14.3.99

The Contrade and Palio of Siena

"The Siena Contrade, or districts, initially quite numerous, are complete territorial units in themselves, grouping the citizens of one "rione". Each Contrada has its own headquarters, its own Oratory, and its museum where its history and victories are jealously preserved - each victory in the Palio being recorded. The boundaries of the Contrade were decided by a decree issued by Princess Violante of Bavaria in 1729, and despite constant proposals for their revision, they are still the same today as they were then. Every Contrada is ruled by its own governing body, elected every two years, and its life hinges on the general meeting. Every Sienese lives the life of his own Contrada, which over the centuries has retained the civil function of organizing the free time of its people; in this sense, all the moments of relaxation of a citizen of this city are closely linked to his own Contrada."
 
While walking in the streets of this medieval city, one cannot miss the presence of these 17 entities, or the transition from one to the other as each is heavily adorned with its own emblems:


The feeling of belonging to a Contrada was (and probably still is) very strong. It is said that a woman off to be married far from the city took with her jars of earth from her Contrada to put under the legs of the bed, so that the new contradaiolo would be born "at home". Two baptism were held: one for Christ and one for the Contrada, the latter being by the appropriate fountain, on the day of the appropriate holy patron. St Bernardino of Siena was trying to put an end to inter-contrade quarrels when he had the fa├žade of the cathedral adorned with a solar symbol: he wanted his fellow Sienese to renounce the emblem of their contrade to unite behind this symbol of Christ. Obviously, he was not successful.

The names, colors, symbols and patrons of each contrada are as follows:

Contrada and titleSymbol and coloursPatron or church

TERZO DI CITTA'
Aquila (Eagle); nobileEagle with two heads and an imperial crown;
yellow with blue and black bands
S. Giovanni Battista
Chioccola (Snail)Yellow and red striped with blueMadonna del Rosario
Onda (Wave); capitanaCrowned dolphin; white and blueS. Giuseppe
Pantera (Panther)red and blue striped with white Sta. Lucia
Selva (Forest)Tree with hunt weapons and a rhinoceros;
green and orange striped with white
S. Sebastiano
Tartuca (Turtle)Yellow and blueS. antonio di Padova

TERZO DI SAN MARTINO
Civetta (Civet cat); prioraBlack and red striped with whiteS. Cristoforo
Leocorno (Unicorn)White and orange striped with blueS. Giovanni Battista
Nicchio (Sea-shell); nobileBlue striped with yellow and redS. Gaetano
Valdimontone (Ram)Crowned ramping ram;
white and yellow striped with red
Sta. Maria dei Servi
Torre (Tower)Tower borne by an elephant;S. Giacomo

TERZO DI CAMOLLIA
Bruco (Caterpillar); nobileYellow and green striped with blueOratoro del Visitazione
Drago (Dragon)Red and green striped with yellowSta. Caterina
Giraffa (Giraffe); imperialeWhite and redSta. Maria di Provenzano
Istrice (Porcupine)White striped with red, turquoise
and black
S. Bartolomeo
Lupa (She-wolf)Roman she-wolf with the twins;
white and black striped with orange
S. Rocco
Oca (Goose); nobileCrowned goose;
white and green striped with red.
Sta. Caterina in Fontebranda

The Palio is a full-blooded, genuine "festa", far removed from mere folklore, and only marginally touristic. To the Sienese, the Palio is life itself. The origins and the primitive character of the Sienese Palio have never found a really precise explanation. However, the city of Siena's most popular and emotion-stirring festival certainly existed a long time before 1310, the year in which the official institution of the Palio took place. It was ruled then that it should be held every year on 16 August, in honour of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. It was after the victorious battle of Montaperti in 1260 that this popular feast also took on a political significance; the wax candles offered for the feast symbolized from then onward the gratitude of the city to the Madonna and its reassertion of the autonomy and independence of the Commune. In 1656, official recognition was given to the institution of a second Palio, the "Palio delle Contrade", to be held on 2nd July, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano (celebrating the miracle of the death of a Spanish soldier at the moment when he was aiming at the Madonna).

Each year, 10 Contrade which take part in the contest to win the Palio; the 7 which were excluded the previous year take have a right to the next one, while the other 3 are decided by lot from among the previous year's participants. The draw takes place in the Palazzo Pubblico, and the result is immediately declared by hanging out of the trefoil window on the first floor the flags of the Contrade which are to take part, while the other seven are displayed from the floor above. For twelve months of the year, the fervour of the Palio is always boiling under the surface, but in the days which precede the competition itself the atmosphere becomes incandescent. Today as in the past, the event and everything concerning it is on each occasion the re-performance of a rite, beginning with the horse which is blessed, or with the choice of the fantino (the jockey - rarely a Sienese citizen), a hero who excites both love and hatred, recorded as a legend in every generation, and moreover to be regarded with suspicion. And then there is the historical Procession of the Contrade, with its standard-bearers brandishing their banners, the relentless rhythm of the drums, and finally the entry of the horses and their jockeys through the "Great Entrance". The race runs around the Campo, which is then completely invisible because of the crowd of spectators massed over it. It lasts 1mn 20, during which the fantini, riding saddleless, are allowed everything. The winner presents his Contrada with the Palio itself, which is actually a standard of the Madonna.
The Contrada of the Goose, which boasts the greatest number of Palio victories, has for this reason been nicknamed "the infamous".