We were taking a stroll near the Duomo of Siena on a warm evening this past July, trying to decide whether we had enough time to go visit the Opera del Duomo museum or rather to relax and enjoy an ice cream, when our attention was caught by a young ceramist painting a dish on the threshold of one of the many (so it seemed) ceramics shops in Siena.
We were about to take a picture of her and the beautiful ceramics when we saw the sign which said: “NO PHOTO (as I don’t eat with photos)”. So we just kept admiring as she continued to work in respectful silence and watched the design take shape under her short, decisive brush strokes.
We then also notice a second sign that I find funny and certainly want to take a picture of that says “Made in
China Siena”, so I ask interrupt her to ask if I may take the photo, thus marking the occasion to start chatting.
Her name turns out to be Sonia and she’s very nice and friendly with us: seeing our interest, she’s more than willing to talk about her job and about her city. She stresses the fact that all the ceramics we see in the shop have been created and painted by hand by her and her father.
She makes them right there, in front of you: it’s definitely not mass-produced items “made in China”. The ceramics are baked in the oven at the back of the shop (which she shows to us a while later since we’re still there) in what has been for a long time her family’s workshop. Their website can be seen here: www.biancoenero.it .
As we talk, she’s painting a flat plate with the emblem and colors of the contrada dell’Istrice, or the porcupine neighborhood of the city. She is preparing the entire series to be shipped to an American client that ordered one for each contrada. These ceramics inspired by the Palio’s contrade are really beautiful and as we talk, I keep eyeing a large plate with the colors and emblem of the contrada della Torre, the Tower contrada.
My grandmother was from Siena and belonged to the contrada della Torre and my father also grew up in Siena. While I was born and raised in Florence, I grew up with their stories about the Palio and about the Torre being the contrada that had not won a Palio for the longest time, ever since 1961. That meant that the Torre was called the “grandma” among the contrade and its people had to bear being made fun of by their rivals.
What are the odds, with so many contrade, but it soon comes out that Sonia also belongs to the Torre, and as most people in Siena do, feels strongly about their traditions and the Palio. Sometimes I have had doubts that the tales about the Palio and about how much the people from Siena live for it were true, maybe even a little bit exaggerated. But after spending just a few days in Siena, I realize it’s all true and now is even confirmed by Sonia as with bright, shiny eyes recounts the August Palio of 2005, when the Torre after 44 years finally won the Palio dell’Assunta. She tells us about the big party they had and the dinner offered to everyone by the allied contrada del Bruco (Caterpillar). While she shares with us what must have been a truly great event, she gets moved as if everything had happened only moments ago. She shows us her cell phone, where her wallpaper even after 7 years still shows the picture of Berio, the horse that won the race for her contrada. 🙂
Her ceramics now seem even more valuable to us now that we know they are created by a person with such passion! Sonia does not hesitate to share with us tells us about other traditions and customs about the Palio, including the weekly dinners organized by each contrada where even outside visitors can participate by paying a small fee, thus having a chance to experience the true life in the contrada.
When we tell Sonia that we write on Discover Tuscany, she says “We need to explain to all the tourists how to behave the day of the Palio!” and she starts giving us some interesting tips.
We will shortly be writing an article to share all these tips with you our readers, particularly important before the next Palio – even if hearing them direct from Sonia is much more fun! [Here is the link to the article with a lot of Sonia’s tips on how to experience the Palio as a local].
We keep talking with Sonia until it’s time for dinner and time to look for a restaurant (Sonia offers several suggestions), then it’s time to go, with the plate of the Contrada della Torre in my hands, a perfect gift for my dad.
Sonia really helped us to better understand Siena, a very particular city, and to make us feel like we belong there, too. Thank you Sonia!
About Stefano Romeo
Stefano is a native from Florence but with a quarter of Sienese blood in his DNA and many years living in Pisa is a true Tuscan. He is still learning that his homeland has many corners and hidden gems he has to discover, ones he particularly enjoys seeing from the saddle of his bike.