Inside Siena’s Contrade

Written by Elena Sinagra (Sarah Lawrence College) Student Correspondent CET Siena, Fall 2017

When I first arrived in Siena, I could barely stay awake.  I had been traveling for almost twenty-four hours,  running around airports, almost missing flights, filling out lost luggage forms and meeting my new classmates.  In spite of my delirious state, I could not help but notice a certain energy that was in the air of Siena from the moment we all got off the bus.  Many italians  were elegantly sporting a white and blue cloth that was draped around their shoulders.  As I walked through different neighborhoods from the bus station to where I would be living, I could see a variety of flags hanging out from the buildings and homes.

Contrada Della Selva’s Church

All of this, of course had to do with the contrade and the Palio, which had taken place only about a week before we’d arrived.  The Palio is a horse race that takes place in the Piazza Del Campo twice every summer in July and August.   It is timed to honor the Assumption of Saint Mary. In the Palio, ten of the seventeen contrade are represented, determined by different kinds of rules and lotteries.  This year, the Onda Contrada had won the race, which prompted many people who belonged to that contrada to wear it’s blue and white flag.

The contradas are different neighborhoods or districts throughout Siena.  There are in total seventeen different contrade.   The contrada first came into existence in the middle ages to organize troops and militaries to defend Siena.  They also provided different civic and cultural identities throughout the city.  Today, the contrade are still extremely present and vital in Sienese life.  Each contrada has its own symbol or animal, along with associated colors. The symbol for many of the contrade involve a mythical animal, such as the unicorn or dragon.  Each contrada sport their colors, flag and decorations all throughout the neighborhood.  The contrada’s have a fountain, a small museum and church dedicated to the district’s patron saint and an area to have group dinners and activities.  In the Contrada where I live, called Contrada della Selva, many of the houses, if not all, have large flags depicting the contrada’s symbol of a rhinoceros that hang outside the window.  The street lamps are painted in the contrada’s colors of green, orange and white.

For every foreigner who comes to Siena for a period of time, the thing that they will most likely remember is the importance of the contrade.  I could say that the contrade act as a way for residents to express pride and community, but that would be a gross understatement.  As was said to us during a tour of the Selva Contrada during our Intercultural Communications class, “The Contrade are not civics or culture.  The contrade are life!” Every aspect of someone’s life in Siena, such as baptism, marriage and holidays, in some way revolves around their own contrada.  The people are strung together through the culture and shared history that goes much further back than we as Americans experience in the U.S..  The people who belong to a certain contrada, grow up together and there is an intense bond and obligation to one another in the contrade.  The reaction to one’s contrada winning the Palio is explosive.

Members of the Contrada Della Selva drumming parade

One aspect of the festivities of the contrade is when the young boys of any given district present their contrada by marching in unison throughout Siena drumming (often quite loudly).  The boys are dressed in medieval style costumes and many of them work to waive the contrada’s flag. This tradition goes back to when the contrade were mostly militarily oriented and troops would march through out Siena.  Now it gives young men a chance to present their contrada to the city with pride.

The drums are constant.  When I come home from class I can hear the drumming from the different contradas at varying distances, volumes and rhythms.  From my window I can see and hear young boys practicing drumming using different rhythms and tempos behind their houses.  At times, the drumming can become mind numbing.  I have gotten to a point where I am not sure if the drumming is imagined or not because it is just so constant.

In Siena, the contrade are beyond intense.  It is difficult to compare it to anything of the same caliber in the United States.  In America, people may feel pride for a region, sports team or ethnicity, but it is by no means present in every aspect of an individual’s life.  Because there is not an accurate comparison, understanding the role of the contrada is sometimes difficult to wrap one’s head around. When we were on a tour about Siena’s historic water supply, there was a young boy who at about six or seven was pacing back and forth in an empty lot next to a fountain that our tour guide was showing us.  A few of the students expressed a slight annoyance at the constant loud sound, but the tour guide chimed in to say “If you think the contrada and the people of Siena are crazy, do not ever tell them that.  Wait until you leave Siena to say anything remotely negative about the contrade or the Palio.  This boy is practicing to one day present his contrada and it is of the utmost importance.”

The level of community and belonging that I have observed through my short time in Siena has been unlike anything I have experienced before.  In the United states there is a widespread epidemic of alienation and loneliness that has plagued many people.  However, in Siena, the people’s connection to the land, their history and each other is palpable, which in many ways, is solidified through the contrade.