PsychoGeography #54: A bird's-eye view of the Renaissance

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The Independent Online

I'll go a long way for a good display of birds of prey - even Tuscany, if required.

I'll go a long way for a good display of birds of prey - even Tuscany, if required. Filing into the Palazzo Publico in Siena we encountered two arrant narcissists all done up in high leather boots, tight tan jodhpurs and voluminous white blouses. Granted, they had the aquiline good looks and slinky hips needed to carry off this rig, and they also had the correct avian accessories: the young woman a goshawk, the young man an eagle owl. These raptors were poised elegantly on the narcissists' leather gauntlets, their luminous yellow eyes unblinking in the bright light of the Piazza del Campo, an expression of cruel disdain for all tourists on their feathery faces. I took the proffered leaflet and shuffled on in.

After a profitable half hour or so limning on the significance of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's masterpiece Effects of Good and Bad Government for my six-year-old (and in fairness to him, he had a better grasp on the allegory than I did), we tumbled out of the finest example of 14th-century vernacular architecture in the known world and went in search of the birdy leather fetishists. Across the Piazza del Mercato we strolled, then dropped down through the city walls into one of the basins which nestle between the spurs of Siena's red hills.

Within a few metres everything had gone leafy and we were passing by authentic Sienese allotments, full of runner beans, flowering peas and pendulous tomatoes. Ranged along benches which bordered a small field at the bottom of the hill, we could see an assemblage of international bourgeoisie assembled for the display. In the middle of the field the falconers were pirouetting and striking attitudes.

Now, a good bird of prey display can be a magnificent thing. Talked by an expert into the Weltanschauung of a high-soaring, speedy-swooping hawk, which can read a newspaper headline at a distance of a mile (which explains why you never see a raptor actually buy a newspaper), the suggestible punter feels himself to be at one with the bird. I fondly imagined that here in the very embrace of this most beautiful of Renaissance cities, the metamorphosis would be easily effected, and I would find myself whipping through the slipstream above the zebra-striped Duomo, my arms tawny and tessellated.

Over the course of raising two sons with raptor obsessions, I've attended a great many such displays and become something of an afficionado. I have to say that while there's a certain frisson to be gained from the display at London Zoo, where a high-kicking secretary bird dispatches a rubber snake with its barbed tootsies, my absolute favourite has to be the magnificent show put on at the Hawk Conservancy in Hampshire. This stars a brace of bald eagles which loop out over the landscape for miles before returning, unerringly, to their handler's mitt.

In my current ranking of such divertissements, I can - with some mean glee - assure you that the Sienese example came bottom. This was the worst birds of prey display it was possible to imagine; indeed, it was only saved from being a complete disaster by going badly wrong. I'll explain. Albinoni tootled and rasped from a couple of speakers, a commanding and patriarchal narcissist (his blouse more voluminous, his hair iron grey) strode on to the dusty sward. "I don't like your big boots," sneered Luther (aged three), it was an inauspicious opening.

The Albinoni cut out, and using a hand mic, the falconer gave us the usual spiel: history of hawking, capabilities of birds etc. Then he took delivery of a goshawk from his lovely assistant and launched it into the sparkling air. The bird rapidly gained height towards the church of Santa Maria dei Servi, then disappeared. The falconer tried whirling his lure but to no avail - the bird had flown. He had only one possible course of action: loose a second hawk. This was done with some expeditiousness. Once again the bird mounted towards the skyline - and disappeared.

The falconer chirred and whooped, ululated and yelped. He put on such a performance, that far from being transported with the birds, I was left severely benchbound and regretting my €19 expenditure. Then, finally, one of the hawks came barrelling back down. The falconer, caught unawares, had the lure grabbed from his hand and suddenly there was one freaked out bird flapping about within feet of us, trying to choke down its meaty reward. But before we could take this spectacle on board, the second hawk came whirring over our heads and savagely attacked the first. Next the falconers piled in - all three of them - and their tan-clad legs tangled with jesses, talons and beating wings, then the ghoulish spectators flocked to this perverse photo opportunity.

There is, of course, a lesson in all of this. When you find yourself in a touristic situation, don't try and buck the trend. We were meant to be looking at the Renaissance - not having our eyes pecked out by it.