Siena, Italy has long been of relevance to researchers from diverse fields such as anthropology to sociology because of the city’s unique and historical “contrade” structure. Whereas the contrade itself can be related to contemporary concepts familiar to urbanists, such as districts or wards, what makes Siena’s contrade structure of particular interest is the functions which relate to the contrade’s roles in the Palio, a biannual horse race that occurs in the center square of Siena and is a competition between Siena’s contrades. As Drechsler (103) writes, there is a certain sense in which the concept of Siena’s contrade is inseparable from the Palio horse race. The Palio horse race is something to the effect of an event which is a nexus for the contrade and defines their inter-relations. But, as researchers such as Drechsler have suggested, it would be a mistake to only view the contrade through the lens of the Palio, in so far as this overlooks some of the key functions the contrade plays in Siena’s social organization beyond the great horse race.
From the perspective of sociology and the organization of urban life, Drechsler (2006) underscores the extent to which the contrade functions as a positive social role. Crime levels, for example, are low in Siena and Drechsler (2006) suggests this is because of the organization the contrade plays. The Palio does play a role in this, since, as a focal point of urban life in Siena, many social relationships from an early age are shaped by the desired participation in the Palio, such as in the form of Alfieri parade which precedes the race itself. (Drechsler, 2006, p. 101). The contrade, in this reading, has a positive role in creating an inclusive social space within the respective wards: to belong to this social space is to belong to a particular contrade, since joins this close-knit community either through paternal lines or birth within a particular contrade. (Silverman, 1979, p. 414)

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What makes the contrade so effective is arguably the autonomy it possesses to perform social functions. Blank describes this as a “corporative” structure, whereby contrades are “formally organized, owns property both real and ritual, and maintains political and economic relations as a corporate body with other contrade and with the city government.” The contrada in this sense are forms of autonomous governments, practicing a form of micro-politics on the level of the district or ward. It is arguably this autonomy on the district level as well as the inclusiveness of the social unit that allows for each contrade to flourish. For example, everyone who is born in a particular district feels obliged to this district, bound to it. Accordingly, problems such as corruption, delinquency, and other forms of crime are minimal if non-existent. (Drechsler, 2006, p. 101)

There is also a sacred aspect to the contrade phenomenon. For example, each contrada has its own patron saint. (Parsons, 1997, p. 182) Festivals and ceremonies for patron saints, as well as honoring the dead, link the sacred to the profane within the urban space of the contrada. Arguably, it is precisely such a linking of sacred and profane, with the key roles of patron saints in defining each contrada and the events which link the entire community, such as the Palio, which imbues the life of the people with sense of belonging and meaning. The function of the contrada in this sense is threefold: it provides a form of social organization, which is at once radically inclusive, and the same time, possesses a deep meaning to this same structure, as paternal, urban and religious ties, are cemented by the sacral bonds. Furthermore, it can be added that the Palio subsequently binds all the communities of the contrade together. Although the Palio is a fiercely competitive event between the districts, it does serve as a shared tradition which bonds the community together on a greater level.

  • Drechsler, W. (2006). “The Contrade, the Palio, and the Ben Comune: Lessons from Siena.” Trames. 10, 60/55, 2, pp. 99-125.
  • Parsons, G. (1997). “Unita nella diversita: Civil Religion and the Palio of Siena.” The Italianist 17. pp. 176-203.
  • Silverman, S. (1979). “On the Uses of History in Anthropology: The “Palio” of Siena.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 6, No. 3. pp. 413-416.