Inside the Lair of Siena’s Noble Caterpillar

We walked through the gate of the medieval city.  It was night; the stone streets were dark, narrow, and lit by a single lamp hung from the archway barely dispersing shadows from the corners.  We were in Siena, Italy, but it felt as though we stepped into Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle.  However, instead of the houses Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff, we had the districts of the Dragon, She-Wolf, Unicorn, and Caterpillar.  Continue after the break for a rare glimpse of a society that dates back to the Middle Ages, yet few outsiders get to see.  We’re going deep into the lair of Siena’s “Noble Caterpillar.”

Siena, Italy's Historic City Center - Piazza del Campo

Siena is a medieval city in Italy’s region of Tuscany, approximately 125 miles (200 kilometers) north of Rome and 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of Florence.  The historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and described as a “quintessential” medieval city.  The largest event, the peak of the social and cultural calendar, is the Palio – a horse race held twice/year (July & August), that completes 3 laps of the town center – Piazza del Campo.  So what does a horse race have to do with the “lair of the caterpillar” you ask?  Simple, the Palio pits horses from the different neighborhoods or districts of Siena.  The Italian name for these districts is “contrada”, and the “Nobil Contrada del Bruco” is one of these districts, the Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar.

The neighborhoods have existed in Siena since the 13th Century, and are all named for an animal or symbol such as: eagle, snail, owl, giraffe, shell, and porcupine, to name a few.  Each contrada has its own zone and boundaries in the historic city center, and within every neighborhood exists a town square, church, museum, etc.  The contrada has allies, adversaries, and rivals among the 17 other neighboring districts.  This evening, we were guided through the museum/community hall of the Contrada del Bruco by one of its members.  It is unusual and rare for outsiders to get this type of glimpse into these museums, and we were thrilled to have this treat.

Up the hill, on the dark street, we stopped outside a nondescript doorway.  Mounted on the wall was a small hand painted plaque, nothing much, it read “Societa del Bruco.”  We stepped through the doorway, and once inside, the room opened up into an expansive space filled with treasures – suits of armor, medieval garb, and jockey uniforms from previous Palios.

Through another plain doorway was an opulent chapel, adorned with caterpillar sconces.  Each year the Palio horse would be brought into this chapel for a blessing before running the race.  If the horse happens to relieve itself during the ceremony, well – that’s good luck.

The most revered space in the Caterpillar’s headquarters was not the chapel, but a room displaying the Palios won by the Contrada.  The Palio gets its name because the winning horse receives a painted banner or standard known as a Palio.  When the winning horse crosses the finish line, the contrada members receive the banner, march it up to their district, and wave it in front of the church.  The Palios are displayed with pride within the Contrada’s Headquarters for the rest of time, and, within the museum, we saw banners dating back to the 1700’s.

The tour of the Nobil Contrada del Bruco was fascinating.  I was able to understand a part of the history of Siena, the culture of the Palio, and the society of the contrade in a way I never could have comprehended just glancing at the usual tourist stops of the city.  The generosity of the members of the Nobil Contrada del Bruco was only topped by what came after the tour, a gut-busting 3 hour feast prepared by the contrada’s members and enjoyed within their halls.  For more photos inside the Nobil Contrada del Bruco, check out the full photo gallery featured below.

If you ever get the chance to go to Tuscany, do not miss the medieval city of Siena.  Once in Siena, try to take some time to learn about the unique society of the contrade, and if given the chance to look inside – take it!  Disclosure: everything described in this post was paid for by the author.  For more travel news and features, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.