Siena’s Palio is renowned for its pageantry and almost ruthless excitement however after two weeks of festivities for the Giostra di Simone in Montisi, I now know what it is to be a Tuscan and share in the ceremony of an ancient tradition.
I have a contrada, into which I was baptized with wine. I have a banner, which I waved with pride during our failed but valiant attempt of victory. I have a very sore throat from singing songs I had never even heard a fortnight ago. More than anything, I have the warmth of having been an active participant in this festival where no one is a spectator.
Electricians become nobleman. Teenagers blossom into princesses. Waiters look out through visors of their steel helmets holding a mace. British tourists become noble ladies. This is the beauty of the Giostra.
It is not only the people that transform but the town itself is taken back to an age when flames rather than bulbs lit the streets, when spectators sat on hewn benches or grassy knolls to watch brave nights do battle in the dirt, when the glimpse of a maid’s pale shoulders was more provocative then the bare midrifts we see on every corner, today.
Just for a moment, as we walk the cobblestone streets watching expert banner tossing high into the air lit only by torches, we are each transported to that time and place. I am no longer a photographer but rather an anxious member of the St. Martino contrada praying that we get a good slot in the joust so we might break our extended losing streak and rule Montisi for the upcoming year.
A tradition forged in fire
The Joust commemorates a tragic event dating back to the 13th century and, while the date is in some dispute, the fact of this battle and involvement of Simone Cacciaconti is not. As legend has it, three brothers were apportioned, or seized possession, of lands that included Montisi claiming rights to titles and revenues of the town and its castle.
The residents of Montisi, or Montisani as they are known, refused to submit and left Simone with little choice but to storm the castle seizing control with his men at arms. It did not take long for the Count to realize that without leaving a garrison in the castle, he would never maintain control over the citizens. So, in recompense, he returned to Siena only after burning the town and looting everything of value.
Ultimately, after the Montisani sought reparation at the court of Siena, Simone Cacciaconti was banished, losing title to his lands and guaranteeing the freedom of Montisi and its inhabitants. To this day, the town remains unique with a lifestyle integrating art, music, community and a determined independence that the land Barons of the 18th and 19th century crushed in many of the surrounding Tuscan hamlets.
To commemorate their “independence”, from at least the seventeenth century, Montisi has celebrated the “Giostra di Simone” with processions and a Joust. In modern times, the tradition was lost during the period beginning with World War II and ending in 1972 when it was revived. With the exception of moving the actual riding event out of town to a local field, the Giostra and all its pageantry has changed little over centuries.
On the day, each of the four contradas follow a procession in medieval costume presenting their princes and dames, knights and men at arms, riders and horses and, the stars of the procession, standard bearers whose skills at throwing, catching and choreography are judged informally and in a final competition. Standards, which are flag on poles, fly 30 feet into the air criss-crossing each other only to be caught by their counterparts, backs turned.
The procession leads all to the field of battle. With wood hewn stands for the nobility and the dirt hillside for peasants, all will cheer as riders compete to strike the effigy of Simone in full armour midfield with their two metre lances.
The audience has little patience for cowards. They will quickly boo any rider that does not go at full speed nor attempts at least once to spear the small gold ring atop Simone’s shield rather than the easy points of the target he holds. Simone, himself, is quite unforgiving as well since a poor strike will cause him to spin around catching the rider in the back with the chalk mace he holds, eliminating that contrada from the days competition. The winner is the contrada that accumulates the most points over four runs. Skill is essential but so too is the strategy employed.
A month that ends in 2 hours
Sitting on the hillside, as I am but a peasant, waiting for the first rider, I think back on the month that has led to this moment. The Giostra is not a single event but an experience that is lived over many nights of eating, drinking, singing, dancing and participating.
I have been to contrada dinners where over 460 sat at one long table spanning the length of Montisi’s St Matrino contrada, enjoying a four-course meal cooked to perfection. There was Giancarlo, the self anointed ‘priest’ of the contrada, baptising all new comers with wine; Sergio and his mates singing challenges to members of the other contradas who were at table with us; and a fashion show, complete with runway, of local girls dressed in the wedding gowns of their grandmothers.
Days earlier, I stood in a field dancing to the music of international recording artists, The Durgas, who have made Montisi their summer home for years and offer a concert as their contribution to the festivities. Not to be outdone, a man known only as the ‘Engineer’ produced a fireworks show that was as impressive as it was illegal, although no one seemed excessively concerned since the local sheriff had helped him arrange the canisters.
One Sunday, I walked the length and breadth of the town poking my head in open doorways to view all manner of art during a mixed show of local work. Another weekend, alternative performance shows were performed both in the streets and in the charming theatre with troupes from Rome. Montisi has become a draw for artists, sculptors and photographers and its recently opened Academy of ancient music is bringing more international focus than ever before.
I have walked in torch lit ceremonies, I have sung Karaoke with an Irish lass, I have made Pici by hand and I have been the driver for numerous trips to move chairs, tables and whatever else was needed. Moreover, in less than a month, I have shot over 2,000 photos and guaranteed all my friends in Montisi that I will prepare a show where we can look at them together and have a new excuse to eat, drink and enjoy.
As I sit and watch my contrada lose, I feel no remorse, I feel no disappointment. In fact, I find myself cheering for the winners as hard as those of that contrada. I know it does not end here but rather days into the future after more dinners to celebrate the winners and console the losers; after we have replayed the days’ events a thousand times; and once we can speak no more from throats made hoarse in song. Moreover, it will never end since I am now a part of Montisi’s Giostra and it is a part of me.
Montisi.com – an multilingual website produced by various residents of montisi, it has information on activities, places to stay and a calendar of events.
Giostradisimone.it – the official website for the Giostra, run by the Contrada Association (Italian language only).
InTuscany.net – the leading online rental agency for Tuscany, the site is based in the town next to Montisi and has a large selection in all price ranges from b&bs to independent villas.