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Games and Fables

Siena is a city whose connection to the past runs deep, however, they have also developed the capacity to keep these traditions alive over the centuries.
The job of remaining faithful and loyal to ones traditions, without betraying them, without corrupting them and feeling them part of you, is challenging. It's something that necessitates the passing down of these same traditions from one generation to the next.

Outdoor games

There are many games that children play in the squares and in the streets of Siena and the area surrounding Siena. For the most part these games are similar to the games which are played by kids all over Italy. Obviously, the most original ones are the games which have the Palio as the main theme.

▼ Emotional Travel

Playing the Palio…

Playing the Palio

This is a game which the children of Siena play during the summer in the streets of Siena and their Contrada.

One child plays the horse and the other, the jockey. The jockey holds the horse by its shirt and in pairs they race, representing their contradas, over an established course that is usually full of curves, and goes up and down hill.

On the ‘horse’s head (or it’s held in their hand) the kids put a spennacchiera, the colors of the contrada which are part of the bridle.

There is a Mossiere, the person who determines the start of the race which is generally assigned to the lazier or chubbier children.

The colors of the contrada are given to the fastest kids without any arguing for each one wants to win, no one wants to impersonate a rival contrada, they’d never be able to win over their own and if necessary would have to feign crashes or falls….

The Game of the Barberi…

The Game of the Barberi

The best-loved game and that most “played” by the children of Siena is definitely the game of the barberi. The bag of barberi is one of the first toys that a Sienese child receives and it is thanks to the barberi that he learns to recognise all the Contradas.

Barberi are small balls, generally made of wood and painted in the colours of the 17 Contrade. The name is the same as that given to a horse that runs in the Palio, and, in effect, the ball symbolises the Contrada competing in the Palio, representing the colours and the horse

Children of all ages play with barberi on special courses - which reproduce some of the difficulties of the real track round the Piazza - on sand, or soil or grass, or, using their imaginations, inventing daring runs through the living room at home using the most multifarious objects. 
Each child picks a barbero, and just like the actual Palio, hopes it will be first past the finish line.



Sbarbacipolle is a game which can be played even in places with little space, it probably derives from the fable about the turnip. It’s one of those games in which everyone is attached in a sort of human chain, such as the golden goose.

In the ‘Onion peeler’- Sbarbacipolle one child sits down, not necessarily on a chair but even on a bench or stone fence and a another child sits on his or her knees, the next child on their knees etc. forming a chain. 
They must hold on tightly to the child in front of them so that the ‘peeler’, a child not part of the chain, can’t topple them over, thereby “peeling” them away from the rest, the more children at a time the better.



Chiapparella is another game in which one child has to touch the others in order to ‘capture’ them, running all over the place.

The differences are in the variations and how one is saved once captured. In the area of the Val di Chiana for example the game is known as the ‘strega impalata’ or, the impaled witch, that brings to mind an ancient past.

The captured child must remain immobile with their arms outstretched as though on a cross until a companion touches them. Another variant of this game played in the Val di Chiana uses something up off the ground as a ‘safe’ spot or ‘home’, such as steps, a rock, a bench and this is called ‘Rinnalzino’.


The ‘veglia' or coming together to listen and reccount, was the moment of relax and rest after a day's work for the peasant families.
The large families would gather around the huge fire place to chat, to recount news, anecdotes and above all, fables, handed down orally from generation to another.

▼ Emotional Travel

Burgnacca and his wife…

Burgnacca was an old charcol worker who lived in the woods of Montemaggio with his wife, who, according to him, was very mean indeed. They lived with their daughter as well.

His wife never wanted him to sleep in the house, in fact he only came indoors long enough to get a change of clothes, some bread and a bottle of wine and then would leave because she didn't want him there. It was said because he would dirty the sheets, being totally black from making charcoal all day long. One night he decided to insist:
‘Zaira, open up, it's me'.

‘No, you have to leave, as dirty as you are, I don't want you indoors'.

‘Open up Zaira or I'll throw myself in the well'.

At that point, he grabbed a stone and splash, threw it down the well near the house. His wife, hearing the noise said,

he wouldn't have really jumped down the well!'

and ran outdoors in her nightshirt to see. Burgnacca was quick and slipped indoor, closing his wife outside.

“He came frequently to our house in Casalino, he was a charcoal maker in the woods of the Stomennano estate and every year he would cook at least four or five carbonai (big huts of stacked wood from which charcoal was painstakingly made).

He would stay almost the entire winter, passing much of the day in the woods near our house. At night he would sleep on a wooen bench inside our fireplace, usually until 11:00 PM and then would go out to check on the carbonai to make sure they were burning slowly as they were supposed to, without any flame, which would destroy them. He would come back indoors with an armful of wood to throw on the fire for warmth and one night, a little too drunk, he slept too close to the fire and burnt his knee.

The next morning his knee was all red, cooked by the fire which he hadn't felt. When he'd come back in the evening he would pull up his pant leg and have his tiny dog lick the wound, in just a few days it healed!”

A fable recounted by Duila in Fabio Mugnaini, ‘Mazzasprunigliola'. Tradition of the tale in the Sienese Chianti. L:A:E: n. 8, L'Harmattan Italia Editrice, Torino 1999.

Giovanni my Giovanni…

There was once an old man, as stingy, cheap and greedy as you could possibly be. And there was a group of young people who would say, “this guy Giovanni has so much money, what do you say we play a trick on him?”
One night they climbed up on his roof and from the chimney, lowered down a wicker basket, Giovanni, like every evening, was alone. They began to sing down the chimney, “Giovanni mio Giovanni/figlio del buon Gesù/manda i quattrini e i panni/e dopo vieni tu” or, Giovanni my Giovanni, son of the kind Jesus, send up your money and clothes and then come up yourself”.

One night they climbed up on his roof and from the chimney, lowered down a wicker basket, Giovanni, like every evening, was alone. They began to sing down the chimney, “Giovanni mio Giovanni/figlio del buon Gesù/manda i quattrini e i panni/e dopo vieni tu” or, Giovanni my Giovanni, son of the kind Jesus, send up your money and clothes and then come up yourself”.

Some time passed and Giovanni, stingy as he was, had already put aside savings from work.The same guys from before had the idea of trying their trick again, they'd already spent all they'd stolen from the first episode.

So they climbed back up on Giovanni's roof and said the same rhyme as before.

At which point Giovanni responded, “o angiolini santi/ditegli al buon Gesù/che mi fregò una volta/non mi frega più”. Or, o angels and saints/tell the good Jesus that he tricked me once/he won't be able to again.

A fable told by Duila in Fabio Magnaini, Mazzasprunigliola.
Tradional oral tales of the Sienese Chianti”. L.A.E. n. 8, L'Harmattan Italia Editrice, Torino 1999.

Traditional festival

So many festivals . . . for all tastes ! There are many traditional festivals in the province of Siena which see children either taking part, or at least as amused spectators. There are the various jousts, or competitions of medieval origin - such as the Giostra di Simone at Montisi, the Giostra del Saracino at Sarteano, the Festa del Barbarossa in San Quirico d'Orcia, the Sagra del Tordo in Montalcino and the Bravio delle Botti in Montepulciano - that offer not only actual, real tournaments but also competitions of dexterity and skill such as archery, clever flag-waving and very beautiful costumes. Besides these, there are the more "modern" competitions that involve the happy participation of the town's inhabitants but time and space dedicated to the youngsters, too.
Chiusi offers a series of traditional games in the Ruzzi della Conca (literally Romps in the Basin); in other areas of the Valdichiana such as Valiano di Montepulciano and Guazzino daring cart races are held while at Ciciano, in the Val di Merse, there's a really strange tournament called Palla eh !
Then there are the many festivals related to the religious calendar and to local traditions. One such is the torchlight procession on Christmas Eve at Abbadia San Salvatore (in which a huge number of bonfires burn all night) which until a few years ago had as participants children whose duty was to collect firewood. Others involve the various appearances of the Befana (a legendary old woman who brings children gifts at Epiphany) - a character who is older and more real than Father Christmas, and until not long ago in the Siena area, a great deal more loved. Finally, of course, there are all the Carnival celebrations, too.

▼ Emotional Travel

In Siena…

In Siena

The 13th of December - Santa Lucia
In Siena the patron saint of vision, Saint Lucia, is celebrated with not only religious ceremonies but with a traditional street fair as well.
From the early hours of the morning the street vendors have their wares on display. One can find all sorts of things; from cotton candy and castagnaccio (a sweet bread made from chestnut flour), games and toys, flowers and hand made items to beautiful terracotta pieces and typical ceramics. You'll see painted on each display table, depending on the style of the artisan, the tiny bells which are the symbol of the festival.

The bells of Santa Lucia can be big or small and of all colours but the most sought after are the ones with the colours of the contradas, children wear them around their necks and they ring with their steps. Ring, ring, ring, the sound of good cheer, a playful sound which rings of childhood and a happy-go-lucky spirit.

The 19th of March - San Giuseppe
The traditional festival is held in the neighbourhood of the Onda, a zone known for the capenters who have workshops there. The street in which the fair is set up is quite steeply angled but the vendors abound anyway. This festa is characterized by what the Siense call ‘carrettini di San Giuseppe', little wooden platforms upon which are fixed wooden outlines of horses (painted with the colours of the contradas) which move, thanks to pine-cone wheels mounted on the platforms.

The 8th of September - The festa of the Madonna
For the children of Siena this is a special day, a day in which they are the protagonists. In every contrada the children are called upon to decorate with ribbons, drawings and other objects of their fantasy, the shrines to the Virgin which abound in every contrada.
For many years the Agency for Tourism in Siena has given a prize to the most beautifully decorated shrine. The prize is symbolic however, what counts is keeping the tradition alive. Knowing that each year, generation after generation, one will be able to see these children busily decorating and designing, waiting anxiously for the jury to pass, see them eating all together afterwards in the street and then, to watch them run and play together in the streets of Siena. As it's always been and always shall be...

In Province…

In Province

• Torneo di “palla eh!” e Sagra del Ciaccino
In the town of Ciciano (municipality of Chiusdino) the first Saturday and Sunday of August.
An antique game which was played, and still is in many parts of Europe, and in Italy is called ‘Palla eh! or The Ball heh! Two teams play at a time in a game of elimination, in the square of the town in a game similar to baseball. The difference being that the game is played bare-handed with a ball of leather, sown by hand and filled with wool. Teams are made up of people of all ages and from people of the out lying areas around town. The ball is thrown someone yells, ‘eh!' from whence the name.
The game itself, which has complicated rules, is played with true passion. After the game, whether you've played or just watched and cheered, it's possible to have a snack of Ciaccini or white pizza, many different types, which are baked by the people of the town.

• Ruzzi della conca
(In Siena, ruzzare means to play) In the town of Chiusi, the first Sunday of September
With names like Biffe, Fornace, Granocchiaio, Mar Nero and Sottogrottone, these games which are as old as the world and practically forgotten. Children play a game where their wrists are covered in leather and used to bat at a ball, in a sort of tennis action. Or the race with the young pig where a child runs behind the piglet, trying to get him to move towards the finish line where, obviously, the piglet has no intention of going.

• Palio dei carretti
In the town of Sinalunga on the Sunday nearest to San Martino (November)
Valiano di Montepulciano, fourth Sunday of September.
Spectators and ‘Contradaioli' yell and push against the crowd barriors as the ‘carretti' or coloured, decorated carts race past, flying downhill on the steep roads found in these two towns. The squeal of brakes is louder than the crowd yelling, every now and then a cart will go off course, guided by their daring ‘pilots' as they attempt to make it to the finish line.

Palio della ranocchia (Palio of the frogs)
San Casciano dei Bagni, the Sunday nearest to the 13 th of August
The frogs ‘race' on board wheel barrels pushed by ‘contradaioli' who must not only drive the wheel barrels, they must also see to it that the frogs don't jump out. If they do succeed in jumping to the ground, they must be put back on board first, before continuing the race. Spectators cheer, and laugh until they're in trears.

Fiaccolate (Torch lit nights)
Abbadia San Salvatore, Christmas Eve
Until only a few years ago children would go from house to house collecting fire wood for the big Christmas Eve bonfire that would burn all night long.Now, not as many people have fire wood in their homes and part of the traditional has been lost. Christmas eve still holds its fascination for old and young in Abbadia S. Salvatore, where it still can snow on the most beautiful night of the year.


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