When I first arrived in Siena, my host family kept mentioning something called contradas. Because of our language barrier, I was so confused as to what they were talking about. After walking around the city for a couple days, I quickly learned that contradas are like social clubs for districts of Siena dating back to the 13th century. The city is split into 17 districts and each has their own Contrada name with a flag, representing animal, and colors. In each district of the city you can see the flags and colors of the representing contrada. My family was part of the Tartuca (Turtle) Contrada.
After living in Siena for three weeks, I saw how the contradas in Siena create an incredible community among residents. Contradas hold social events and programs throughout the year for their members. Residents of Siena are born into a contrada based on which contrada their family is. I was invited to dinners at two different contradas, Tartuca and Leocorno (Unicorn). You could see that the locals had a strong community together through these events. My host brother, who is in highschool, goes multiple nights per week to the contrada to play on the soccer team or to practice for the Palio parade.
I went to two different contrada parties which were like cocktail parties in the gardens surrounding the city. The cool thing about these was that people of all ages were having fun and dancing to live music together. It was amazing to see how people would get so excited when they kept seeing their friends in the crowd. You could tell there was a deep sense of belonging and community.
The most important, and perhaps most famous, event of the year for the contradas is the Palio race. This horse race is held in the medieval brick piazza, and the jockeys ride bareback! Ten of the seventeen contradas get to race in the Palio each year. While I was here, I went to the ceremony where they chose the last 4 teams who would get to race this year… and thus reveal the 7 teams which would not race. The central square of the city, Piazza del Campo, was packed with locals as they awaited to see if the flag of their contrada was stuck out the window of the palace, meaning they would race. Each contrada has a rival and allies so there is a deep competitive nature to the event!
Last year, the winner of the Palio was the Leocorno contrada. As part of my school program, we visited the Leocorno contrada museum where we saw the banners that are crafted as the prize for the Palio each year. The name Palio comes from the Latin word meaning cloth and in the middle ages, a piece of rare and expensive cloth was given as the award for the race. Now, an artist is chosen each year to create a unique banner for the award. Also in the museum, we saw the traditional costumes worn for the events of the Palio.
Studying abroad in Siena has shown me what a true local community can look like. It is inspiring to see an entire city united around something that is their own unique culture. Nowhere else in Italy has such a unique culture and the Sienese people are very proud of this. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to live in Siena for even just a few weeks and get a glimpse of the rich culture and community. Hopefully one year I’ll make it back for the Palio race!
Written by: Katellen, Maymester 2023 student from Belmont University