Paris has its arrondissements, New York its blocks, and Siena has its contradas. But a contrada, or district, is not just a geographic designation within the city’s historic walls, it is much, much more serious than that. It is life itself.
The UNESCO heritage city of Siena hosts two annual Palio horse races – one on July 2nd and the other on 16th August – but before we can delve into the history of the race, we first need to understand what a contrada is and why passions run so high at the Palio.
Siena is divided into three main parts, called the terzi, or thirds. These are Terzo di Camollia, Terzo di Città and Terzo di San Martino. These are then divided further into the 17 contradas, or to be more correct contrade (Italian plural), that sit proudly within the medieval walls. The contrade have strict boundaries, often down the centre of a street, and the only neutral area within the city is its central Piazza del Campo where the famous Palio horserace takes place twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th.
So what is a contrada? Well today a contrada represents a territory, almost a different state within the city, with the 17 contrade defining themselves as 17 different populations. Each contrada runs its own community hosting dinners, entertainment, fund raising, sporting and religious events throughout the year. The contrade are also one of the major reasons why crime is so low in Siena as there have traditionally been strong rules and regulations on how to behave within and outside one’s contrada. Fighting within the neutral Piazza del Campo, for example, carries significant penalties as do theft and graffiti writing.
The origins of the contrade are a little more uncertain. Siena used to be known as a city of bankers and mercenary armies for hire so there is some suggestion that the contrade were formed from the different armies. Alternative theories suggest that the contrade were formed as guilds of workers within different industries. The contrade were also a way for taxes to be gathered but today they operate more as an extended family or community giving people a sense of belonging stronger than any national flag.
Each contrada is named after an animal or aspect of nature, with a few exceptions such as torre meaning tower.
- Istrice – Porcupine
- Lupa – Wolf
- Bruco – Caterpillar
- Civetta – Owl
- Giraffa – Giraffe
- Leocorno – Unicorn
- Torre – Tower
- Nicchio – Seashell
- Valdimontone – Valley of the Ram
- Onda – Wave
- Tartuca – Tortoise
- Chiocciola – Snail
- Pantera – Panther
- Aquila – Eagle
- Selva – Forest
- Oca – Goose
- Drago – Dragon
Note : There used to be as many as 23 contrade but over the years some have merged or been taken over although the old contrade are still remembered in the Palio parade. The “suppressed” contrade included Gallo, Leone, Orso, Quercia, Spadaforte and Vipera.
Each contrada has its own symbology with a flag, colours, insignia, motto, drummers, chapel, fountain, statue and patron saint. So, despite Siena being a maze of alleyways, it is always quite easy to work out the contrada in which you are currently standing either by the flags flying or the ceramic crests which dot the street corners to designate territory.
To become a member of a contrada you normally have to be born within its territory or inherit membership via your parents, although some invitations to join are occasionally offered. As a baby you are baptised by the church and then again by the contrada, during the annual baptism held during festivities for the contrada’s patron saint. Each contradaiolo, or member, is blessed with water from the contrada’s baptisimal fountain and has the contrada’s flag, in silk scarf form, tied gently around their neck by the head of the contrada or Priore. You are then a member for life.
The neckerchief, or fazzoletto, is worn at key points during the year, especially during dinners and in the run up to and during the Palio, and is very highly respected. For example, the official silk ones are exclusive to contradaioli (members), cannot be bought and must only be worn around the neck, not tied to handbags or other items. If you buy any of the polyester reproductions, especially around the Palio, be careful to wear them properly so as to not to offend!
Not only do young contradaioli wear the fazzoletto with pride. Young boys growing up in the contrada often need little encouragement to become flag bearers or drummers for their community and can be seen practising their stunning displays with the lethal lead-weighted flags in the streets after dinner on a summer evening. As they grow up they take pride of place in the many processions around the city during Palio season and at ceremonial contrada events. Carrying the flag not only requires great strength and agility but is also a position of great honour.
Membership of the contrade is taken very seriously and often leads to rivalries. This can result in anything from gentle mockery of rivals via contrada song lyrics or not-so-gentlemanly behavior in the run up to the Palio. It’s always wise to check friendships or rivalries between contrade before putting your foot in it!
The main way in which rivalries can be settled, however, is via the annual bare-back Palio horse races – one on July 2nd and one on August 16th each year. During the weeks before the Palio, the streets of Siena are decked out in their respective flags and colours with each contrada also adding lights and chandeliers which turn night into day! This signals the contrade are preparing for their celebratory street dinners and parties that are exclusive to contradaioli and invited guests only – the run up to the Palio is most certainly the time when the contrade become most visible and most vocal. If you’re planning a trip to Siena this is the time to go even if you don’t plan to see the Palio.
Ultimately being a contradaiolo is a matter of family and belonging. Senese friends have often told me that outsiders will never understand what it means and that it is impossible to explain. For example, loyalty to one’s contrada is taken so seriously that marrying outside the contrada is considered a “mixed marriage”! And whilst, as an outsider, I will never fully appreciate the feeling of family that contradaioli have, one thing I do know is that in the run up to the Palio you can almost taste the sense of pride, passion and power. If you really want to get an insight into what contrada life is all about, however, you need to see the Palio in all its old gladiatorial glory or, if you can’t make it to Siena just yet, read all about it here!
Siena tourist board – www.aboutsiena.com
Other blogs that may be of interest re Siena include –