Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Siena is simply beautiful. The archrival of Florence has lost none of its grandeur since the height of its glory--roughly 1260 to 1348, when the Black Death killed a third of its population. Watching the sun set in the medieval Piazza del Campo is akin to having a religious experience. Il Campo is the home of the most celebrated festival in all of Tuscany, in which Siena's 17 contrade (neighborhoods) compete in a no-holds barred bareback horserace called the Palio that dates back to 1283. The contrade have their own flags and pageantry, and each is represented by a mascot, such as the wolf, porcupine, giraffe, and eagle.

We were lucky to visit the chapel of the eagle contrada, something not open to the general public but a favor to our local guide. The eagle chapel is small and ornate, with the brilliant banners of the contrade hanging beside the jockey's silk shirts, everything quiet and respectful in contrast to the thundering, bare-knucked race I imagine circling the Campo. These Sienese take the Palio very seriously. We hush ourselves like children in church. The representative of the Eagle contrada is subdued, and our guide--who hails from the Seashell contrada--ribs him good naturedly about not winning a race long? He smiles and folds his arms.

We leave the chapel of the Eagle contrada and stroll a ways to the studio of Massimo Bracciali, Maestro Vetratista (stained glass master). Massimo is a wonderful artist, and he shows us the tools of the trade. He cracks jokes as he handles sheets of red glass I'm afraid he'll drop. "Don't worry," he says, "I could juggle these." He first sketches a "cartoon" and then matches and cuts glass. His work is splendid, and he is commissioned by churches and universities around the world. I ask how long the shop has been making windows. "My grandfather's grandfather made stained glass windows. Before that, I don't know. Who knows?" He laughs.

At lunch, I have Massimo's flyer on the table and the waiter stops to stare at the religious images. I speak a few words of Italian, and he speaks a few in English. "Beautiful," he says, pointing to a Madonna in reds and blues, "are you going to the Duomo?" The Duomo is one of Italy's greatest cathedrals, a treasure of Romanesque-Gothic architecture filled with sculpture and paintings. I tell him yes, we are planning to visit the Duomo. "Then you must pray for the chiocciola," he said.

The Chiocciola?

"I will explain," he says, grabbing his pen and a waiter's notebook from his apron. He sketches a snail. "Chiocciola!" The drawing is crude but I get the idea and laugh. "Pray for the snail? Ahhh...The snail is your contrada!" "Si, si!"

I ask him for the pen. I'm a cartoonist and love to draw, and over our dessert I draw a picture of a galloping snail winning the Palio, leaving the exhausted horses far behind in clouds of dust. When the waiter returns, he can't believe it. He's clearly delighted with the drawing, and I give it to him as a gift. "July 2nd is il palio," he says. "If the chiocciola wins I will never forget this moment."

It's a wonderful exchange, and we're high as kites walking back to the Campo on the narrow medieval streets. Near the fountain, I spot a vendor selling googaws from a cart--postcards, ballcaps, pens, maps--and he has flags--small, nylon, not the glorious silk versions I saw hanging in the chapel. I rummage through them quickly and find the flag of the Chiocciola contrada. It's the perfect souvenir to remember this afternoon in Siena.

Here is a video of the Palio--the whole race lasts only a minute and a half, and it's so rough even a riderless horse can win. Pray for the snail.

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