Cecilia Rigacci: Passion and Palio


Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"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 Madonna (Virgin Mary)

Rigacci’s Madonna (Virgin Mary)

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's Page, offering all 17 of Siena's contradas to the Madonna.

Rigacci’s Page, offering all 17 of Siena’s contradas to the Madonna.

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.

Warriors with the Balzana

Warriors with the Balzana

DSCN5387

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.

Details

Details

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.

Rigacci's Palio - August 2013

Rigacci’s Palio – August 2013

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.

Artist Cecilia Rigacci [From www.oksiena.it]

Artist Cecilia Rigacci
[From http://www.oksiena.it

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.

Siena, A Bird’s Eye View


Fate works in wonderful ways, and I find that when I’m in Italy, particularly in Siena, I get to cross paths with some very interesting people. Enter Marco Zamperini – a hobby photographer whose photos pack a professional punch.

Photographer and videographer Marco Zamperini.

Photographer and videographer Marco Zamperini.

Marco’s a friend of a friend who graciously allowed me to chat with him back in June. He’s Senese (from Siena) and a proud member of the Istrice contrada (porcupine). His day job sees him working in the medical field, but his passions lead him into his city, into the countryside, and most interestingly, up in the air to chase that perfect shot.

He remembers his father always telling him to “look up” when he was a boy, so as not to miss the stuff going on above eye level. Looking up, he developed a love for flying. During his travels, he realized he didn’t have enough time to take notes on all that he saw, so he turned to his camera to document everything, and his love for photography was born. That was 17 years ago.

What’s really interesting are all the things Marco has used over the years to get those perfect shots: cameras on fishing rods, model airplanes, little hot air balloons, and more recently, motorized flying drones. “I try to look at things from a point of view [usually bird's eye] that other people can’t,” says Zamperini. 

Marco and one of his flying drones.

Marco and one of his flying drones.

Another thing that draws Marco to photography is finding the beauty in the ordinary. “I try to bring out the beauty,” he says.

But when it comes to photographing his city, part of that job is already done for him. “I was born in a city that is sincerely beautiful,” he says of Siena with pride.

I couldn’t agree more. But even with subject matter that’s already stunning, Marco manages to find that angle, that light, that moment that, “something more” and capture it in a click.

I rest my case:

Fontebranda, Siena. Photo: Marco Zamperini.

Fontebranda, Siena. Photo: Marco Zamperini.

Fontana near the Fortezza Medicea, Siena. Photo: Marco Zamperini.

Fontana near the Fortezza Medicea, Siena. Photo: Marco Zamperini.

Palio. Foto: Marco Zamperini.

Palio. Foto: Marco Zamperini.

Siena Duomo from above. Photo: Marco Zamperini.

Siena Duomo from above. Photo: Marco Zamperini.

A magical moment at the Duomo of Siena. Photo: Marco Zamperini.

A magical moment at the Duomo of Siena. Photo: Marco Zamperini.

[PS: It isn't quite finished yet, but Marco's working on a website to showcase and maybe even sell some of his work. When it goes live I'll be sure to put it here. For now, if you're looking to find any of his work for sale, check out the Palazzo del Capitano Galleria d'Arte in Siena: http://www.palazzodelcapitano.it]

My First Palio


Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"July 2, 2010.

Imagine the Piazza del Campo, majestic and beautiful, brimming with a crowd louder and more invested in what’s about to happen than any crowd you’ve ever seen. Tens of thousands strong, they’re singing, yelling, hoping and praying. They’re wearing their contrada’s fazzoletto tied in the front and hanging over their shoulders to show their allegiance. For the Senese, life revolves around the contrada and this event. Heck, even my life has been affected by the Palio.

So imagine standing in the middle of that crowd, willingly trapped in the centre of the piazza, in the late afternoon heat. You don’t quite understand all of what’s taking place, but you’re happy to just be part of all the Medieval pomp and circumstance.

The crowd.

The crowd.

That was me at my first Palio.

Flag-throwing alfieri

Flag-throwing alfieri

Wig-wearing, costumed tamburini (drummers) and alfieri (flag-throwers) promenade around the piazza for the Corteo Storico. The rat-a-tat-tatting of the drums and whooshing of the flags can be heard even above the excited chatter of the crowd. Then, before you know it, there are 10 horses, each bearing contrada colours, being ridden bareback by 10 brave jockeys out the large wooden doors of the Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall) to a thunderous applause. Numbers are drawn and announced over a loudspeaker. The starting positions are set.

Barbaresco

Barbaresco

Then, into the pen they go. The jockeys, atop their circling horses, whisper last-minute threats, pledges and bribes to one another, all in hopes of swaying the race’s outcome. Race? No, it’s not just a race. There’s blood, honour, tradition and a year’s worth of bragging rights on the line.

Finally, the jockeys allow their horses to line up calmly, and a hush comes over the crowd. And just when you’re least expecting it, the number 10 horse, from behind, charges ahead and starts them running.

The pack of horses sprints around the piazza, the thunder of their 40 hooves barely audible over the cheering and jeering of the crowd. I’m cheering for Drago, the dragon contrada. A few seconds after the start, it’s evident Drago is not doing well.

I turn my body to follow the pack of horses around the piazza, trying to my best to snap pictures all the way. With only one lap to go, it looks like the Selva (forest) contrada might win.

Palio

Palio

Selvaaaaaaaa!” Anyone wearing Selva colours is now yelling with every fiber of their being, imploring their expended energy to somehow make its way into the legs of their horse and propel it across the finish line. First.

As the pack passes for its third lap, I’m momentarily confused as crazed contradaioli start jumping into the track and chasing, yes chasing the pack of horses, one or two of which are now rider-less, after having lost their jockeys on one of the treacherous San Martino curves. Are they crazy?

When it’s Selva that crosses the finish line first, the whole scene degenerates into the most chaos I have ever witnessed.

People spill everywhere. There’s not a stitch of order to anything.

Horses are snorting and kicking and trying to evade being stopped. Grown men shed tears, both of happiness and anger. A couple ambitious Selva members climb through the crowds and retrieve their coveted Palio banner. The Selva jockey, I see through the throngs of people, is hoisted onto the shoulders of two Selva members and is paraded, with the winning horse, to the Duomo.

And as each contrada leads its horse out of the piazza, it’s all over.

all over