THE LAST HEARTBEAT OF MEDIEVAL ITALY

By Tony Rocca

- from The Sunday Times  (London)

SIENA – In the heart of this warm, reddish-brown city that gave its name to a pigment on an artist’s palette one of Europe’s strangest and most magnificent public spectacles took place on Tuesday. Once again the ancient stones of the Campo echoed to the thunder of the oldest, shortest and meanest horse race in the world ­– the Palio.

No painting could capture the excitement as ten horses galloped clockwise around the shell-shaped piazza for a mere 90 seconds, ridden bareback by hired jockeys armed with metal helmets and whips which they wielded remorselessly on both their mounts and each other.

Chosen for their cunning and gladiatorial skills, each fantino was aware he would be well advised to leap off and run for his life were he to lose, or be seen not to have tried to win; or risk being torn limb from limb by a crush of enthusiastic supporters eager to carry him off victoriously. Fortunes were at stake, for vanquished (in bribe money) and victor.

This famous picture of Siena at Palio time has hardly changed through the centuries. It is a crazy, cruel anachronism that has cost the lives of 20 horses in as many years and led last week to Brigitte Bardot and other animal-rights activists campaigning to have it stopped for its barbarity.

Yet behind its Martini-advert image lies a fundamental truth the do-gooders have failed to grasp. The Palio is not just a race; it is a way of life.  First held in 1260 to celebrate Siena’s victory over Florence, it creates a unique social fabric, an umbilical link with each citizen’s heritage that is as profoundly felt as the deepest religious belief. What we witnessed this week and will hear again on August 16, as every year, is the last heartbeat of the city states of medieval Italy.

The flags of the 17 contradeQuite simply, without their Palio the Sienese could not exist. It imposes its own rhythm on this normally most civilized of cities during the six months from the last Sunday in April,  mounting in crescendo as each one of 17 civic wards celebrates its patron saint’s day in turn, through the race days and the celebrations that follow until October.

These contrade  and the ritualized thuggery of the Palio are the secret of Siena’s unique success as a 20th century city where the crime rate is among the lowest in the western world despite everyday problems inflicted by modern life in a congested medieval town. Social control, the authority of old over young, is imposed by each contrada , a self-governing community with its own general council, elected annually.

A Sienese is born not just into a family but into one of these 17 extended families, civic tribes known by bizarre names like Giraffe, Goose, Panther, Ostrich, Eagle, Snail, Tortoise, Dragon, Caterpillar or Porcupine, which are derived from allegorical carts paraded at the Palio. They provide cradle-to-grave protection for their members and demand lifelong fidelity in exchange.

Far from being imbued with brotherly love, however, each contrada  has another contrada as its sworn enemy, recalling ancient family feuds dating back to the middle ages. Where boundaries physically meet, walls are marked with each clan’s symbol as a sign to warn strangers they are crossing territorial limits few realize.

The rivalry is consummated on the days of the Palio, on which each running contrada lavishes vast amounts of money and energy in careful planning, cunning alliances and straightforward bribery to attain victory. Events (especially betrayals) which occur then are never forgiven or forgotten by the injured parties who have not only the right but the duty to take appropriate revenge in the future – a form of institutionalized vendetta.

La Torre del MangiaThe ancient world bursts into life in all its glory in the four days of feasting that surround each race. Then the horses which have been picked by lottery to represent just ten contrade  are led into their parish churches to be blessed; the drummers, flag-bearers and heralds rehearse in the streets; and there are street parties and open-air banquets. The official processions, with everyone strutting like peacocks in costumes dating from the 13th century, accompanied by kettle drummers and banner-tossing alfieri , make a fine climax.

For the man or woman ‘born in the shadow of the Torre del Mangia’ (the tower atop Siena’s city hall) life and the Palio are therefore synonymous. All Siena turns out to see who will win the ancient and richly decorated banner adorned with a picture of the Madonna,  the city’s patron saint,  which is its only tangible prize.

They say campanilismo – attachment to one’s local church-tower – has remained one of the primary human experiences in Italy. In gorgeous, Gothic Siena, bounded by 7 km of city walls and still substantially as it was when Italy was divided into many small states, it has risen to a peak.

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Footnote: We gave each of our apartments the name of one of the contrade.  – Tony 

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