We were very excited and proud to hear that Sinta Tantra, our 2016–17 Bridget Riley Fellow, has been selected to design the drappellone for this year’s August Palio di Siena. She recently visited the city to meet with various members of Siena’s thriving Palio community to learn about the race and the traditions of the city and to gain inspiration from them.
Each summer since the seventeenth century, the medieval Tuscan city of Siena is taken over by the Palio, a horse race around the central Piazza del Campo. Two races take place, the first on 2 July and the second on 16 August, in which ten horses and riders representing a contrada (or district) of the city compete in the race, with the winner claiming the drappellone as the prize for their contrada.
In her appointment as the designer of this year’s August drappellone, Sinta continues the tradition begun in 1970 of having an international artist designing the winning flag. While the designs of the drappelloni vary greatly according to the artists’ styles, there are numerous elements that must appear in each: the Madonna of the Assumption (or the Madonna of Provenzano for the July Palio drappellone); the black and white shield which is the insignia of the city; the symbols of the current governing bodies of Siena and the district; and the banner or the animal symbolic of each participating contrada.
On the first day, Sinta was shown the contrada of Selva (Forest). Each contrada has its own church, in which their jockey and horse are blessed before the race, and a museum which houses the memorabilia from previous races, from outfits to flags to musical instruments, some dating back hundreds of years. The museums also proudly display all the drappelloni they have won over the centuries. These collections, along with the stories of historic rivalries between contrade and the passion with which they were told, reinforced the extent to which the Palio is steeped in tradition, and how much this tradition is treasured.
The second day included a visit to the Civic Museum, housed in the iconic Palazzo Pubblico of Siena which overlooks the campo where the races take place. Here Sinta was shown further Palio paraphernalia, including the lottery box (below, top-left) which assigns horses to contrade, jockeys to horses, and determines the starting line-up. This is where the factor of luck is introduced: the contrade do not know which jockey and which horse will be assigned to them until around three weeks before the race, when the lots are drawn.
Three further contrade — Oca (Goose), Torre (Tower) and Lupa (Wolf) were visited on the third day, when it became clear just how much each contrada wants to bring back the drappellone to house in their museum! Each contrada has a governing body, headed by a Priore Capo (chief), who manage the Palio matters of their district. It was striking to see how so much of the work that goes into the Palio is voluntary. Apart from on race-days, the seventeen contrade work together to ensure that the Palio continues to flourish — however, every 2 July and 16 August the niceties are laid aside!
At the Torre museum, Sinta met the designer of this year’s July drappellone, Laura Brocchi, which gave her the opportunity to discuss designs, materials and painting techniques. Until the mid-1970s, it was deemed that the artist for the July drappellone should be from Siena, after which the pool was expanded to include all Italian artists. This year, however, sees a return to tradition as Laura is from Siena.
The visit to the contrada of Lupa also gave the chance to see last year’s July drappellone, designed by Tommaso Andreini, which has pride of place in the contrada’s church.
A few weeks later, back in Rome, we had a special visit from new Sienese friends, who came to Rome to see the BSR, visit Sinta’s studio and, most importantly, to deliver the silk banner which will bear the design for the August drappellone. After the race, the flag will be carried through the city by the victorious contrada to the duomo of Siena.
Some days later, Sinta hosted a screening of the 2015 documentary film Palio, directed by Cosima Spender, to give a taste of the race and its traditions and to reflect on her involvement in the project so far.
Ellie Johnson (Communications & Events)