Paris has its arrondissements, New York its blocks, and Siena has its contrade. But a contrada, or district, is not just a geographic designation within the city’s historic walls, it is much, much more serious than that. It is life itself.
-Blogger for Dream Discover Italia.
Picture this: one city, 17 divisions, 17 mascots, countless rivalries, and one horse race. Can you imagine living in a town that is divided into sections and labeled by animal or inanimate object? It sounds like something out of a young adult fiction novel, but it’s real… And it’s taken very, very seriously. I’ve decided to explore the history of one of the most fascinating cities in all of Europe: welcome to the medieval city of Siena, Italy. Ever heard of it?
I have to admit, before embarking upon my ~grand study abroad adventure~, I had heard of no such thing. Each part of Italy is different in terms of food, dialect, certain aspects of culture— but something about Siena defies all categories and demands to be seen on its own. It’s an ancient town that harbors an incredible history, from horse races to a district system called “the 17 contrade of Siena.” They are not so much Tuscan or Italian as they are their own culture, and I believe it’s that very otherness of Siena that fascinates me so. Pride and patriotism run wild: the passion the Sienese people feel for their city and their traditions is inexplicable, but following my tour of Siena, I will try illustrate their history in the most eloquent way possible.
A brief lesson before we dive into the novel-like story of the Sienese: Siena is its own world, based around its contrade, so it’s important to understand the context in which the original contrade, or districts, were formed.
Siena is a city in Tuscany, about an hour or so north of Perugia (which is where I’m currently studying abroad!).
An ancient people called the Etruscans settled in the area that is now Siena in around 900-400 BC. The Etruscans built their homes in the mountainous region of Tuscany to better defend their properties. For half a millennium or even more, they were Europe’s most advanced civilization, matched only by the Greeks. They dug irrigation channels, farmed the land and were generally minding their business until the reign of Emperor Augustus, when a newer city (hint, it starts with an ‘S’) was reestablished at the site.
The Romans were relatively benign conquerors to the Etruscans, as they recognized that they could learn from Etruscan culture. As it was, during the Roman conquest, the Etruscan culture was adopted, thereby crediting the Etruscans with much of the inspiration for Rome. Etruscans were later granted Roman citizenship, and the people were absorbed by the massive, fear-mongering, war-ridden Roman monster machine (say that five times fast).
The Etruscans, as everyone knows, were the people who occupied the middle of Italy in early Roman days, and whom the Romans, in their usual neighborly fashion, wiped out entirely.
-D.H. Lawrence, author of Etruscan Places.
Come on, everyone. Say it with me:
Be that as it may, during the Middle Ages, Siena fought to preserve its independence from nearby city states— most notably, Florence. At this time, the contrade of Siena were established to supply troops to militaries that had been hired to defend the city.
In the past, there was a deep-seated hatred for Florence in Siena, and it’s tangible even now. The Sienese are no strangers to grudges— when Siena was threatened with a Florentine takeover, the Sienese adopted the Roman she-wolf as a mascot for one of their contrade. The she-wolves were posted around the city as a form of rebellion; they acknowledged Rome, the lesser of two evils as their higher governing power as opposed to Florence. Even now the she-wolves remain, posted high above in the streets of Siena, and WOW, I ASPIRE TO THE LEVEL OF PETTINESS THE SIENESE HAVE ACHIEVED.
With the passage of time, the contrade lost their administrative and military functions and became areas of localized patriotism. Each district is an individual community and they are joined by their histories and sense of residential pride. The contrade celebrate important events within their district, such as births, baptisms, deaths, marriages, Palio victories (this will be explained shortly) and holidays.
Each contrada is named for an animal or an object, most of which being creatures. Interestingly, members of each contrada prefer to be referred to by their contrada’s mascot, i.e. Lupa, Civetta, etc. Usually I’d take offense if someone called me a ‘giraffe,’ but I suppose that’s what separates me from the Sienese. The contrade as they are today are listed below:
- Istrice – Porcupine
- Lupa – She-wolf
- Bruco – Caterpillar
- Civetta – Owl
- Giraffa – Giraffe
- Leocorno – Unicorn
- Torre – Tower
- Nicchio – Seashell
- Valdimontone – Valley of the Ram
- Onda – Wave, or Dolphin
- Tartuca – Tortoise
- Chiocciola – Snail
- Pantera – Panther
- Aquila – Eagle
- Selva – Forest
- Oca – Goose
- Drago – Dragon
Each contrada has their own flag, museum, baptismal fountains, and certain set of traditions— and, of course, their own territory. Territories are designated on the streets with flags, signs and contrada boards, where news is inter-contrada news is shared. The city divisions are hardly done evenly, but here you see a roughly sketched map of each contrada’s area. It’s almost as if Siena is home to 17 different mafias— contrada vs. conrada and all that. Disagreements over soil and turf wars are definitely a thing.
Between each district, there are a few neutral territories, but the most popular by far is the Piazza del Campo. The main square in Siena, the piazza is home to the Town Hall, the Torre del Mangia, which is a medieval tower, and the very famous Palio di Siena.
The Palio of Siena is a traditional medieval horse race held twice each year on the Piazza del Campo. Second in importance only to the contrade themselves, on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August, seventeen equestrian teams representing the contrade compete for the honor of carrying the banner. The Palio itself is a flag with a painted image of the Virgin Mary and the competing contrade. Each contrade museum has their own collection of Palios used in previous races.
It’s not just a horse race, it’s a way of life.
-Sienese Tour Guide.
Passions run high during the Palio, because it’s the opportunity to prove to the other contrade just how much better yours is. Basically, it’s a not-so-friendly competition, and winners celebrate for a year following their victory.
A full year.
Be that as it may, the Palio helped to develop Siena into the independent city it is today, with its one-of-a-kind traditions. Curious to see who won this year’s Palio? Check it out here and see which contrada is (still) celebrating.
With all of Siena’s uniqueness and exclusivity, as outsiders looking in, this exclusivity is part of what makes the city so interesting… During the Palio especially. It makes me a little jealous, honestly. How amazing would it be to have a contrada to root for— really root for, with all of the passion of a true Sienese? Unfortunately for us, city outsiders cannot be initiated into a contrada, as a matter of principle, and new members are only baptized within their contrada of birth, regardless of their family’s affiliation. That is, if a family of Giraffes moved into Dolphin territory, their child would be born a Dolphin.
Surprisingly, in Siena, the opposite of what we are usually taught about the average family dynamic is true. The Sienese value their contrada over blood— where the contrade reign, family does not come first. In my own conversation with a Caterpillar, she listed the priorities of the average Sienese citizen.
First, their loyalty is to their contrada. This is not debated; our people are within our neighborhood, and the other 16 sections are like other cities. Our family comes second, and third, we belong to Siena. Our loyalties then go to Tuscany, and if we are so inclined, only then do we identify as Italians. Whatever the case, we are, first and foremost, a member of our contrada.
After explaining this to me, she laughed. “We’re absolutely mad, I know.”
In our Western culture, we’ve been pushed to put family first. Blood runs thicker than water, so how could we ever consider something lesser? Even so, if circumstances were to place one’s contrada against their family member, their loyalty lies with their contrada first. Quite medieval, isn’t it?
Some outsiders have expressed distaste for such a system, as they view contrada loyalty as a sort of perverted allegiance to the government. What they don’t seem to understand, however, is that the contrade were formed as a rebellion against a higher governing power; thus, each contrada is a source of pride, of commitment to your city and to your people. So, negative outsiders: mind yo’ business.
I could say that the contrade act as a way for residents to express pride and community, but that would be a gross understatement.
-Elana Sinagra, Student Correspondent for CET Student Voices.
I find the idea of such strong ties to a neighborhood absolutely fascinating. There’s so much to consider: imagine, even rivalries are inherited by the next generation, so after two hundred years, do the contrade even remember what their original feud was about? I’m certain they do.
The contrade have their allegiances and their enemies, of course, and their affiliations change through the years, as rivalries fade and alliances grow… But there are some whose hatreds can never be forgotten. Remember when I said that “turf wars are definitely a thing’? Tensions run high all the time in Siena, and a popular example is the Eagle contrada versus the Panthers.
The Panthers loathe the Eagles, and vice versa; both prefer to ignore the other’s existence. Their rivalry is one of the most well-known, as they are neighbors and had a dispute over shared soil generations ago. Their animosity has only worsened in the years since.
According to my tour guide, the Panthers and the Eagles even refuse to refer to each other by name. If they must, the Eagles call the Panthers the ‘cats,’ and in return, the Panthers call the Eagles the ‘pigeons.’ Funny to us, maybe, but can you imagine the dedication it takes to skirt an entire neighborhood, just because of the stigma surrounding their contrada?
It may not seem very serious to us, but as we now know, for the Sienese, their contrade are their way of life— members even have their own ID cards! Betraying your clan is unheard of, and so of course you do exactly what the rest of your contrada does. If you’re an Eagle, you hate the Panthers. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules.
Really, heaven forbid an Eagle/Panther marriage took place; it would be worse than Romeo and Juliet. There are other rivalries, certainly, but none are as prominent as the bad blood between these two… So naturally, if it were a book, I’d read it. I think they’d even hate seeing their fountains posted next to each other. If you’re reading this, Panthers and Eagles, I had no choice but to use the images together!
The concept of rivalries within contrade that were originally created to work in tandem seems oddly counterproductive, but the Sienese are united in their pride regardless. All of that aside, from the Palio to the Etruscans, Siena is an incredible place. Its history is unlike any other I’ve ever seen, and its traditions still run strong today. Italians don’t forget easily— but the Sienese? Forget about it. That grudge will last.
Touring such a city was an experience I’ll remember forever. I hope your virtual tour of Italy inspired you to come to the medieval gates yourself and experience firsthand what contrada pride looks like! For more information about the 17 contrade or the Palio, visit the official website of the city. Siena you later!
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Web Marketing Team. “About Siena…” The Contrades of the Palio of Siena, City of Siena, www.aboutsiena.com/Palio-races-of-Siena/the-contrades-of-the-palio-of-Siena.html.
“Contrade of Siena.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Aug. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrade_of_Siena.
“Contrade of the Palio Di Siena, the Names, the Rivalry Contrada.” Siena Guide, Guida Siena, siena.guidatoscana.it/en/palio-di-siena/contrade-del-palio-di-siena.asp.
Zamora, Antonio. “Siena in the Heart of Tuscany.” Siena, Italy – Historical City in Central Tuscany, Scientific Psychic, www.scientificpsychic.com/alpha/travel/italy/siena.html.