Siena. Contrada life.

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.

Photo of contrada men in Siena during the Palio

Contrada loyalties come first

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.

Photo of race horses racing in the Palio of Siena in the Piazza del Campo

Horses racing in the Palio of Siena, Tuscany

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.

Siena Terzi - map of the 3 zones of the city of Siena, Tuscany

Siena Terzi – the city is divided into 3 thirds

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.

Photo of a Siena citizen dressed as a mercenary for hire in the historic parade before the Palio horse race

Siena was a city of mercenaries for hire – today they parade in the Corteo Storico before the Palio

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.

Photo of technicolour contrada district flags in Siena at the Palio horse race

Siena’s multicoloured contrada flags

Each contrada is named after an animal or aspect of nature, with a few exceptions such as torre meaning tower.

  1. Istrice – Porcupine
  2. Lupa – Wolf
  3. Bruco – Caterpillar
  4. Civetta – Owl
  5. Giraffa – Giraffe
  6. Leocorno – Unicorn
  7. Torre – Tower
  8. Nicchio – Seashell
  9. Valdimontone – Valley of the Ram
  10. Onda – Wave
  11. Tartuca – Tortoise
  12. Chiocciola – Snail
  13. Pantera – Panther
  14. Aquila – Eagle
  15. Selva – Forest
  16. Oca – Goose
  17. Drago – Dragon
Map of the 17 different contradas in Siena showing their flag colours and mascot

Siena is split into 17 different contradas, each with their own colours, flags and mascot

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.

Siena's streets decked in technicoloured flags during the Palio horse race season

During the Palio season Siena’s streets are decked in the contrada flags – this is the contrada of Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram)

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.

Contrada ceramic tiles show the borders between districts in Siena, Italy

Ceramic tiles designate the border between the contrada of the Tortoise and the contrada of the snail in Siena, Tuscany

Contrada sign in Siena showing the symbol of the shell district, Tuscany

Ceramic tile indicating the contrada of the shell

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.

Baptisimal fountain in the onda district, Siena, Italy

Baptisimal fountain of the onda or wave contrada in Siena, Tuscany

Baptisimal fountain of the tortoise contrada

Baptisimal fountain for the contrada of the tortoise, Siena, Tuscany, Italy

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!

Fazzoletti, neckscarves, worn by the porcupine district in Siena, Tuscany

Fazzoletti worn by the contradaioli or members of the Porcupine contrada

The next generation of contradaioli - Senese children parade through the streets of the city before the Palio horse race

Siena children parade through the streets singing their contrada songs and wearing their neckscarves with pride – the next generation of contradaioli

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.

Flag bearers start at a young age in Siena, Tuscany

Eagle district or contrada flag bearers start at a young age in Siena

Parading through the streets of Siena

Contrada members proudly parade through the streets of Siena every Sunday during the summer season

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!

Contradaioli friends in Siena, Tuscany, Italy

Contradaioli friends – Senese friends socialise before the Palio whilst proudly wearing their fazzoletti

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.

Flags and chandeliers mark the way

Flags and chandeliers mark the way in the onda or wave contrada, Siena, Italy

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!

Useful Information

Siena tourist

Other blogs that may be of interest re Siena include

Siena. Arrival.

Siena. Mercato nel Campo.

The post Siena, Contrada Life was first published on DreamDiscoverItalia

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12 Responses to Siena. Contrada life.

  1. JF says:

    Wonderful city (visited it twice), terrific post and great photos! Thank you!

    • lizbert1 says:

      Thanks for your kind words, its one of my favourites too, always welcoming and a wonderful city to explore!!! Plus the ricciarelli biscuits are the most delicious things ever!!! :o)

      • JF says:

        Biscuits?! I missed them!!! 😉

      • lizbert1 says:

        Oh yes! Next time you’re there look out for lozenge shaped, icing sugar dusted white biscuits. They’re made from almonds, egg whites and sugar and literally melt in the mouth! You can sometimes get them outside Siena but they aren’t as soft and melty!! Enjoy!!

  2. Fishink says:

    Top pics as usual miss S. Love the detail in the signs and flags, well spotted and well reported… bring on the games !

  3. Fantastic insights into this amazing place.

    • lizbert1 says:

      Thank you and thanks for reblogging!! BTW I’ve just published a post on the Palio itself which might be of interest too – have a look here Its a long piece as there is soooo much history and ritual to get into but I hope I’ve captured the essence of the excitement! I hope you like it!

      • Excellent! Soooo wouldn’t mind trading Colorado for Siena at the moment. 🙂 Doug should be passing through the area with a tour group of his next month I believe. The crowds will hopefully have died down a wee bit. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Siena Palio – which contradas are racing on August 16th 2015? | DreamDiscoverItalia

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