Two weeks ago we traveled to Arezzo to visit our friends and to witness the 126th “Giostra del Saracino” – “Joust of the Saracen.” The joust takes place twice a year in Arezzo, on the last Saturday in June and the first Sunday in September. Each of the four quarters of the old city is represented by two knights, but they do not compete directly against one another. Rather, the object of the joust is a large, armored, swinging mannequin that holds a target in one hand and cat-o-nine tails in the other. This ‘automaton’ is fashioned as “Buratto, King of the Indies”, i.e. the Saracen. One might think that this tradition goes back to the Crusades, but unlike the Palio in Siena, which has been running continuously since 1644, Arezzo’s joust was ‘restored’ in 1931.

On this particular weekend, the joust coincided with the monthly Antiques Market in Arezzo. Shopping and knights, what more could our family ask for…

Jousts did, of course, take place in and around Arezzo in the Middle Ages (for the history of recorded jousts in Arezzo, see the website for the La Giostra). The contemporary version is meant to recall Arezzo in the 14th century and was developed in Italy’s fascist era “to draw the populace closer to the regime” (‘bread and circuses’ always works). The knights compete for one of the four districts (contrade) in the old city of Arezzo, which are named for the gates of the city: Porta del Foro, Prota S. Andrea, and Porta S. Spirito, and Porta Crucifera, the district in which are friends live.

ArezzoBannersPreparations for the joust begin weeks ahead of time. The contrade put up their banners and start practicing their chants; the knights train with the horses. There are eight knights altogether, two for each contrada. The competition itself takes place in the Piazza Grande, which slopes up from the southwest to the northeast. The knights have to ride uphill at full gallop in order to hit the Saracen. They receive points based on where they hit the target. They can also lose points for falling off their horse or missing the target altogether.

We arrived in Arezzo on Saturday as the town was filling up. Almost every building has a banner with the neighborhood colors and the distinctions between regions is clear. At the intersections, vendors were set up selling flags, scarves, drums, hair-clips, etc. with the colors and the crest of each contrada. There were also hawkers selling large helium balloons in the shape of cartoon characters and superheroes; Medieval in its own way, we suppose.


Even the shoe stores get into it

During the day on Saturday there were celebrations in the contrade and we encountered processions all over town. In the evening, as we were looking for dinner, the Piazza San Francesco was buzzing with people, the young and carefree sat on the steps of S. Francesco drinking wine and beer (from a bar? hard to tell), families pushing strollers whose occupants were actually playing in the street, and older couples impeccably dressed simply our for an evening stroll before dinner. No one seemed to have a particular purpose except us; we had hungry American children to feed. We finally settled on a trattoria just down the street from Lili and Peter’s apartment, aptly called Il Saraceno:


The food was okay (we all agreed that it was not the best; hence no pictures of the food this time), but the kids were able to get pizza, eat quickly, and go back to the apartment, leaving the grown-ups to linger and talk. After dinner we took a walk and stumbled upon the Porta Crucifera pre-joust party:


We wanted to go in, but we weren’t wearing the right colors (hadn’t yet purchased the scarves), and there were bouncers(!):


At 7:00 am Sunday morning we were awoken by the first cannon salute (primo colpo di mortaio). I expected the streets to erupt with revelers, but it was eerily quiet (clearly the revelers had been partying the night before). The celebration really began at 11:00 am with the second cannon salute, followed by the proclamation of the joust announced by the town herald. This was followed by the first of three processions through town. At 2:00 pm, the Blessing of the Knights occurs, each at the church of their contrada. This blessing is reinforced later when all the knights gather at the Piazza Duomo to be blessed by the bishop of Arezzo:


Knights waiting outside the duomo

Then the final parade began and wound its way through the city to the Piazza Grande:

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They loved flags in the 14th century

For the joust, the piazza had been set up with grandstands on two sides and standing room on the southeast. We were in standing room (posto in piedi). By the time we entered, we were stuck standing several rows back from the fence. However, since the piazza is on a slope, we were able to stand on the eastern edge where we had a sight-line towards the Saracen:


Micah got the best view:




Peter and Lincoln on the balcony above us

It turns out that the woman who has been helping Peter and LIli settle in to Arezzo was watching the joust from a friend’s apartment above the piazza. There was not room for all of us to go up, so the kids took turns.

The fifth and final cannon salute sounded at exactly 5:00 pm and the joust began.

Not exactly. First there were more flags:


From where we were standing we could not see the twirling, but we could see the throwing. It was an impressive display and as far as I could tell, no flags were dropped.

Finally the knights of the joust entered the arena and the herald read them the challenge of Buratto, King of the Indies. You have to give the 1931 organizers credit for doing their research. The challenge is a poem from a 1678 volume on the festivals of Arezzo called “Il Sempre Innocente” (The Forever Innocent). The context of the poem is not explained, and it is not Medieval, but it serves to motivate the knights by haranguing them for arrogantly invoking honor and courtesy without proving themselves on the battlefield. ‘Buratto’ states that a just vendetta inflames his heart and calls the knights to the battlefield:

“Non più parole, omai, vo’ vendicarmi:
al campo! Alla battiglia! All’armi! All’armi!”

“No more words, now, revenge me:
to the field! To the battle! To arms! To arms!”

The knights are then saluted with the cry of “Arezzo!” They fight for their contrada, while defending their city from the infidels (Buratto, by the way, is accompanied by his family, who are dressed as Muslims). The 1931 fascist origins of this ‘tradition’ may be understood in that historical context, but it was startling to see the ritual played out so uncritically (and enthusiastically) in 2013.

By this point, we were not so enthusiastic. We were hot, tired, and hungry. But then, the first knight attempted the target. I could see almost nothing, but I could hear the pounding hooves, the aaahs of the crowd, and within seconds the clang of a spear hitting the target. On the next run, I held my camera above my head and hoped for the best:




This was the first knight for the Porta Sant’Andrea (on a horse named Peter Pan). It was a good run. He scored a V, putting his team into first place. We ducked out after the first round, hoping to find a restaurant or bar where we could cool off, feed the kids, and watch the rest on television. But, by the time we got back to via Cavour, the joust was over (for a play-by-play see here). The second knight for Porta Sant’Andrea had scored a IV, giving them an unbeatable combined score. The last two knights did not even get to compete. At least we beat the crowds for a place in one of the local restaurants.

Despite the Medieval nature of the joust, Arezzo itself appears more Renaissance than Medieval. The streets are wide (much wider than Perugia) and the buildings are faced with painted stucco rather than the stone facades we see every day. The old city is filled with antique stores and art galleries. Arezzo is a destination for collectors. This year the September joust coincided with the monthly Antiques Market in Arezzo, which takes place on the first Sunday of the month and preceding Saturday. The market is usually held in the Piazza Grande, but because of the joust, they had moved it to the large park on the northeast edge of the town.

Saturday afternoon, we walked up to the park, sent the kids off with a soccer ball, and Lili and I spent a few hours wandering the market. This is the oldest and largest antiques market in Italy. It has been running since 1968. Over 300 vendors come every month, offering everything from silver and china, to old paintings, to large pieces of furniture. Some vendors clearly specialize in just one thing, while others offer a hodge-podge of old stuff.



The market appeals to serious antiquers (we saw people walking around with catalogs scouting for specific items) as well as casual shoppers (like us). Lili and I wished we had large houses to furnish and/or the resources to ship armoires, tables, and chandeliers back to the States. Most of the furniture and tableware were Italian, or at least European in origin. But, we were surprised to find one table with Persian ceramics, both old and new. ShirazTilesMost of them are beautifully painted with intricate patterns and some animals, particularly fish. Three tiles, however, stood out. The one in the middle has an image of Ahurramazda, the Zoroastrian god whose imagery goes back to ancient Persia. According to the vendor, these tiles are from Shiraz and date to the 1930s or 40s. Although he was selling them separately, the tiles are clearly a set. I am not very good at bargaining, but I eventually got all three for what I think was a fair price. They will look great in the downstairs bathroom (once we renovate it).

Next month in Arezzo we will seek out some Italian ceramics for the kitchen.