During our first evening in Siena, we witnessed an evening parade of costumed drummers and flag-throwers. These folk represented the Bruco Contrade, one of the 17 districts in Siena that bind people to long-held traditions and good-natured but serious rivalries (think Green Bay Packers versus Chicago Bears fans). They were celebrating the Feast Day of their patron saint.
We missed the famous Siena horse race, the Palio, by three days on purpose. It is run around the central city space, the Campo. Townspeople fill the center and hang from balconies and rooftops to see it.
This race has taken place yearly since medieval times among the Contrada, today twice yearly in July and August. Our host’s Contrada, the Torres, won the July race.
This day’s town festivities included finalizing which 10 of the 17 Contrade districts will have the privilege of running in the August race. Seven were already assured of spots. This evening the other three were chosen by drawing lots. The remaining seven sit the next race out.
But the parade we saw had nothing to do with any of that. This was a celebration solely for the Bruco Contrade. Besides the flag-throwers and drummers, the parade included a band and townspeople wearing scarves of the Bruco: first moms with strollers, then children, and then what must have been all the men of that Contrade. But there were still plenty of people to cheer them on from the sidelines.
The next morning, we saw people cleaning the horse track which is the street that rings the Campo. While this space is huge as piazzas go, it is small for a no-rules horse race. No wonder it only lasts 90 seconds.
Looking at pictures of the race posted on city bulletin boards, we could see the intensity of feelings in the Campo during the Palio. It almost made me wish I had been here. But I think it might have felt that I was intruding on this city’s private party.
The next night our AirBnB host suggested we come to the Torres district near the Campo for that evening’s festivities. The Torres would be celebrating their victory with a street gathering. He said they’d be partying every night for months! These folk take the Contrada rivalries and their fun very seriously, especially when they win.
Sure enough, we could hear the drum and the Torres crowd blowing whistles from some distance away. Unlike the costumes of the Bruco flag-throwers the night before, these flag-throwers wore street clothes except for their elephant hats, part of the symbol of their contrade.
Despite the heat, people wore wigs and funny hats and, of course, the scarf of the Torres.
Then someone gave the signal and together they pressed forward, carrying a banner with the symbols for Siena, the Madonna, and their Contrade. This banner signified they had won the race; most of the contrada have museums housing the Palio banners they’ve won over the centuries. They marched into the Campo, singing, nearly shouting, the song of the Torres.
But wait – that was only the beginning. Last night they marched again, this time with a theme of doctors and straight-jackets and craziness – crazy for their Contrade perhaps? They marched to the Piazza Salimbeni, assembled, sang their songs and then marched on. What will tonight bring?
This place, with these people, is where I finally saw that legendary fiery passionate Italian spirit. These folks are living full out. I so relate and approve.
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Other essays on the Trip to Italy:
Rules for buying veggies in Venice
Clinging to the best of the past – the Cinque Terre
Falling Asleep with Galileo – Pisa
What is art anyway? Musing from Florence
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