by Kim Martins
The great Sienese horse race - Il Palio de Siena - has always been a matter of contention in the Bruschelli family. Whenever they gather for a meal of fat-flecked salami, streaky prosciutto and hot, crusty bread, Giuseppe Bruschelli talks about his thighs. "I've got good thighs. It was my thighs that won the Palio."
Laura Bruschelli first heard about her grandfather’s thighs when she was seven years old. She loved to hear his stories of bareback riders who flew around the Piazza del Campo, their horses whipped into flight as though the Devil himself were after them.
"And speaking of the Devil," Giuseppe would remind the family. "On that oven-hot day in September, nineteen forty-five, he would have preferred inferno itself to the kind of weather Siena greeted us with for the race. And that scoundrel, Luigi, tried to knock me off my horse as we approached the first bend. But I hung on. It was my thighs, you know."
It was always at this point in Giuseppe's reminiscences that his wife, Assunta, would rise from the table, her generous curves hugging the coarse black material of her dress.
"Nonsense Giuseppi. Luigi had already rounded that bend and was way ahead of you." She would emerge from the kitchen minutes later carrying castagnaccio, the chestnut cake Giuseppi loved because Assunta spiked it with orange rind and fennel seeds.
Laura's brother, Paolo, always arrived late for these gatherings. "Sorry, Trenitalia," he'd say, as though blaming the tardiness of the national railway was a sufficient excuse for his obvious reluctance to visit.
"Paolo, you are more Roman than Sienese these days," Assunta would greet him with a kiss and a crinkled smile that told him all was forgiven. Giuseppe was more forthcoming with his grandson. "You could have represented your district - your contrada - in the Palio if you hadn't shot through to live in Rome."
"Oh God, we're not talking about the Palio again are we?" Paolo's memories of the race were crowded with the snorts of frightened horses and the sound of legs kicking and snapping in the chaos that was ten horses, thundering along a narrow sand track, rounding tight corners at breakneck speed. "We Sienese are a crazy lot,” he said. “The Palio should be stopped, it's too dangerous."
"It's a matter of honour and tradition." Giuseppe would always retort. "Our district has won thirty-four times, including in nineteen forty-five." Rebuked, Paolo would look to Laura to save him from their grandfather's story of his thighs and his hope that Paolo would ride in next year's Palio. But Laura didn't share her brother's distaste for the horse race.
Her memories were filled with her first kiss as a fourteen-year old. Tangled tongues and awkward groping down some alley near the Piazza on a hot September evening as the Palio was about to start. Their father wearing the white, black and orange colors of the she-wolf - the contrada Lupa - steadying his horse and his nerves at the starting barrier, and praying to Saint Rocco the Confessor for victory.
The sixteen-year old boy who had tried to put his hand up Laura's skirt rode in the Palio a few years later. "Come with me to the church Laura,” he said. “My horse will receive a special benediction. And you know what they say? If he happens to do his business in the church - tanto meglio - more luck."
Paolo had accompanied her to the church that morning, where the horse was led in and expected to remain quiet while the Priest recited, "Dear God, protect and defend today and forever your servant, Giovanni Atzeni, and his horse from every risk and danger." God wasn't listening that day though for Laura's first love was thrown from his horse and trampled by impatient hooves, striving for the finishing line.
Late in the afternoon of Bruschelli family gatherings, Sylvia Riggaci would always enter with a flourish and Giuseppe would mutter something about a she-devil. For his sister, led by her heart rather than family honour, had married Aldo Riggaci. Giuseppe referred to it as a mixed marriage for Aldo was from a rival contrada - the Chiocciola or snail, the name causing sniggers about slow horses and small riders.
Assunta ignored her sister-in-law's familial indiscretion for she admired her artistic talent and wondered when Giuseppe would relent and welcome Aldo into the Bruschelli family fold. Sylvia had been chosen to design and paint the Palio banner a few years ago. A great honour for the family but not in Giuseppe's eyes, for the Chiocciola contrada was victorious that year.
"You study your rivals. You get to know all the contradas and try to get in everyone's heads." Giuseppe, warmed by mulled wine and thoughts of ninety forty-five, spoke into the pale apricot sunset descending over Siena.
Sylvia loved the Palio and the painted silk scarves that fluttered around the necks of young girls who were more boy-mad than horse-mad. She had been one of those young girls once. Her eyes set firmly on Aldo as he waved a large flag to the beat of drums and the roar of crowds. She cheered for the Chiocciola contrada and secretly cheered for the strong muscles Aldo had developed from his flag waving.
"I was nearly unhorsed by that Luigi." Giuseppe slurred and Sylvia knew the day had come for they were not getting any younger. "That's not what happened Giuseppe. The Palio in nineteen forty-five was won by Giocchino Calabro for the Dragon contrada. Your thighs had nothing to do with it."
"In the days before the Palio, you dream a lot. But during the dream, you never get to victory." Giuseppe raised his wine glass and the Bruschelli family knew they had not heard the last of Old Giuseppe's thighs.