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Chianti, Spite, and a Black Rooster

(Lori Strongin dreams of being able to dip her foot into every ocean and sea across the globe — she’s up to seven.  In the meantime, she works as a Training Specialist, writing and traveling as time allows. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, or click here to view her photography.)

Siena’s history, like many Tuscan towns in Italy, dates back to the Etruscan era (900- 400 BC) and claims to have been founded by the sons of Remus. Each year, thousands of tourists flock to this medieval treasure, some to see the art, others to see the Romanesque architecture, and nearly everyone to try the food. But the true treasure of Sienna is the pride of the people who live there and how they have turned spite into an art form.

Back during the reign of the Medici family, the Sienese were in constant strife with Florence. Pick a day of the week, and the towns were fighting over something. But the most heated debate was over the rich fertile fields that produced the best grapes for making Chianti. After years of fighting and bloodshed, the two towns came to an agreement – in three days time, a horse and rider would set out from the center of each town; wherever the two riders would meet, the new border would be drawn.

Seems like a simple solution, no? Well, one problem was that there was no such thing as Greenwich Mean Time just yet; most people looked to roosters to announce the start of the day. The other issue was the cleverness and ruthlessness of the Medicis. For three days, the Florentines locked a rooster in a dark room without light or food. In the wee early hours of the third day, they released the rooster. The poor thing was so hungry and off its routine, it starting cawing, and the Florentine rider took off. By the time the Sienese rooster woke and called out the dawn, the Florentines claimed all the best Chianti lands. And as a final thumb bite to the people of Siena, to this day, Chianti produced from these fields sport a label with a black rooster.

Flash forward to today, Siena still prides itself on spite. Ask around, and the Sienese don’t remember the when or the why, but the town is divided into 17 distinct neighborhoods known as contrada. Each contrada is known by an animal mascot – elephant, lion, eagle, wolf…snail. The mascot appears on everything within the neighborhood from wall scones to street signs to cobblestones. The contrada you are born into is who you are. In the life of the Sienese, your first loyalty is to your contrada, then to your family and friends. I don’t envy those who marry outside their contrada and the split loyalty they must feel.

Twice each year, 10 of the 17 contrade (the plural of contrada) are randomly selected to face each other in the Palio, a horse race in the center of the town around the pear-shaped Piazza del Campo. Unlike most other horse races where the jockey is part of the team, in the Palio, it’s the horse that wins. The jockey could be bucked and thrown, but so long as the horse wins, that’s all the contrade care about. And what’s at stake during the Palio? A painted banner for the winner and bragging rights over the other contrade until the next race. These banners are preserved forever in the winning contrade’s museum (yes, each neighborhood has it’s own museum), some of which proudly display costumes, livery, and banners from Palios more than 600 years in the past.

What a wonderful discovery, this tiny town of Siena, fueled by six decades of history, stubbornness, and spite…in the best possible ways.