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Giostro del Saracino Arezzo

Arezzo is a beautiful city in Tuscany surrounded by a valley created by the meeting of four natural basins. Visit Arezzo any time of the year. Devour the sights and sounds of this culturally rich city which also plays host to Italy’s most glamorous jewelery companies’ headquarters. Discover why Roberto Benigni’s heart-rending multi-Oscar award winning movie ‘Life is Beautiful’ had Arezzo as its backdrop. Drop your jaw in awe at Arezzo’s churches and cathedrals, many of which are heritage centers. Pay homage to the great Italian masters at the various art and archeology museums that abound here. But make sure to visit Arezzo in the last week of June and the first week of September. Marvel over the change that occurs over the city. Experience the feverish thrill that accompanies the people here in this time as they eagerly await the great Saracene Joust. Walk the streets of Arezzo gazing at the transformation in the enthusiastic spirit of the people as they make preparations for this joust. Participate in the various rituals that are carried out leading to the joust. And on the day of the joust, stand on tip-toes in a sea of people to witness among the most splendidly colorful processions you have ever witnessed in your life. Watch an amazing game unfold on horseback driving the awaiting throng into frenzied cheers. Celebrate with the winners, cry with the losers at this great festival of Arezzo, the Giostra del Saracino.

The Giostra del Saracino:
Held in the grounds of the ancient Piazza Grande in Arezzo, the Giostra del Saracino is a symbolic competition on horseback where knights representing different contrades or cities charge an effigy of the Saracene king and score points for accuracy trying to win the Golden Lance. This ancient game is contested fiercely by the participants and evokes the patriotic emotions among the Aretines.

The Giostra del Saracino, or the Giostra ad burattum as it is known locally, finds its roots in the Middle Ages going as far back as the Crusades and the Saracene raids. The Crusades were religious wars of the medieval times fought between the Christians and the Muslims to prevent the spread of the latter into Christian dominion and especially Jerusalem. The exact date of origin of this Joust is still under contention although the oldest document discovered so far describing the event dates back to August 1535.

The Joust has undergone many transformations during the centuries, even being abandoned for a few years before being revived in 1931. It is now celebrated to commemorate the Patron Saint of Arezzo, San Donato.

The Joust today:
The present-day Joust, managed by the Municipality of Arezzo, accommodates four contrades as participants. Quartiere di Porta Crucifera, Porta del Foro, Porta Sant'Andrea and Porta di Santo Spirito are the contrades that participate in this festival, each with its own flag, poster, symbol and color. But the most distinguishing feature of each contrade is the people themselves. The passion which the fans of each contrade exude is in itself a sight to watch. Dressed in the colors of the contrade, carrying flags, banners and various other colorful contrivances, the fans goad their favorite knights to victory.

Events leading to the Joust:
Aretines follow the age-old customs and traditions almost religiously and this festival itself is proof for this. There are a number of rituals that are carried out in association with this Joust in different months that ensure that the Joust is never far from people’s memory. The prizes for the winning knights of the previous competition are handed out on the first Saturday of February after the scores are announced. International artists and craftsmen participate in a worldwide competition held in April to design the grip for the Golden Lances to be awarded to the winning knights. A jury presides over this competition and chooses the best design. In the days leading to the joust, visitors to Arezzo can have a glimpse at the training and trial runs that each knight and horse undergo in preparation to the Joust.

The grand parade:
The day of the joust begins with the araldo reading the proclamation papers of the Joust called the lettura del Bando, a practice that is followed right from the origins of the Joust. This is followed by a magnificent parade where each contrade, consisting of the knights accompanied by horses and around 300 contrade loyals make their appearance as a procession. Dressed in 14th century costumes and decorated with medieval finery, the procession winds its way to the Duomo. The entire route is filled with energetic fans and tourists waving their flags, beating drums and cheering their contrades. The entire scene is reminiscent of the grand parade as it was conducted in those ancient days perhaps with more energy now than ever.

The procession stops at the Duomo where the Bishop of Arezzo conducts yet another ancient ritual. The participants are blessed by the Bishop, a ritual called Benedizione degli Armati (the blessing of the armed), which probably derives its origin from the medieval practice of blessing warriors before they went to a war.

The Joust begins:
The actual competition begins in the afternoon with 8 knights, 2 each from each contrade, entering the Piazza Grande. Piazza Grande, among the ancient piazzas in Italy, is the venue for this Joust. This ancient square, gaily decorated with the colors of the contrades, also hosts a huge effigy of the Saracen. This is a wooden contraption, exaggeratedly human-shaped, holding a heavy whip on one of its hands. As soon as the jousters enter the Piazza, their followers perform the flag-juggling ceremony followed by the reading of the challenge to the wooden Saracene, the “Buratto, King of the Indies”. And then the Joust begins. Each knight, armed with a lance, charges at the effigy and tries to strike the armour and score points. The competition is heightened by the swinging whip which the knights have to evade or be knocked down losing points in the process. Points are scored if the lance strikes the armor and also when the Saracene’s whip displaces a rival contrade. The winner of the joust is the knight who scores the maximum points and is awarded the Lancia d'Oro, the ‘Golden Lance’.

About Arezzo:
About 80 kms from Florence, Arezzo was among the most important Etruscan cities famous for its pottery industry. Arezzo offers an interesting glimpse of old-world architecture with some examples being the cathedral of San Donato, the Medici Fortress, the Roman amphitheatre and the church of St. Francis. The illustrious Piero della Francesca’s fresco “Leggenda della Vera Croce” (The Legend of the True Cross), recently restored to its former glory, still adorns the church of St. Francis. Illustrious sons of this soil include Petrarch, Pope Julius II and Michelangelo, the great painter and sculptor of the Sistine Chapel.

Very few cities in the world manage to maintain their old world charm meanwhile not losing any ground to their more contemporary counterparts. Arezzo is one such city which still maintains the pride of Italy’s culture and tradition. Festivals like the Giostra del Saracino offer not only a change from the daily routines but more importantly help people keep in touch with their glorious history. The fervor with which this festival is celebrated is highly infectious and you will remember for a long, long time, the multi-colored experiences you gain during these carnival days in Arezzo.