(See also: Austin Kelley’s article in Men’s Vogue)
A few days before I got married in Siena, I staggered out of an enoteca near the main piazza to the sounds of drums beating. When my pupils adjusted to the midday sun, I noticed that there were men in maroon medieval threads with flags bearing insignia of an owl parading down the street. I thought it was a tourist gimmick, but then I looked at their faces. They seemed serious, if not a little crazed. The next day on a wine tasting tour outside of the nearby town of Montalcino, a friend of mine mentioned the procession to Michele, our affable tour guide. “Ah, la Civetta,” he said as his expression turned sober. Leaning conspiratorially toward us, he extended his index and pinky fingers (il cornuto – the sign of the cuckold). “La Civetta?” he said again, then groaned ominously. “Forza Istrice!” Rough translation: “Down with the Owl! The Porcupine rules!” Maybe it was all the brunello, but something about it was creepy.
Michele was partaking in the faida, or blood feud, that fuels the Palio, the traditional horse race of Siena. The walled city of Siena is divided into seventeen territorial districts – the contrade – which date at least back to the thirteenth century (See the map on this page). These districts originally represented separate military companies that protected the city from foreign (read Florentine) invaders. But could these medieval rifts really inspire present day passion and animosity to make the Palio a live-or-die event? Or was Michele putting me on and playing up the rivalry for my benefit?
For the outsider it is difficult to overstate the significant role that the contrade play in the day-to-day life of the town. Sienese anthropologist Alessandro Falassi describes the contrade as a “combination of mutual aid society and social club.”
Under traditional rules in order to qualify as a contadaiolo (one of the tribe) you must be born within its territory. Although the centuries have seen a modicum of liberalization in this regard, it is still frowned upon to marry outside your contrada, and if you do it is wise to take refuge back in your neighborhood of origin for the few days leading up to the race. Living within the borders of a contrada will not entitle you to membership. In this way, membership is closer to citizenship. Each contradaiolo receives two baptisms at birth: one into the church, one into the contrada.
American sports might do well to adopt this system. I know we are supposedly a more secular nation, and we cling to the illusion of “choice.” But it would eliminate bandwagon Lakers fans in New Jersey, or Yankees fans in L.A. Besides, I’d love to hear a priest say, “I hereby baptize thee in the name of the Kansas City Royals.”
Each contrada has its own government, coat of arms, elected capitani, appellations, emblems, colors, festivities, official territorial boundaries, church, patron Saints with protectors, and a museum dedicated to its historic travails.
Violante Beatrice of Bavaria laid all of this out in 1730. The Violante Proclamation, which carved out clear boundaries among the contrade, is still law within the city walls. Some contrade measure just a few square blocks; others are a bit larger. They are, for the most part, named after animals like the Owl, the Porcupine, and the Snail. But some have other association like the Tower, the Wave, and the Forest.
The mottos include the proud (Ram: “Walls Crumble Under My Horns”), the smug (“Slowly and Surely the Snail Will Win”), and the exculpatory (Porcupine: “I Prick out of Defense”).
There is an element of inter-contrade politics that results in partiti, or pre-race pacts. Alliances are formed, vendettas declared. Each contrada has a set of allies and enemies that is a matter of public record. The Porcupine’s sworn enemy is the She-Wolf, while the Owl abhors the Unicorn. The partiti are essential to the Palio; with the horses assigned by lottery three days before the race and the jockeys being hired guns who can switch teams up until race day, there is little about the race that the contradaioli can control.
This all feeds into the fandom of the Palio. When Michele cursed the Owl, I was reminded of the T-shirts that are currently being sold at every sporting event in my hometown of Philadelphia. They say: “Dallas Sucks, T.O. Swallows!” Although the Sienese do not like to compare the Palio to sporting events, they share the (perhaps unhealthy) passion that fans feel for their team and fellow fans and the concomitant scorn directed at the opposing team and their fans. This gives the Palio its meaning and vitality and prevents it from becoming a museum piece.
The Palio is the one of several sporting competitions in which the contrada engaged for centuries in the Piazza del Campo. There was the Elmora, basically beating each other with clubs, boards and stones; Pallonata, a crude precursor to soccer, in which a huge ball was dropped from the 334-foot-tall Torre del Mangia to two factions who kicked it vaguely into their opponents’ field; the bufalate (buffalo races); the cacce (hunts); bullfighting; asinate (ass racing); and something called giuoco della pugna, which I can only translate with my poor Italian to “game of the fists.”
Strangely, only the Palio survived.