The following articles appeared in Renaissance Magazine

The Games of Siena

Renaissance Magazine
Issue #31

Throughout history, men have tested their strength, endurance, and skill in ways that have often seemed barbaric. And the medieval games of Siena , Italy were a prime example of this quest to be hailed a champion.

One such contest, the Pugna (or Giuoco delle Pugna), involved both the local townsmen and the military. A game similar to boxing, it began as an all-against-all fistfight in the streets. But in 1324, a Pugna between the three sections of town--with 600 men to a side--ended violently when the hand-to-hand combat turned into stone throwing and then to the use of swords and lances.

To break up the melee, the Bishop, along with priests and friars from all the religious orders in Siena , gathered at the Piazza del Campo, holding a processional cross, slowly parading their way through the thick of the battle until the combatants quieted down. To prohibit any repetitions of the violence, the government abolished the Pugna in 1325.

Another peculiar sport of Siena was the Asinate, or donkey fights. In this game, each contrada (neighborhood) would choose a captain, a youth to carry the district's banner, and a donkey to be painted in the colors of the contrada. Taking place in the Piazza del Campo, the object of the Asinate was to ride the donkeys around the square and the first team to finish two complete circles won. But having learned their lesson from the Pugna, in these games the Sienese did not allow arms, and anyone violating these strict rules faced both corporal and financial punishment.

Only one contest, however, has survived the centuries--the Palio--a horse race that existed well before the 11th century, and took place two times a year: on July 2 (in honor of the Madonna who had miraculously appeared to Provenzan Salvani, the hero of the Battle of Montraperti) as well as on August 15 (a day dedicated to the Madonna of the Assumption).

The name of the race was synonymous with the prize awarded to the contrada who won the race. A misrepresentation of the Latin word pallium (meaning a rectangular piece of cloth), a palio was a wool, silk, or velvet rectangular piece of cloth which bore a representation of the Virgin Mary. (However, sometimes the palii, or yards of expensive silk or wool, were also awarded).

Prior to 1555, young men would carry colored wooden structures representing an animal during the Palio, followed by a procession of townsfolk. After 1555, however, each district began to organize a headquarters in order to define territorial limits and announce specific rules. Each headquarters soon developed its own badge, colors, animal of distinction, its own church and religious staff, and a stable for its horse.

From the beginning, pride played a huge role in these races; the horses were decked out as colorfully as their riders, and the streets of both each district and the individual supporters were decorated in the same colors as their horse.

But while the town divided their loyalties amongst the riders, the days leading up to the races were set aside for a festival in which the women decorated the streets with flowers and banners in the colors of their contrada. These were happy times for the town, and the friendly competition amongst the neighborhoods to see which one could out-decorate the other was performed to lift the spirits of the Sienese.

Later in the medieval period, the horse race--previously run in a straight line through the streets--was run along the outer rim of the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. Although the actual race ended in less than 90 seconds, the incline of the Piazza proved to be a dangerous course and over time, many animals were injured or killed when they lost their footing and slipped down the slope of the dirt track. But despite the shortness of it, the winner was hailed a hero, and the contrada who won was deemed superior above all the least until the next palio.


The Makings of the Medieval Mafia

Renaissance Magazine
Issue #41

Mention the word "mafia," and for most, what comes to mind is the on-screen violence of the Godfather films. While this cinematic trilogy depicts the modern mafia--a group motivated by revenge and the lust for dominance--few people know that this infamous organization actually began in medieval times.

There is an ongoing dispute among historians over the date of the actual birth of the mafia. Some believe it sprang to life as early as the 11th century while others believe it came at least 200 years later. But what everyone does agree on is that the mafia planted itself deeply in Sicilian soil and has never relinquished its hold, even after it spread across the ocean to America, where it became linked to criminal groups ravaging Sicily with lawlessness and violence.


What's In a Name?

The first known record of the word "mafia" surfaced about 1860. although the name itself has garnered many educated guesses as to its origin, the strongest argument comes from Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, who believes that "mafia" evolved from Ma afir (or "place of refuge"), an Arab tribe that inhabited Sicily until the Norman invasion in the 11 th century. After the invasion, they were forced into the western region of the island, leading many to believe that the mafia's origins were racially motivated.

However, other scholars believe that the Mafia was organized in the 13th century to fight against the oppression of the French Angevins. Their slogan was said to be Morte alla Francia Italia anela! ("Death to the French is Italy's cry!"), where the word "mafia" was made up from the first letters of each word.

Yet another theory proposed by mob boss Joe Bonanno is that the mafia began with what is call the Sicilian Vespers when, in 1282, a French soldier raped a Sicilian girl on her wedding day. After discovering the tragedy, the girl's distraught mother ran hysterically through the street, shouting "Ma fia, ma fia!" ("My daughter, my daughter!") Angry Sicilians struck back by slaughtering French troops, thus setting off a revolt against the French, led by a group of Sicilians who soon took up the mother's cry as their name.

But still another theory derives from the early times of the Sicilian feudal baron. To maintain control over his peasants, as well as protect the estates and property of absentee landlords against foreign invasion, barons used gangs of armed guards, called compagnie d'armi. At a time when there were virtually no courts of law or prison system, the guards punished even the smallest of crimes by death, enhancing the peasants' fear of their ruthless lord.

To help them, the compagnie d'armi recruited bandits who were generously rewarded for their misdeeds. However, if the bandits rebelled against the baron's guards, they were, in the name of security, eliminated. Likewise, the landowner turned a blind eye when his guards committed a crime against a neighbor, or against rivals in other territories. In return, the guards hid behind their landlord's status from whatever retribution another lord might exact.

Finally, another widely accepted belief of the mafia's beginnings stems from the end of the Norman era. Each new sovereign who ventured to Sicily first established himself on the coast by taking over feudi, or land, which he gave to other nobles or his loyal followers, thereby securing himself more power over the island.

To insure his foothold, the baron would give each feudo (those awarded a feudi) serfs to work the land. To keep the workers in line, guards and overseers were chosen for their unscrupulous reputations and criminal backgrounds, and their brutal means of supervision--coupled with the baron's absolute power--quickly turned into tyranny. This system of repression is considered by some to be the earliest model for the mafia.


The Tie That Binds

Throughout the centuries, Sicily was governed by many foreigners, including Arabs, Normans, French, and Spanish. Refusing to relinquish their land and their freedom, Sicilians rebelled against any foreign rule.

It may seem that the mafia was created only to offset a lack of official security on Sicily . In fact, it was born out of two basic principles of southern Italian life--the vendetta and the Sicilians' refusal to cooperate with foreign authority. Spilling their enemy's blood appeased their vengeful nature. Yet left alone, the Sicilians were resourceful, family-oriented, and content to work their land and care for their own.

With a marked sense of honor, pride, and loyalty--and for the love of their land--it was inevitable that the Sicilians initiated an organization which began as a protective umbrella for their island in the sun. In fact, during the Middle Ages, the mafia created a bond among the Italian people that has been, to this day, impossible to break.



Jannine Corti Petska © 2006-2018