Earlier this summer, I wrote a few posts about Il Palio di Siena: my first Palio experience and a bit of a history of the Palio. If you’ve read them (go read them!) you’ll know that the Palio happens twice a year: July 2nd and August 16th. I didn’t want to leave all the Palio blogging leading up to the one in July, so, through the lovely way that everyone knows everyone in Siena, I managed to wangle an insider Palio experience to share with you here. Pronti? Ready?
In a little bottega in a little corner of a winding street in Siena, chiocciolina (member of the Snail contrada) Cecilia Rigacci has her workshop. It’s there that she paints and restores the drums used in various contradas. She also makes barberi, Senese toys, and it’s where, last summer, Cecilia Rigacci masterfully designed and painted the Palio banner for the 2013 Palio d’Assunta (August).
While the Palio was back in her workshop for restoration, I had the chance to drop in one morning and see it up close. I also got to chat with the artist and learn what goes into making such a prized banner: passion, skill, love, history, respect, hope, tears, laughter, heart. And in Rigacci’s case, lots of rock music. (It helps her work).
But you don’t just volunteer to paint the Palio, turn up your Zeppelin and take up your paintbrush – on the contrary. An artist has to be selected by the city of Siena, then supplied with a piece of Florentine silk made especially for the Palio (80 cm x 250 cm), draw up a plan, gather materials, then put paintbrush to Palio and get working.
When she heard that she had been selected to be the artist for August 2013, Rigacci’s heart soared. “It was incredible,” she said.
It was the opportunity that every Senese artist dreamed of. It was her chance to do something for her city. “I wanted this Palio to give people a reason to love Siena,” she said. Plus, it’d give her the chance to give life to the Palio design she’d had tucked away in her mind forever.
Rigacci’s Palio includes many elements starting with the Madonna, who has featured on every Palio for centuries, because Siena the city is dedicated to her. A young Page, which represents Siena, offering up the 17 contradas to the Virgin Mary. Trailing from the Page’s pillow is a green ribbon, with the words “O Maria la tua Siena difendi”, a popular Senese invocation to the Madonna to defend “her” Siena. “When a Senese hears this, it brings a shiver,” she says.
Rigacci explains further, “We’re [the Senesi] not asking…we ask only for that protection that she [the Virgin Mary] has always given us. We’re already aware [that she protects us].”
Other features of the Palio include, in the bottom left corner, two warriors holding Siena’s flag, the Balzana, and in the right corner, a small corner of a zebra striped building – the Duomo di Siena. When she told me this, I commented that it’s only fitting that for a city that lives for its history, the elements of the Palio would be all historical.
Rigacci agreed, “We go forward but always passing the message [history] behind. It’s a sign of respect towards those who left us these messages. Memory adds on itself. When we don’t know how to go forward, we look backward.”
In addition to watercolour, Rigacci used a variety of types of embellishments: peridot, coral (at the urging of her son), gold and pearls – all natural materials. “I didn’t want the banner to be polluted with false things. Authentic from beginning to end,” she says.
But there’s more to this Palio than what meets the eye. With Siena, there always is.
“I wanted to give more value to what I was creating,” says Rigacci. So she asked that each of the 17 contrada send her a piece of one of their oldest contrada flags. “Flags count so much for we Senese,” she explains. The contradas responded very favourably to her request, and provided her with a piece of historic material to sew into the Palio, behind their contrada’s symbol.
The symbols and meanings that feature in this Palio are endless. Some are profoundly personal for Rigacci and her family, while others are recognizable and shared by all people of Siena.
All in all, Rigacci spent two and a half months perfecting her Palio after the unadorned banner was delivered to her. When it finally came time to unveil it, days before the race, Siena was awed. Although her contrada didn’t win her Palio, Rigacci’s father’s contrada, the Onda (wave), did.
Listening and watching Rigacci speak about her Palio was a wonderful experience for me. I was enthralled by the passion with which Rigacci spoke of her city and her work, and I marveled at the tender way she regarded her Palio, not because she was proud of a job well done, but because she was so happy to have been able to give something to the city she loves so much.
What does she say of the whole experience?
“It was unbelieveable,” she told me, smiling wide. Having finished her work as a Palio artist, I wondered if she was sad. It was obvious that she put her heart and soul into this Palio, and after the restoration it would be hung in the Onda’s museum of victories, where she probably wouldn’t see much of it. Her response?
“Realizing a dream isn’t extinguishing it, it’s living it fully […] I still haven’t stopped having those feelings.”
I was eager to share this with you, readers, not only to give you some more info on the Palio, but also to give you a bit of deeper insight into the people of Siena, to help Cecilia Rigacci on her quest to give people a reason to love Siena. It’s the passion of the people and the respect for history and tradition that draws me in and keeps me coming back.