Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Giovanni Mazzini, IES Abroad Siena

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Dr. Giovanni Mazzini has been teaching with IES Abroad in Siena, Italy, since 2009. He has a Master’s Degree in Medieval History and a PhD in Institutions and Archives from the Università degli Studi di Siena. An historian and archivist, Dr. Mazzini speaks Italian, English, and Spanish. He is a well-published author, has acted on both TV and radio, and has deep family roots to Siena’s Palio, a centuries old tradition.


Sienna, Italy

IES Abroad: What courses can study abroad students take with you in Siena?

Dr. Giovanni Mazzini: I’ve been teaching Medieval History courses like SO/HS 350: The Black Death & Its Aftermath for the Study in Tuscany Program for more than six years.

I also teach courses in the disciplines of Sociology and Cultural Studies for our summer Tradition & Cuisine in Tuscany Program:

IES Abroad: It’s been said that Siena is a city that many foreigners visit, but few truly understand. Why is this so?

GM: To understand the deep and intimate spirit of Siena, it’s not sufficient to spend just a weekend or a few days here. Siena jealously and proudly enshrines the heritage of a great history, when it was the capital of an independent state. In Siena you can “inhale” the magical atmosphere of this glorious past, but only through contact and friendship with the Sienese will you be able to understand the true essence of the city and love it forever.

IES Abroad: What makes the summer in Siena so special?

study abroad in italy

GM: Summers in Siena and its surrounding area are full of interesting events like music master classes held at the Chigiana Music Academy (one of the most important music institutions in the world), concerts, exhibitions, and festivals. Siena is a treasure chest of magnificent masterpieces of art, but it is also the center of an incredibly rich territory—medieval towns and villages, Gothic and Romanesque churches spread everywhere, castles, museums—a marvelous varied landscape with the seaside just an hour and a half away. Siena also offers excellent cuisine accompanied by the most famous Italian wines in the world.

The summer is a particularly ideal time for students to study abroad in Siena because the courses offered really allow students to comprehend the vast world of meanings, symbols, peculiar behaviors, civic pride, identity, and emotions represented by the Palio di Siena.

IES Abroad: What is the Palio and how can students get involved?

Siena history

GM: The Palio is a centuries-old horse race that takes place every summer among the 17 different Siena contrade (historic neighborhood districts). It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the Palio and contrade in Sienese life. The contrade influence social, political, and religious life and have their own music, traditions, and lore dating back to the Middle Ages. A victory or defeat in the Palio remains with the people of the contrade for centuries.

IES Abroad’s Tradition & Cuisine in Tuscany Program allows students to delve into Siena’s biggest event of the year through coursework focused on the historical, cultural, and culinary perspectives of the Palio, as well as through study outside the classroom. Also, because I assisted in the design and curation of the new museum for the Contrada della Tartuca (Condrada of the Tortoise) that opened in 2013, students in my The Palio and the Contrade of Siena course get insider access to the museum and other exclusive monuments throughout the city. Students who are in Siena during the summer can witness the Palio in person to gain an even deeper understanding and appreciation.

IES Abroad: You’re considered a local expert on the Palio—how did this come to be?

study abroad in Siena

GM: My family has been deeply involved in the Contrada della Tartuca for generations. As such, I have become an archivist and die-hard fan. Because of direct personal experience, and as a historian of the Palio, I have had the privilege of delivering lectures throughout Italy about both the contrade and the Palio of Siena. I’ve also had the honor of presenting the prize to the winner of the Palio in the official ceremony at City Hall, and have been featured on the live Palio television broadcasts in the past.

IES Abroad: What role does food play in the Palio and the culture of Siena, and why is there a whole course about it?

GM: Food is central to Tuscan life. It also plays a major role in the Palio. Contrade host special dinners in the days leading up to the event, and the winning contrada hosts a victory feast for the entire city after the race. Each summer, I invite IES Abroad students in History and Culture of Food in Italy and Tuscany to join the traditional pizza dinner at the Contrada della Tartuca. One of the most special aspects of this is a look into the contrada kitchen—an incredibly special experience that most Sienese would never have! The course isn’t just about delivering historical information, but really helping students to experience for themselves the conviviality of the Italian food culture through many course-related excursions related to the Palio and to daily life in Tuscany. 

IES Abroad: What has been your proudest achievement as a member of IES Abroad’s faculty in Siena?

study in siena

GM: Along with being able to convey the love for my city to many of my students, it’s a great satisfaction to stay in touch with many of them via social networks. A very nice moment was when a former student of a summer course returned to Siena during a holiday to meet me and go to lunch. Another fond memory was actually from my honeymoon with my wife in New York City; we went to dinner with another former student of the Black Death course. But, without a doubt, the greatest satisfaction has been when Matthew, a former student who is now a Social Studies teacher, wrote to me last January to say that he was going to teach about the Black Death, and that my PowerPoint presentations had been very helpful!

Thanks to Giovanni for helping IES Abroad Siena students gain insight into Siena’s historic influences, current culture, and the truly unique characteristics of its residents. Apply to study in Siena!


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