eit takes all of ninety seconds. ten sleek, tautly muscled racehorses tear into the sandy track, hurtling themselves forward at nearly lethal speed. Their jockeys crouch low to minimize resistance; some lash out at each other with their crops, and those hardest hit tumble off their mounts and scramble frantically out of the way of the flurry of surgically sharp hooves. Once around the piazza . . . twice . . . three times, the roar of the crowd escalating to a cosmic howl. Then the horse in the lead sails over the finish line-a cannon sounds, like the pop of a Christmas cracker against the citywide roar of ecstasy- and my friend Dario Castagno looks over his shoulder at me. I meet his eyes and nod to him, mouthing the words Vai, vai via! Go, go on!
He leaps down the length of the bleachers and joins the throng of spectators who are flowing over the railing onto the track, like a wave of human magma; the last I see of him, he's fighting off another man for the honor of pressing his lips to those of the victorious horse.
The bleachers are trembling, quivering beneath the feet of the scores of people who are descending in a kind of rapturous fury. Only Jeffrey and I remain in place, the mass of humanity diverting around us as though we're an outcropping of rock in a river. There's no particular reason for us to stay rooted to our seats; but neither is there any enticement to get up. Where would we go? Everywhere we look, we see only tumult; the Piazza del Campo, the beautiful medieval square at the heart of Siena, is overrun with its citizenry, who are in various stages of agitation, ranging from the merely ecstatic to the kind of violent rapture most Americans ever see only in revival tents.
This, then, is the immediate aftermath of the Palio, Siena's annual bareback horse race around the perimeter of its central piazza. It's an ancient rite, an explosive expression of municipal pride, and both Jeffrey and I find it a head-jarring thrill. Why else would we have ventured to Italy in August? It's the month of the ferragosto holiday, when seaside resorts fill up with refugees from every city in the country, leaving virtual ghost towns behind them, their shops shuttered and their restaurants dark, so that American tourists wander the empty streets brandishing their MasterCards in vain. The sole exception is Siena, which has its ancient, inimitable business to attend to.
The race itself lasts only a matter of heartbeats; but there's a historical procession that precedes it-a gorgeous display of medieval costumes, heraldry, and gasp-inducing flag-tossing competitions-that requires a few solid hours to make its way around the Campo. Hence the bleacher seats, or palchi, which Dario has obtained for us at an exorbitant cost. The seats are small and hard, yet they're far more comfortable than watching the race from the vantage point chosen by most of the populace-which is within the piazza itself, shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, buttocks to belt buckle.
"What do we do now?" Jeffrey asks me, and I really ought to have an answer. It's our agreed-on division of labor: I'm responsible for all things cultural, Jeffrey for all things sensual. I'm supposed to know which cathedrals have the gaudiest relics, he, which restaurants the highest Michelin ratings.
I admit I'm not sure. I'd been counting on Dario to shepherd us through this part of the experience; he's the native, after all, the one who actually had a stake in the race today-a winning stake, as it turns out. He's a member of the Bruco, or Caterpillar, contrada, or city quarter, and he warned us earlier that if they won, he'd be leaving us to our own devices-which is exactly what's happened. It's the Caterpillar horse that has triumphed, the Caterpillar jockey who's now being stripped half naked and carried aloft by the jubilant members of the contrada, the Caterpillar constituents who are now forming a human pyramid to reach and claim the beautiful painted banner, called the drappellone, which is the sole prize awarded to the Palio's victor. And it's into this seething well of activity that Dario has flung himself, mind-melding with his Caterpillar brethren as they reach a kind of collective
We can't blame him for leaving us. We're excited for him-and we feel a kind of remote kinship to the Caterpillar itself, as Dario has given each of us its kerchief-in Italian, fazzoletto-to wear tied around our necks, in the Sienese manner. The Caterpillar's distinctive blue, gold, and green mark us out as being part of the victory today, and we're basking in the association, however tangential.
"I think," I say, summoning up all my powers of concentration, "after the race everyone goes to the Duomo for a thanksgiving service."
Jeffrey looks at me dubiously. "Are you sure?"
"I'm not sure of anything right now. But it's all I've got."
And so we begin our descent from the bleachers into the roiling cauldron of the post-Palio Piazza del Campo. We wend our way out into the streets of Siena-narrow, cobbled, and lined by elegantly simple buildings in earthen colors with terra-cotta roofs-usually the scene of a hundred different tableaux all expressing easygoing Tuscan urbanity. But today there's no diminution of emotional intensity; the streets are as riotous as the piazza.
In fact, the sheer violence of the joy on display takes me aback; I try, and fail, to come up with anything I've seen to compare with it. We live on the north side of the Windy City, home of the Chicago Cubs, so we're familiar with the euphoria that barrels through the streets whenever that team clinches a division title-the kind of euphoria that can, whoops, result in broken windows and overturned cars-but it's not really the same thing at all. For it to be analogous, the Cubs would have to be one of seventeen ball clubs in Chicago, each one specific to a certain neighborhood; fans would have to have been baptized in the Cubs church and grown up identifying themselves not as Cubs fans but as Cubs themselves; the Cubs would have to be not merely a beloved team but a family, a community, the foundation of our very identity.
And, oh yeah, there'd have to be only two ball games every summer. And the Cubs would've just won one of them, against all other Chicago teams.
That's a bit like what Dario is going through right at this moment, I imagine. The brucaioli-the people of the Bruco-have just pulled off the one thing that really matters in Sienese society: a victory in the Palio. Even now they're parading through the streets, hoisting aloft the hard-won drappellone. People are reaching out to touch it, fondle it, kiss it. There's a new banner commissioned for every Palio, designed by a new artist and always incorporating the Virgin Mary, who is the patron saint of this event. "Bru-bru-bruco!" Jeffrey shouts, native style, as it passes, without a trace of irony. I'd join him, but my throat is constricted by an unexpected swelling of emotion. This is, I realize, seriously cool.
In the Middle Ages, nearly every city in Italy had some kind of annual civic competition, ranging from the highly skilled (archery) to the refreshingly Neanderthal (hurling large rocks at one another's heads)- but those traditions eventually withered away, worn down by a relentlessly encroaching modernity. Not in Siena. In fact, the Palio has if anything grown in importance and stature over the ensuing centuries. Part of the reason is historical; when Florence, Siena's perpetual antagonist, finally and decisively defeated the city in 1555, it instituted an oppressive rule that all but cut off the Sienese from outside influence. The city was not
allowed to grow or flourish. The entire Renaissance just glanced right off it, as though it were under a bell jar. Effectively ghettoized in their own hometown, the Sienese responded as good Italians always do: defiantly. They placed increasing emphasis on their native customs, rituals, and protocols. Chief among these was the Palio. In this sense, it was for many years not merely an expression of civic unity and strength but a tool of civic survival. The Palio reminded-still reminds-the Sienese of who they are.
And who exactly are they? In a way, there are seventeen different answers. The old walled city is divided into as many districts, each of which is named after a mascot, usually an animal. Each has its own colors, flag, church, fountain, and theme songs; they're like a clutch of pint-size sovereign states all parked within the municipal polity. The Sienese call them contrade, and they are, in no particular order, the Eagle, the Snail, the Owl, the Dragon, the Giraffe, the Porcupine, the She-Wolf, the Seashell, the Goose, the Caterpillar, the Wave, the Panther, the Forest, the Tortoise, the Unicorn, the Tower, and the Ram.
Some contrade are wealthy, some not. Some have ancient, bitter feuds with their neighbors; others have no enemies
at all. What they all have in common-apart from an independent governing body and a constitution-is that their
adherents view themselves primarily as contradaioli, that is,
as members of their contrade. Stop anyone on any street in Siena and ask him to identify himself. He won't say, "I am a Sienese" or "I am a Tuscan" or even "I am an Italian." What he'll say, head held high and eyes spitting pride, is "I am of the Dragon."
Today, wearing our fazzoletti, we feel that we are of the Caterpillar. And in this spirit of borrowed glory we set out for the Duomo-Siena's magnificent, if bizarrely unfinished, thirteenth-century cathedral.
Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure how to get there. We might follow the crowd, of course, but it keeps breaking up and spinning off in all directions (even straight up; I spot someone actually scaling a wall to climb in a window). Still, I can see the tip of the Duomo from where we're standing, and I figure all I have to do is head toward it.
Siena's medieval thoroughfares lack the gridlike regularity we associate with modern metropolises; they twist and turn, they snake and skirt, they fork and double back. (Siena was the first city in the world to ban all vehicles-even bicycles-from its city center, very likely for this reason; the bottlenecks would otherwise be hideous. Two Vespas abreast could clog the average alley as quickly as a lump of gorgonzola can an artery.) And so it proves that the worst way to get anywhere is to head straight for it; we find ourselves, in the manner of Looking-glass Land, right back where we started.
I'm forced to fall back on that most unmasculine of last resorts: asking directions. In my halting Italian, I interpose myself between smiling natives and ask plizz excuse but can you say how is to find Duomo, and am graciously bestowed a full complement of fulsome instructions and extravagant gestures, almost as though I asked not for guidance but for an abbreviated performance of Puccini's Suor Angelica. But it does the trick.
The Duomo is so packed with people, we don't even have room to sweat. And if the noise on the street was cacophonous, in here, under the vaulted roof, it's like having your brains clawed out of your head. You can't see anything either, except the very top of the altar, and the ceaselessly waving contrada flags that threaten at any moment to descend lethally, like a guillotine.
For all the discomfort and incipient peril, the principal sensation is one of joy: reeling, riotous, airborne-yet strangely regulated. I'm being crushed on all sides, but I feel safe; I'm in the arms of something so much larger than I am. Calm descends over me. I'm experiencing a kind of bliss, the quiet transport of being buoyed by a roiling yet eternal sea.
And then I'm buoyed by something else. The service-which, over the deficient sound system, has sounded to me like endless incantations of someone's monosyllabic mantra-has now apparently concluded, and the vast mass of people has rotated clockwise and is heading back toward the doors. For a few moments, I'm pressed against an ample-breasted woman in the most ungracious way imaginable. "Perdonimi, signora!" I holler at her, begging her forgiveness for our accidental intimacy, but she can't hear me, barely even notices me. Instead, she's smiling.
I've completely lost track of Jeffrey, but I feel certain he'll know to look for me outside. Unfortunately, when I'm finally squeezed out the door (I imagine this is what it was like to exit the birth canal), I find the portico thick with churning humanity. I crane my neck skyward, where the first stars are just now blinking awake, and gulp down a few soothing swallows of cool night air.
It's the only respite I get, though, before being literally swept up- yes, I said literally; for a few terrifying moments I am actually lifted off my feet and carried away-by a mob of people in the throes of something like a benevolent frenzy. I gird my loins, slip into Terminator mode, and try to power my way out of their midst, but it's useless; I'm like a pebble in a landslide. It's then that I notice their fazzoletti: blue, green, and gold, just like mine. These are the brucaioli; they've simply absorbed me, like attracting like. I give in and go with the flow.
It isn't hard to figure out where this is headed; I'm hoping Jeffrey will deduce it as well. Possibly he's even in the same situation, somewhere behind or even ahead of me. In any case, I can't seem to summon up any consternation; the mood around me is too triumphal, too ebullient. I'm riding a wave of sheer happiness.
As I suspected, we end up back in the Caterpillar district. We were just here last night for the cena della prova generale, the big dinner before the day of the race, held in the expansive garden of the Caterpillar headquarters. We were seated at a long table reserved for visitors, while the rest of the garden was brimming with exuberant natives. "This is our Palio," Dario had told me confidentially. "We are certainly going to win. We have the best horse, the best jockey. And we have paid off all the right parties so that we expect no interference." He made no secret of the fact that greasing palms was part of the process. Victory in the Palio isn't just won; it's purchased. "Of course," he added, "there's always the unexpected, the freak occurrence that no one can foresee, that throws everything out of alignment. That's part of the excitement of the race. But this year I feel such confidence. The wind is at our back." And that's when he told me he would, despite his kind attentiveness to Jeffrey and me, be off like a shot should the Caterpillar triumph.
Excerpted from Seven Seasons in Siena by Robert Rodi. Copyright © 2011 by Robert Rodi. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.