Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
October 12, 2010
Sorry, but I have to call this column, “A Tale of Two Cities” – well, make that one city and one tiny village. Our city is Siena; our village, some 30 miles southeast across the Tuscan hills, is Monticchiello.
Today, as I write, I look up from time to time, out my window onto the Piazza del Campo, the heart of Siena.
This large, shell-shaped plaza – tilted and angled, paved with bricks, hemmed in by centuries-old buildings – is often called one of the most beautiful public spaces in the world.
We refer to it as “the beach,” because on warm sunny days (now increasingly rare as autumn deepens) the gently sloping plaza is filled with happy throngs, sitting on the bricks, like sun-bathers at the shore.
Even now, in mid-October, as the tourist season winds down, the piazza is busy, as hundreds sit, stand, frolic and gather around tour guides to learn about this medieval wonder.
At times, the mobs are intense. But what we are seeing is nothing compared to what happens in peak season, when Il Campo – indeed, all of Siena – is overrun by tourists.
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As anyone who lives in Aspen can testify, being overrun by mobs of tourists is a decidedly mixed blessing. Those visitors bring economic vitality, but at a high non-economic cost. To put it more bluntly, they fill wallets and drain souls. And there is always a certain amount of trampling involved along the way.
But Siena maintains its spirit and identity despite the onslaught.
In fact, what would seem to be its most intense “tourist event” is actually a phenomenal display of the city’s enduring true character.
The event is the twice-yearly “Palio,” a wild horse race around the Piazza del Campo, pitting entries from the city’s neighborhoods, or “contrade.”
A thick covering of dirt is laid down on the pavement that surrounds the brick center of the piazza, and a field of 10 horses, ridden bareback, careens three times around the track.
The center of the piazza is crammed with more people than it can possibly hold, perhaps 60,000. The windows and balconies overlooking the piazza are similarly filled – those apartments rent for astronomical sums during Palio week, and places on the balconies are long-reserved and very highly priced.
It would be easy to write thousands of words about the Palio, but this isn’t the time or place.
The key point is that the Palio is most definitely not a “tourist attraction.” It is a vital, living event, an expression of the deep spirit of the city’s contrade.
Perhaps the best English word to describe a contrada is not “neighborhood,” but “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 remain a member of that contrada for his entire life. If you move to a different part of the city, your contrada doesn’t change. Families are often divided – a mother belonging to one contrada, a father to another and their children to yet another, all based unalterably on where they were born.
A teacher at our language school explained that she is happy when her husband’s contrada wins the Palio and she gets to go to the celebrations. “But,” she added with a fierce grin, “that is nothing like the happiness when my contrada wins.”
Every contrada takes care of its own, from birth to death. Each has its own museum, church and baptismal font, where every child from the contrada is baptized. The old and infirm are cared for and have a place to go, to sit and chat, within the contrada.
Siena knows itself. It knows its character.
The village of Monticchiello has a very different story.
With a population of perhaps 300 (compared to Siena’s 50,000), Monticchiello has been dying slowly for centuries – and more quickly for the past half-century.
After a proud history as a fortified hill town, with a castle that dates back to the 1200s, Monticchiello lost its independence in the 1500s and became a feudal possession of a series of noblemen.
The residents were reduced to poverty. Farmers became sharecroppers – their land belonged to the duke and they had to give him most of their crops, scraping by on what was left.
After Word War II, the peasants began to flee their hopeless situation, heading for the cities and leaving the land behind.
By the late 1960s, those few who remained knew their village was in serious danger of disappearing.
Their response was astonishing: community theater.
Yes, I said community theater. They call it Teatro Povero, The Poor-man’s Theater.
Every year for the past 40 years, the residents of the town have put on a play – a new play every year, written, acted, directed, staged entirely by the people of the village – not as a tourist attraction, but as a way to look at their lives, their prospects, their world.
They stage the play for a few weeks every summer and, while it does bring a couple of hundred visitors to town each night, the point – like that of the Palio – is intensely local.
Each play looks at the area’s past and present – and wonders about the future.
The current director of the Teatro Povero has written, “As a meaningful existence has become an increasingly unobtainable goal for this village … this ‘Poor-man’s Theater’ has tended to concentrate on the relationship between a society geared toward convenience and [growth] and the small communities destined to slowly lose all meaning. … Small towns risk being left devoid of their spirit, their identity and their livelihood, except possibly in the form of occasional tourists passing hurriedly through in search of ‘peace and quiet.'”
Siena prospers and maintains a firm grip on its character and soul. Monticchiello struggles, looks deeply within itself and wonders how to survive.
And, if I may be forgiven for asking, where does Aspen fit? Like Monticchiello, we have flirted with extinction. Like Siena, we have prospered.
But have we looked deeply enough within? Do we know our true character?
Or, in modern America, does any of that even matter?
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