Twice a year, the city of Arezzo turns into a place where you can travel back in time. It happens when the Saracen Joust (Giostra del Saracino) takes place on the penultimate Saturday of June and on the first Sunday of September.
Not only is it one of the most famous and spirited Medieval Jousting Festivals in Italy, but it also makes the city more beautiful and charming than usual. In the days leading up to the event, Arezzo offers propitiatory and costumed celebrations and parties, while colorful flags and the beating sound of drums add to alleys and squares a picturesque festive atmosphere.
If you're thinking about coming to Arezzo, take into consideration the chance to see and experience its beloved Joust. Keep reading our article and then take a look at our related tours and short-break holidays: Saracino Walking Tour, Saracen Joust and Antiques Fair 4 days short-break.
How does it work?
The tournament is held in Piazza Grande, the heart of the city and one of the shooting locations of the Oscar-winning Life is beautiful by Roberto Benigni.
The rules have remained virtually unchanged since the 17th century.
The four neighborhoods in which the city is divided - each one represented by two knights wearing the quarter’s colors - compete to win the Golden Lance.
When it’s their turn, the jouster gallops across the sloping track in Piazza Grande and charge a dummy (called buratto) representing a Saracen that holds a flail and a shield divided into nine sections. Each section grants from 1 to 5 points when hit. After being struck, the dummy spins around - the knight must avoid the balls of the whip!
Depending on where the jouster strikes, the neighborhood team earns a certain number of points or even none! The outcome of the competition is uncertain until the very last moment of the tournament, because of sudden changes in luck that may happen. For instance, if the lance breaks after hitting the Saracen, the score may be doubled, whereas dropping the lance will result in zero points.
The four neighborhoods
Aretines get very involved in the Joust! Most people feel a true sense of belonging to one of the city’s quarters, each one with their own ancient noble families, flags, symbols, and colors:
- Porta Santo Spirito: yellow and blue;
- Porta Crucifera (or Colcitrone): red and green;
- Porta del Foro (or porta San Lorentino): crimson and yellow;
- Porta Sant’Andrea: white and green.
History of the Saracen Joust
The joust dates back to the Middle Ages. According to many, a jousting tournament in Piazza Grande already existed in the early 13th century. Apparently, it was born part as a military training exercise for the Crusades, with the dummy representing the infidel, and part as a chivalric game.
Dante Alighieri himself mentions the Joust in his Divine Comedy:
Light-armed squadrons and fleet foragers
Scouring thy plains, Arezzo! have I seen,
And clashing tournaments, and tilting jousts
- Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XXII
The joust became a tradition in the 17th century and has never disappeared since then, apart from the early 1800s and during WWII.
The trophy: the Golden Lance
The winning quarter gets the Golden Lance, a fine example of wood handicraft. For decades it has been made by Francesco Conti, a master carver, together with local and international artisans and artists.
Each joust dedicates the Golden Lance to a personality or an event of local or national importance.
Joust-related things to do & see
Ten days before the Joust the four neighborhoods start throwing propitiatory outdoor dinners and parties at their seats, near the ancient city gates. Join in if you’re in town and have some pizza or other Tuscan food under the stars!
It’s Sunday! The day of the joust begins with the Herald reading the Proclamation of the Joust. Afterward, a procession in Medieval costumes with over 300 people, flag throwers and musicians moves through the streets of the historic center.
The Knights receive the blessing of the Bishop of Arezzo on the steps of the city’s cathedral.
Music and flags
If you’re lucky enough to attend to the Joust (you'll need to buy tickets!), keep your ears open for the Saracen Hymn, played by the Joust Musicians and sung by the whole crowd.
The performance of the Flag Throwers is one of the most heartfelt and riveting moments, with choreographic movements and flags twirling up high withthe sound of clarions and drums.
Bonus: the Antique Fair
The September edition of the Saracen Joust happens in conjunction with the monthly world-renowned Antiques Fair, a chance not to be missed by antiques lovers and everyone looking for a unique piece to bring back home.
In September, instead of being spread out all over the historic center, the Fair takes place in the park (il Prato), just below the Medici Fortress, from where you can enjoy wonderful views on the city.