provide and train soldiers for Siena’s army. Indeed, some of the pageantry of the modern Palio descends directly from the drills and exercises required of those medieval soldiers.

Originally there were as many as 59 contradas, but, in the mid-1500s, as Siena accepted Florence’s supremacy (and protection), the military situation eased and the number of contradas dwindled. Still, given their fighting origins, some serious competition between the contradas was natural and a variety of contests emerged.

Some of the games were quite intense, sham battles with almost-real weapons. One such contest was called Mazzascudo, meaning “mace and shield,” which could come quite close to real warfare. Another was known as the Pugna, an Italian word that means “fight” or “fist.” Pugnas were essentially all-out brawls that tended to get completely out of control – contestants started by throwing punches and wound up throwing rocks.

Eventually, a horse race seemed like the best kind of competition – safer (at least somewhat) than throwing rocks.

But the Palio is still a wild affair, both on the track and off.

The jockeys ride bareback with just reins and the simplest of bits to control their horses in the fierce contest. The rules allow fairly extreme contact – the jockeys can whip other horses or, even, other jockeys. The only real foul is grabbing another horse’s reins. And if a jockey falls off – which, not surprisingly, happens often enough – the horse is not disqualified. Although it is rare, riderless horses have won Palios.

And to add to the intensity of the affair, the racetrack itself is treacherous. The stones of the piazza are covered in a thick layer of dirt and crushed tuff (a soft volcanic rock) and some of the worst hazards are covered with padding. But the course is uneven – with uphills, downhills and two sharp corners – and it is tilted inwards. At some points, the outside edge of the track is a full three feet higher than the inside.

But the real intensity, again, reflects Siena’s nature as a city of rival tribes.

Every contrada (with just a few exceptions) has allies and, perhaps more important, hated rivals among the other contradas, and the rivalries are very serious. Some go back centuries, but the result isn’t homicidal warfare between street gangs. Contradas may hate each other, but they don’t actually fight each other, at least, not most of the year. There can be a kind of ritual fighting – actual fistfights that break out along the borders of rival contradas during the days of the Palio; but it is all under control. People tell of fights that stop while participants help one another look for valuables dropped during the combat.

But still, contradas will go all out to bribe rival jockeys – and sometimes a losing jockey is beaten by his own contrada if he is suspected of throwing the race.

Alliances between friendly contradas, conspiring against rivals, are common. The jockey of a contrada with little chance of victory may ride to keep a rival from winning. The defeat of a rival is celebrated second only to a contrada’s own victory.

But perhaps the clearest sign of the loyalty of the Sienese for their contradas is clear in the way someone who no longer lives in his own contrada will return “home” for the days before the Palio – sometimes sleeping in the street if need be. And residents may refuse to leave their home contrada during those days, except to walk to the piazza to watch the various rituals leading up to the race itself.

In the end, it is simply a matter of loyalty to their home, to their contrada, to their tribe. A loyalty that may reach a peak with every running of the Palio, but a loyalty that holds true and clear every day of the year. Even – or, perhaps, especially – in the middle of the night, as they march and sing and parade through the Piazza del Campo.

Standing at our window, yawning strangers in a strange land at two in the morning, we had no idea about any of this. And a month later, although we had learned a lot, we really still had only the faintest outlines of where to look for a clue.

Our teacher said, “Tourists can enjoy the Palio. The colors, the excitement, the cheering. But really, the Palio is for us, for Siena.”

Fair enough. We couldn’t disagree.

But we’ll be back. We may never really be part of it, but we can take part in it. Our apartment was in the contrada of “Selva,” the Forest. We plan to be back there in August – and we’ll be screaming and cheering, celebrating and, if necessary, mourning for the jockey wearing “our” colors.

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