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The Palio dates back to medieval timesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Palio

August 13, 2010

Italians are up in arms after the Tourism Minister suggested Siena's legendary horse race, the Palio, should be banned because it's cruel. In this postcard Nancy Greenleese looks at Italian attitudes to animal rights.


The Palio is history and histrionics, a medieval festival for the senses. You see jockeys decked out in the bright colors and symbols of the neighborhoods that they're representing. Families and tourists cram elbow to elbow inside the track that's actually the rim of Siena's main piazza.

My boyfriend and I were among the masses in 2002. We waited six hours…for a minute and a half of pure, uncut adreneline. The horses dashed by our perch – whooop, whoop, whoop, leaving us breathless.

Nancy Greenleese
It's tough on the horses but Nancy Greenleese says the Palio is a spectacleImage: DW

The Palio is a rush that's usually reserved for another type of arena, not to get too down in the stables with you. For the Sienese, the horses carry their history, their rivalries, their civic pride into the modern era. Next to me, a fiftysomething year old man broke down in tears. His neighborhood's horse had won…and he and his buddies spent the evening parading the jockey and horse around town.

Many Sienese would run the Tourism Minister, Michela Brambilla, out of town for her comments about the Palio. But some Italians, particularly animal rights supporters, back her conflicted feelings about the race. Horses do fall in the race and sometimes have to be put down because of injuries. It's not bullfighting, which the Minister compared it to. But you could say the Palio is the crossroads where Italy's history slams into the modern day with regards to animals.

Minister Brambilla is an ardent animal lover who presides over a household of 14 dogs, 23 cats, goats, donkeys…and horses. Yet the former beauty queen also leads the Tourism Ministry in a country that survives on the hay made from these horse shows and other traditional events. The Palio draws more visitors by far than any other event in tourist-dependent Siena.

Palio di Siena
The Palio is held twice each year on July 2 and August 16Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The city's mayor called her remarks a “shame” for Italy and said she was sabotaging the event. This week, Mayor Maurizio Cenni invited her to come to Siena to witness what they're doing to protect the horses. But he warned that understanding the Palio will take far longer than the race's minute and a half.

And getting a grip on Italy's complex relationship with horses would probably take centuries. Italy has deep roots in agriculture. Even today there are more than two and a half million farms and nearly all are small and family-owned. Here, horses help herd animals and once provided a lift before cars. They aren't pets named Black Beauty or Trigger - or in Minister's Brambilla's case, Giulietta. They're workers…and they're dinner. For hundreds of years, Northern Italians and those on the island of Sardegna have eaten horse meat.

Yet in modern Milan or the capital of Rome, horses are no longer transportation. They're ridden for pleasure outside the cities. They're loved as domesticated animals. Yet the sobbing Sienese man also loved the horse that gave his neighborhood bragging-rights as the 2002 Palio victor. It's a different relationship and like any it's complicated. The only thing that you can bet on with the Palio is that the debate will continue.

Author: Nancy Greenleese

Editor: Helen Seeney

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