The Palio di Siena – an electrifying bareback horse race that takes place twice a year in the city of Siena, Italy – only lasts approximately 90 seconds. However, for the Sienese – and for their contrade – the Palio is more than just a race. It’s a way of life.
There’s a saying in Siena: you belong first to your contrada, then to Siena, and only then to Italy. There are 17 contrade, or neighborhoods, within Siena, and the rivalry between them is fierce. Although Sienese competitive spirit comes to a head during the Palio – when the contrade and their respective jockeys compete for the coveted “Palio” (a silk banner awarded to the victor) and, more importantly, for their honor – their rivalry is an all-year-long affair. The Sienese are fiercely loyal to their contrada, and the Italian concept of campanilismo, or intense local patriotism, is nowhere more fervid than in the city of Siena.
For the Sienese, the contrada is the core of one’s civic and social identity. Citizens are baptized into their contrada, worship in their contrada’s church, participate in festivities hosted by the contrada, and follow their contrada’s unique traditions and customs. Contrade go beyond geographical demarcations – for the Sienese, they mean family, community, culture, and above all, unwavering loyalty.
Each contrada has its own symbol, motto, colors, fountain, statue, church, patron saint, and palio museum. Wandering down the streets of Siena, it is easy orient yourself within the contrada system: colorful flags, plaques, and other neighborhood features bearing the contrada’s name and emblem will tell you exactly where you are. Contrade symbolism typically relates to an animal or mythical creature. To name a few: the Aquila (Eagle); Bruco (Caterpillar); Civetta (Little Owl); Drago (Dragon); Lupa (She-Wolf); and the Leocorno (Unicorn). During Palio season, local pride reaches its height, with banners bearing a contrada’s colors and insignia sprouting up throughout the city.
The contrade began in the Middle Ages as rival military companies. Initially, there were 59 contrade within the city of Siena, but they have dwindled to a remaining 17. Although only 10 contrade can participate in the Palio race each year, all 17 become embroiled in the competitive spirit preceding the Palio (and for the duration of the year). Many contrade have longstanding alliances with other contrade (for instance, Aquila is allied with Civetta and Drago). Many have also declared rival contrade as their mortal enemies. For example: the Pantera (Panther) contrada is the main rival of Aquila; for Civetta, their adversary is Leocorno; and for the Oca contrada, their foremost rival is Torre. (Only Bruco, Drago, Giraffa and Selva have no declared enemies, and the Oca and Lupa contrade are the only ones without allies). From an early age, the Sienese are taught to loathe their rival contrada and champion their own. For instance, the children of Aquila learn to say “Pantera brutta” at the same time as “mamma” e “papa.”
The real paradox of the Sienese contrade, however, is that they make Siena one of the most harmonious cities in Europe. Due to the intense rivalries and clannish loyalties of the contrade, Siena has implemented strict rules and regulations concerning behavior both within and outside of one’s contrada. Fights are only allowed in certain areas (and yes, fights do occur!) and Siena has a shockingly low crime rate. Although the contrade have served to divide Siena and its geography, they have also served to unite Siena in the spirit of tradition, pageantry, and healthy competition!