A social place and symbol of belonging for the Sienese.
The term ‘contrada’ appears in Sienese sources as early as the 13th century. As in other Italian towns, it distinguished specific areas of the city along with other topographical references.
In Siena, a Contrada didn’t originally mean a territorial administrative body but a topographical indication that the city’s institutions used to identify an urban area, in particular for recording where the population resided, where they owned real estate or where they exercised any type of work and associative activity.
In relation to the demographic changes of the city, the number of Contrade in Siena changed continuously. At the beginning of the 14th century, during the period of maximum expansion, there were a few hundred. After the 1348 plague that decimated the population by about two-thirds, they were drastically reduced to less than 50.
Although we cannot classify the Contrada as a proper territorial administrative entity in the municipal age, the presence of a ‘sindacus’, who acted as the municipality’s point of reference on public order matters occurring in their part of the city, suggests that the term ‘Contrada’ came to identify an officially recognised institution.
This identification was reinforced at the beginning of the 15th century thanks to the established participation of groups of citizens in public festivities who were identified precisely by which Contrada they belonged to. On these occasions, some still retained the names of streets, parishes or companies, while others began to take on the names of the modern Contrade.
Chiocciola and Giraffa, for example, are referenced around the 1420s in a novel by Giovanni Sermini talking about a game of ‘pugna’ held in Piazza del Campo mentioning their teams. A few decades later in 1495, again during a game of ‘pugna’ recounted in Allegretto Allegretti’s diary, the teams of Chiocciola, Drago, Giraffa, Onda are mentioned, attending with their own ‘banners’ and ‘trumpets’.
A few years later in 1506, an anonymous Florentine, recounting the festivities held in the Campo, mentions Aquila, Chiocciola, Drago, Giraffa, Istrice, Lionfante, Montone, Nicchio, Oca, Onda, Selva, Zoccolo (probably the one that later became Lupa).
The current consolidation of the names and neighbourhoods is documented in a record from the middle of the 16th century. In a report of the August Festival in 1546 written by Cecchino Cartaio, we find 16 Contrade mentioned, and a few years later, all 17 contrade appear with their current names: Aquila, Bruco, Chiocciola, Civetta, Drago, Giraffa, Istrice, Liocorno, Lupa, Montone, Oca, Onda, Pantera, Nicchio, Selvalta, Torre, Tartuca.
From the second half of the 16th century, the Contrade, now stable citizen associations, found a way to be legitimised by city institutions. Even after the strong action of ‘social disciplining’ put in place after the Council of Trento, a strong devotional element behind the Contrade is evident. While the playful purpose and representation in public festivals remained important, the Contrade began to focus on religious activities in some respects in a very similar way to the brotherhoods. This evolution gradually led each Contrada to seek a flagship church where they could exercise their growing commitment to religious activity and as a place of gathering and assembly.
Following this distinctive evolution, the internal organisation of the Contrade was modelled around a constitutional regulation that took into account not only the original recreational purposes of the association, but also the religious purposes. Hence, two figures were assigned to lead the Contrada that still remain today. The Prior (Rector or Governor) who represented the institution and directed the community, and the Captain, who was the neighbourhood’s spokesperson in public performances, increasingly focused on the horse race in Piazza del Campo from the 17th century onward.
At the beginning of the 18th century, legislation that more clearly defined territorial entitlement within the city had become a pressing need. Thus in 1730 the governor of the city Beatrice di Violante di Baviera instructed the Bailiff’s office to redefine the territories of the 17 Contrade according to criteria of fair distribution of the population.
The resulting proclamation remains to this day the regulatory instrument that is referred to when it comes to identifying the areas belonging to each Contrada.
The enactment of this public law is to be considered a key moment in the history of the modern Contrade in that, by introducing the principle of inviolability of the rule, it precisely defined which territories belonged to each neighbourhood as well as establishing the fixed number.
In the following centuries up to the present day,while evolving with the changing times and adapting their constitutions in relation to social changes, the Contrade have maintained their original structure. The most innovative element since its introduction around the end of the 19th century when ‘recreational and mutual aid associations’ were established within each neighbourhood, which are today’s modern Contrada societies.
Today, these entities are greatly important for the recreational activities of each neighbourhood, as these premises have become the main meeting place and gathering place for their members every day of the year.
At present, the Contrade are not only dedicated to participating in the Palio and maintaining culture and historical memory, but also play an important role in the social sphere by taking care of aspects such as maintaining the territory and green areas, organising social activities for children, young people and the elderly, and carrying out charitable initiatives and promoting culture. Because of this role, they represent the city authorities’ key intermediary with the Sienese population.