Understanding Siena’s 17 Contrade

Exerpt adapted from my book, Living the Palio. (It’s already written, so I’m happy to share it here.)

The Goose contrada membership enjoying the pre-Palio dinner, the cena della prova generale on July 1, 2018.

To understand the Palio race, one should become acquainted to some extent with Siena’s seventeen distinct neighborhoods, known as contrade (plural form of contrada). Without the contrade, the Palio would simply vanish or, perhaps even more horrific, devolve into a mere reenactment for outsiders. The Palio and contrade operate hand in hand, each mutually dependent upon the other.

Each contrada occupies its own geographic rione (territory) within the city walls (see contrada map below). Further, each enjoys its own local government, elected officials, flag, constitution, and political jurisdiction within its geographic boundaries. Put another way, each neighborhood comprises a miniature city-state, and each revolves intently around the annual cycle of the Palio. For this reason alone, visitors struggle to find meaning in the race, not really having a good reason to cheer for one particular contrada’s horse over that of another. Without an emotional attachment to a particular contrada—in the way one might identify with certain sports teams—one’s decision to cheer on, say the Porcupine contrada’shorse over that of the Snail, would be just as random as choosing a gelato flavor while blindfolded.

With thanks for permission from David Lown: www.picturesfromitaly.com

Contrade Relationships

Further, each contrada has its own allies and usually its own longtime rival or enemy. There are actually four types of relationships possible between the contrade: alliance, friendship, no relationship, and enmity. The relationships can change over time, for instance from no relationship to friendship—as when one contrada assists another in realizing a Palio victory. Five of the contrade are not currently part of a reciprocal enmity pair, those of the Wave, Dragon, Forest, Caterpillar, and Giraffe. The traditional rivalry between the Giraffe and Caterpillar contrade was annulled through a “peace treaty” in 1996. Is there any doubt that these communities view themselves as miniature city-states?

The following list details the traditional contrada enemies:

  • Tower—Goose
  • Porcupine—She-Wolf
  • Snail—Turtle
  • Shell—Ram
  • Caterpillar—Giraffe (annulled with a peace treaty in 1996)
  • Eagle—Panther
  • Owl—Unicorn

It stands to reason that the potential for hostility and contentiousness intensifies when more pairs of rivalries face off during a given Palio. Like the Palio itself, contrada members consider their traditional enemies with varying degrees of seriousness, given the wide range of responses I received throughout our sojourn. Speaking to my colleague, one male landlord in the Owl made it clear that the sense of animosity toward their archrival, the Unicorn, ramps up to “hatred” levels only around Palio time. At most other times rival contrada members get along just fine, more or less. In fact, one popular butcher from the Unicorn maintains his shop in the Owl and regularly provides meat for them, employing dangerous butcher knives and all. (End of Excerpt)

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