On the Origins of Species was first published in 1859 by Charles Darwin. While not the only one at the time to be developing theories about evolution, this book is regarded as definitive when discussing Natural Selection – a process that dictates the success or failure of certain traits in a species. Behaviors or attributes that best ensure the production and survival of future generations are those that win the prize of being selected. In “The Selfish Gene” published in 1976 by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the idea of a “meme” was introduced as a similar evolutionary agent within a culture or social grouping. The idea that a certain kind of music, technology or style reproduces only in so much as it is successfully accepted within that group could be used to examine the popular culture of any era. Selection, survival, popularity are all mitigated via competition.
If you are able to contemplate the moment deeply there are a seemingly endless number of possible options. However, only the options that best catch our attention are usually considered and the rest fade away with no hope for future reproduction. Competition serves a vital function when applied to the survival of a species, although once the ability to survive is no longer a question, as is the case with a large percentage of the human population, this urge towards competition transforms into spectacle.
As a child my name was not a common one and because of this I usually had to explain the two facts I knew about it; “It’s a reddish-brown color and it’s a small town in Italy”- I must have said it a thousand times. Naturally I was curious to actually seen the ‘small town in Italy’ for myself. Siena is less than two hours from Florence by bus. It has been categorized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and twice every year the citizens organize a competitive horse race called the Palio di Siena. For centuries the city has been divided into 17 neighborhoods called contrades each with their own symbolic animal, slogan and historical rival contrade. The race is held in the Piazza del Campo. For each race the city uses large quantities of public money to transport truckloads of dirt into the piazza for the track, hires artists to hand paint the banner that will be presented to the winning contrade and stages a huge parade before the event.
Each neighborhood has its own museum to display the prizes, memorabilia and photos of past races. They have designated committees, websites and merchandise. The jockeys are paid huge sums of money and once selected, the horses must be watched continuously to prevent rival teams from drugging the animals. During the 90 second event the competitors are free to win the race by nearly any means possible. The winning horse is the first to make it around the piazza three times and the losing horse is the second to do so, not the last. For months following the races the city is overrun with wild parties and the settling of scores across neighborhood lines.
The rest of the year, Siena is a very quiet small town as I discovered on my visit. The buildings are constructed with a reddish-brown stone and the streets leading to the Piazza del Campo are narrow and cobbled. Moving through the town, I noticed ceramic tiles painted with the crest of the contrade and the neighborhood’s animal – a giraffe, a caterpillar, an owl, a jaguar… Once in the piazza itself I was surprised to see how small it was and could easily imagine how much chaos must ensue during the race days. A tower stretched up out of the rectangular buildings and a large clock was mounted on one of its sides. Unfortunately my earlier wanderings had made it impossible to actually ascend the steps inside the tower, being closed for the day already. I had wanted to get a view of the city from above and slightly disappointed, I looked around for another choice. On the edge of town I found a church building that was built on a slight incline and was happy to discover that it was still open. From an open corridor on the third floor I looked out onto the tiled rooftops of the city buildings. It was dusk and the pale grey in the sky complemented the earthy color of the buildings below.
The streetlights began to come on in an domino-like sequence, culminating in the high-powered beams directed at the main cathedral. It seemed I was the only witness to this light show, I had not seen many tourists that day. In fact the whole city was very quiet with only a few local people navigating the maze of streets. It was late spring and the races traditionally take place during the summer. I imagined most of the community was spending this beautiful evening buried in plans of conquest strategizing for the competition that was going to define their neighborhood for rest of the year.
Returning to Florence I was thinking of a defining moment of my own. The next week my painting instructor was choosing which paintings would be displayed in the final exhibition. It was my last week in Florence and my room was dissected into piles that kept shifting. I was going to ship a bag of personal items back to the United States and continue traveling for the next several months. Being my first time backpacking in an urban environment, I was having some difficulty deciding what I would need to keep with me. As the days progressed I collected the completed jewelry pieces and then my prints and metal engravings. All of my sculptural work was too large and too heavy to be sent back so I spent one afternoon shooting photographs of each piece and then rather painfully trashing them all.
During the last couple of painting sessions in the studio I had completed a portrait of an old woman, she was our final model. She sat in a folding chair wrapped in a buttoned sweater and from time to time drifted off to sleep. Her hands were folded in her lap and I could see her wedding ring from where I was painting. She was beautiful and I had loved painting her. Walking into the final exhibition I saw this painting displayed on an easel against the far wall. The struggle to progress my technique to evolve the way I saw what was in front of my canvas during the past months in Florence had come to this; selected.