Siena consists of 17 historical districts, called contrade (singular contrada). Wherever a district borders on another one, you see its coat of arms on the wall of a building. The contradas play an especially significant roll in the famous Palio.
The historical districts of Siena
The 17 Contradas
The contradas are almost all named after animals: Aquila, Bruco, Chiocciola, Civetta, Drago, Giraffa, Istrice, Leocorno, Lupa, Nicchio, Oca, Onda, Pantera, Selva, Tartuca, Torre and Valdimontone.
The history of Siena is very much related to that of the city’s neighborhoods. These so-called contrade were founded at the time when the Republic of Siena was at the height of its power, towards the end of the 12th century. Each contrada had its own administration and its own mayor. who was assisted by councellors elected by the people. The contrade were, however, under the authority of the overarching Podestà.
The contrada was (and in fact still is) also a reflection of the identity of the town’s inhabitants. This explains why an essentially folkloric event such as the famous annual Palio grips the entire city.
Originally, there were 60 contrade. After the plague epidemic of 1348, this became 42. During the 16th century the number was reduced to 23 and in 1675, after conflicts between some districts, another 6 were abolished.
In 1729 this classification was officially established by the then Governatrice of Siena, Violente di Baviera. Despite several proposed changes, it was never changed.
Each district has its own board, elected every two years. The tasks and duties are no longer those of the past, but have more to do with the organization of social life and events taking place in the district.
Nieghborhood museums Siena
Several contrade also have their own museums highlighting the most important historical events and characters born or raised in the district. These museums are often located next to the district’s main church. The biggest showpieces are the palios (the banners for which the Palio is named) won over the centuries, often decorated by famous local artists of the time.
There are also 14th century gold and silver works of art on display, as well as paintings by old masters and many meticulously written documents highlighting the history of the contrada.
Since they are attached to the district church, one can also often see 15th and 16th century liturgical objects and relics.
The walls are usually painted with historical events related to the history of the contrada itself.