Summer is here, it’s vacation time–we’re off to the Tuscan town of Siena, Italy!
Robert Rodi wrote Seven Seasons in Siena: My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance Among Italy’s Proudest People in 2011 after spending seven seasons in Siena between the summers of 2003 and 2010. He is an American of Italian descent on his paternal side, and traveled to various cities in Italy prior to visiting Siena to attend his first Palio horse race in 2003. He had felt a connection to the Italian culture, but it wasn’t until the visit to Siena that he “found what I didn’t even know I’d been looking for: the ideal Italian society. And hence the ideal society, period.” (p. 15) His interest in the Palio expanded to become an interest in the culture and people of Siena, and he returned as often as he could in his effort to become part of it.
Before we go further, it’s important to know a bit about the history of Siena because that’s what makes it a unique place and gave rise to the Palio and customs. The Etruscans originally inhabited the area centuries before Christ. Later Siena became a wealthy and powerful independent Republic because it was on a route which pilgrims passed through on their way to Rome. The Republic flourished for four centuries, although it began to wane with the onslaught of the Black Death in 1348. At least one-third of the population died in the plague. After that, there weren’t enough men to staff the army to its previous levels of power, and the decline ended in 1555 when it had no choice but to surrender to Florence and its ally Spain.
Florence instituted an extremely oppressive rule over Siena which cut it off and kept it from flourishing. “The entire Renaissance just glanced right off it, as though it were under a bell jar.” (p. 9) In defiance, the proud Sienese turned inward and created their own customs and traditions, among which is the Palio. Much of what visitors see today has been passed down from those times with some variations over the centuries. What has NOT really changed is the deep animosity and bitterness toward its near neighbor Florence. This is a place where history isn’t deep in the dusty past, but lives today, as evidenced by an anniversary Rodi mentions of an event that occurred 750 years ago!
This is the background, then, for the Palio. The people of Siena are divided into 17 contradas (districts) which are named and whose residents sport their chosen identifying colors. Most of the names are of animals, but not all. The contrada that Rodi became involved with was the Caterpillar—Bruco in Tuscan Italian—because his friend and host, Dario Castagno, was a member of that contrada. Sienese are members of a contrada by being born into it—if you ask a Sienese where he’s from, he’ll tell you his contrada. Since Rodi is American, you can see the difficulty in his attempt to become a Bruco! That didn’t stop him from trying.
There are two Palio races a year: July 2 and August 16. The July race is dedicated to the Madonna of Provenzano. The August race is dedicated to the Feast of the Assumption. The prize for each is a banner (drappellone) custom painted by an artist, but it must include the Madonna somewhere in it. The drappellone is proudly displayed somewhere in the contrada through the years.
Of the 17 contradas, 10 run in each race. There’s an intricate method of selecting which contradas will race each time. Drawings are held to determine which horse each contrada will have to race, & the contrada selects their own jockey to ride it bareback. They run 3 laps clockwise around the track, which is the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo at the center of the city, in 90 seconds. If a rider falls off but the HORSE finishes, that counts. More than one fallen jockey has been seriously injured or trampled over the centuries.
You wouldn’t be alone in thinking: each race is NINETY SECONDS??? All this fuss for THREE MINUTES TOTAL each year for centuries?? Yes, indeed, and there is an amazing amount of time, money, effort, and bickering throughout the entire year involving scouting horses, selecting the jockey, bargaining and making deals with a variety of people, other contradas, etc. There are NUMEROUS delicious dinners feeding hundreds of people at a time, celebrations, and parades for all sorts of reasons during the year. There is a lengthy parade before each race where (for example) teen boys in medieval dress display awesome skill with flags. Those appearing in that parade practice throughout the year. Everyone has something to do throughout the year and has some part in the Palio and/or surrounding events.
Rodi describes all this wonderful activity in a loving way that makes clear how much he cares about this place, the people, and the culture they’ve created. He’s brave enough to include many stories of his own and others’ missteps, as well as his successes, and to admit his own insecurities. I particularly enjoyed his humor and certain things he pointed out, like the winning contrada sporting baby pacifiers! It turns out that winning the Palio is equated to rebirth, hence the pacifiers. Who would have guessed. In another instance, an elderly Sienese couple asked where he was from. He couldn’t understand why they began to laugh hysterically when he said “Chicago” until he later learned that “Ci cago” is Italian for “I s**t there.” Hmm, I’m guessing whoever named Chicago wasn’t a Tuscan Italian. He also included a Tuscan saying I’ve heard before: “Better a corpse in your house than a Pisano on your doorstep.” (p. 185) (Pisano is a person from Pisa, not to be confused with “paisano.”) That’s harsh!
My favorite part of the entire book, however, is his eventual understanding of the nature of the Sienese people as being “defined by a competition. By a game. One that provides them a constant source of renewal and of hope. Is it any wonder they seem to be the happiest, most self-reliant people I’ve ever met?” It seems their defeat & oppression by Florence centuries ago, while it might have crushed others, provided the Sienese with an opportunity for their strength to blossom into something positive and uplifting.
Another observation by Rodi involved Sienese teens. He noticed that they happily and willingly took part in events and activities without all the drama and resentment that American teens tended to display. “There’s no gang activity within Siena’s ancient walls, no juvenile delinquency, nary a trace of hoodlumism or vandalism; why would there be, when all the aggression and acting out that drives such activities are already accorded a fixed place in the culture? In that way, the contrade system comes with its own safety valve.” (p. 36) “I’m deeply moved by the enthusiasm and commitment of these kids; they seem so ordinary, so familiar in many ways, yet their zeal for their community and its traditions is something absolutely singular…. The teenagers of the Caterpillar…know exactly who they are. They always have.” (p. 252) In this time of violence, drug use, and suicide in the U.S., it seems that we might learn a few things from the Sienese.
Although Rodi is a writer, he seems to have written nothing further like this book or about the area. His Tuscan host and friend, Dario Castagno, has written a few books about Tuscany and Chianti which are available on Amazon. My favorite remains Rodi’s Seven Seasons in Siena, even—or especially?—upon my third reading. He has captured the spirit of the Sienese people and culture, described them with love and humor, and shown readers that there ARE places on earth where people have created a special society where everyone has and knows their place.
Oh, and he DID get baptized into the Bruco contrada—his wish came true.
If you want to see a Palio race, you can search youtube.com for: il palio di siena. Both races for 2017 are available for viewing. The next one is on July 2, 2018 (don’t forget the time difference).