The SkywalkerSwartz Blog

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Born Again in Siena

I was born in 1979. That waning year of the Jimmy Carter administration and stagflation was also the last time that Civetta (the "Little Owl") won the Palio, Siena's twice-yearly medieval horse race. Civetta is one of 17 contrade, or districts, of Siena, a walled city that once rivaled Florence for domination of Tuscany.

The contrada that has not won the Palio for the longest is called la nonna or "the grandma," and with its 30-year losing streak, Civetta was la nonna by 10 years over the next "oldest" contrada (Lupa, the "She Wolf"). Think of the (pre-2004) Red Sox or the (current) Cubs...that's Civetta. In fact, during this year's July Palio, Civetta's horse was injured the day before (during the prova generale or "general test race") so they didn't even get a chance to run! A few years back, a Dutch TV station even ran a documentary called The Last Victory (reviewed here) about their failure to win since 1979.

The beautiful and talented Erika Parker somehow managed to stumble onto tickets for Civetta's Cena della Prova Generale, a dinner thrown by each contrada to celebrate the final test race and prepare for the next day's Palio. (I'll ignore for the moment that she chose Civetta because their flag matched her outfit...) There, we joined the civettini as they sang their traditional songs and neighborhood bigwigs gave speeches about their favorite contrada. Carlo Rossi, the priore (president) explained that this smallest of the contrade was still the best: "We are great, not because we are many, but because we have great hearts."

Pumped up and hoping that Civetta would finally win, we headed early to the Piazza del Campo to find a good spot. A few of us explored Siena's beautiful duomo (cathedral) and we grabbed some picnic supplies to feed the rest of the group. On the way back, we encountered an interesting West Side Story Sharks versus Jets meets Robin Hood: Men in Tights moment, as rival contradaioli sporting full medieval regalia passed each other in narrow lanes, taunting each other with flags.

As the afternoon wore on, we finally got some shade and watched the long medieval procession into the Campo. After much flag-throwing and trumpet-blasting, a number of young civettini arrived and shoved their way into a spot near us. Their arrival nearly started a fight: On one hand, the people whom they shoved aside had been waiting for many hours to get that spot: first come, first served. On the other hand, those people were outsiders merely here to observe, rather than participants here to cheer on their beloved Civetta. We had experienced similar less-than-welcoming attitudes from Sienese earlier, which reminded me a bit of some of my former island-mates in Bainbridge Island, Washington, who professed to hate the ferry to Seattle, even though that ferry is the only reason the island is so wealthy. After all, Siena's economy depends on all the outsiders coming into Siena during Palio. Still, it was a thrill to now be surrounded by fanatic Civetta fans.

Finally the horses arrived, and a hush went over the crowd. It was erie having that many thousands of Italians go completely quiet. Finally, the race director broke the silence to announce the starting lineup. When Civetta was announced in the fourth position (a good one, as far as I can tell), a small yell went up from the civettini around us, although they quickly went quiet. Then began one hour and a half--that's right, 90 minutes--of lining up and false starts. In fairness, this is because a good start relies on the hardest thing possible for an Italian: waiting still in a straight line. Imagine how hard it is for an Italian horse!

As the time wore on and frustrations mounted, we reminded ourselves of Civetta's motto: Vedo nella notte ("We see at night")...which was appropriate, as the late hour and diminishing sun almost made the city fathers postpone the race until the next day. Finally, almost without warning, they were off! As they rounded the first turn, we could barely believe our eyes: Civetta was ahead! They approached the deadly Curva di San Martino (a sometimes literally deadly 90 degree turn), and as they emerged...Civetta was still in the lead! We began to jump up and down excitedly as they went around the piazza a second time.  Civetta still ahead! As they went around a third and final time, Civetta's jockey (Andrea Mari, or "Brio," the same guy who couldn't ride in the July Palio due to his horse's injuries) opened up a commanding lead and wild euphoria broke out among the civettini (see Rai 3's coverage below...the race begins at about 1:30).

As they passed the finish line, a few of us Americans jumped over the railing with the civettini to join in the celebration. We massed around the Palio (a banner in honor of the Assumption of Mary) as they ripped it down and began to parade it around the city.  (Note: in the video above, you can hear Jon Dowling, who was apparently close to the microphone, yelling "Luca!  Luca!" at me around 4:34, just before we almost got crushed by the Palio horde.)  The emotions were over-the-top: imagine winning the World Series and Superbowl at the same time and then rushing the field.

It is said that when a contrada wins the Palio, the residents are all re-born. They even sport pacifiers to bring home the point that they are no longer the nonna. Thus, while yesterday, like all the residents of Civetta, I was 30 years old, today, I am born again!

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