"The world you've entered," Alarico Rossi warns us on our first night on Siena, "is very different to explore." Here, "We fear everything." It's a sentiment we encounter repeatedly in the small Tuscan city that wears its long history—the battle for republican autonomy in the face of Florentine domination being a central theme—very much on its sleeve.
Alarico is a local journalist. His beat is the Palio, a spectacular 90-second bareback horse race run twice a year around Siena's central plaza, the Piazza del Campo, in which jockeys are encouraged to whip one another with dried bulls’ penises, typically followed by a ritualized public brawl. More than a medieval pageant for the benefit of visitors' holiday pictures, the Palio is the focal point of a distinctly Sienese way of life.
“It is not for the tourists, it is for the city,” insists Michele Pinassi, a newly elected member of the municipal council from Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement. "It's the one appointment a Sienese politician can't miss." A local journalist clarifies: “If you are a politician and you criticize the Palio, you are politically dead. Also physically.”
We are here to watch the August 16 Palio, run in honor of the Virgin Mary. The four days preceding the race are given over to full-blown Palio-mania, but, for the most devoted, it is a year-round obsession. Siena's Old City is divided into 17 contrade—or districts—each with its own political administration, club, church, symbols, property, and territory. The contrade consider themselves miniature republics and engage in diplomatic relations among themselves, contracting alliances and stoking rivalries.
"How do you feel about your rival contrada, Tower?" I ask a man from Onda (Wave). "From very young, we are taught that Tower members are bad people. We work, marry, and have friendships with them throughout the year. But in the four days of the Palio, we are enemies."
What does a contrada membership mean for you? I ask. “We are baptized in the contrada, we hang out in the contrada clubhouse, we grow up in the street together,” he replies. “The contrada is our family,” a friend adds.
Members of the Shell contrada rolling deep.
It all seems slightly incongruous coming from the well-to-do, thoroughly respectable residents of Siena. But as contradaioli (contrada members) will tell you, the Palio is a “channel to discharge tensions” accumulated throughout the year. And the Sienese certainly have a lot to be tense about.
For centuries, Siena has depended economically and politically on "Babbo Monte" (Daddy Monte)—the Monte dei Paschi (MPS) bank, Italy's third largest and reputedly the oldest in the world. MPS is the city's biggest employer and, through a charitable Fondazione [foundation] that's also the bank’s largest shareholder, it funds Siena’s services, infrastructure, and cultural life.
"She-Wolf" contradaioli pay their respects to “Babbo Monte” at the Siena HQ of MPS.
"There are three classes of people in Siena," quips Pinassi. "Those who work for the bank, those who want to work for the bank, and those who have worked for the bank." Siena is, in short, a "bank city." But after a series of poor deals and scandals coincided with the global financial crisis to leave MPS's survival dependent on state bailouts, it may soon be a bank city without a bank.
Assembled in the Campo on Monday for the contrade's assignment of horses, contradaioli are focused on one thing only: getting their hands on a winner. This year's standouts were lo Specialista (the "Specialist") and Morosita Prima ("Number One Delinquent"). The Campo holds its breath as the mayor begins the random draw. When the "She-Wolf" contrada gets lo Specialista, residents of the Onda contrada become visibly anxious.
The previous evening, after a communal dinner on the cobbled streets of the contrada, a select group of Ondaioli (residents of the Onda contrada) had invoked the powers of "black magic," employing secret rituals to win fortune's favor. Whatever they did, it worked—Morosita Prima goes to Onda, and a wave surges forward to collect its champion. "Non e possibile!" an elderly Onda lady exclaims, beside herself. "Non e possibile!"
Magic is not the only Palio activity conducted behind closed doors. Partiti—deals struck by and between contrade and jockeys to influence the outcome of the race—see large amounts of money change hands, raising the financial stakes of the Palio and making accurate calculation of its final cost near impossible. The partiti do not make the Palio, as a painfully English observer reported in 1904, "one continuous foul." Rather, the Palio is as much a test of diplomacy and judicious statecraft as of skillful horsemanship.
Sienese politics is also a world of partiti, and it's here that things get more problematic. The contrade present themselves as militantly apolitical, but it's all a "front," Pinassi tells me. "Of course" the contrade are involved in politics, they just do it "in the backyard." Leading out from this “backyard” is a shadowy trail stretching far beyond the contrade themselves. Political aspirants make use of the contrade as a crutch, appealing to them to bolster careers in municipal politics. The bank, too, cultivates support among senior contrade officials, offering promotions to employees—an informed source tells me—and canceling debts.
The bank itself has been closely tied to Siena’s political elite, notably through the Fondazione, whose directors are effectively political appointees. Through them, the major parties have presided over a vast politics of patronage based on selective distribution of financial profits.
Raffaele Ascheri is one of this system’s sharpest critics. As the self-dubbed "Heretic of Siena," Ascheri writes Siena’s most notorious blog, devoted primarily to criticizing the city’s center-left establishment. He does not mince his words. Guiseppe Mussari, now facing trial for alleged wrongdoings while bank president from 2006 to 2012, is a favorite target of his. As a banker, Mussari was a complete “incompetent,” Ascheri explains, but he “understood something very important about Sienese politics: the power of bread and circuses.”
A diabolic figure stares down from a 14th-century fresco depicting "bad governance" in Siena’s town hall.
Bread came through jobs, with the bank rapidly expanding its workforce from just under 25,000 to nearly 35,000 employees between 2005 and 2006. As for the circus, it was a many-ringed affair. Siena’s MPS-sponsored basketball team have won the nationals eight times in the last decade, while its bank-funded football club soared to Seria A after languishing in Italy’s lower leagues for decades. And, of course, there was the Palio—a portion of the costs borne by the bank.
For a period, this strategy worked. But the money has run out. Economically, the full effects of the crisis have yet to be felt by Siena’s residents. However, that will come as municipal and provincial budgets are slashed. Politically, the city is in flux; with a diminished ruling party deeply divided, a budget stalemate looming in the council and the bank facing takeover by foreign investors, a path out of the crisis remains elusive.
Some see a silver lining in the upheaval. Siena is coming off a "doping" binge, anthropologist Fabio Mugnaini told me. "Tremendous amounts of money have been poisoning local hierarchies" and "rewarding flattery," she continued. The “Palio system" will now undergo "a drastic diet," which may permit a return to humbler times: "less glamour and more humanity, less spectacle and more ritual."
Yet there is also a risk that, with no bank, increased reliance on tourism will turn Siena into what councillor Laura Vigni describes as a "dead museum" or a "Disneyland." For decades, Siena has negotiated a fragile relationship with the world outside, drawing on the most cosmopolitan of industries—modern finance and tourism—to sustain its insular, private traditions. Monte dei Paschi’s collapse may blow open its closed world for good.
Yet the contrade remain vibrant and upbeat. Young Ondaioli eagerly learn the chants to target the Tower kids, and teenagers find new ways to show their contrada pride.
Tattoos and orange hair-dye complement the traditional neckerchief of two contradaioli from "Rhinoceros."
For now, the feast goes on. Packing out their contrada for the final pre-Palio dinner, the Ondaioli are confident the city will be theirs. With jockey Tittia sitting atop Morosita Prima, and strong trial performances already under their belts, who can stand in their way?
As it turns out, no one. After a seven-hour wait in the Campo, guarding our precious square foot of viewing space, the Palio arrives. A series of agonizing delays as jockeys jostle on the starting line, and the race is off. She-Wolf leads until Onda overtakes on the treacherous San Martino bend, crossing the finish line first, closely followed by a riderless horse and beleaguered Tower making a surprise third.
The winning pair lead the pack ahead of the race
As a canon deafens the crowd, victorious Ondaioli appear from nowhere, streaming onto the track to join their horse. That night, the entire contrada of Onda is one huge, pulsating party. In the contrada church, two pews are strategically arranged above a pile of horse dung. During his prerace blessing in the church, Morosita Prima had defecated twice, a proud Onda woman exclaims. “Twice!” A very good omen indeed.
As jubilant Ondaioli take another victory lap around the city and contrada streets throng with drunken revelers, you can't help but sympathize with one 24-year-old Ondaiolo now working in Milan: “I will always be back for the Palio.”
More stories about sports: