Linda and I slither our way into the Piazza del Campo just after 6pm, hopeful that I might be able to land some bleacher seats for this trial finale. I had found my way behind the bleachers near the Casato earlier today to ask, it turns out, a gelato shop clerk how the process works to get bleacher seats for tonight. After struggling with my Italian a bit to explain what I want to do, she smiles and says “in English?”. I sigh and resign myself to another embarrassing attempt to communicate. These store owners are more likely to know at least some English given their location at Ground Zero for visitor activity. “Plan on being here by 6:15 at the latest, and someone will sell you tickets and let you in”. Ok, I’ve got pretty solid instructions, elevating my hope that if I do as she says, Linda might get a view of the action from above. I was intent on finding a decent location, hopefully in those tempting bleacher seats. They would only cost 5 or 10 euros each, which I was quite willing to pay, for Linda’s viewing pleasure as well as my own. We approached an opening in the bleacher gates from trackside, right around 6pm, satisfied that I had followed instructions of the Gelato lady and arrived about when she recommended.
Things always seem more difficult than they should be in Italy, an observation that comes home to me yet again. I was hoping to see a well-recognized bleacher attendant of some kind, someone I could pick out immediately selling tickets and perhaps even ushering people to their seats. Nobody stood out with such an appearance. Already I felt a let-down coming on instead, as I saw very few seats remaining in the bleachers that were, according to my gelato informant, supposed to be ushering in eager spectators at this time. My last hope was with two portly city employees wearing orange vests nearby. Of course, their proximity makes them experts, an assumption I hoped would pan out. It did. Their expert knowledge informed me and another gentleman that there was absolutely no chance of getting into the bleachers. For how long have these people been sitting up there, I wondered. No matter, we’re late. So much for my informant.
My level of alertness has shot up, however, as I realize there is no more time to waste. I report the bad news to Linda, and we make our way for the interior of the Piazza. No good view for her tonight, I think with some disappointment. Back to the center. My first instinct is my comfortable barrier at the Casato, directly across from the bleachers that had just denied us access. Note to self: Arrive at 5pm and bring food for the bleachers next year. With mixed emotions I find that middle-aged couples have already claimed the coveted trackside spots, with one couple sitting on the ground. Still, I notice my destination instantly – the 4-foot tall hexagonal cement pedestal that serves as one of the few permanent features in the Piazza throughout the year. Our chance is now. I quickly share the plan with Linda and we make our way to claim the post. As long as nobody sits on it, we will both have an unobstructed view of the track in front of us. Linda hugs the pedestal to peer over the top, while I stand behind her and enjoy the view over her head.
While negotiating space around us, we watch the intensity of this final prova unfold around us. Even though we consider ourselves to be early, large clusters of contrada loyalists wearing their home colors are already perched in reserved blocks of bleacher seats. This wouldn’t be so intriguing, but for the fact that some of the most prized seats, directly in front of the Palazzo Pubblico, are occupied exclusively by kids of grade-school to middle-school age. Lots of them – hundreds. Gradually, parades of them representing each individual contrada make their way through the gathering throngs and climb into the precarious bleachers overlooking the Palazzo stretch. This is really saying something, I think to myself, to place their kids in such prime real estate. Then the kids start to chant something in unison, singing some kind of fight song in their high-pitched voices, staying even busier with various arm-waving routines and swinging back and forth in unison.
“How…” My thought trails off in confusion. Then I try again: “How… did they entice the kids to do this, and in such a disciplined manner?” They are all generally coordinated in color of outfits, some contrade more so than others. From right to left, it is difficult to mistake their identities, as long as one has done a little homework on their colors. Wave, Ram, Goose… It’s hard to miss the Goose, third from the right, as their uniform green shirts signify one of the most disciplined groups. As each contrada horse makes its way with its entourage to the Palazzo entrance for staging, groups of kids are doing likewise, finding their designated places in the bleachers. The scene reminds me loosely of my marching band days, finding our designated bleachers for home games or “band days” for high school, all dressed uniformly and eager for the show.
I think I have found one answer to the mystery surrounding the eerily conforming teenagers in Siena. The kids are being included front and center as an important part of this tradition and spectacle. They are brought up with it, and taught to enjoy it. They have a place and feel like they have a strong role. By the time they are teenagers, it is in their DNA, so to speak. Where they live is who they are. Of course, the social scientist in me can’t help but also wonder how many kids are not here tonight? Are these attendees volunteering? Did their parents make them go “for the honor of God, family, contrada”? How many stayed at home because of last-minute temper-tantrums or not having done their homework? What percentage of kids, of various age groups, are engaged with the Palio specifically and with contrada life generally? Regardless of these remaining questions, tonight the answer is crystal clear: these kids are integrated and strategically placed front and center. They are perceived as a vital part of society, make no mistake, and they will be seen and heard. We further note that parents are the same pretty much anywhere; we chuckle as parents across the track from the bleachers yell and wave at their little contrada loyalists perched in what otherwise would have been hundred-euro bleacher seats.
Cutting through the background noise of socializing comes an impressive and recognizable melody. I have enjoyed this ritual throughout the past three trials, and now Linda has her chance. A large chorus of men down near San Martino are bellowing out a song in unison. And, is that harmony that I hear? They’ve practiced? The A Cappella music is muffled a bit due to its distance across the piazza, but it is captivating all the same. My first thought at hearing this was a distant memory of a favorite motion picture, none other than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Indians (or Pakistanis?) are singing in unison in the middle of a desert, essentially paying homage to the new “gods” that descended upon them the previous night. Creepy stuff. No UFOs here, but I experience a similar sensation with adults singing and chanting from across the open expanse. In response, directly behind us the young men of the Wave (Onda) Contrada open up their voice boxes and “send it back” to the other side. Then, almost as if to out-do their neighbors from the Wave, a lively group of young women decked out in orange and white belt it out themselves. They represent the Unicorn (Leocorno) and are enjoying the ultimate “ladies night out,” separated by gender and age, I note.
The song they sing now is at once an indicator of strong pride for both Siena and their own contrada. According to my college-aged friend from the Panther and some further online digging, the song is known as the Canta della Verbena, or the Song of Verbena. The verbena to which it owes its name is apparently an herb that is found growing between the bricks within the Piazza del Campo. Representing a sort of national anthem, the proud Sienese sing their song in unison at sporting events and other relevant city-wide events. The words to the song speak directly to a strong sense of place for Siena, focused intently on the Piazza del Campo itself:
“Nella Piazza del Campo/ci nasce la verbena, viva la nostra Siena/viva la nostra Siena (repeated 2 times). La più bella delle città.”
In the Piazza del Campo / There comes the Verbena
Long live our Siena / Long live our … SIENA!
In the Piazza del Campo / There comes the Verbena
Long live our Siena / The most beautiful city! (translated from http://www.ilpaliodisiena.com/FAQ/contradaioli-ita.htm)
Though all Sienese sing these words of pride during city-wide events, each contrada replaces them with their own, more colorful verses during the Palio. A bit less romantic than the Siena version, the song is generally used by the contrada to verbally rip apart their enemies, albeit fit into the same melody. This explains the singing back and forth across the Piazza, focused instead on taunting their rivals. A rough translation of the Panther’s version, for instance, goes something like this, aimed at their rivals in the Eagle (Aquila):
Even if it flies high/we aren’t scared. Eagle garbage/Eagle garbage. Even if it flies high/We aren’t scared. Eagle garbage/You suck to the city.
Amusing taunts aside, the Canto della Verbena can be interpreted as a cultural allusion to their overlapping place identities for city and contrada, nested into one melody. At once the Sienese are expressing their local attachment to city and contrada, through the very same melody. Note that there is absolutely no hint of attachment in the song to Italy. The Sienese identify first with contrada, and to Siena as a close second. They are only Italians when necessary or convenient, from what I gather.
As the singing contest continues, I am unpleasantly reminded of what one Siena School staff told me days ago about the crowds here. “During the Palio people wait for hours and can get pretty nasty defending their space. It can become vicious and quite competitive in the Piazza”. We soon found that she was indeed accurate, even though this wasn’t the real Palio race. It’s a practice. There is no winner. The horses trot around with their jockey test pilots, getting a feel for the track while probably 20,000 spectators take the event much more seriously than they had the night before. It’s not about the game, I remind myself, it’s about the spectacle.
This is why people seemingly line up to challenge us for our coveted spot at the pylon. First a middle-aged, short Italian woman starts making a fuss about Linda’s coat being placed on the pylon, seemingly suggesting that someone should be sitting up there to not waste the space. I’m not sure this is what her annoyed Italian comments are actually saying, but otherwise I’m not sure. Her friends or family are not far away, and she is clearly serving as the courageous “front man”. The “whole fam damily” is just waiting to pounce at any weakness on our part. Linda hugs the pylon even tighter, with both of her feet strategically spaced on the ground. She knows this will be a territorial ground war now. The Italian woman continues to literally push her way into the couple standing to our left, from Holland I later determine. They were more annoyed with her than I had known, as the woman commented that they had been waiting for hours and were not about to give up their spots to a rude woman trying to press in. At this point I’m starting to become uneasy and a bit uncomfortable with this display of human nature: too many humans, too little space. Humans want space, humans not willing to give up space. Bad things can happen. We are already experiencing what Anya had forewarned about tomorrow night. Not a good sign for Palio night. The first cannon explodes, surprising all of us once again. I still have not unlocked the mystery of the cannon and why there is no audible warning before its first firing. Pavlov and his famous dogs kick in later when they provide a drum roll in advance, but not this time. Never mind, the crowd is thickening and pressing in. A group of Italian teenagers, it seems, is likewise eyeballing our precious pylon, with the hope that one of them will soon be atop of it, blocking the view of those of us behind. Lesson learned from that experience two mornings ago. Linda warns me that the teens are gradually pushing in, presumably getting ready to make a run for the pylon. One of them actually points and provides a sheepish request to get in. Linda stands her ground and confirms that the request is denied.
In the meantime we have befriended the determined Dutch couple to our right, who have finally decided to stand. I am secretly worried that someone would use them as a stepping stone if they didn’t get up soon; they are relinquishing their air rights, which seem to matter here. Following some conversation that unites us against the intruders, the six of us form an unwritten, united front at our barrier, and by the time the Caribinieri make their appearance on the track the threats from behind us have apparently subsided. We lower the threat level to DefCon 2. The mad Italian woman has taken her fight elsewhere. Linda has made friends with the Dutch woman, just short of trading contact information. I keep wanting to call her Helga, my great Aunt, as that is who she reminds me of. Friendly when you get to know her, with a decent sense of humor, but don’t ever mess with her or she will flatten you without much regret. She and her husband are great allies to have standing beside us. It’s show time.
I realize another challenge, now that we have secured the pylon; people will crowd in – and upward – as the cameras rise in one unified mass into the air. Even I don’t have a very clear view down the track toward the Palazzo Pubblico as the mounted Carbinieri make their way towards us. They are impressive and gallant with their polished uniforms, graceful mounts, and layers of medals and regalia clanging along. This is the bonus, I have learned, to attending the trial tonight, which even has its own designation as the Prova Generale. We have been told about the traditional appearance of the Italian version of the Cavalry, and we are not disappointed. Not that we could see much. I mention to our Dutch friends that their second trip around the track should be at breakneck speed, swords extended in front of them as they ride courageously into an imagined battle. Or car chase, nowadays. Actually, what are they supposed to do on these horses? They will certainly go to war in style, I think. After another half lap around the track, I wonder if the promise of a full-on charge is not to be. Then past the mossa we see their bobbing heads increase in speed and the crowd roars with delight. I manage a few acceptable photos, albeit intruded with some arms and heads, as they blow past. As the jockeys finally make their way to the mossa one more time, we soak in the scene and ambiance of this thrilling tradition once more: the unified singing, the contrada pride, the electric crowd, the sea of spectators across the Piazza. Everything tonight is more intense, more elevated, with seemingly greater stakes for everyone involved. Tomorrow night at this time, it’s game on. Whether we are present or not for tomorrow’s final event, I am more satisfied than ever about one thing: For all intents and purposes, we have just experienced the Palio.