Saracen Joust of Arezzo

 

This website cannot list all the reenactments of historical jousts held all over Italy, simply because the incredibly rich history of the country gave life to hundreds of them. What we can do, however, is to point our readers to the more interesting and exciting among them. Such is the case of the Giostra del Saracino (Saracen Joust) of Arezzo, held each year on the night of the next-to-last Saturday of June, and during the day on the first Sunday of September.

Differently from other similar events, this Joust is not an excuse to set up a street festival, but a real reenactment taken very seriously by everyone, a bit like the Palio in Siena. Everything revolves around the actual joust, including the provaccia (dry run) two days before the event, in which over 500 persons go over their roles and choreographies for the grand show and tourists can get a better understanding of what is going to happen. In the week leading into the joust each city district organizes various cultural and artistic events to show off and gain the largest number of supporters – but the focus on the joust remains. The event itself exists since the Fourteenth century. It is even mentioned in Dante’s Divina commedia, and to this day celebrates the glory of the Tarlati family, who in mid-1300s governed the town and lead it to win several battles and all-out wars with the neighbouring counties. The original purpose of the joust was to remark the Tarlati’s power and lineage: in time it evolved into a sort of celebration of the whole town, and today it stands as a joyful demonstration of campanilismo – the typically Italian desire to see one’s hometown as “the best” in the country, whatever it may mean. The joust begins with a huge costumed parade through the ancient streets and squares of Arezzo. Hundreds of persons wearing historically-correct dresses and uniforms represent the four city districts and its nobility. The parade is opened by the sbandieratori (flag wavers) and their acrobatic show, followed by musicians playing ancient instruments and melodies. When they reach the main square, the noblemen and noblewomen take their place on a raised stage where they reenact the complex ritual of administrative duties to declare the games open, then the joust itself begins.

Amidst a crowd of tens of thousands, the competition between the four districts centers around the Saracen, a spring-loaded dummy representing “the King of the Indies”, who holds a rectangular shield in one hand and a mazzafrusto in the other, the latter being a medieval weapon looking like a cross between a cat-o-nine tails and a Morningstar. The Saracen stands at the center of a linear track on which horse-mounted lancers ride on a galloping attack. Like in many other jousts the purpose is to hit the shield without getting struck by the resulting mazzafrusto attack. However, two important differences come into play here. The first is that the dummy is powered by a strong spring, so its attack is especially vicious and hard to avoid. The ends of its weapon are coated with powdered coal, so that any hit on the back of the riders cannot be concealed even if it happens at lightning speed. The second difference is that the shield is divided into several areas granting a different number of points: higher points strikes require more daring and more risky attacks. Also, the points are doubled if the hit is so hard to break the lance, so the riders are encouraged to attempt dangerous and spectacular actions against the Saracen. Each city district has two runs to amass the highest score. The winner is awarded a gilded lance covered with artistic bas-reliefs. If you want to try your skill you can actually play with an online simulation of the joust, available official website of the joust. If you wish to attend the real thing, however, we strongly suggest to visit Arezzo on the night before the joust, when the town holds a “propitiatory dinner” for thousands of guests in the main square.