Saturday, March 26, 2011

Proto Renaissance

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ, fresco painting from the Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy

Giotto, The Pieta, fresco painting from the Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good Government, fresco painting from the city council chamber of the City of Siena, Italy

Orcagna, Strozzi Altarpiece, in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy


Saint Francis of Assisi
--Arena Chapel
--Enrico Scrovegni
The Black Death

Read Chapter 14

The Palio in Siena

The Palio is a pageant and horse race held twice a year in the city of Siena in Italy, first on July 2nd and then again every August 15th. The Palio goes back over 700 years. It began as a dedication to the Virgin Mary. The race is one of the fastest and most violent horse races in the world. Ten horses and riders run three laps around the main square of the city, a space built on a hillside that is not level and paved with cobblestones. Riders and horses are almost always injured in the race, and there have been deaths in past years.

But, it is much more than a race. Siena is divided into 17 districts or contrade. Each contrada races a horse, and its honor and prestige ride with the horse. People become very emotionally involved in the race, and rivalries between contrade can run very high for weeks. Teenagers chase each other with water balloons, try to out sing each other, and sometimes fist fights break out.

The Palio begins with each race horse blessed by the parish priest in the morning. The contrada flags are all blessed in the Cathedral. The flags are carried, waved, and juggled by s'bandieri, who train for the Palio for weeks. They march and perform in the pageant that begins the Palio with costumes that harken back to the time when Siena was an independent city state.
The seven contrade that were excluded from the race the previous year are automatically enrolled for the following year. A lottery held at the last minute before the race determines the final three who will make up the ten for the race.

I was there at the July 1988 Palio. I lived in Siena at the time, and naturally, I cheered for my district, the Contrada del Istrice (The Porcupine Contrada). I remember all the tension that filled the city for weeks before the race. The city staged some small public concerts to try to calm all the rivalries and strong feelings. I stood with the locals in the center of the square. I could barely see the race. I remember that when the race was over, and my contrada was among the losers, people all around me burst into tears and began sobbing uncontrollably.

The passions of the old medieval city states still run high in Italy.

 The excitement and tension in the days before the race.  Men of various contrade march around the town singing.  Encounters with rival contrade can end in fist fights.

 Blessing a horse on the morning of the race.  The priest ends the blessing by saying to the horse "Va e torna vincitore!" (Go! and come back a winner!).

 The Corteo Storico, the pageant that begins the Palio.  Locals wear costumes from Siena's reign as a leading city state in Italy, the 14th and 15th centuries.

 The race itself; this is the race that I saw (or tried to see from where I was) in 1988.  I am somewhere in that crowd packed into the center of the piazza.

Below are some pictures I took of the Corteo Storico in the piazza from that same Palio in 1988.

Banner of the Contrada del' Istrice