Horse-Race Politics, The Palio August 2016

I looked up from the center of the small courtyard, above the hexagonal pillars, the Gothic arches and then higher, to the crenellations that framed a rectangle of deep-blue sky where a single planet or star shone. The building was made of stone and brick and the yard sealed by a thick, studded door, but it stank of herbivore life—a familiar, multi-noted fragrance of ammonia, digested hay, fresh sweat and the greasy powder that lives in short, silky coats. Underfoot, the flagstones were covered with yellow volcanic dust mixed with water to make a barely yielding surface. Intersecting crescents had been pressed into it by metal-shod hoofs. The courtyard had been empty for hours but the presence of the animals lingered, contained by the stone.

My long-read “Horse-Race Politics” on the great bareback race of Siena, the Palio, was a finalist in Nowhere Magazine‘s 2017 Fall Travel Writing Contest. You can read it here, but here are a few accompanying visuals.

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She-Wolf return triumphant with Preziosa Penelope after the tratta or lottery in which horses are assigned to districts:

And Doris Day in a film about the Palio:

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Footage of the race I saw:

I can recommend John Hunt and James Gay-Rees’ 2015 documentary, Palio, although the only admission that the horses might suffer comes from a lingering shot of the wounds suffered by one after a fall. The tie-in book is superb – full of history and imagery. I also dipped into Elizabeth Tobey’s excellent “The Palio Horse in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy” in The Culture of the Horse and The Palio in Italian Renaissance Art, Thought, and Culture.

Andrea di Robilant’s long read on the Getty family and the Palio for Town and Country is super too – he really brings out the skullduggery and some of the dodgier veterinary issues. If you want to read a fantastic ethnomusicological study of the Palio, I quoted translations from Dr Anna Hersey’s paper, “L’anima nostra che sa le canzoni: Musical improvisation in theory and practice at Siena’s Palio.” It opens with a tourist getting slapped and goes on from there. Palio be crazy, people. Don’t get in the way of the Senesi.

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