Racing For Love: If I Were Fire by Heloise West

September 16, 2015

 If I Were Fire

Hello all, I’m Heloise West, author of If I Were Fire, a novella set in 18th century Tuscany.

I wanted to give some background to the story and to enlarge on one aspect of it—the horse races (called palio) that the people of Siena live for every year. For the novella, the race has already happened, and the characters are dealing with the aftermath.

More than one race is held during the year, but it’s the July 2nd and August 16th races that are the most important. We spent a week in Siena a few years ago in September and not long after the last palio. The winners were still celebrating, marching through the streets and singing, banging drums, pots and pans, sucking on their pacifiers, and wearing cardboard stove pipes.

I did say pacifier, and we’ll get back to that ;) .

Because our hotel was in the Wolf contrada, I made Amadeo Neruccio, one of the major characters in the novella, a member of the Wolf.

The races go back to before the 13th century and are dependent on an interesting aspect of Siena, the contrade. In the 21st century, Siena’s streets are made up of separate districts, each with their own church, museum, and history. In the 12th and to the 18th, there were more than 59 of these contrade, though now there are only 17. One theory of their origins has it that they began life as military groups, each district with its own warehouse of weapons to draw on in case of attack. Siena is also divided into thirds, terza, which date before even the 12th century and the original site of the Roman colony Saena Julia (maybe in the time of Sulla). Before that, an Etruscan hill fort stood in its place.

All these Italian communes have long, long histories and consequently long memories.

Governor Violante Beatrice, a widow of one of the last of the Medici, was sent to Siena from the Tuscan court to keep her out of the trouble in the early 1700s, a few years after the events of this story took place. She reorganized the contrade and the palio, giving both the shape and form they have in present day Siena.

The races are called palio for the banner that is the prize. The tradition lasted over the centuries because of the religious significance attached to them, as the races are dedicated to specific saints. The communes of Tuscany once all ran the palio in their towns, but apparently Mussolini (1935) declared the term to be used exclusively for the Sienese palio.

As inauspicious as that is, Siena is the town that has preserved this ancient tradition, not for the tourists, but for themselves. The palio and the contrade are not for the tourists. It’s worth repeating. With a cold glance, they shut you out from the casual observance of their community rites of the palio, the contrada. A friendly smile from an outsider will be ignored.

I didn’t care. I was just thrilled to be there. We arrived on a Sunday morning and slept the day away to get rid of the jet lag. That evening, in warm but temperate southern Tuscany, we sat in the Campo, had a glass of wine and reveled in the soft evening. The Campo was well lit and with lots of people around sitting at the outdoor cafes, or having an after dinner walk, old people arm and arm. We heard whistles and singing, drums and cymbals, and a parade of people, old and young, marched by chanting the contrada songs their parents and grandparents taught them. The pacifiers represent the contrada reborn in the palio win. Various other items like the chimney stove pipes represent the symbols of the particular contrada and the past trades of those districts.

The palio goes on in the hearts and minds of the Sienese all year round, beginning again with the last win. It’s complicated and entrenched, but not so entrenched that outsiders can’t become contrada members. “Seven Seasons In Siena: My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance Among Tuscany’s Proudest People” is a wonderful memoir by Robert Rodi, an American and a gay man, who falls passionately in love with Siena and becomes determined to become a member of the Caterpillar contrada.  “La Terra In Piazza” is a detailed and complicated (in a good way) interpretation of the palio, by Alan Dundes and Allesandro Falassi. This essay is a blend of information from those books and my own memories.

Two fictional favorites of mine about historical Siena are: “The Daughter of Siena” by Marina Fiorato and “Juliet” by Anne Fortier. The former is a fiction about how Governor Violante Beatrice managed those changes to the ancient city’s tradition with a romance/mystery at the heart of it. The latter is a bit of a parnormal take on the Romeo and Juliet story, as tradition has it the story of the doomed lovers originated in Siena, not Shakespeare’s Verona.

What’s your favorite city (that’s not your hometown) and why?



 If I Were Fire is out now! Get your copy today!


2 Responses to “Racing For Love: If I Were Fire by Heloise West”

  1. fantastic issues altogether, you just received a brand new reader.
    What would you suggest about your post that you made a
    few days ago? Any positive?

  2. Heloise West says:

    Thanks! If I Were Fire is on tour with Pride Promotions, Tuesdays until December/2015. It starts here on my blog:
    There are more posts and interviews coming and three chances to win a free copy of this novella.

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