Tornasol – the horse who defied Siena and 384 years of history

The image above shows last year’s July Palio.

I spent a week in Siena last August watching the preparations for the famous Palio horse race and have written an account which I hope to get published soon. The Palio is a stunning civic and historic phenomenon that is brutal on horses. This July, after a week of trial races and being whipped and spurred round the town square twice daily, a horse called Tornasol decided he’d had enough and refused to run. Viva l’anarchia, Tornasol. The equine revolution starts here.

If you want a brief introduction to the Palio and don’t mind it skipping over any issues related to the actual horses, this documentary unravels some of its complexities:

To Bridle the Horses of St Mark

The copper horses of St Mark's Basilica, Venice

The copper horses of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Photo: Rosemary Forrest.

Emerging from somewhere unconfirmed in classical Greece or Rome, this quadriga of horses lived in Constantinople until it was sacked by the Venetians in 1204, and they were carried off to stand guard over the Basilica of St Mark’s. Like many horses, they experienced literal upheavals in times of war, and were stolen by Napoleon in 1797 for a Parisian triumphal arch, and only returned in 1815. To Venice, that is, not Constantinople. In anticipation of damage in World War One they were taken by barge all the way to the Palazzo Venezia in Rome for safekeeping, and in the Second World War they were also packed up before being restored to pride of place. Air pollution achieved what global war could not, however, and in the 1980s they were moved into the interior of the church, and replaced with replicas.

“. . . the four bronze horses which stood for 700 years upon its façade, and which so impressed Goethe that he wanted to get the opinion of  ‘a good judge of horseflesh’ on them. No pampered thoroughbred, no scarred war-horse has enjoyed so romantic a career as these. . . .[they] became so symbolic of Venetian pride and glory that the Genoese, when they were at war with Venice, used to boast that they were going to ‘bridle the horses of St Mark’ . . . I can hardly bear to think of them shut away out of the sunshine, because they always seemed to me, as to generations of Venetians, truly living creatures, animated by the genius of their unknown creators. For all their wanderings, they used to seem, up there on their proud pedestals, ageless and untired. I often saw them paw the stonework, at starlit Venetian midnights, and once I heard a whinny from the second horse on the right, so old, brave and metallic that St Theodore’s crocodile, raising its head from beneath the saintly buskins, answered wtih a kind of grunt.”

Venice, by Jan Morris. 1993 Faber edition. Thank you to Mum for the photo.

 

The Princess of the Eighth Hussars

Please excuse lack of posts lately – I’ve been ill and very busy trying to wrestle my ambitions for book two into a viable proposal. I caught this lovely World-War-Two tale of a Canadian equine mascot called Princess Louise via The Brooke’s Facebook feed. Another war horse for Remembrance Sunday! Enjoy (via the Telegraph Journal):

“At the time, we were soldiers doing a difficult job and mostly thankful that we were still alive,” Frank Gaunce, 99, says as he sits beside his hospital bed in Sussex, where he is recovering from a broken hip. A member of the 8th Hussars Regiment, he was on the battlefield on the sweltering night of Sept. 16, 1944, when Princess Louise was discovered, months old and crying with a belly wound and walking circles around her dead mother. “Having that horse around helped raise our morale.”

A battle unit based in Sussex with ties to Canada’s oldest cavalry regiment, the Hussars retrieved Princess Louise from the front lines with artillery above their heads. They then took her to a company medic, who treated her wounds, and after that they took turns changing her bandages to prevent infection.

As the war ground on, they concealed her in a truck in which they had built her a stall and took her everywhere they went, through Italy, France and Holland.

When they war ended, they placed her in a pasture in Holland and, against orders, arranged for her to be shipped to New York aboard a Dutch liner.

A few months later after crossing the ocean, Princess Louise was met by one of the Hussars in New York, and then placed aboard a train and taken to Saint John, where she arrived on March 27, 1946 and was greeted by a military honour guard, the city’s mayor and thunderous cheers.

The Philosophical Horse

The opening scene from Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s most recent film, The Turin Horse, which, according to Wikipedia, “depicts the repetitive daily lives of the horse and its owner” – the horse that triggered Friedrich Nietzsche’s final mental breakdown, that is. I’m sure there’s a PhD out there already on the Cab Horse in the Nineteenth Century, although Tarr’s equine lead looks more like a vanner.