home / publications / Siena’s Reaction to the Coronavirus

Siena’s Reaction to the Coronavirus

Siena's population is sequestered at home and public spaces are empty - just like every other town in Italy, of course. Everything is closed except for food shops and pharmacies. After 18:00, silence falls. But a couple of days ago a spontaneous movement started: people came out onto their balconies and started to play drums and trumpets, and to sing: in some cases the national anthem, in others, local music or folk songs.

Siena has reacted by making music. A choir from the contrada dell'Oca (the Goose quarter) sang, in the night, a popular song celebrating the city (viva la nostra Siena); from the She-wolf contrada someone played the drum, so that the streets echoed with the soundtrack of the Palio (a traditional horse race around the Piazza, held twice each summer, honouring community and the Virgin Mary).

Videos of these moments from Facebook:

Siena canta alla finestra. Il coro contro la paura è da briv

Siena, suona un tamburo in una contrada la voglia di Palio

The prevailing feeling is one of resilience, and memory turns to other previous tragic moments in Siena's and the Palio’s history. Someone shared a tale on Facebook of the last Palio that didn't take place; it was 16 August 1943, World War II was raging and the August Palio race was cancelled. That afternoon, Pappio, a fan from the contrada del Drago (Dragon quarter), whose heart was broken by the silence and the absence of the festival, went to the stable where Folco, a famous horse he knew, was resting. Pappio opened the stable door and the horse walked out onto the empty wartime street, with Pappio following. Folco headed towards the Piazza del Campo where the race ordinarily takes place and where he had won more than once before. The horse's hooves resounded in the narrow streets and people began to hear and opened their windows. Someone emerged to join Pappio and walk behind the horse. The sound reminded Siena's people of the future awaiting them, when the dark moment of war would have passed, and they could once again celebrate the Palio.

When Folco finally reached the Piazza del Campo almost one hundred people had joined! They stood silently in recognition of their absent festival and holding hope for the future. Folco then entered the cloister where horses gather before the race and await the signal to start. After waiting in vain, Pappio led the horse back to the stable and the little crowd dispersed, each to their own home.

The siege of Covid-19 now provokes similar responses. Siena's population is translating cosmic fear and anxiety into its own language: singing, playing drums, watching on local TV all the Palio races since recording began, and tomorrow the authorities have invited people to fly the flags of their own contrada (quarters) from their windows. As if the festival was now!

Is the festival performance a reaction to the fear and isolation? As if the terrible "now" had already passed? A collective exorcism? Maybe an irrational reaction? Not at all. Within this response are many efforts to give efficacious and technical, rational answers to the Covid-19 challenge: hospitals, doctors and nurses are saving lives 24/7 and people are behaving as expected and ordered, so as to stop the contagion.

Certainly, this response is a solemn incantation celebrating social life, affirming that survival must be collective. A powerful spell, when a choir sings in the night, or a drum plays alone, reminds us all to hear and listen to our neighbours.

Life will survive, we will survive, collectively and not as a herd, but as humans, giving meaning, sense, and future to every single fragment of our shared humanity, rephrased and sung, locally, either as a choir in the night, or as a single drum, playing in the silence.

This is how Siena is reacting.
My best wishes to you all.
Fabio Mugnaini (Università di Siena)

The third SIEF Summer school on Heritage, tradition, identity: the case study of the Palio di Siena, is scheduled from 25th June to 3rd July this year - at the time of the Palio. However the enduring pandemic menaces the festival celebration and only a significant drop in the danger of contagion can return social life to normality. Our hope and collective actions go towards this end.