Come along to Sarteano (province of Siena) in early August and you'll feel the gathering excitement for the town's most important annual event the Giostra Del Saracino. Held every year on August 15th (Italy's Festa day for the Assunzione della Santa Vergine), the tournament is taken seriously between the five contradas: Sant'Andrea (red and blue), Santissima Trinitá (yellow and violet), San Lorenzo (red and white), San Bartolomeo (violet and white), and San Martino (blue and white).
This historic event is held in memory of the ancient battles between knights and Saracens. The Giostra has stringent rules that can be traced back as early as 1583. In 1712 a team game called Gioco della Pugna (a type of punching game) was permanently halted due to the violent nature and the Giostra Del Saracino came into its own to thrill contradas and spectators. There were periods when the tournament was halted, during the first and second world wars for example, but thankfully the tournament was revived and continues today. The Giostra used to take place through the narrow street Corso Garibaldi, it must have been dangerous for the jousters and any spectators who dared to watch the competition. The event was later moved to Piazza Bargagli (the main square). A few days prior to the tournament you will see men of all ages commencing the erection of the five contrada seating stands. Earth is transported to the area and dispersed along the course in preparation for the galloping horses. The ground will occasionally be dampened before the joust to avoid the slipping of hooves. Different areas of the town support their own contrada, spectators from the San Martino area will be seated in the San Martino stand and so on.
If you are in the area I suggest that you go to Sarteano and watch the spectacle. Try to purchase tickets for seats halfway down as the top rows are where the zealous supporters enjoy the occasion cheering on their contrada. The atmosphere is exhilarating and you will probably find yourself joining in with the 'ooh's and ahh's'. Tickets are on sale a few days beforehand as well as on the day. Contact Pro Loco (Tourist Information) on 0578 269204 to ask about obtaining tickets.
The afternoon's spectacle is not the Giostra alone. From 1500hrs a procession takes place through the historical centre before accumulating in Piazza Bargagli. The contrada members each dressed in their colours, together with the flag bearers, captains, jousters, and their very special horses are all led by the beating of a drum as if being led to war. It is taken very seriously and is enough to make the hairs on your arms tingle with the beautiful medieval costumes accompanied by the Saracino band. Once the procession has arrived in Piazza Bargagli traditional formalities take place and include Benedizione dei Cavalli e dei Giostratori (the blessing of the five horses and riders). Everyone is eager to get the tournament underway. Even the horses are 'chomping at the bit'. Pressure is placed upon the rider as well as the contrada by the strict rules which they must adhere to. Positioned along the course is the wooden Buratto (dummy or model) of the Saracen holding a shield in one hand and a type of flail in the other. The flail has five balls each one representing the colours of a contrada. A small ring is secured at the top of the shield. With the crowds cheering each knight holding a lance takes a turn at galloping at full speed towards the Saracen. The knight has a difficult task as he or she must carefully pick the small ring from the shield whilst in full gallop. After five rounds the winner and their contrada receive the 'Palio' (a fabric banner specially designed by a different artist each year). Naturally celebrations are then soon underway. The following day the men who erected the the seating stands remove them and a mammoth clean-up of soil begins.
Here is an example agenda for the Giostra del Saracino:-
29th July 2100hrs Corteo dei Ceri - A candle procession in the town.
2nd August 2100hrs Gioco di Fiocco e Bandiera - Held at the town's castle a demonstration of medieval flag throwing.
7th August 2100hrs Investitura - Induction ceremony held at the castle.
11th August 2100hrs Tratta dei Bossoli - Held in Piazza XXIV Giugno a Pageant to decide running order of joust.
14th August Provaccia - Held in Piazza Bargagli, trials for the joust.
15th August 1500 hrs Procession & Giostra del Saracino - held in Piazza Bargagli.
27th & 28th August Festa Vittoria - A party held by the winning contrada.
And don't forget to read about another famous Giostra del Saracino: the Arezzo's one!