Wabash Blogs Immersion 2009: Italy - St. Francis of Assisi

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Sienna: Great Starting Point

The study of St. Francis does not only include looking at paintings and written records, but includes developing an understanding of the Italian culture. Sienna was a wonderful city to explore this trait because it has retained most of the medieval character it had during St. Francis’ life. In particular the physical organization of districts or “contrada” has remained the same over time. During the medieval time period, the contrada were responsible for individual tasks that benefitted the city. For example, the dolphin contrada is located on the edge of the city and was therefore responsible for guarding a particular length of the city wall. The other contrada were also given tasks that were well suited for their physical location or the occupations of the contrada members. In addition to their duties, the contrada also have rituals and competitions that take place at certain times of the year. A unique contrada ritual is secular baptism. Virtually all of the people in Sienna are Christian. Therefore, they have a secular baptism in addition to their Christian baptism. Every contrada has their own baptismal fount where they baptize their members. The dolphin contradas’ baptismal fount is pictured below.

            The most well known ritual in Sienna is the bi-annual Palio di Siena. The Palio is a horse race between the contrada. This race involves an approximant one mile race that is held in the Piazza del Campo, the town center. The square is currently paved with large tiles; therefore they bring in clay and barriers to form the track around the perimeter of the town square. The race is very intense and from what Dr. Cook has described it seems as intense as our annual battle against DePauw. There are sixty-thousand people in Sienna and during the Palio all of them are present as well as about a thousand others. Each contrada enters one horse and also hires a jockey. The horses are randomly assigned to each contrada. This keeps the contrada from spending large amounts of money training a horse for the race. However, despite the attempt to keep the monetary exchange low for the Palio the jockeys are paid large amounts of money. Currently, a contrada will pay upwards of a half a million dollars to hire a competitive jockey. If the contrada is successful at winning the Palio, their prize package includes bragging rights for the next several months. 
            The history lesson of the contradas’ tradition served as a great starting point, which opened my mind to the local culture in Italy.  Without first developing an understanding of the culture, the educational lesson of the trip would be greatly reduced. Thankfully, we had a great guide to lead us and teach us throughout our entire journey in Italy. I am grateful to have the opportunity to study in Italy because it allowed me to develop a thorough understanding of our course material and introduced me to a foreign culture, which I had not previously experienced.      
Colin Ridenour-‘09