by Roderick Conway Morris

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Siena Palio

Palio vs. Animal Rights

By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA, Italy 16 August 1993


This medieval hilltop town is in a state of siege, and leading the siege is Franco Zeffirelli, the film director who is a native of Florence, Siena's historic rival to the north. Extirpation of Siena by fire and sword is not - so far - part of the program, but many Sienese might yet find such a prospect preferable to the alternative proposed by Italian animal-rights activists.

Mr. Zeffirelli - backed by such notables as Ornella Muti, the film star; Elio Fiorucci, the designer, and Maurizio Costanzo, a talk-show host - is determined to put an end to the Palio, Siena's wrenching, heart-stopping, twice-yearly horse race around the Campo, the city's fan-shaped center.

This colorful race, which nowadayslasts barely one and a half minutes, was already well-established by the early 12th century, making it the most ancient continually held popular equine event in the world.

Italy's Animal Amnesty, happy with a court order that forced a Japanese artist in June to free a troupe of ants that formed part of his 'installation' at the Venice Art Biennale, tried last week to obtain a judicial protective custody of the horses set to run Sunday night in the first of three races. Animal Amnesty argued that the race was cruel to the horses. A growing campaign against the Palio was given impetus this year by a pileup in July that left three horses dead and two riders injured.

Last week, a local magistrate, Giuseppe Mancini, who is conducting an inquiry into the incident, rejected Animal Amnesty's application, which was supported by a 'celebrity petition,' that the horses be taken under court custody. 'It's like asking for a total ban on air traffic after a plane crash,' the magistrate said.

For the Sienese, what is at issue is not just a horse race - on which no bets are placed and a riderless horse can win - but what the Palio represents to the city and the 17 competing contrade, or neighborhoods, with the heraldic names of Snail, Eagle, Dragon, Porcupine, Unicorn and others. The neighborhood identity is all-important to the Sienese, and is surrounded by a panoply of symbolic paraphernalia, hierarchical social structures, colors, banners and rituals. A child is born into a contrada, baptized first in church and then in the contrada fountain. Every contrada has a church, museum and social center - the focus of activities year round.

At Palio time, the 10 contrade chosen by a combination of rotation and ballot draw lots for the 10 horses that have been chosen to run. As the horses are assigned, they are triumphantly led away to each neighborhood by enthusiastic crowds of young men. 'From then on, the horse is part of the family,' said Franco Bertazzo, who works for the Water Department. 'He's looked after, pampered, and everything's done to make him feel comfortable and at home.' It is the horse rather that the rider that is the celebrity here.

The Sienese have been stung by animal rights activists' allegations that they are cruel to horses. When a horse's racing life is over it is retired to a special rural rest farm financed by the municipality, and when a favorite horse dies the whole contrada goes into mourning. The Sienese like to point out the Palio's profound social significance. Drug abuse and juvenile crime are lower here than in comparable cities, thanks to the intense involvement of youngsters in preparations for the Palio. These include hours of practice drumming and flag-throwing for the pageant that precedes the race. The intense rivalry between neighborhoods, which have alliances and rivalries often going back centuries, would seem an invitation to gang warfare. But it acts like a powerful social cement that gives the city a special sense of solidarity.

'The Palio,' said Pierluigi Piccini, the mayor or Siena, 'is a festival of order, not a free-for-all. It reinforces civic behavior. In Siena,' he added, 'the violent tendencies our society produces are regulated, brought within social bounds. The problem with so many societies today is that they no longer have a way of coping with violence, of ritualizing it. This is what the Palio does for us.'

Contrada activity remains intense even in neighborhoods not involved in a Palio. A midnight visit to the Noble Contrada of the Goose social center revealed a lively crowd. The people were preparing to receive an important guest - a 23-year-old champion horse, Rimini. The contrada's Latin motto is 'Clangit ad arma' ('He calls to arms,' an allusion to the geese whose honking saved Rome from the Gauls). 'And that's what we intend to do by inviting Rimini - to rally the defense of the Palio,' said Senio Sensi, the elected president of the race.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024