Il Palio E Vita (#3)

Ten years ago, we lived in the contrada of Leocorno, the Unicorn and attended our Dante seminar in the contrada of Torre, the Tower. Some of our program professors/administrators had been baptized into Onda, the Wave. We thought our loyalties were divided for Palio back then.

And now? We’ve lived for 3 months in the contrada of Selva!

Like everybody else in the city last night, members of the Contrada of Selva seemed pleased as they marched “Indianos” back to his stall after the Prova. The trainer will sleep in the stall, with youngsters from the contrada, the self-appointed guards just outside.

Afterwards, for old times’ sake, we decided on dinner in Leocorno. As in every other contrade’s streets, and as for every other important occasion, the lights and flags have mysteriously appeared – literally, overnight. It feels like a long time ago since we first saw this happen this year — for St. Catherine, in April.

Since we lived there in ’02, Via Pantanetto has, much to the amazement of the rest of Siena,transformed itself. One of two Chinese restaurants in the city is here; numerous Kabob cafés have sprung up; I picked up some brilliantly colored Tamil Nadu bracelets at the street’s Festa last week. The stores run by lovely Asian women have provided us with everything from blouses and hot-weather skirts, to our trusty shopping cart.

And dinner?El Gringo


In their aqua suits,Volunteer Vets and Vet Techs (I THINK that’s what their badges said) are a colorful group, and watchful. I saw one injury, and it wasn’t to a horse: because the Mossiere (Starter) hesitated for a second when he dropped the <canape, to signal the start of the race, 2 of the jockeys flew over the heads of their horses. A minute later, several Misericordia (EMT) pushed passed me with one of the jockeys: a broken finger! These professional bareback-riders are slight, steely-eyed men, and while the broken finger kept out the contrade of Chiocciola’s rider this morning, everybody expects him back for tonight’s Prova.

The Mossiere (Starter):
√ He will be the only person in the Campo not to watch the race. As soon as he drops the canape – it could take several minutes or an hour to get a “Fair Start” – he will be immediately escorted out of the Campo by Polizei, then driven from the city. As people here say, “He’ll be at the city walls by the time the race ends!”

Although still something of an exercise in futility, the occasional video is the best way share Palio. CONTEXT:
The canon goes off 4 times:
√ to call the horses from their contrada stall (17 contrade, 17 stalls…also 17 churches, 17 museums, 17 fountains, but I digress).
√ to signal the clearing of the track: hawk-eyed polizei and tireless track-sweepers (mostly women, this year) stride onto and around the racecourse; once the track is cleared of people and debris, the contrade capitani and the mossiere walk to the starting line.
√to call the horses and jockeys from the inner courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico.
√ to announce the end of the race: a winner has been declared.
Having heard the first canon, we ran to the Campo and arrived with the horses (and their jockeys and trainers); I was standing idly by, when the next signal boomed.
(this one’s really more for listening than viewing!)

These moms and kids from the contrada of Tortuga have some the best seats in the house!

After the Prova, sprayers and tampers go to work, preparing for the next one.


“PALIO” refers, first of all, to the banner which the winning contrada will claim after the race on Monday. This year’s palio is an homage to St Francis of Assisi, with a realistic image of his much-mended habit. The palio must always include a portrait of the Virgin (top-left corner, this year), as the race is run in her honor – July for the Visitation, August for the Assumption. In addition, it must present the black and white insignia of the city, as well as the symbols plus colors of the 10 contrade (of the city’s 17) racing.
This year, the 10 symbols are sewn into an olive tree (top, just under the black and white colors of Siena): Tartuca, Selva, Onda, Aquila, Chiocciola, Bruco, Drago, Nicchio, Giraffa, and Leocorno.
I snapped this photo last week, during the palio’s unveiling at the press conference in the courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico.


Roads Less Travelled

Siena is fantastically warm, mostly with Palio fever: processions, parades, drummers, flag-tossers. Then there are the drawings: for the horses, for the race positions,all of them with that uber-exuberance of the various contrade. I mean, I’m breathless just listing what goes on day and night, and of course I haven’t mentioned the construction. To our NEH group: the bleachers are going up around the Campo, the mattresses are already tied up along the S. Martino curve. We think the dirt for the track will start arriving any day.

The current freneticism of Siena is in glorious juxtaposition to countless places we’ve visited in the past couple of months. We’ve so often been the only ones in a museum, chapel, church, or road, that it’s been like owning the world, or at least a part of it, for awhile.




Breakfast is anytime between 6 (at the apartment) and 8 (on the Campo). Nothing beats getting the best table for cappuccini on the greatest piazza in Italy. Except for those first souvenir stalls rolling in, the place is empty.

When we walked to the bus station one morning, the sidewalk artist was just measuring out his section of sidewalk; we found his chalk “Girl With the Pearl Earring” nearly finished when we returned in afternoon.

Leonardo is in the Cypresses, don’t you think?

We’ve spent time in several hilltowns: Montalcino,Cortona,Pienza, Radicofani,Volterra; at some point during a trek through each one, a top-of-the-world view like this one from Montepulciano appears and more or less nudges my camera out of its case.

We were at Brother Jerome’s place in Vicchio a few days ago.
Alone in the kitchen, Ann is considering what to prepare for breakfast. Eventually, we “prepared” by getting Jerome to take us into town for a morning coffee/pastry.

One of the highlights of our visit was meeting Jerome’s current assistant, young artist, William Massey

In the afternoon, he demonstrated the most recent lesson he’d learned from Jerome.

***************************** POLAND *******************************

We also recently visited Brother Milton in Krakòw, an incredible city worth a re-visit. I took some photographs at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and if you’ve been there, you’ll understand why I won’t be posting any pictures here. Even after years of studying and reading Holocaust literature, I was unprepared for the sheer scale of it all.
Seventy-plus starkly empty chairs in Krakòw: among other things, the monument represents the furniture tossed out of windows and doors by Jews who were being driven from their homes to wait for the trains to Auschwitz and other camps. Just over 56 thousand Jews were living in Krakòw before the war; our guide told us there are now “about 300.”

Returning that evening from Auschwitz to Krakòw, I passed this sign and wondered about the history of the club.

Once again back in Siena, we continue to visit the Campo in the late afternoons: Campari Spritz, very fine.

QUESTION: How do we know this father is Italian?
ANSWER: He talks with his hands!

Santa Catarina: Mainly for Matthew

This post began as an email to Matt, my son who loves most things Italian and nearly everything Dominican. I wrote to tell him that the vigil for the festa of Saint Catherine of Siena had begun with great flourishes on Saturday. We could hear drums and bugles, and see the alfieri with their flags, all over the city….but as I had to tell Matt, Gmail wouldn’t let me load my video.

A second after I hit “SEND” I found he had written me at the same moment to ask how Siena celebrated the day.

If you’re a fan of the Italian language, of Dominicans, or — most important of all,imho — Catherine of Siena, this is for you.

The next day — Sunday, the 29th, as the Torre clock reminded us — everything honoring the great 14thc. Dominican and Doctor of the Church began in the Campo —

First things first, however: breakfast on the Campo, as we waited for the celebrations to begin.

From the Campo, we joined city officials, and the 17 sets of contrade drum-and-bugle-and-flag-carriers, in the procession to Catherine Benincasa’s home, now – and since the 15thc – called the Casa e Santuario di Santa Catarina. It’s an odd place, one I visit fairly often, because it’s near us and because I’m reading Don Brophy’s fine, modern biography of Catherine: (<a href="").

A chapel, “Oratorio del Crocifisso, ” where Catherine is said to have received the stigmata, is on one side. The family’s old kitchen, now an oratory (the fireplace is under the altar!) is on the other side. Downstairs, where I tried again today, again unsuccessfully, to get in, is her cell.

The procession into Catherine’s house lasted for 30 minutes. These black-and-whites represent none of the 17 contrade, but rather the Citta, the City of Siena.

The Dominican Sisters were there with us, watching and waiting above the courtyard…

I videoed these 53 seconds for the drums and flags, but think the bystanders are worth a look, too.

Eventually, the archbishop and cardinal arrived

After an hour of speeches by city and church officials, we went to San Domenico, where we — WAIT FOR IT — STOOD AROUND until the men arrived.

Before Mass, the cardinal and the Dominican prior knelt before the head of Saint Catherine.

Mass was Solemn and High. I snapped this quickly at the beginning (sometime I might be persuaded to reveal what the Prior hissed at me when I got into the wrong line at Communion)

Outside San Domenico, life goes on.

After Mass, it was time for lunch. We went to one of our favorites, which we have FOR TEN YEARS referred to as “La Cellina” (recommended it last week to a couple classmates,and later overheard them recommend it to others). To begin again, we returned, after Mass, to one of our favorite restaurants in Siena, LA TELLINA.
Lunch was lovely, with great soaked-in-extravirgine eggplant antipasta, great seafood (Ann) and decadent gorgonzola rissotto (MEB). The tiny place was packed,and – best of all – we are almost certain the waiter now knows us.

After lunch, we returned to the Campo for more speeches from more city and church officials, a great deal of flag-twirling and even some tossing (this, we believe, is by way of practicing for the 2 July PALIO).

Finally, we joined the procession back to San Domenico with the great relic – not her head, which seems never to leave San Domenico, but her finger. Yes.

(Photo: ATC)

We returned home sadder, wiser, and determined to figure out how to figure THIS out: why the prior had veered right with such alacrity (relic of Catherine suddenly covered with his cappa), then darted into the tiny side door of San Domenico, instead of continuing down Via di Citta, where we had been waiting.

Once home and on the terrace, however, all was forgiven, if not forgotten. It was, really, an amazing couple of days.

25 April: FESTA

Something is going on today that I’ve heard variously referred to as an all-Italy holiday and a communists-only celebration.

For us, it translate as NO SCHOOL. Our neighborhood greengrocer is closed, as is our neighborhood puts-Walgreens-to-shame shop (it’s where we get toilet paper and wash cloths, and where I’ve seen L’Occitane products and fabric softener; I know it is water softener, b/c he first time I did a load of washing, I used it — clothes smell great [are they clean? si et non]).

With everything on/near the block closed, we made another trip to the local supermarto, Conad. We’re preparing for the happy hour we are hosting tonight after the Siena-Bologna soccer game: Spritz- Prosecco + Aperol – accompanied by lots of Focaccia sliced into tiny sandwiches of mozzarella, basil, and tomato. We’re offering other salty things, and a local cheese covered with onion jam (a gift from head of school, Mauro, on my birthday) – from the day we went to Montepulciano. It contains a vino nobile.


If you look out the window in the wine section, you see a fine metaphor:
everything may look like junk up close, but if you take the longer view…

shops at Conad: waiting in line, wondering if all the Prosecco and all the bruschetta-makings and all the cheese will fit into our 2 backpacks…

I did say EVERYbody, didn’t I?

On the way home, we ran into the City Band of Siena, marching to Piazza Salimbeni, where they played for 30 minutes…

Best way to see hear the music:

Being Catholic in Siena: One Procession and a Church

Posters like this one announced the week ahead, an Octave of celebration beginning with Sunday afternoon’s procession from the church of Santa Maria di Provenzano to the city’s great Duomo

We had attended Mass at a side altar of the Duomo on Friday, a celebration with a couple dozen worshippers. Except for the priest, a dapper 50-something WHO SAID MASS WITH HIS BACK TO US, we were the only ones under 70. One of the benefits of attending Mass: free admission to the Duomo. We were hurried out by guards immediately afterwards, however; and of course there is NO PHOTOGRAPHY. AT ALL. ANYWHERE INSIDE.

It goes without saying, then, that getting in free and being able to ignore the “No Photos” signs were among our motives for attending Sunday’s festa.

The interior of the Duomo mirrors the travertine stripes on the exterior.

Entering the great church — old men and their drums (below).
Also notable are the ubiquitous BLACK and WHITE: they are the colors of all Dominicans, of Catherine, the city’s great Doctor of the Church, and of the city of Siena herself.

After settling the statue on steps leading up to the high altar, it was the young men who lead the procession out of the Duomo.

Siena: EVERYTHING Old is New Again



AROUND THE CORNER FROM THE APARTMENT: BAR DIACETTO, perhaps (jury still out) our go-to  bar café. 

The search for coffee brought us here in the morning, torrential rains made it a refuge this afternoon. Suddenly, we were surrounded by scores of 20-somethings ordering their apperitivi (hence, the jury).
In between trips to Café Diacetto, we ran into
–> –> day trippers at San Domenico (was Catherine’s head always so far away? I thought we could get closer than this over-the-top reliquary) and
–> –> a man from Quincy, MA at the phone store.

 This photo of the Easter “Cioccolato” is for Kieran, Gus, Finn, and Ceci – you don’t even have to be in Minnesota (or the North End) for a giant chocolate Easter egg!