Thursday, June 24, 2004

The Contrada System of Siena (by Steve)

SIENA (#64)

Donatello Giallombardo
One of the things that contributes to the distinct character of Siena today is a unique social institution called the contrada.  One way to define contrada is “neighborhood association” because each one of them is mapped to a distinct geographical area of the City. Or you could define the contrada by the horse race that takes place every year in the town square, called the Palio:  the contrada would be like the team whose horse and rider compete in the Palio.  The problem with this approach, however, is that if you don’t know what the Palio is, it can’t really help you understand the contradas (or contrade in Italian).  

The Palio is more than a race and the contrade are much more than a neighborhood or sporting club that one can simply join. They are conservative social organizations with deep historical roots. Although they have been remarkably stable for centuries and are inherently traditional, they are alive, dynamic and continue to evolve. They have broad social, economic and even psychological functions and assume a dominant role in everyday, modern life in Siena. And as far as I can tell, the contrade are quite unique in the industrialized West.

I should preface this story with a warning. I have not done any kind of systematic study or formal research on the contrade of Siena. I am not an ethnographer although some day I would like to survey the literature on the subject. But for now, think of this series of articles as a personal impression, based in part on some reading that I have done, but even more on my personal experience in the contrade spanning 25 years, personal relationships and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of conversations.

Niccolo' Giallombardo
Today the Commune of Siena is divided into 17 contrade (1). Each has a well-defined territory. A careful observer can often tell what contrada they are in by looking for special colors, flags, tiny animal symbols imbedded in walls, signs, streetlights or even in peoples clothing who gather in small groups on the street to talk. Every native Senese – someone from Siena – belongs to a contrada. A large contrada may boast 5,000 members, a smaller one may have only 1,000 members from, say, 150 families. This tribal scale is an important part of how they work. Although they do not necessarily live within its boundaries, they typically feel a territorial bond, a kind of familiarity with their streets, their piazze, their church and their fontana.

What are the Contrade?  What do they do?

The most obvious function of the contrada today is to bring home the Palio. The Palio is many, many things. The first and most obvious is a horse race that occurs twice a year, on July 2nd and August 13th. It is also the name of the prize – a banner – that the winner takes home and proudly displays in its museum. And, on the day of the race, it is a ceremony, rich with Medieval symbolism. But that’s not all. Although the race lasts perhaps 75 seconds, and the Historic Procession, a full two and a half hours, the events surrounding the Palio begin on June 30th and don’t end until mid-September when the victory celebrations subside. And fundraising, planning, strategy and organization never cease. It is a way of life, not just metaphorically, but actually. The contrada is the institution or social unit responsible for all of this activity.

But strictly speaking, there is more to the contrada than winning the Palio. In modern times, the contrade function like private, social clubs. In each contrada, there is a social hall – called a sede or seat in Italian – where private dinners, concerts, dances and organizational meetings take place. There is a governing board. They have a budget. Members pay dues of some kind, although I do not understand how this works. I have not observed real political influence within these groups; however, other forms of patronage do exist. I assume that relationships between members of a contrada or allied contrade may influence hiring and promotion in the workplace in subtle and informal ways. And they certainly affect clientele relationships in local shops: where one chooses to buy bread, cheese, and wine, for example, are likely to be influenced by ones contrada or allied contrade. (2)

Angelo Giallombardo
Each Contrada is a Microcosm of Siena Itself

Perhaps one thing that makes the contrada unique as a club is how you get into one: you are born into it. For centuries every child born within the boundaries of the contrada’s territory were “baptized” a second time to formally recognize their membership in the contrada. Although it takes place in the contrada’s own church and is conducted by a priest, it is a completely secular ceremony. There are exceptions to this initiation rite, but, generally speaking, it is the only way to join a contrada. And because these neighborhoods were always complex, socially diverse, even somewhat autonomous geographical districts within Siena, the contrada literally crosses every age, income, professional and class boundary. Political parties – and there are many of them – are all represented. I can’t really think of another example of a social organization in the Industrialized West that functions in this way: each is socially complete and complex, a microcosm of Siena itself. My friend and former Professor of Art History Alberto Cornice calls it “trasversale.”

What keeps the contrada together then? How can such an arbitrary association determined at birth continue to have deep meaning when a Senese becomes an adult? Clearly, membership by birth has been important in keeping the contrade distinct from one another historically. Parents who wanted their children to belong to their contrada were required to live in the same neighborhood they were born in. This kept the neighborhood together, preserving the diversity within the neighborhood for centuries. Young adults with multi-generational and deep social ties to their place in the contrada were more likely to marry within the contrada and elect to live there for the same reasons their parents did. 

The Contrade Change with the Times

The contrade are historic, somewhat insular and resist change, but they are not completely closed and they are not static. For example, in the Middle Ages when the contrade first formed, their function was political and included collective security. When Siena went to war against Florence, each contrada formed a military company, lead by a Capitano. Finding themselves in the front lines next to their neighbors, foot soldiers were much less likely to flee. Although the political and military nature of the contrade are still apparent in the organization, costumes and rituals, the apparatus for these functions has disappeared. Childbirth has also changed: most children are born in the hospital today instead of their contrada. And the city has expanded beyond the walls defining the 17 contrade. Now parents typically choose their childrens’ contrada and choose to live wherever they please. This has eroded the strong tie between the families’ residence and their contrada, also weakening the geographic bonds, which held the contrada together in the first place. Globalization and immigration from other parts of Italy and also foreign countries have also had profound affects. The workplace, military service and university have dramatically expanded the social exposure of the average Senese. As a result, over the past 100 years contrade have become multi-racial and multi-ethnic and sometimes even include Italians from other cities. Marriages between families of different contrade, once rare, have become commonplace and, strangely enough, even siblings can belong to different contrade.

Can the Contrade Survive the 21st Century?

Although I am still trying to understand these changes myself and although no one can really know 

how these profound social changes will affect the contrada system for several decades, I think some changes can already be observed. Arguably, the rite of baptism in the contrada has become more important for children born in the hospital, or beyond the boundaries of the contrada, or in cases where one or both parents are not full members. New social functions from pre-school play groups to discotheques for teenagers have become important, forging lasting social bonds between the youngest contrada members. This is a valuable and appreciated community service taking full advantage of the social hall and gardens where private homes remain very small.

It is interesting to observe changes in social functions that now regularly include members of other contrade which were once essentially for members only. Increasingly, the disco and the dinner in the street have become more mixed than they have been historically. Outsiders feel more or less welcome, depending on the individual of course. And contradaioli feel more or less comfortable in the role of host. Perhaps the act of hosting these functions will enhance the feeling of belonging among its members.

The Palio Reinforces the Bonds of the Contrada

On the other hand, although mixed gatherings are common in most of the social events throughout the year, the 10 or 20 days immediately preceding the Palio are another matter. Somehow modern Siena seems to divide itself, its 21st Century citizens segregating themselves along seemingly arbitrary boundaries established almost 1000 years ago. In fact, families literally split, each family member finding themselves at least temporarily more closely “related” to their contradaioli than their own families! And the reason is simple: if they work together and with their allies, and with a little bit of luck, they can win.

I continue to wonder if the bond holding the contrada together is as simple as the power of winning or loosing together, a bond that any Yankee or Red Sox fan would gladly tell you about. Or perhaps it is another effect of competition: marching united behind a flag in uniform. After all, the contrada was political first, a semi-autonomous entity within the independent city-state of Siena. The contrada is socially diverse and complex. Working together under pressure requires patience, tolerance, and trust. Winning the Palio, like winning a battle, brings a sense of accomplishment, pride and identity.

However, although the intense competition is apparent, there are significant albeit less visible bonds formed through cooperation and a healthy respect for luck. Winning requires teamwork, not just within each contrada but also cooperation between allied contrade as well. Unlike baseball, cricket or soccer, even the richest and most powerful teams cannot win on its own. And significantly, randomness inherent in the system ensures that with a little bit of luck, eventually even the smallest contrada has a chance to win with the backing of powerful allies. And finally, paradoxically perhaps, competition between the contrade within a framework imposed by the Comune of Siena actually strengthens the whole. The rules of engagement are defined and enforced by the Commune. Submission of every contrada to the authority of the Bishop and Commune are an essential element of the Palio ritual. The intense experience of every contradaiolo within his or her contrada becomes a common bond filling every citizen of Siena with a deep sense of pride and membership to the Commune as a whole.

It is a system: the contrade define the Palio and the Palio defines the contrade. Intense competition is balanced by cooperation. Together they define Siena.

In this context, I really wonder if social mixing of the contrade is as significant as it seems. In many respects, the multi-class, “transversal” contrada although closed, was already more diverse, more inclusive than similar social organizations in other cultures. Although the strict geographies of the contrada have broken down and perhaps become a little more open to outsiders, they are still vibrant, complex, complete social structures. It is surprising how something so arbitrary can be so strong, so genuine, so intensely “felt” by its members. But it is.

 (1) Today the Commune of Siena is divided into 17 contrade:
- Aquila (Eagle)
- Bruco (Caterpillar)
- Chiocciola (Snail)
- Civetta (Owl)
- Drago (Dragon)
- Giraffa (Giraffe)
- Istrice (Porcupine)
- Leocorno (Unicorn)
- Lupa (She-wolf)
- Nicchio (Shell)
- Oca (Goose)
- Onda (Wave)
- Pantera (Panther)
- Selva (Wilderness)
- Valdimontone (Ram)
- Tartuca (Turtle)
- Torre (Tower)

(2) Angelo Giallombardo made it very clear when we moved into our apartment in the Duomo that we could patronize a certain greengrocer, or fruttivendolo as we call him. He even encouraged us, saying that his produce was very good, his prices were reasonable and he worked very hard. But he explained that he could not bring himself to buy anything from this particular fruttivendolo and that, for our own sake, we should not even tell him that we’re friends.

“Are you serious?” I thought to myself. Angelo was right on one account: seeing Giuliano the fruttivendolo on a daily basis has been one of the many pleasures of living in Siena. Once I would have recklessly disclosed this hidden relationship. But with time and understanding I have come to fear how such a revelation would impact my relationship not only with Giuliano but also with Angelo. They know each other’s names. They know each other’s families. Yet they never talk and don’t even allow their eyes to meet in the street.

So Giuliano does not know that Angelo and I are friends. How can two such reasonable, friendly and open adults harbor such animosity? What’s going on? The answer is simple enough, though. They’re just in the wrong groups – warring contrade – and both of them (and their contradaioli buddies) have done things to aggravate each other for years.

This is a lot deeper than rival private clubs. And it’s more complicated than winning or losing a horse race. Of course membership in the Yale Club has more influence in the Bush White House than the Harvard Club does. Of course there is friendly rivalry. But it’s a friendly rivalry. They talk to one another. Trust between members of rival clubs is possible although less likely than within each club. There is something deeper going on between the contrade. Boundaries between these associations are more like tribal or even national boundaries, although to an outsider there are no apparent differences between the contrade other than the banner they carry. It is easier for me, an American, to befriend them than it is for them to trust one another.

COMMENTS from the original blog

2004-06-27 18:37:13 Barbara
Re: The Contrada System of Siena (by Steve)
This is a very helpful commentary on the social, cultural, and political history of Siena.  The explanation of how enmity among contrade members has personally affected you helps to substantiate the facts in your essay.  How fortunate that the family will still be in Siena for the first of the summer Palio races.  

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