The Joust of the Saracen in Arezzo

Knights, spears and flags in a fascinating medieval reenactment

Galoppa galoppa, o bel cavalier,
tu sei la speranza del nostro Quartier;
col braccio robusto che piega il destin,
trionfa, o gagliardo, del Re Saracin...

The Arezzo Joust is a medieval re-enactment that takes place twice a year in the city. 'Saracen' is the term that indicates the enemy of the Christian knights during the Crusades and the Islamic invaders of the Western lands. In this context, the Saracen Joust is represented by a Buratto (a half bust, a mechanical automaton) which the knights brandishing their spears pounce on in a thrilling challenge which takes place in Piazza Vasari (commonly known as the Piazza Grande).

Bear in mind that if you want to visit Arezzo and the Arezzo Joust of the Saracen, there are two dates held for this commemoration: the first is on the third Sunday of June: the night version (Joust of San Donato); and the second corresponds to the first Sunday in September: the daytime version (Giostra of September).

The Joust of the Saracen

First of all we suggest that you arrive into town the day before the race to enjoy the lucky dinners that are also key parts of the program of the Saraceno Joust together with the presence of the historical parade.

On arrival you will immediately feel the special atmosphere that fills the streets of the centre and the neighbourhoods. In fact, the Arezzo Jousting tournament changes the colours and climate of the city, involving all of its citizens to experience this great event with passion and enhance the traditions of its territory.

 

HISTORY. The Joust of Arezzo is a medieval horse race and, as was customary in the races in those days it took place on horseback and also had the purpose to recollect the fight against the Muslim enemy advancing land occupations in the West. The Saracen Joust in Arezzo continued to be present until the end of the 17th century within the Baroque era of rides or burattum, a solemn meaning tied to particular social moments for the city such as a visit from a prominent figure or an anniversary (for example, the carnival) that were attributed to the event.

Interest in the Arezzo Sracen Joust faded during the 18th century until its demise with the exception of some enactments of popular nature in the next century.

The 19th century, being characterized by the Romantic movement, made sure that traditions and the medieval past were re-evaluated and that this Arezzo disused prized event would once again be considered. The official year of the recovery, of the  Arezzo, Saracen Festival, was in 1931. It was decided to set the event in the 15th century and to divide the city into different parts so that the Joust in Arezzo between the quarters could prove the best challenge.

An important literary evidence about the Joust of the Saracen in Arezzo, is the one that Dante has left. In the 22nd canto of Inferno, in fact, he gives us an idea of the type of race and the context in which the great poet was taking part in: "«Io vidi già cavalier muover campo/ e cominciar stormo a far lor mostra/ e tal volta partir per loro scampo;/ corridor vidi per la terra vostra/ o Aretini, e vidi gir gualdane/ fedir torneamenti e correr giostra;/ quando con trombe, e quando con campane/ con tamburi e con cenni di castella/ e con cose nostrali e con istrane; » (1-9)... It is impossible to compete with the expressive power of the Divine Comedy! Don’t you want to attend, like Dante, this big show?

 

THE RACE. The Arezzo Jousting Festival requires riders of the four quarters to race on horseback at high speed one at a time, and to hit with their spear the shield of the dummy. This swivelling dummy (that is none other than the 'King of the Indies') is the support for the board of the score (which is in fact on the shield) and is equipped with a spring mechanism which is triggered in the moment of impact with the spear of the knight. When the mechanism is activated, the buratto rotates and carries with it the mazzafrusto (flail), positioned on the opposite side of the shield. If the rider is too slow or has taken a wrong trajectory, they are in danger of being shot in the back. The flail is a medieval instrument composed of a whip with three cords with balls at the end made of wood and covered with lead and leather bags, before the race, are covered with a dark powder. What for? If the knight was hit, all doubts would be dispelled from any stain present on their jacket! Consider that this event involves the loss of two points for the district of the knight!

The neighbourhoods of the Arezzo Saracen Joust have each two riders and are entitled to two charges (runs) that follow the sequence drawn on the Sunday before the race. Every charge includes a ride along the so-called 'lizza', the strip of land that runs through the Piazza Grande at an angle, which is followed by the charge of the jouster, with their lances in rest against the Saracen. The wooden spear, about three and a half meters long, marks the scoreboard thanks to a special rubber support at its end that is properly stained with ink before the race. All clear so far?  When you are there it all becomes clear and fun for you to understand, witnessing it live in this incredible event!

The achieved score is presented to the jury's statement and then voiced loudly, across the square, by the Herald of the Saracen Joust of Arezzo. The joust, moods and atmosphere of the crowd are determined by the words of this competition authority that expresses himself every time with the phrase that sys: 'the knight…of the neighborhood (x) has marked …points ... (x)! The pause that typically precedes the number of the score and, sometimes, a slight variation of the voice tone increase the suspense in the audience!

There are possibilities of increasing the score as in the case of breakage of the spear or disarming of the dummy with the fall of the balls of the flail or, the possibility of loss of points if, for example, the lance fall to the ground…in any case, the maximum score that a rider can hope for is 14 points.

You might ask, at this point, how you get the victory. Obviously with the highest score that does not necessarily have to be up to 14, but it will be enough to excel on the other three quarters in the race! The award for the victory of the Joust in Arezzo Italy is  the Golden Lance which is paraded through the city streets until the Cathedral, where the winners sing the prayer of Te Deum to thank Our Lady of Consolation or the patron saint of city (during the joust of San Donato in June). After that, the winning district celebrates all night at their headquarters with the victory dinner!

 

DISTRICTS. The Saracen Joust involves dividing (temporarily) the city into four districts. Each district is characterized by its own colours, emblems and mottos. In Arezzo, the division into districts already existed in medieval times: documents dating back to the 14th century witnessed the organization of the four quarters, the value of which, from a legal point of view, was also valid in the areas outside the city walls.

Who are the famous quarters of the Giostra del Saracino? Let's start with the neighborhood of Porta del Foro (San Lorentino): its colors are yellow and crimson, the heraldic emblem is the chimera of Arezzo, the area is north-west of the city and its motto is 'Tria capita, una mens’ or 'three heads and minds'.

The district of Porta Crucifera (Colcitrone) is represented by red and green colours, the depiction of the emblem shows three hills, a cross and the bell tower of the Santa Maria di Arezzo church, the territories are in the northeast and its motto is 'Excelsior Crux Maior Gloria' (the greater the difficulty, the greater the glory).

The of district of Porta Sant'Andrea has green and white colours, and is symbolized by a silver cross of the saint, the citizen sector is south-east and the motto is ‘Divus Andreas superior discedit’ or 'St Andrew comes top'.

Finally, the district of Porta Santo Spirito (district of Columbine) carries the colors yellow and blue, its symbol is a bridge, three towers and the dove of the Holy Spirit, the area is in the south-west and its motto is 'Ex antiquitate ardor' (ancient ardour).

In addition to these elements, a real world lies behind every district of families, stories, legends, homes, protector, rector, captain, riders, events, community lives and periodic newspapers! You can understand that the Saracen Joust is, in a sense, present, albeit on a small scale, throughout the year within the active social life of the population to convey the passion for this ancient game to future generations to come and also for visitors.

When you arrive in the old town of Arezzo, you will be guided by instinct and the colours that inspire you, so choose which district you will cheer for during the race!

 

COSTUME CHARACTERS AND MUSICIANS. The Joust of the Saracen, fascinates visitors each year from all sides due to its historical procession consisting of more than three hundred participants of knights, pageboys, infantry, soldiers, ladies and musicians. The day of the ride opens with a parade through the streets of the city centre until you reach Piazza Grande where the splendid performance of the flag-wavers of the Saracen is held. Arezzo is famous for the presence of this body of athletes-acrobats fumbling with great skill the 39 historic flags of the event, creating choreographies always new and evocative of medieval times.

Other items offered are suggestive costumes, the flags of the families, the horses and the armours (crossbows, spears, swords) that the costume characters have to carry for the duration of the event. Add to this the music of drums and trumpets that increase the magic atmosphere and bring the audience back in time.

Highlights of the preparatory phase of the race feature the Hymn of the Joust of the Saracen sung by the audience and accompanied by musicians, the reading in the square of the 'Challenge of the Buratto' (declaration of war of the King of the Indies to the jousters) by the Herald and the formal permission to start the race with the final announcement of the first charge.

 

THE WEEK OF THE TOURNAMENT. The Saraceno Joust  is synonymous with celebration and revival of citizenship during the week before the race, the neighbourhoods are adorned with flags stretched out of the houses while in the streets tables and stages for the local parties are set up. Young people (but not only) wear scarves to show which district they support and enthusiastically follow the activities and social events promoted by various organizations whose climax is the long-awaited 'propitiatory dinner'! The dinners respectively coincide with the end of school in June and the end of summer in September and are moments of great mixture in the town and big 'Bacchus' celebration. The passion for the Saracen Joust of Arezzo unites the hearts and the hopes of so-called quartieristi who meet to revitalize public spaces through concerts, theme parties, food, games and more!

 

CURIOSITY. Not everyone knows that the Arezzo Joust was told and illustrated in a comic strip in the Mickey Mouse Disney newspaper, for accuracy in number 1606. If you like, look for the title Uncle Scrooge and the Saracen Joust of Arezzo!

 

Do not miss this medieval pageant full of evocative moments: your kids will have a great time watching the riders hold the spears and running along the square! We suggest you not to miss the chance to visit the wonderful city of Arezzo: things to see and helpful suggestions on toscanainside.com!

By Insidecom Editorial Staff