Excerpt:

No horse race is more sacred in Italy than the Palio, which traces its lineage back 700 years. This year, however, the hotly contested chase has taken an unexpectedly ecumenical — and disputed — twist.

For the first time, a Muslim painter was asked to design the Palio, or banner, that the winner takes home at the end of the race, which is conducted two days every year around Siena's distinctive shell-shaped square.

Not everyone was pleased with the choice, though that was not evident Friday evening, when residents of the winning district, or contrada, as Siena's 17 neighborhoods within the city walls are known, jumped over fencing that lined the square to grab the Palio, crying and shouting with joy.

The horse representing their contrada had won the race, and they did not seem particularly bothered that the banner has generated controversy in the local and national media during the past weeks over what some have called "a profanation" of the Sienese tradition.


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