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Spotlight on Tuscany: Siena, “Saints and Sprinting Horses”

In addition to being one of the most beautiful Medieval places in Tuscany, Siena is also defined by a host of time-honoured traditions and iconic items — everything from sweets to saints to sprinting horses!

In last week’s post we talked about Siena’s classic sweets: panforte, cavallucci, and ricciarelli.  This week we’re highlighting the city’s unusual patron saint, Catherine of Siena, and its most excitement-laden cultural event, the world-famous Palio of Siena.

In this limited format we’re focusing on the quirkier aspects of these subjects, but suffice to say their complete stories merit far more consideration.  Links are provided if you’re inclined to read up.

Evocative Emblems of Siena: Saint Catherine & the Palio

Catherine: Diplomatic Saint, Mummified Body Parts

Catherine, who lived during the 14th Century and was canonized in 1461, is Siena’s beloved patron saint.  As far as saints go she is a standout, one might even say she was a Medieval feminist.  A headstrong youngster fixated on a life devoted to God, she cut off her hair and scalded herself with hot water until her skin peeled off in order to thwart her family’s plans to marry her off.

Later in life, she would become an important diplomat within the Catholic church, instrumental in bringing the pope back to Rome from Avignon, brokering peace between Rome and Florence, and protecting the alliance between Pisa and the Papal States.

Not only was Catherine’s life remarkable, so also was what happened to her after death, although in somewhat more macabre terms.  Catherine died and was entombed in Rome, which was an issue for the Sienese, who wanted at least part of her body to find an eternal home in her hometown.  

Thanks to some renegade (but brilliant) grave-robbers, Catherine’s head and one thumb were removed from her corpse and smuggled out of Rome, where, according to lore, they appeared as rose petals when guards at the city gates examined the package.  Today these mummified body parts are kept in Siena’s majestic basilica of San Domenico where they continue to inspire awe in the reverent faithful, and satisfy curiosity in the shameless gawkers.

The Palio: Hard-Core Loyalty, Over-The-Top Rivalry

More than anything else Siena is famous for its Palio, a bonkers horse race in Piazza del Campo that takes place in two parts each summer.  The competitors are the 17 contrade of Siena — districts of the city, each with its own emblem, colours, and historic name drawn from the animal or natural worlds.  The history of Siena’s Palio as a civil celebration goes back to the late 15th century, and its societal roots even further back than that.

Tradition is not to be messed with when it comes to the palio of Siena, and loyalty is beyond question.  One does not choose one’s contrada; you are born into it and you will remain faithful to it til death do you part!  Not even marriage exempts one from loyalty; on race day you will be with your contrada, cheering on its horse, and your spouse will do likewise.  Anything else would be unthinkable.

Besides extreme loyalty, extreme danger and extreme rivalry are the hallmarks of this crazy race, which is a mere three laps around Piazza del Campo, lasting all of about 90 seconds.  The out-of-control desire to win amongst the contrade gives birth to all forms of dishonourable conduct in pursuit of the banner — bribes, sabotage, poisoning of horses, you name it, it’s probably been attempted in order to cross the finish line first.  Ironic when you consider that each horse is blessed and sprinkled with holy water by the parish priest of its contrada prior to the race.

The victorious contrada celebrates by feasting at tables lining the streets of their neighbourhood.  An empty chair always graces the head of the table and is laden with hay for the most revered guest who never comes to dinner but is the reason everyone else is there: the winning horse.

Rick Steves:

DriverInRome would be pleased to chauffeur you around Tuscany (or anywhere in Italy, the south of France, or Athens) with a private car and driver, or arrange a licensed guide just for your group.  Please contact us regarding popular or custom itineraries.

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