|Photo of Piazza del Campo, Siena by Ricardo Andre Frantz|
Settings are extremely important in fiction. Think about memorable scenes in your favorite novels and I bet you conjure up a picture so vivid you think you can smell and hear it. Whether it’s a fantasy world such as those created in The Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings, or the mansions and surroundings of The Great Gatsby, or the orphanage of Oliver Twist, memorable settings reel you in and deposit you on heady shores. They breathe life into a story and can become another character in the book, one that makes a reader want to visit in person and follow in the footsteps of the characters you come to know so well.
One of my favorite scenes in my suspense novel, Hard Head, is set in Siena, Italy in the stunning main square called Piazza del Campo. Siena is a charming walled city with medieval roots. Its winding streets and sepia light beckon you to wander slowly through its mazes. The central shell-shaped square, Piazza del Campo, is a jewel. After walking the winding streets, it is breathtaking to spill onto the Piazza del Campo from one of the tiny narrow streets that lead into it. As you enter from dark passages, you are immediately immersed into light and air. Twice a year, once in July, and again in August, the interior of the square turns into a madhouse when the horse race called Il Palio is run and thousands of people manage to squeeze into the square.
In the Palio, jockeys ride bareback and circle the Piazza del Campo three times. They cover the inner square with dirt to provide some traction, but it is not uncommon for riders to fall off and horses to stumble. The race itself takes only a little more than a minute. Events leading up to it occur over four days. Ten horses and riders representing sections of Siena ride around the square at a furious pace. The winning horse does not even need to have a rider. Amazingly, the horses without riders still run hard. The participants do it all for the right to display a banner.
I’m not a fan of crowds and have never attended the Palio, but the spectacle of that race has been a draw for me since I became aware of it many years ago. I knew I wanted to set a part of my novel there. So when I was writing Hard Head, I steeped myself in every article, account, and picture I could find to understand the rituals and pageantry. Incidentally, the title of the book, “Hard Head” is a term commonly used to describe people who come from Calabria, the place of birth of my main character’s ancestors. She journeys to several places in Italy including Siena and Calabria.
I did eventually visit Siena and its gorgeous Piazza del Campo, not during a Palio, but during the fall season, when the walls were covered in a fiery orange from climbing vines. There’s something magical about the square, and the history associated with it. I was most content to sit in the Piazza and sip an espresso. The square was all I had imagined it to be and I could imagine the thunder of the horses and the shouts of the crowd.
Is there a magical setting or event like Il Palio that you’d like to visit?
I’m ready to pack my bags, Barbara! Thanks for visiting with us today. -- AP