Il Palio: a Lesson in Boundaries

After these two PhD years, by the end of Easter term, I was understandably ready for a little break – ideally, away from Slavonics, and ideally, away from memory studies in general. So when an opportunity cropped up to spend some time in Siena this summer, I jumped at the chance. And who wouldn’t? The prospect of getting away from academia for a bit and enjoying August in Tuscany, studying Italian, managed to override even my innate dislike of hot weather.

So on July 31 this year I boarded a Ryanair flight from London to Pisa. One couch-surfing adventure and two train rides later, I was in Siena, a beautiful medieval town that boasts the most pedestrian zones in all of Italy (according to my weighty beginner Italian coursebook). There, however, my anticipations succeeded only half-way. Sure enough, I left the Slavonic field behind for a few weeks. But at the same time – like so often in life – I landed smack in the middle of memory.

Memory, of course, isn’t a Slavonic prerogative – as, for instance, Latin American specialists would surely confirm. All collectives and nations in the world have their own legacy to preserve, to deal with, to alter, to manipulate.

Or to forget.

Il Palio di Siena is one such legacy. It’s the first thing people mentioned when they heard I’ll be in Siena this August. Eager to experience the Palio, like all else, fully, I readily launched myself into its sizzling, fervent world. I attended all practice runs before the main event. I learned the names and colours of the town’s contrade, and did my best to remember the intricate historical alliances and animosities among them. On the day the horses were assigned, I attached myself to a group of (somewhat unexcited by this fact) locals and, melting in the relentless sunshine, learned the name and the number of each beautiful animal. Such details are beyond a typical tourist experience at the Palio, which was precisely the point: to dive into it entirely.

Intent, at the same time, on preserving a respectful distance, I broke another tourist tendency and carefully refrained from taking sides, getting involved with any one contrada, or (especially) buying a pretty coloured scarf to signal my alliance. Some friends headed out to look at the colours of flags and pick one to wave during the race; in light of the life-long emotions and meanings attached to the Palio by the local population, this sounded like an awfully questionable basis of temporary devotion. (At the end, no one in my group wore a scarf.) So, all in all, I felt that my effort at this cultural immersion was fruitful and meaningful – until I realized I may have crossed the appropriation boundary of this memory after all. Everything happened quickly: at the end of one of the trial runs, eager to leave the boiling crowded square, I made a simple mistake. Unknowingly, I stepped into a stream of people who were following their horse home.

Tracks are cleared in preparation for a trial run on August 13.

… Emerging on the other side of the indignant crowd unharmed, but shaken (and with a somewhat enriched Italian vocabulary), I headed to a nearby park to regroup. And there I was able to pinpoint the faulty assumption I had unwittingly made: namely, that knowledge grants rights. Which it very often does – but not in the case of cultural memory. Names, colours, facts, numbers – all this is very cool to know, but it hardly brings one closer to internalizing the visceral, medieval significance the tradition of the Palio holds for the carriers of this memory themselves.

Days later, after the Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram) contrada scored its incredibly close victory in this year’s race, one oven-like afternoon I found myself on its territory, drinking free refreshing spritzers (courtesy of the locals) and watching a big, tough, grown man cry openly as he recounted the Palio. It’s been 22 years since Valdimontone’s last victory. “Do you remember it?” I asked in my new language. “Of course,” was the reply. “And I remember our very first victory of my life as well: I was nine.”

Resident of the Onda (Wave) contrada leads the horse home after a trial run.

Imagine that: an entire human life punctuated by a single event, twice yearly. One’s whole sense of justice, triumph and loss – with roots stretching hundreds of years into the past – is nurtured through belonging to a specific historical community. Hope and despair attached to the Palio by the Sienese are beyond description; they can only be read off the weeping faces when the race ends. Not even persons marrying into a contrada can fully share its passion: only the children born on its territory are considered truly its own. And this is one of the secrets of the event’s raw authenticity: openly unwelcoming to tourists during the Palio, and quite uninterested in sharing what is so deeply theirs, the Sienese have managed to keep their tradition just beyond the omnipotent contaminating reach of global commercialism. The Palio is a show, yes; but it remains their own show. An otherwise friendly and welcoming town will glumly tolerate your presence as the intensity of expectations builds up for the race, but if you get too involved or step too close – such as between a group of people and their horse – the response can be fierce. Taken aback at first, one quickly realizes that it is merely the price of the Palio’s rare sincerity, its unusual and refreshing isolation from the grasp of tourism. A price one pays gladly.

At home that day I discarded the race scorecards and deleted all Facebook updates that dealt with Siena’s growing excitement. Memory does not tolerate familiarity – perhaps because it must protect itself from the constant (and quite natural) human drive to mould it. As such, memory seems similar to oceans, mountains, fire, and other powerful elements that people tend to love, to desire, and – through that love and desire – to make a potentially fatal error of feeling comfortable and familiar with. Remembering to tread gently, to tread externally, may be one of the main lessons for a memory studies scholar.

As I reread this entry, I am reminded of those academics who, in the process of acquiring extensive knowledge of their field, begin to appropriate it internally. This might be the way to go in exact sciences, but in disciplines that are ridden with opinions and feelings – such as Slavonic studies – a scholar’s knowledge, no matter how impressive, should not yield a right to a territory’s cognitive appropriation. A personal escapade is unlikely to leave any memory intact.

The gentle but essential boundary of learning about something and yet allowing it to stay within, and move within, the capacity of its original carriers: the skill of observation. Just one of Siena’s many summer touches.

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