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Seven Seasons in Siena: My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance Among Tuscany's Proudest People [Kindle Edition]

Robert Rodi
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Siena seems at first glance a typical Italian city: within its venerable medieval walls the citizens sport designer clothes, wield digital phones, and prize their dazzling local cuisine. But unlike neighboring Florence, Siena is still deeply rooted in ancient traditions—chiefly the spectacular Palio, in which seventeen independent societies known as contrade vie for bragging rights in an annual bareback horse race around the central piazza.

Into this strange, closed world steps Robert Rodi. A Chicago writer with few friends in town and a shaky command of conversational Italian, he couldn’t be more out of place. Yet something about the sense of belonging radiating from the ritual-obsessed Sienese excites him, and draws him back to witness firsthand how their passionate brand of community extends beyond the Palio into the entire calendar year. Smitten, Rodi undertakes a plan to insinuate himself into this body politic, learn their ways, and win their acceptance.

Seven Seasons in Siena is the story of Rodi’s love affair with the people of Siena—and of his awkward, heartfelt, intermittently successful, occasionally disastrous attempts to become a naturalized member of the Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar. It won’t be easy. As one of the locals points out, someone who’s American, gay, and a writer is the equivalent of a triple unicorn in this corner of Tuscany. But like a jockey in the Palio outlasting the competition in the home stretch, Rodi is determined to wear down all resistance. By immersing himself in the life of the contrada over seven visits at different times of the year—working in their kitchens, competing in their athletic events, and mastering the tangled politics of their various feuds and alliances—the ultimate outsider slowly begins to find his way into the hearts of this proud and remarkable people.

By turns hilarious and heartwarming, and redolent with the flavor of the Tuscan countryside, Seven Seasons in Siena opens a window on daily life in one of the most magical regions in all of Italy—revealing the joys to be found when we stop being spectators and start taking an active part in life’s rich pageant.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Robert Rodi was born in Chicago. After publishing seven novels, he published his first nonfiction book, Dogged Pursuit: My Year of Competing Dusty, the World’s Least Likely Agility Dog. He is also the creator of several comic-book series, including 4 Horsemen, Codename: Knockout, and The Crossovers. Rodi lives in Chicago with his partner, Jeffrey Smith, and a constantly shifting number of dogs.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1



eit takes all of ninety seconds. ten sleek, tautly muscled racehorses tear into the sandy track, hurtling themselves forward at nearly lethal speed. Their jockeys crouch low to minimize resistance; some lash out at each other with their crops, and those hardest hit tumble off their mounts and scramble frantically out of the way of the flurry of surgically sharp hooves. Once around the piazza . . . twice . . . three times, the roar of the crowd escalating to a cosmic howl. Then the horse in the lead sails over the finish line-a cannon sounds, like the pop of a Christmas cracker against the citywide roar of ecstasy- and my friend Dario Castagno looks over his shoulder at me. I meet his eyes and nod to him, mouthing the words Vai, vai via! Go, go on!

He leaps down the length of the bleachers and joins the throng of spectators who are flowing over the railing onto the track, like a wave of human magma; the last I see of him, he's fighting off another man for the honor of pressing his lips to those of the victorious horse.

The bleachers are trembling, quivering beneath the feet of the scores of people who are descending in a kind of rapturous fury. Only Jeffrey and I remain in place, the mass of humanity diverting around us as though we're an outcropping of rock in a river. There's no particular reason for us to stay rooted to our seats; but neither is there any enticement to get up. Where would we go? Everywhere we look, we see only tumult; the Piazza del Campo, the beautiful medieval square at the heart of Siena, is overrun with its citizenry, who are in various stages of agitation, ranging from the merely ecstatic to the kind of violent rapture most Americans ever see only in revival tents.

This, then, is the immediate aftermath of the Palio, Siena's annual bareback horse race around the perimeter of its central piazza. It's an ancient rite, an explosive expression of municipal pride, and both Jeffrey and I find it a head-jarring thrill. Why else would we have ventured to Italy in August? It's the month of the ferragosto holiday, when seaside resorts fill up with refugees from every city in the country, leaving virtual ghost towns behind them, their shops shuttered and their restaurants dark, so that American tourists wander the empty streets brandishing their MasterCards in vain. The sole exception is Siena, which has its ancient, inimitable business to attend to.

The race itself lasts only a matter of heartbeats; but there's a historical procession that precedes it-a gorgeous display of medieval costumes, heraldry, and gasp-inducing flag-tossing competitions-that requires a few solid hours to make its way around the Campo. Hence the bleacher seats, or palchi, which Dario has obtained for us at an exorbitant cost. The seats are small and hard, yet they're far more comfortable than watching the race from the vantage point chosen by most of the populace-which is within the piazza itself, shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, buttocks to belt buckle.

"What do we do now?" Jeffrey asks me, and I really ought to have an answer. It's our agreed-on division of labor: I'm responsible for all things cultural, Jeffrey for all things sensual. I'm supposed to know which cathedrals have the gaudiest relics, he, which restaurants the highest Michelin ratings.

I admit I'm not sure. I'd been counting on Dario to shepherd us through this part of the experience; he's the native, after all, the one who actually had a stake in the race today-a winning stake, as it turns out. He's a member of the Bruco, or Caterpillar, contrada, or city quarter, and he warned us earlier that if they won, he'd be leaving us to our own devices-which is exactly what's happened. It's the Caterpillar horse that has triumphed, the Caterpillar jockey who's now being stripped half naked and carried aloft by the jubilant members of the contrada, the Caterpillar constituents who are now forming a human pyramid to reach and claim the beautiful painted banner, called the drappellone, which is the sole prize awarded to the Palio's victor. And it's into this seething well of activity that Dario has flung himself, mind-melding with his Caterpillar brethren as they reach a kind of collective


We can't blame him for leaving us. We're excited for him-and we feel a kind of remote kinship to the Caterpillar itself, as Dario has given each of us its kerchief-in Italian, fazzoletto-to wear tied around our necks, in the Sienese manner. The Caterpillar's distinctive blue, gold, and green mark us out as being part of the victory today, and we're basking in the association, however tangential.

"I think," I say, summoning up all my powers of concentration, "after the race everyone goes to the Duomo for a thanksgiving service."

Jeffrey looks at me dubiously. "Are you sure?"

"I'm not sure of anything right now. But it's all I've got."

And so we begin our descent from the bleachers into the roiling cauldron of the post-Palio Piazza del Campo. We wend our way out into the streets of Siena-narrow, cobbled, and lined by elegantly simple buildings in earthen colors with terra-cotta roofs-usually the scene of a hundred different tableaux all expressing easygoing Tuscan urbanity. But today there's no diminution of emotional intensity; the streets are as riotous as the piazza.

In fact, the sheer violence of the joy on display takes me aback; I try, and fail, to come up with anything I've seen to compare with it. We live on the north side of the Windy City, home of the Chicago Cubs, so we're familiar with the euphoria that barrels through the streets whenever that team clinches a division title-the kind of euphoria that can, whoops, result in broken windows and overturned cars-but it's not really the same thing at all. For it to be analogous, the Cubs would have to be one of seventeen ball clubs in Chicago, each one specific to a certain neighborhood; fans would have to have been baptized in the Cubs church and grown up identifying themselves not as Cubs fans but as Cubs themselves; the Cubs would have to be not merely a beloved team but a family, a community, the foundation of our very identity.

And, oh yeah, there'd have to be only two ball games every summer. And the Cubs would've just won one of them, against all other Chicago teams.

That's a bit like what Dario is going through right at this moment, I imagine. The brucaioli-the people of the Bruco-have just pulled off the one thing that really matters in Sienese society: a victory in the Palio. Even now they're parading through the streets, hoisting aloft the hard-won drappellone. People are reaching out to touch it, fondle it, kiss it. There's a new banner commissioned for every Palio, designed by a new artist and always incorporating the Virgin Mary, who is the patron saint of this event. "Bru-bru-bruco!" Jeffrey shouts, native style, as it passes, without a trace of irony. I'd join him, but my throat is constricted by an unexpected swelling of emotion. This is, I realize, seriously cool.

In the Middle Ages, nearly every city in Italy had some kind of annual civic competition, ranging from the highly skilled (archery) to the refreshingly Neanderthal (hurling large rocks at one another's heads)- but those traditions eventually withered away, worn down by a relentlessly encroaching modernity. Not in Siena. In fact, the Palio has if anything grown in importance and stature over the ensuing centuries. Part of the reason is historical; when Florence, Siena's perpetual antagonist, finally and decisively defeated the city in 1555, it instituted an oppressive rule that all but cut off the Sienese from outside influence. The city was not

allowed to grow or flourish. The entire Renaissance just glanced right off it, as though it were under a bell jar. Effectively ghettoized in their own hometown, the Sienese responded as good Italians always do: defiantly. They placed increasing emphasis on their native customs, rituals, and protocols. Chief among these was the Palio. In this sense, it was for many years not merely an expression of civic unity and strength but a tool of civic survival. The Palio reminded-still reminds-the Sienese of who they are.

And who exactly are they? In a way, there are seventeen different answers. The old walled city is divided into as many districts, each of which is named after a mascot, usually an animal. Each has its own colors, flag, church, fountain, and theme songs; they're like a clutch of pint-size sovereign states all parked within the municipal polity. The Sienese call them contrade, and they are, in no particular order, the Eagle, the Snail, the Owl, the Dragon, the Giraffe, the Porcupine, the She-Wolf, the Seashell, the Goose, the Caterpillar, the Wave, the Panther, the Forest, the Tortoise, the Unicorn, the Tower, and the Ram.

Some contrade are wealthy, some not. Some have ancient, bitter feuds with their neighbors; others have no enemies

at all. What they all have in common-apart from an independent governing body and a constitution-is that their

adherents view themselves primarily as contradaioli, that is,

as members of their contrade. Stop anyone on any street in Siena and ask him to identify himself. He won't say, "I am a Sienese" or "I am a Tuscan" or even "I am an Italian." What he'll say, head held high and eyes spitting pride, is "I am of the Dragon."

Today, wearing our fazzoletti, we feel that we are of the Caterpillar. And in this spirit of borrowed glory we set out for the Duomo-Siena's magnificent, if bizarrely unfinished, thirteenth-century cathedral.

Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure how to get there. We might follow the crowd, of course, but it keeps breaking up and spinning off in all directions (even straight up; I spot someone actually scaling a wall to climb in a window). Still, I can see the tip of the Duomo from where we're standing, and I figure all I have to do is head toward it.

Siena's medieval thoroughfares lack the gridlike regularity we associate with modern metropolises; they twist ...

Product Details

  • File Size: 570 KB
  • Print Length: 273 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0345521056
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (June 21, 2011)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004J4WLFU
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #697,837 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
I remember reading a travel book about Tuscany that was turned into a movie. I won't name names, but that one was poorly written.

This one is the complete opposite: follow the story of a real writer who gets lured into a world beyond the sun and Diane Lane, into a world of horses, walled cities, ethnography, wine, pomp, circumstance and an amazing sense of "drop everything now and get on the next Alitalia flight." Also written by a guy with a phenomenal grasp of sentence structure and the ability to make words jump off the page, grab you, and urge you to consume more wine.

Part Anthony Bourdain, part Seabiscuit. Actually, small part Seabiscuit. Mostly Anthony Bourdain - in the sense that Rodi has absolutely no reservations about jumping in, full-bore, to the life and lifestyle of a part of a city that endears you to its team, its horse(s), and its people.

A great, great read.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, Memorable Read! July 15, 2011
'"Wow," accompanied by a smile, is how I met the end of your fabulous book, Seven Seasons in Siena. This book was remarkable and will be highly recommended to any and all avid readers when asked, "Read any good books lately?" It lived up to every review and more. Thoughtful, insightful, reflective, funny, educational, talented...I could go on and on describing this book and you as a writer.

As the daughter of Italian immigrant parents, you have shown me that there is always more to learn not just about the country as a whole, but also of its very distinct people, dialects, towns, and cultures. I will visit Siena one day because of you!

Thank you, Robert Rodi!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Palio and the Contrade of Siena August 6, 2011
Since learning in a college world history course about the leading role of Siena in the Renaissance, I have been captivated by the city. Twenty-five years after college I was able to go to Italy for the first time, and that trip was oriented around Siena. I would love to return. So I impulsively grabbed this book when I saw it in the bookstore. It turns out to be not so much a book about Siena as a book about the Palio and the Sienese contrade - one in particular, the Bruco, or Caterpillar.

At this point, information about the Palio and the contrade might be helpful. The Palio is sometimes touted as the world's oldest sporting event. It is a horse race held twice each summer around the Piazza del Campo, the grand and gorgeous medieval plaza in the middle of the city, which for the event is packed with spectators. Ten horses with bareback jockeys run the race, each sponsored by one of the city's seventeen contrade. The contrade, in turn, are wards or districts of the city, around which many civic and social affairs are organized. Most are named after animals - eagle, snail, goose, unicorn, giraffe (as well as caterpillar, which is derived from medieval times when most of the residents of the district were in the silk trade) - but there also is a seashell, a tower, a forest, and a wave. The contrada is the focus of immense and fervent civic pride, and winning a Palio is cause for exuberant celebration and decades of re-tellings. Each contrada has its own museum, in which the most prized exhibits are the banners commemorating the Palio victories of that contrada.

Robert Rodi is a middle-aged American, from Chicago. He happened to be in Siena in 2003, as a guest of a member of the Caterpillar, when it won the Palio for only the second time in 48 years.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was expecting an insightful book about "true" Italian life, but this is laser focused on elements of Italian life I couldn't care less about--drinking, eating, and pageantry. These are all totally authentic Italian pursuits, very much like Nascar, state fairs, and crappie fishing are in America. It's just not the aspects of Italy that I'm personally interested in. The author is likeable and observant of a very specific range of things, but not at all interested in medieval stuff, machines, architecture, art, farming.... Italy has a depth that's not well represented here.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Look into Siena Life July 21, 2011
By SLucas
Just finished Robert Rodi's delightful book!" Seven Seasons in Siena" is definitely for anyone interested in the Palio, the Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar and magical Siena.......a great read!I'm fascinated by the Palio and the Contradas... this explains a lot! Thank you!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How humility is the direct path to acceptance April 10, 2012
I, like Mr. Rodi, am an Italian American who has spent way too much money crisscrossing the Atlantic to be with the people who fascinate me the most, Italians. Trying to demystify the innate coolness that the Italians possess is like trying to understand an ancient dialect. His eagerness to become one of the Caterpillar contranda, is similar to a new kid in town trying to fit in with a high school clique, even though that new kid is only 12 years old. It's ambitious, but not impossible.

This humorous account of how Rodi gets ensnared by the allure of a tight knit Italian society is filled with details that put the reader right in his shoes. What made this a great book for me was Rodi's ability to poke fun at himself though his total awareness that he is not a cool Italian, but a well-intended American goofball. Despite his foibles he does convey one very important lesson that can be applied to any instance where a person is looking to gain acceptance, which is total humility.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Moderately interesting
The book is good if you are contemplating a visit to Siena, as I am. My criticism is that it is several chapters too long, for what it has to say.
Published 19 months ago by Bart
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Cultural Treasure
I also have been captivated by the city. The first book I came across was a remarkably illustrated history of the Cathedral. The Cathedral of Siena and the Cathedral Museum
Published 21 months ago by Dale
4.0 out of 5 stars Tough call . . .
Whether to give this 3 or 4 stars was a tough call. I've spent my share of time in Siena, absorbed in its traditions, and share Rodi's love and fascination with it. Read more
Published on September 5, 2012 by countsheep
5.0 out of 5 stars So much fun
I loved every minute of this book. I usually do not like books where the author can find nothing right about America and nothing wrong about whatever country or culture he or she... Read more
Published on March 20, 2012 by Utah Streamer
3.0 out of 5 stars A man's book
This travel memoir is good especially for a man to read. So many travel memoirs are books that women enjoy, such as Under the Tuscan Sun, but this is a man's book. Read more
Published on February 6, 2012 by Cara Lynn
5.0 out of 5 stars What a great find
Rob Rodi's wonderful book was so truthful, lively and so downright hilarious I just couldn't put it down. Read more
Published on December 27, 2011 by John K. Gayley
5.0 out of 5 stars What a treat!
I read "Seven Seasons in Siena" before I went back to Siena for the 2011 July Palio, and I loved it. I have followed Mr. Read more
Published on September 12, 2011 by R. Rowe
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a fun well written book. Rodi has a conversational style that...
Each summer Sienna hosts a bareback horse race right in the central piazza. They haul in turf, cover the stone and transform the city into a wild affair. Read more
Published on August 10, 2011 by Philly gal
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More About the Author

Robert Rodi (b.1956) was born in Chicago, a town seething with literary and musical energy, and he has spent his life immersed in their currents. His first novels, which quickly gained him cult status, were deftly drawn satires of the city's gay scene ("Fag Hag," "Closet Case," "Drag Queen"). While continuing to write fiction (most recently, "Baby") he's branched out into nonfiction, the better to share his enthusiasm for the world of canine agility (in "Dogged Pursuit") and all things Italian, specifically the great Tuscan horse race, the Palio ("Seven Seasons In Siena").

He's also written comic books for both Vertigo and Marvel, and maintained a self-described "guerilla lit-crit" blog about Jane Austen called "Bitch In a Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen from the Stiffs, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps" that has now been collected in two volumes. He's also an actor, spoken-word performer, jazz singer, and the front man for the fusion rock band 7th Kind (whose CD "Sea Monster" is available on Amazon).

For more information, visit his website,

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