Medieval Europe of crusades was the cradle to equestrian knightly tournaments and games of military practice on horseback.
During the 15th and 16th century, such events newly flourished in the form of great shows offered to the population.
In the way it has been known in our days, the Sartiglia of Oristano may be considered as a public spectacle organized with the aim to entertain and amuse its spectators.
During the 16th century, the Old Continent was particularly keen on equestrian shows, with a special reference to ring jousts. Sovereigns, viceroys, big landowners and trade corporations offered such entertainments to their audience on the occasion of new nominations of kings or bishops, births of heirs to the throne, or special festivities of the liturgical calendar. Such events were meant for the noble class only, assigning the population the mere rank of spectator.
The historical show of Oristano, too, falls within the broader frame of ring jousts.
Still today, in Italy, a number of skill tournaments are run by riders who may tempt their good luck trying to spear a ring. Other jousts have horsemen attempting to hit a target, represented by a cut-out reproducing the rival knight to be challenged, featuring ancient duels, such as the ‘quintain’ of Foligno or the ‘Saracen’s Joust’ in Arezzo.
The most ancient documents concerning the history of the Sartiglia in Oristano, kept in the Historical Archive of the town, refer to the purchase of some wooden spears for the joust, ordered by a town authority of the time at a carpenter’s shop. This detail suggests that probably, in the Spanish age, the tournament was first organized by the municipal institution and then entrusted to the Guilds – trade corporations operating in the Royal Cities from the 16th century – that have handed down the ceremonial rites till our days.
At present, no papers are known to confirm the existence of the joust in the Middle Ages. Yet, the frequent relationships between local sovereigns and Italian squires during the period of Communes, in the 13th and 14th century, as well as local Kings’ long stays in big Spanish cities of the medieval period may imply that the sovereigns of the Kingdom of Arborea certainly had a fair knowledge about games related to military practice and, hence, that Oristano, like the great European cities of the time, was accustomed to see noblemen and knights challenging themselves in skill and horse-training contests with sword and spear.
Oristano, an ancient town of medieval origins, stands as one of the most significant places within the huge and varied cultural heritage of Sardinia, thanks to its history and to the extraordinary archaeological and artistic traces of its worthy past.
Around the year 1000, the Byzantine village of Aristanis became the new chief-town of the Kingdom of Arborea, receiving the fugitives of the ancient city of Tharros who escaped the ceaseless Saracen threats. Such an important institution was to be the longest-lasting among the four local kingdoms ruling Sardinia throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the Catalan-Aragonese conquest of the Kingdom of Sardinia, started in 1323 to mark the end of the period of Sardinian local reigns, would not succeed to include Oristano and its ancient kingdom among the conquered territories before 1420.
In about five hundred years of history, from the 10th to the 15th century, the Kingdom of Arborea knew a thriving, top-level culture. Precious documents have confirmed how this medieval town was wealthy and refined, as its monuments of civil and religious architecture still reflect today. Fortified by walls and towers – whose vestiges are still visible at the heart of the town – at the end of the 13th century by the sovereign (‘Giudice’) Mariano II of Arborea, the ancient town stood for several decades as the symbol of the fight against the Catalan-Aragonese conquest of the Island.
In the second half of the 14th century, the chief-town and the kingdom of Arborea reached their cultural and political apex. These were the decades when sovereigns Mariano IV and his daughter Eleonora promulgated the ‘Carta de Logu’, a modern code of laws ruling justice within the kingdom of Arborea. The same code, following the final Catalan-Aragonese conquest, would be extended to the whole Kingdom of Sardinia as the law regulating the Island throughout the period of Spanish domination. It was even used over a period of the reign of Savoy, until 1827, when Carlo Felice promulgated his Code of Civil and Criminal Laws.
In the early decades of the 15th century, with the Catalan conquest, a part of the territories of the Kingdom of Arborea would form the Marquisate of Oristano. Both title and territory would pass under the direct control of the King of Spain in 1478. In the subsequent year, Oristano was raised to the rank of Royal City, having received the privileges and regulations granted to Catalan cities. Among the prerogatives of these cities was the opportunity to institute the Guilds, trade associations ruled according to the statutes of the sister companies in Barcelona.
Oldest documents related to the Sartiglia refer to the town of Oristano during the Spanish age. At present, we do not know if the tilt at the ring was organized by the municipal authority, on the occasion of special festivities, nor do we know what was the historical moment when the Guilds started to take care of its organization. The most ancient tradition, handed down orally by the inhabitants of Oristano and, in particular, by the participants to the event – either old Guild members or elderly horsemen – has it that, since its origins, the Sartiglia has never been interrupted; that, every year, regardless of weather conditions, in war or peace, the Sartiglia has been run and ‘Su Componidori’ has been leading the ritual ceremonies of the joust.
Since five hundred years, the Sartiglia has been marking the history of the town. Owing to its long history, the tournament has been deeply penetrating the culture and the community of Oristano. A sort of spell seems to renew the event in every edition and, at the same time, to enrich it with its own ancient past.
The route of Sartiglia unwinds along the old streets of the town.
Following the dressing of ‘Su Componidori’ – usually taking place outside the old centre – the cortege heads for via del Duomo, the setting of the star joust. Until 1907, horsemen used to reach the Cathedral through ‘Porta a Mare’ (near the present Piazza Manno), once representing the southern gate to access the fortified town. In the same year, the fortress was demolished as it was considered of scarce artistic worth.
In a neglected state, too, was the Tower of San Filippo, adjacent to the residential palace of the medieval sovereigns, located in the proximity of the present town prison. Horsemen’s joust starts right in front of the jail. They will be riding in the attempt to carry off a star suspended to a green ribbon, stretched under the 14th-century bell tower of the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Oristano.
Inside the church, dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption, a number of chapels and fine statues reveal the various historical phases of this significant building, whose farthest origins date back to the Byzantine age. The ancient Gothic chapel of the Virgin of the Remedy contains a polychrome stone sculpture. The 14th Century statue of Our Lady of the Annunciation was sculpted by Nino Pisano. The chapel of the martyr Archelao, patron Saint of the town, and that of Farmers’ Guild, built in Baroque style, with decorations in pure gold, are but a few gems guarded in this religious monument, considered among the most solemn ones in the whole Island.
Saint Francis’s church and convent look onto the track of the star joust, being located on a challenging bend that riders are expected to take bravely at a high speed. Today the church appears in a neo-Classical style, although its origins date back to the 13th-century. It jealously guards a wooden Crucifix, known as ‘of Nicodemus’, portraying the tragic, painful type of Christ suffering on the Cross. A masterpiece of Rhenish inspiration, it has been attributed to workers from Valenza and dates from the 14th century. The work has been kept in Oristano since ancient times, standing as one of the most important sacred monuments of Sardinian (as well as foreign) culture.
The gallop of horsemen trying to catch the star – riding past the church of Sant’Antonio, the chapel of an ancient medieval hospital, and the small church of the Holy Spirit, of Byzantine origin – ends in the square in front of the church of San Mauro.
Following the route towards the street where the ‘pariglie’ will show their performances, the horsemen parade reaches Piazza Eleonora. This square is dominated by a 19th-century statue sculpted by the artist Ulisse Cambi in the honour of Eleonora of Arborea. The sovereign regent of the medieval Kingdom of Arborea lived at the end of the 14th century. Her name is linked to the promulgation of a revisionpdate of the ‘Carta de Logu’, a code of laws making the basis for the kingdom law. 'Palazzo degli Scolopi' ('Piarists’ Palace'), once a convent, now hosting the offices of the municipality, looks onto the square, like ‘Campus Colonna’ Palace, dating from the 18th century; here the Mayor and the town Council have their seat.
Corso Umberto – a street better known as ‘via Dritta’ – connects piazza Eleonora to piazza Roma, another landmark of the town. ‘Arcais’ Palace looks onto via Dritta. Now a state seat hosting a few offices of the provincial administration of Oristano, it was raised in the second half of the 18th century by the nobleman Don Damiano Nurra Conca, Marquis of Arcais, who also wanted to build a convent to donate it to the Order of Carmelites. The edifice now hosts a few academic courses of the regional Universities. Also looking onto via Dritta is a church built in typical Piedmontese Baroque style.
A powerful tower raised by Mariano II of Arborea at the end of the 13th century dominates piazza Roma. In that period, the sovereign wanted to enhance the fortification system of the medieval town: therefore, walls were built and fortified with 28 towers, with three main access gates. The tower of Mariano, also known as ‘tower of San Cristoforo’ or ‘Porta Manna’, represented the northern, most important entrance to the town. Built in sandstone blocks, it measures 28 metres. On the top storey, it hosts a bronze bell of the 15th century, a rare instance of a bell meant for civic purposes.
Following the above-mentioned route, the cortege goes beyond an imaginary line traced along the fortified town to reach via Mazzini, a street once running along the town walls. From the church square of San Sebastiano, of 17th-century origins, it runs exactly where a ditch formerly encircled the defence circuit. At the end of this street, the setting of riding performances, the tower of Portixedda (‘small door’) stands as one of the towers that made part of the fortification system of the town. It can be visited inside; today, it appears as the result of restoration works referring to the centuries of Spanish domination over the Island.
In the morning of the tournament day, ‘Su Componidori’ (the Head of the joust) first goes to the stables to greet friends and riding mates; then he pays a visit to the Chairman of the Guild. Towards noon, from this latter’s house, a parade will form and make for the hall where the dressing ceremony takes place. Drummers and buglers lead the cortege, composed by ‘massaieddas’ – young girls wearing the traditional costume of Oristano – carrying the clothes of ‘Su Componidori’ on their flat baskets (‘corbulas’), accompanied by ‘Sa Massaia manna’, a woman designed to supervise the dressing ritual; then, the Guild members follow, carrying the swords and wooden lances to be used for the race and, finally, ‘Su Componidori’.
A multitude welcomes the cortege, either in a hall or in a small square, duly prepared for the occasion. Among rounds of applauses and rolls of drums, the horseman approaches ‘sa mesitta’, a table where the rite will be performed. From that moment on, he is expected neither to get off the table nor to touch the ground, until the time of his return from the tournament, at the end of the undressing ceremony.
Sitting on a chair, the horseman puts on an ancient attire, aided by the young girls. The outfits worn by both ‘Componidoris’ – the two horsemen leading the joust, on Sunday and Tuesday respectively – are distinguished by garments and colours matching those of their own Guilds. Red ribbons are used to secure the puffed sleeves of the snow-white shirt worn by ‘Su Componidori’ of the Guild of San Giovanni; pink and light-blue are the ribbons fastening the sleeves of the shirt offered to the ‘Componidori’ of the Guild of San Giuseppe. Upon the shirt, the ‘coietto’ – a sleeveless tunic ending in a short skirt, as a protection for the legs – recalls ancient working clothes. Leather strings are used to fasten it on the breast of Sunday’s head of the joust, whereas heart-shaped silver studs button up the waistcoat worn by Tuesday’s ‘Componidori’, completed by a pair of supplementary, short leather trousers. Next, some bands are fixed firmly around the horseman’s forehead and under his chin, to prepare his face to receive the mask.
A well-wishing toast and a very last salutation mark the rider’s forthcoming metamorphosis. A startling flourish of trumpets and the incessant roll of drums accompany the laying of a mysterious mask upon the horseman’s face, at this moment transfigured into the ‘Componidori’. A transformation has occurred: now, to anybody, he is going to be nothing but ‘Su Componidori’. An impenetrable, earth-coloured mask distinguishes Farmers’ head of the joust; on the contrary, the mask worn by Carpenters’ ‘Componidori’ is pale, with an imperturbable expression. Additional bands are placed to ensure a steady positioning of the mask; an embroidered veil and a top hat upon it are the final acts of the ceremony. Last touch, a camellia is sewn upon the breast of the ‘Componidori’ – a red flower on Sunday and a pink one on Tuesday.
Suddenly, the excitement of bugles, drums and applauses ceases. In the utmost silence, a groom introduces the horse for the head of the joust, leading it towards ‘sa mesitta’: from that table, ‘Su Componidori’ mounts on horseback. Just then, the Chairman of the Guild hands him ‘Sa Pippia ‘e Maiu’, a double bunch of periwinkles and violets symbolizing the coming-up spring.
Describing a few blessing signs, greeting the Chairman, the members of the Guild and all the people present, the ‘Componidori’ reaches the exit and leaves the hall leaning backwards over his horse’s back.
Outside, in the square, he is saluted by his two aides-de-camp, by all the other horsemen and a massive, euphoric crowd.
After his blessings and greetings, the cortege takes shape and makes for the Cathedral square, where the tilt at the star will begin.
At the end of the dressing ceremony of ‘Su Componidori’, the parade of horsemen proceeds towards the street of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, led by the head of the joust, preceded by buglers and drummers and by the Guild organizing the tournament of the day.
The passing of the cortege is one of the most exciting moments of the event, ideally embraced by the whole town, including many tourists coming from far and wide.
The magnificence of horses and the elegance of horsemen, wearing ancient costumes of Sardinian and Spanish tradition, the blasting colours of horse trappings, the flourishing of bugles and the gait of drummers really captivate watchers’ mind.
Yet, above all, the most striking element is the imposing, hieratical stateliness of ‘Su Componidori’, the king of the tournament and of the entire town, catalyzing attentions and aspirations of a community for one day.
A three-fold crossing of swords between ‘Su Componidori’ and his second-in-command marks the start of the joust.
The rhythm stressed by the drums adds solemnity to this early phase of the tournament, taking place beneath a green ribbon supporting a bright tin star.
The challenge begins. ‘Su Componidori’ will tempt his good luck trying to carry off the target by the tip of his sword, riding at a fast gallop; next, it will be the turn of his two aides-de-camp. Subsequently, only those riders honoured by the assignment of a sword by the head of the joust will be entitled to repeat this enterprise. Indeed, the selection of those who will go down the route of the Cathedral to try and catch the star is exclusively assigned to the chief of the tournament.
The joyful gallop of a horseman who has just hit his target is a reason for joy, not only for him/her, but also for the Guild and the audience, who praise the rider will boom of exultation for having speared the star. Skilled and successful riders then go back down the route to enjoy drummers and buglers’ tribute, as well as the warm ovations of a jubilant crowd. They will be prized with a little silver star as a keepsake.
Riders whose extraordinary ability and luck grants them another star on the second day of Sartiglia are also awarded with a little gold star. Similarly, gold is reserved to horsemen of the leading ‘pariglia’ catching a second star on the same day of the joust.
When ‘Su Componidori’ decides it is time to bring the tournament to a close, he rides back on the track to reconsign the swords to the highest authority of the Guild. This latter, in turn, will give him a wooden lance (‘stocco’): indeed, only the head of the joust and his mates may have the honour to use the spear and try their luck for the second time along Cathedral street.
Once the rides with the wooden spear are over, ‘Su Componidori’ returns once again in front of the Cathedral square, to hand back the wooden lance for a sceptre of violets.
This is one of the most touching and enthralling moments of the joust. Beating an extraordinary rhythm, the drummers mark the pace of ‘Su Componidori’ who, blessing the crowd, heads for Piazza Manno, the start point of all rides at the star.
A flourishing of bugles and a roll of drums announces ‘Sa Remada’, a daring performance by ‘Su Componidori’ officially closing the ring joust.
His back leaning over his horse’s back, he rides down the track at a fast gallop, greeting and blessing the Guild and all the people present.
The gallop ends in a square hosting waiting riders during the tournament; they cheer the last act of the head of the joust with cries of acclamation and rounds of applauses. Once more, it is time for them to form a parade and move back towards via Duomo, corso Umberto, piazza Roma and, finally, via Mazzini, the setting where the ‘pariglie’ will take place.
The race of ‘pariglie’ (meaning either a pair or a group of three horses) takes place in via Mazzini, along a route traced right where the ancient town walls once rose. Indeed, going past the 13th-century tower of Mariano II, the cortege ideally emerges onto the road that formerly encircled the fortified walls of the medieval town, reaching the tower of Portixedda.
At the end of the parade, along the track of via Mazzini, the horsemen take a few side-streets leading to a secondary road, which ends in a characteristic small tunnel, symbolically marking the start of riders’ daring performances.
According to their position in the parade, all the ‘pariglie’ taking part to the contest are given a chance to show their equestrian skills.
Once more, the presence of horses and horsemen on the track is announced by rolls of drums and calls of bugles. ‘Su Brocci’, the small tunnel leading to via Mazzini, projects the ‘pariglie’ on the church square of San Sebastiano, where valiant riders, after months of hard practice, can give free play to their enthusiasm and riding abilities.
The series of figures opens with the group of ‘su Componidori’. The utmost care to protect his person and its important role prevent its ‘pariglia’ from trying dangerous performances. So the group of three riders will go down the route, their horses aligned; the two side horsemen will guide, while the head of the tournament will ride keeping his hands on his mates’ shoulders.
The hazardous equestrian show goes on with riders carrying themselves to spectacular figures. In recent years, haute-école exhibitions have been increasingly marking the uniqueness of this event.
Again, the last passage on the track is focused on ‘su Componidori’ and his ‘pariglia’. The closing of the race is marked by his ride, which includes a second ‘remada’. This time he is supposed to go down the track with his mates guiding the three horses at a gallop; again, he will lay flat on his horses’ back, greeting and blessing the crowds with ‘sa pipia de maiu’.
Finally, the head of the joust can reach all the horsemen, who greet his arrival in a triumph of applauses, while he keeps on blessing and greeting everybody with his sceptre of violets.