You know, in Italy, every hill is crowned by a castle. More or less. Anyway, you can often breathe a Medieval atmosphere in our towns and villages: white-stone walls, old churches, and imposing palaces. And sometimes, there are local associations which organize, usually once a year, a Medieval festival based on some historical events (battles, marriages, a royal visit, any excuse you can find is good).
They are tourist attractions, born often in the last century, and now firmly rooted in local communities. But if you come to #Siena in the summertime, you can witness something extraordinary: the #Palio horse race.
I want to introduce you to this world: as a Sienese, as a tour guide, I think I must be a bridge between visitors and this so crucial part of our tradition.
Palio of July 2010
Take a seat and let’s start this fantastic journey inside the Palio: it will take several posts to explain everything from the beginning.
The city districts
First of all, you need to know that medieval city had been divided by Governors (Republic or Landlord as it was) into districts to be better controlled. If they were three, they called them “Thirds”; if they were four, their name was “Quartiers”, etc. That happened in Siena, too: its “violin” (or maybe “ham”) -the shape was split into three Thirds, in Italian “Terzi”. They were the Third of the City, the most ancient, Third of Camollia, which pointed north, and Third of St. Martin, the name of the oldest parish church in that territory.
You can recognize these divisions because a meeting point has been signed down on city pavement. Moreover, in three different squares of the city centre, there are three columns with a statue of a she-wolf at the top of each one ( connected with the legend of the foundation of Siena, we have to talk about it, absolutely!), every one representing one of the Thirds.
The three Terzi
We have documents from the XIV C. (but probably they still happened some decades before) telling that these districts used to organize tournaments, or competitions, during religious festivals, parades, or special civic occasions. They were like an army training for the male population, whose duty was to protect and defend the city, so from the age of 16 to 70, they were obliged to patrol city walls and city gates and, if needed, to go to war. For the others, it was like a funny and very captivating show.
There were different competitions, but the most common ones were these three: elmora, simulated battles where participants could use any weapon – so nzwxwxxx mortal; pugna, a very dangerous and cruel fist fighting; palate, a sort of Medieval soccer, very similar to the one that’s now playing in Florence. You can imagine that authorities didn’t like them so much because people could die or be severely wounded, and most of all because they could start as a game and, in case of care or discontent, end as a riot (do you remember the movie “Hunger Games”?).
So they were periodically banished, but the population adored them, and governors had to substitute them with more healthy and “quiet” events, especially donkey, buffalo, and horse races. Meanwhile, the city was growing fast, and the Republic decided to create smaller districts, more accessible to be controlled, so rather than having three parts, Siena had a lot more different “territories”: up to 42 in the late Middle Ages.
Decade after decade, they grew in importance and tasks, especially after losing independence: Siena was conquered by the Spanish Army in 1555 and donated to the Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de Medici. Have you ever watched “The Medici” fiction on TV? I recommend it!.
Due to that, they became a sort of “bigger family”, a community that could help widowers, orphans, and poor people, and at the same time, it could give an identity to Sienese citizens. From the XV c. in official documents started to appear the word “Contrada”, meaning district, names, colours and emblems were chosen, and the Contrade began to make their appearance, with decorated carts and flags, in every civic or religious festival. From the end of XVI c., we know they were 17, as they are nowadays, with the same names and emblems.
Almost 500 years of tradition.
Almost 5 centuries of belonging.
Almost half a Millenium of identity.
You don’t think it’s a tourist attraction anymore, do you?