The Contrade, the Palio, and the Ben Comune: Lessons from Siena

By Drechsler, Wolfgang | Trames, June 2006 | Go to article overview

The Contrade, the Palio, and the Ben Comune: Lessons from Siena


Drechsler, Wolfgang, Trames


1. Introduction

The Italian city republics, especially the Tuscan cities of Florence, Siena, and Lucca, have fascinated intellectuals, scholars, and the culturally interested in general at least since the 19th century. Their aesthetics seem very close to ours (i.e. 21st century 'Western' intellectuals), only on a more sublime level, and their climate, cuisine, and atmosphere make the region the 'Chiantishire' of an ultimate arcadia 'under the Tuscan Sun'. Moreover, these city-states are particularly appealing historically because they seem so democratic, civic, and fairly civilized. And indeed, it is fair to say that they have constituted "a singular experience, without parallel since antiquity, without sequel until the modern age" (Jones 1997:1).

Of these, Siena, still the most Gothic, the most medieval of the three, had already ceased to be a center of power and wealth around 1400, remaining prominent in several fields, but declining completely after 1555, when it became a Medici Florentine fief and, in effect, a colony. For centuries, although there were significant changes during the French Revolution and especially under the Habsburg rulers--still oft-maligned but actually quite productive---, it formed a veritable backwater. Just like with Rye, Williamsburg, or Rothenburg ob der Tauber (or Marburg), this dormant status preserved the medieval city. Yet, two large-scale and important institutions, the university and a bank, prevented Siena from becoming a completely provincial town. Today, these two, as well as significant pharmaceutical industry, make Siena--which is still on a byway and does not have its own regularly serviced airport, nor even a good highway connection--much more than a tourist town, although tourism is a vital industry.

Siena is probably most renowned today for its genuinely world-famous, biannual horse race, the Palio, in the Piazza del Campo, which is organized by the traditional city quarter associations, the contrade, (1) which compete in it. The Palio, surely one of the most exciting races imaginable, has attracted much attention over the centuries, and today does so more than ever. But the contrade, too, themselves have always fascinated tourists and scholars alike. For those dealing with social capital, urban policy, neighborhoods, and certainly with political philosophy, they are particularly interesting because Siena appears to be so much of a success story: It is the wealthiest of the Tuscan cities (in an already wealthy area), it has a particularly low crime-rate and, ostensibly, the highest social capital of any city of that size (around 50,000 inhabitants). In fact, the low level of crime was, until very recently, one of the advantages most often mentioned by the Sienese themselves (Warner 2004:166, 167, 227, 239, 240; Liebscher 2001:46--47, 209; see Park 1992:86, but 91 N33); only during the past five years does the majority of Sienese feel "quite safe" rather than "very safe" (Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Still, comparatively speaking, these are extremely high safety perceptions in a university city of 50,000. It should also be noted that the perception may have changed, but that Siena is, for a city of its size, let alone of its demographics and settlement pattern, almost ridiculously safe; the most recent critically reflected crime statistics we have (Progettare ... 2004:41--76) show, for instance, no murders (of any degree) whatsoever. This safety and protectedness is often seen, by citizens as well as by outsiders, as something created by the contrade (Warner 2004:238).

Thus, almost everyone who has sat in an outside restaurant in the historic center on a nice warm day of which Siena has so many, a bit away from the stream of tourists, say in the Fontebranda neighborhood, and has seen two boys practicing flag-throwing in some square to become alfieri in the corteo storico, the historical parade or procession just before the Palio--a very high aim--(see Warner 2004: 135 N112; Dundes and Falassi 2005:98, 102--104), would register this as idyllic, but observers thinking a bit further will see more than that. …

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