One reason for continuing with the Wenlock Grand Tour, despite Mrs Wenlock's accident (she is recovering very well, and should be out of her sling in two weeks from today), was that the third part of the journey would put us in Siena at Palio time.
Strictly speaking, the Palio is a silk banner, as seen on the left, being paraded from the Duomo. In practice the word is used to refer to the horse race for which it is the prize. There are two races each year, on 2 July and 16 August, and Siena is packed in the days leading up to the race, despite the fact that, as an event, it makes no real concessions to non-Sienese. The Palio remains a thoroughly local event.
The race is contested in the Piazza del Campo, in the heart of the town, between horses representing ten of the city's seventeen contrade, or districts. In the days before the race itself practice races are run, and it is not uncommon to run into the horse of one or other contrada at the front of a passionate, chanting crowd of its contradaioli, on the way to or from one of these races. On the right is Zodiach, wearing the colours of Nicchio, the Noble Contrada of the Shell. I will say more of the race in another post.
The contrade are far more than supporters of a particular team in a horse race. They play a role in almost all the major rites of passage of every Sienese life, from a second baptism in your native contrada's fountain (the Wenlock Heir is shown here beside the fountain of Pantera, the Contrada of the Leopard), through education - summer camps for the youth of the contrada, for instance, marriage - almost invariably in the contrada's own Church, and support, both social and financial, in old age.
The territories of the different contrade are marked out on building walls, so that you can always tell in whose patch you are walking. In this case we are in the territory of Bruco, the Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar. The contrade are often given credit for the remarkably low levels of crime in Siena. However some (but by no means all) of the contrade have historic rivalries with each other - Pantera and Aquila, the Noble Contrada of the Eagle, for instance. In the build-up to the race, these rivalries can turn into street fights among small gangs of contrada youths. It is therefore sensible to be conscious of the risks of wearing the yellow and turquoise of Tartuca, the Contrada of the Turtle, when wandering the streets of Chiocciola, the Contrada of the Snail. Little street markers help.
But in Palio time the street markers are supplemented by the banners that fly from every building, and run down every street. The two banners on the left mark the border between Tartuca and Chiocciola, although we saw no signs of trouble as we walked by.
As might be expected, there is more noise and enthusiasm within the contrade who have horses running in the race than among those that do not, and the whole North-Eastern corner of town was a quiet refuge from the crowded masses, with Istrice, Lupa, Giraffa, Leocorno and Civetta taking no part, and of the competing contrade only Bruco amongst them.
It is not only the banners that brighten up Siena in Palio time. Frequently we heard the sound of drumming coming down the streets, signalling the passage of a procession of contrada heralds heading to or from one or other of the pre-Palio ceremonies. Here the banners of Oca, the Noble Contrada of the Goose, and Valdemontone, the Contrada of the Ram.
All seventeen contrade carry their stemme, or banners, in these parades, and indeed on the day of the race there are even representatives of six other contrade, Gallo (the Chicken), Leone (the Lion), Orso (the Bear), Quercia (the Oak Tree), Spadaforte (the Broadsword) and Vipera (the Snake) that no longer exist, following the decree of 1729 which set down the present boundaries.
The Palio is not some folkloric pageant. It has been in continuing existence since the Thirteenth Century, and while it has evolved in many ways (the current contrada heraldry is 19th Century, as the Royal insignia of the Savoy King Umberto on many of the stemme attests). I cannot claim to have understood much of what we saw while we were in Siena, but I found it fascinating. I am glad that we were there for it, and I look forward to going back some day, with a deeper understanding of how Siena works, to appreciate another Palio. I do know, however, that I will never be able to be properly part of it, as I am not Sienese. But that, I think, is one of the Palio's great strengths.