Image: Palio horse race
Paolo Lazzeroni  /  AP
In this photo from the Palio horse race on July 2, the horses of the Leocorno and Aquila neighborhoods collide. Italy's tourism minister is causing a flap for likening the nation's popular Palio horse races to Spain's bullfights for exploiting animals.
updated 8/5/2010 5:46:22 PM ET 2010-08-05T21:46:22

The city of Siena's famed bareback horse race, the Palio, is a big tourist draw in Tuscany, but Italy's tourism minister said it amounts to cruelty to animals and suggested it's time to end the centuries-old spectacles.

Minister Michela Brambilla, appointed by Premier Silvio Berlusconi to promote Italy, blasted such generally cherished traditions at a news conference in Rome on Thursday.

Her suggestion immediately irked prominent members of Berlusconi's conservative coalition, already frayed by weeks of political squabbling, and several hours later she issued a statement insisting that she hadn't demanded the Palio to be banned.

At the news conference, Brambilla praised the Spanish region of Catalonia for banning bullfights last month and said it was time for Italy to review its own pageantry that might exploit animals.

Siena draws tens of thousands of visitors each summer with runnings of the Palio race at breakneck speed, when jockeys, sporting colorful medieval symbols of 17 fiercely competitive neighborhoods, whip their mounts around a dirt-covered oval track converted from the main cobblestone square.

Falls by horses aren't rare, and sometimes the animals have had to be killed because of their injuries.

"If Catalonia has given up the 'corrida' (bullfights), we could can give up some Palio" races, Brambilla told reporters.

She lamented that several towns have traditions she said exploits horses, donkeys and other animals and ventured that Italy would benefit from what she called an "animal friendly" image.

On Thursday night, Sky TG 24 TV, which had broadcast her remarks, reported that the minister later issued a statement saying she hadn't specifically called for the Palio's abolition.

No one answered the phone at the Tourism Ministry Thursday night.

Siena's mayor, Maurizio Cenni, called Brambilla's remarks "incredible" and a "shame" for Italy.

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Cenni is from the opposition left, but Berlusconi's own conservative allies quickly mounted a protest. Sen. Gianvittore Vaccari said he was "surprised and perplexed" by the tourism minister's remarks, and Berlusconi's senate whip, Maurizio Gasparri, praised the Palio as an expression of "healthy popular culture," the Italian news agency Apcom reported.

The hotly contested race is no stranger to protests.

Pro-animal lobbies, which have long called for an end to the Palio, rushed to praise Bambilla.

And last month, on the eve of the Palio's first running this summer, right-wing groups condemned this year's official banner for featuring Islamic, Jewish and Christian symbols.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Florence a la fresco

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  1. Magnificent marble

    The Statue of "David" by Michelangelo is on display at the Galleria dell'Accademia. Sculpted from 1501 to 1504, the 17-foot tall marble statue portrays the Biblical King David at the moment that he decides to do battle with Goliath. It is the most recognizable statue in the history of art. (Stefano Amantini / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Heavenly view

    A visitor takes in the view from the top of Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral's Dome in Florence, Italy. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ancient garden

    The Boboli Gardens are filled with a collection of sculptures dating from the 16-18th centuries. Stroll through the grounds and see more statuary from Michelangelo (copies are here now to protect the originals), a massive Egyptian obelisk, classic grottoes and garden temples, and carefully groomed plants and trees. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Last Judgment

    The "Last Judgment" fresco by Frederico Zuccaro and Giorgio Vasari seen in the dome of the Florence Cathedral. (Fred De Noyelle / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Chapel of the Princes

    A view of the interior of the Chapel of the Princes in San Lorenzo Basilica. The massive structure, which is the mausoleum of the powerful Medici family, was erected between 1604 and 1643 by Matteo Nigetti. (Richard Bryant / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ponte Vecchio

    Houses and shops are built along on the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval bridge over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy. It is Europe's oldest wholly-stone, closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge. (Richard Cummins / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Famous cathedral

    The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is the cathedral church of Florence, Italy. The basilica is most notable for its dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. (Fred De Noyelle / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. <David> by Michelangelo at the Galleria dell'Accademia
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    Above: Slideshow (7) Florence a la fresco
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