Space, society and self in Siena, Italy: A study of community, identity and social change in small, southern European city
This study examines the Sienese contrada, how this system is able to maintain itself in the twenty-first century, and the reasons why such a system persists. What sets it apart from other works is my consideration of the contrade not as artifacts, but rather, as vital forms of social organization that exist in the context of larger spatial, societal, economic, and political structures or constructs.
Contradaiolo “sub-culture” is “created and continually recreated by people through their social interaction” (Geertz), however, facets of the contrada-Palio system that are Palio-specific are more resistant to change than the more idiosyncratic culture of the contrada. Contrada culture was immanent in the space of the rione throughout most of the twentieth century, and a built environment laden with personal experience—as well as historic and cultural significance—participated intimately in the generation of a vita contradaiola. Various recent factors have contributed to a reinterpretation of ‘cultural space’ vis-à-vis the contrada; this reinterpretation, abetted by state subsidies, has resulted in a change in the manner in which contrada space is both felt and generated. The role of the società di contrada has been critical, and ‘ contrada identity’ has been impacted. Current changes reflect global-scale/globally imposed values.
While the contrada system spawns a culture of fractiousness comparable to ‘ethnic’ subdivision, the situation in Siena is unique because of the archaic Palio, the powerful civic presence of the city (bolstered by such mediating institutions as the corso ), and the fact that there is little other than constructed, territorially-based rivalries to differentiate contradaioli .
Does the formalized structure of the contemporary contrada, which succeeded the more phenomenological workings of the old contrada , weaken or strengthen a spirit of ‘civitas,’ and eventually, ‘nation’ in the classical European sense? Certainly, the nature of place-loyalty has changed with time. The imposed post-war structure better resonates with ‘national’ structures: it is more distant from the people than the gemeinschaft organization typical of the old order, and requires greater reliance on symbol. Yet, local identities continue to vie with those of grander scale, and local communities play a crucial role in maintaining a civil lifestyle.