What is the song sung by the Sienese during the days of the Palio?

Excerpt adapted in part from my book, Living the Palio.

Intro: While you will hear numerous folk songs around Palio time, there is one that is by far the most common melody of them all, the Song of Verbena (Il Canto della Verbena). This is sung by groups of contradaioli (contrada members) during the evening trials in the Campo and as they march into the Campo for various events, including the assignment of the horses. More information about the song and its special meaning is provided below, adapted from Living the Palio.

Men from the Wave (Onda) contrada sing during the assignment of the horses in Piazza del Campo. (Photo: Paradis)

The Song of Verbena

Back in the Campo, cutting through the background noise of socializing comes an impressive and recognizable melody. I have enjoyed this ritual throughout the past three trials, and now Linda has her chance to hear it. A large chorus of men down near San Martino are bellowing out a song in unison. Do I hear harmony? Have they practiced? The music is muffled a bit due to the distance of the chorus across the Campo, but it is captivating all the same. My first thought at hearing this at the first trial was a distant memory of a favorite motion picture, none other than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the movie, stunned community members are chanting in unison out in the desert, essentially paying homage to the new “gods” that descended upon them the previous night. Creepy stuff. Although there are no UFOs here, I experience a similar sensation hearing the adults singing and chanting from across the open expanse.

In response, directly behind us the young men of the Wave contrada open up their voice boxes and send it back to the other side. Then, almost as if to outdo their neighbors from the Wave, a lively group of women wearing orange and white, belt it out themselves. They are of the Unicorn.

The song they sing now is one of Siena’s strongest cultural indicators of city and contrada pride. Local pride is expressed throughout the year in various mottos, chants, and songs specifically designed to promote the solidarity and cohesion of each contrada and the community at large. The song we are hearing now is one of Siena’s most cherished melodies, known as “Il Canto della Verbena” (“The Song of Verbena”). The verbena to which it owes its name is an herb or grass that is—or was—found growing between the bricks of the Campo. Representing a sort of national anthem, the proud Senese sing their song in unison at sporting events and other relevant citywide festivities. The words to the song speak directly to a strong Sienese sense of place, focused intently on the Piazza del Campo itself:

Nella Piazza del Campo

ci nasce la Verbena,

viva la nostra Siena

viva la nostra Siena.

nella Piazza del Campo

ci nasce la Verbena,

viva la nostra Siena

la più bella delle città.

In English:

In the Piazza del Campo

there grows the Verbena
long live our Siena

long live our Siena.
in the Piazza del Campo

there grows the Verbena,
long live our Siena

the most beautiful of cities.

There are examples of the song on YouTube, for those who wish to hear it. Curiously, each contrada has adopted the same melody for use with its own unique lyrics. Apparently, there are several hundred versions of this very song, if all the unique verses of the collective contrade are added up. The contrada-specific lyrics are decidedly more colorful and provocative than the actual “Canto della Verbena,” which may not strike one as surprising. Each contrada rendition provides both a public expression of its own self-identity along with its image of others. A bit less romantic than the Siena version, each contrada’s rendition is sometimes used to verbally rip apart one’s rivals while asserting one’s own preeminence. This explains the singing back and forth across the Campo, with some groups focused on taunting their adversaries. (An interesting update as of June 2019: a new regulation in Siena now prohibits a contrada from singing this and other derogatory songs about its rival while occupying the rival’s territory.)

Siena on Lockdown: Role of the Song of Verbena in uplifting the spirits of the Sienese (added March 13, 2020)

In times of crisis the important cultural role of shared music and customs can come to the fore. Numerous videos and stories have been circulating in recent days about how the determined Sienese citizens are finding ways to support one another emotionally and financially, most practically with various volunteering efforts organized through the city’s seventeen contrade, or neighborhoods. Perhaps capturing the true Senese spirit is the Song of Verbena (and variations thereof) being sung outside windows of medieval-era housing along Siena’s deserted streets and public spaces. One article and video can be found here, in the local Corriere di Siena. In part the article’s author writes the following, as roughly translated:

“[During the] Coronavirus emergency, the Goose contradaioli sing songs from the houses of their contrada (district). The people of the Goose made their voices heard by warming all of Siena. After the decree issued by the government to limit the contagion from coronaviruses with closed shops, and with very few people through the streets of the historic center, the contradaioli have joined together, intoning each from their own homes the songs that every Sienese knows. [It is a] touching moment when they start singing the Verbena, a real hymn for the city.”

Scaling Up: On the evening of Sunday, March 15 at 9:00 pm, taking a cue from the Goose, the entire city of Siena will sing the March of the Palio out their windows in a unified display of resolve and pride. The song will begin citywide with the last ring of the Sunto (the bell on the city hall tower, Torre del Mangia). I will plan to post some video here when available.

Young contrada members of the Goose (Oca) likely singing and taunting their counterparts in their rival contrada, the Tower (Torre). (Photo: Paradis)

2 thoughts on “What is the song sung by the Sienese during the days of the Palio?

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