Here is Part 2 of Anne Fortier’s blog entry on the beautiful city of Siena and its role in her novel, Juliet, now available in paperback.
As far as I know, there are no family feuds raging in modern-day Siena. At least none as bloody as the proto-Shakespearean rivalry between the Tolomeis and the Salimbenis, which lasted for almost a century and only definitively ended with the Bubonic Plague in 1348. More than six hundred years have passed since that era of deadly neighbour wars . . . or have they?
Those who have dared to visit Siena during the mad, hot days of the Palio horserace might well argue that the ferocity of this recurring event is a window into the feuds of the past. Nowadays, neighbourhood associations have replaced the old noble families, but the spirit of tradition remains. The neighbourhoods, or contrade, spend months plotting and planning their participation in the Palio, not to mention guessing and second-guessing the plans of others, and quite frankly, it sometimes seems as if the pain and anxiety of it all far outweigh the pleasure.
Within the ancient city walls of Siena there are no fewer than seventeen such contrade, each with their own magistrates and coat-of-arms, and each passionately fond of their own little neck of the town. They all have their allies and their rivals, and children are brought up to suspect and loathe the enemy unconditionally. Why? If those same children were to ask why, say, “people from the Unicorn stink like sewage”, the answer would simply be: “Because that’s the way it has always been.” In other words, no one knows exactly how these old rivalries began, but for every Palio and every new skirmish on the race track or among the spectators, the loathing grows stronger.
The members of the Goose contrada, for example, would not be caught dead in the streets of the Tower, nor would a young man of the Eagle ever dream of dating a girl from the Panther. If he did, he might soon find himself in an agonizing re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet.
Part of the charm of Siena is that the whole town is a contradiction, and proudly so. Rivalry and emotional turmoil brew right beneath the calm, conservative surface, and when the pent-up emotion finally erupts, foreigners are wise to keep a distance. Historical records prove that the people of Siena have always been quick to act and take political matters into their own hands; the origins of the contrade, in fact, were military companies that were poised to take to the streets within minutes in order to maintain the peace.
During the days of the Palio, with thousands of enthusiastic contrada-members roaring through the streets, a tranquil place is hard to come by. Perhaps this is why I fell in love with the inner courtyard of Palazzo Chigi-Saracini, or, as it was known during the Middle Ages, Palazzo Marescotti. If the richness of Siena culture seems overwhelming, this small stone oasis can be a charming refuge. Only steps away from the race track in Piazza del Campo, Palazzo Marescotti has a quiet dignity of its own, and from the moment I first saw it I knew it would come to play a central part in my life, or, more specifically, in my book.
This was where I first felt the presence of Romeo, and began to imagine what life would have been like for a young man during the Middle Ages. Not that different, perhaps, than it is now. It would have been a life full of choices and challenges, a life requiring great responsibility. Not so for Juliet. Her path would have been determined by the wishes of male family members, and she would not have been free to learn from her own experiences. Had this medieval Juliet had the freedom and opportunities young women take for granted today, her life would have been less likely to end in tragedy. Or maybe that is wishful thinking. But then . . . isn’t that what fiction writing is all about?