HS 255 - The Palio and the Contrade of Siena

This course examines the importance of the Palio in Sienese history, culture and mentality, with particular attention to the social, folk, intellectual, political, economic and gender implications of this ancient event, that the Sienese of all times considered their ritual. It’s fundamental that, during their staying in the city of Siena in summer time, the students will be able to understand, know and learn the deep meaning of the presence of the Contrade in the city, and the complex anthropological world behind the Palio.

Beginning with an introduction to Sienese history, from its Etruscan-Roman origins to the end of the independent age, the course will examine in particular the Sienese society in the medieval and Renaissance years, as one of the richest examples of an Italian city-state. The course will also show how in medieval and Renaissance times, popular festivals and games were strictly connected to religious festivities and political-military events. After the description of the common sporting practice of horse races all over Italy, the class analyzes how it occurred that, in the city of Siena uniquely, the Contrade were formed and rooted. The analysis will also regard the incredible heritage of medieval traditions and mentality transmitted to the Contrade, as a sort of deposit of a lost cultural world.

The course will lead the students to learn the present-day institutional organization of the Contrade and the complexity of their annual activities; this course will furthermore try to transmit to the students the capacity of comprehension of the specific diversities exisiting between the various Contrade in mentality, behaviours, history and culture. The Contrade are a sort of different tribes belonging to the same nation (population). The students, through the knowledge gained following this course, will also realize how the Contrade are still the defenders of the Sienese civic traditions and how the Contrade help shape the identity of the Sienese. 

The challenge of this course is to allow students gain a deep knowledge and comprehension of the vast world of meanings, symbols, peculiar behaviors, civic pride and identity, feelings emotions represented by the Palio. Siena the city will be used as a sort of anthropological laboratory for the duration of this course.

This course has also two other, interrelated objectives: to give students familiarity with the main political, cultural, religious, and socio-economic features of life in medieval Italy, and to help students acquire a more critical and analytical approach to history in general, through the investigation of primary sources and the different ways in which historians have employed sources to construct historical interpretation. Field-studies are intended to make the students draw the maximum advantage from the local context, a perfectly preserved Medieval social entity with the occasion of meeting members and leaders of the Contrade, in order to be able to develop skills of inter-personal and inter-cultural competence.  The aim of this interdisciplinary course, which combines lectures with field-study activities, is to give to the students the possibility to learn all the main aspects of the most popular Italian (and maybe European) festival, also considering the relevant impact it had and continues to have on Sienese economy, attracting masses of national and international visitors. 

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