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The world’s oldest club “Circolo degli Uniti” is in Siena

by Carlo Marroni

One enters by passing under an ancient, frescoed 15th-century loggia. The streets of the city centre are left behind and, through the large glass door looms an unrivalled view of the Campo. This is the piazza where the Palio is raced twice a year. This is Siena.

And over the centuries in these ancient rooms - overlooking the world's most famous shell-shaped piazza, the only free zone in the city in the territorial division between the 17 “contrade,” or quarters - were the protagonists and witnesses of the history of a city that has left its mark in the arts, in politics, in traditions.

This is the Circolo degli Uniti. The oldest Circolo, or club, in the world. It was founded in 1657, and there are no traces in old Europe of older institutions of the same tenor. We are speaking about clubs, associations of people whose main objective was to come together for “recreation” or “conversation.”

They were different from the “academies,” an older form of association, dedicated to philosophy, to literature, to science, examples of which even today still exist and flourish in Siena.

But the Uniti is another story entirely, a product of the modern age: without renouncing a cultural program, its aim was to organize parties and entertainment for its members.

“It has been generally said that the modern clubs had as their models the English clubs and this is, in part, true, but there is no doubt that the Uniti can boast an indisputable priority of origin,” writes Giovanni Cecchini in a rare book on the history of this Circolo.

Besides, English clubs arise from non-organized meetings of British gentlemen in the taverns. All in a very spontaneous manner at least until the 18th century, when it was considered not suitable to the members's ancestry to meet in public places. It was then that the true clubs were born, with headquarters, statues and rules.

But, meanwhile, “La Società dei Signori Uniti del Casino” -- as it was called in the beginning, to which was added the word “Conversazione” -- was already born in a street adjacent to Piazza del Campo.

Initially the members were 21 noble Sienese, whose surnames are largely still present in the register of members, a sign of the very strong continuity with its origins. The number of active members at the beginning was set at 24, excluding those under twenty years of age and those over seventy years of age, with the exclusion of women.

The early years were golden ones, with exceptional receptions for famous guests, in honour of which there were extra races at the Palio. But the most important turning point came in 1739 when the Grand Duke Francesco III, of Lorraine descent, granted the Uniti a new headquarters: the Palazzo della Mercanzia, where it can still be found today. A building with a glorious and ancient past, a place of power for citizens and of religious traditions, a treasure chest of the art of the Loggia, that the Uniti over the centuries restored and preserved in a exemplary way.

Changes were made over time to the building that was in the process of decay, with the raising to three floors from two original ones and a complete renovation of the facade on the piazza. The work was completed with a substantial improvement of surrounding area: the completion was marked with a great party in 1767, with Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo present.

But the history of the Circolo degli Uniti, whose President today is Marcello Griccioli, is not one only of parties and the preservation of cultural heritage: the members, having grown up, participated actively in the independence movement that would result in the unification of Italy.

Many of them were part of the group of volunteers in the Civic Guard or of the university battalion that distinguished itself in the battles of Curtatone and Montanara in 1848. This was one of the symbolic events that led to the birth of the united Kingdom of Italy. In particular, to facilitate the aiming of their weapons, the students of the University of Siena cut the tip of the traditional hat, the “goliardo” (those from Pisa folded it upwards), and still today the university students in Siena, in remembrance of their glorious predecessors, cut the hat at the moment of the “feriae matricolarum.”

A tribute was paid also to the two world wars, and during the liberation in 1944 the premises were requisitioned by the Allied command: on that occasion the nearby Accademia dei Rozzi (an institution still very present in Siena) offered the members of the Uniti hospitality on its premises, “a demonstrative act of the bonds of solidarity that have always united, despite differences of opinion and momentary contrasts, the citizens of Siena,” observes the historian Cecchini.

After the war the Circolo loosened its admissions requirements, and not only nobles were admitted, but also gentlemen citizens who were residents in the Ancient Sienese State or whoever had their interests in mind.

In short, the link with the land remains a fundamental criterion for admission, which, in any case, is limited. In fact, 100 is the maximum number of members, and a dozen or so are considered as “supernumerary,” awaiting full admission.

Membership in the Uniti is not an elite status like it is in a large part of the world's clubs, but means being part of a history that stretches far back, way before the founding of the Circolo itself. The headquarters overlook the Campo, right in front of the Town Hall, an historic symbol of the Republic and of the battles for freedom.

These two places are intricately involved with the history of Siena: on one side, the “political” powers of the times, destined, in any case, to be consumed in brief cycles; on the other, the “guardians” of the many traditions and values that the people enjoyed over the centuries.

And this applies even more so in recent times, with Siena having gone through a serious political-economic crisis from which it is painfully -- but with pride -- pulling out. Siena is Siena precisely for this reason, and the Circolo degli Uniti is the result of a civic process that can best be expressed by the “contrade,” a city-state that has remained strong even and, above all, in the worst moments, thanks to the will of the people.