The Joust between sacred and profane: when tradition is more than just faith

by Saverio Crestini

There is a precise moment in the life of a citizen of Arezzo in which the desire to go to the Cathedral is driven by an irrepressible passion. That is the Joust Day.

The reason is enclosed in the spasmodic desire to give thanks to God (in Latin Te Deum) for the win of the lancia d’Oro, the unique representation in the world of the victory of a people kissed by destiny: It is right there, within the nave of the Cathedral of Arezzo that the apex of the jubilation is consumed, consequence of the clash with lances between the Knights of the Districts and Buratto King of the Indies.

The origins of the Joust

Sacred and profane have merged since the dawn of the tradition in Arezzo and almost always on the anniversary of the Patron Saint.  On August 7th  in honor of San Donato, bishop of Arezzo martyred and beheaded according to legend, the first palios were run in 1300, when the horses “tremoi” galloped along the endless straight way which started from “La Mossa” and ended in the Pieve di Santa Maria Assunta, along the current via Romana, via Vittorio Veneto and Corso Italia.  On that same day, but in 1931, the first edition of the reborn Saracino Joust is staged in Piazza Grande, a historical re-enactment that has driven the  beating heart of citizens of Arezzo continuously for 90 years.

The Cathedral is the place where the remains of the “Divo Donato” are kept (from whom it takes its name); it is not only the point of arrival of the biggest people’s festival in the city, but also that of departure: it is in the hands of the Lord (technically, in those of the parish priest Don Alvaro) who is given the trophy of the Joust so that it can be kept while waiting for a winner. This happens on the day of the extraction of careers (a ceremony that marks the beginning of the week of tests in the square and the approach of the joust). The sacred place is thus transformed into a treasure chest, container of extraordinary beauty to which prayers and promises, kabbalah, rites and tears are addressed just to have in your hands even a small splinter of that precious golden wood.

San Donato
The Cathedral, the place where the remains of the “Divo Donato” are kept (from whom it takes its name), it’s the “departure point of the joust”- foto by Luca Deravignone.

The miracle of Porta Santo Spirito

Among the many incredible stories which refer to the “faith in Saracino Joust” there is that of Porta Santo Spirito, the district that between the ’80s and ’90s seemed struck by a kind of curse: the district of “Colombina”, in fact, since September 2nd 1984 could no longer win and it was plagued by a fast that never seemed to end. It just so happened that in 1996, because that year was the  200 year anniversary since the miracle of Our Lady of Comfort (February 15th , 1796) it was decided to dedicate to the Virgin, Protectress of Arezzo, the Lancia d’Oro of the September edition (according to the Arezzo custom of naming the trophy of the Joust after personalities, figures or historical events related to the city).

Many blue and yellow quartieristi saw this choice as a sign and the week before the Saracino a real procession started toward the Cathedral and the chapel of the Lady, which had been built in 1815 as a token of love for her having saved the Arezzo area from the earthquake.

Even Nanni Capacci, knight of Porta Santo Spirito, was one of the protagonists of this pilgrimage (and not the only one!): while he was praying he met a historical leader of the time, Edo Gori, who in front of the image of the Virgin of Provenzano launched into a premonitory request: “Nanni, you must win with ten“. That Joust, not to say, was really kissed by heaven: after a nice IV by Gianni Vignoli, in the second career “Nanni” Capacci broke the lance on the III, scoring VI points and winning the Saracino with X. Miracle or prophecy?

Giubileo Madonna del Conforto
The yellow-blue quarter-holders celebrate winning after 12 years the golden spear dedicated to the “Madonna del Conforto”.

The golden spears dedicated to the Church

In the years, trophies dedicated to spiritual figures and places were won in all the districts: Porta Santo Sprito holds a unique record having won, in addition to the Lancia D’Oro of Our Lady of Comfort, the one dedicated to Pope John Paul II (and blessed by Pope Benedict XVI visiting Arezzo),  to the Monastery of Camaldoli, the lance of the Fraternita dei Laici and the one dedicated to the Jubilee of Mercy. This “pitcher“, so called according to tradition, also received special attention from Pope Francis during a historic audience in the Vatican, where it was exhibited for months in the famous Museums. To close the circle the trophy dedicated to Blessed Gregory X, the pontiff who died in Arezzo in 1276 on his return from the Council of Lyon and to whom the legacy of thirty thousand florins for the construction of the Cathedral is due. Porta Crucifera, however, boasts the largest number of lances dedicated to Saint Donato, three, along with those dedicated to Guido d’Arezzo, the creator of modern musical notation, and Guglielmino degli Ubertini, the Lord Bishop who fell in the famous Battle of Campaldino  (June 11th  1289) while at the head of the Ghibelline army, defeated by the Florentine army of  the Guelph part. The spiritual booty of Porta del Foro, a district holding the lance of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order who received the stigmata in Casentino, on the Monte della Verna, and of Porta Sant’Andrea, custodian of another trophy dedicated to Saint Donato, are thinner.

The titles of the lance, however, are beyond the dedications of the Jousts, which are strictly addressed to the protectors of the city: the second to last Saturday of June, the edition of Saint Donato runs, while on the first Sunday of September we go to the square for the edition of Our Lady of Comfort. This is the reason why the winning district of the June Joust goes in prayer to the altar of the Cathedral, where the fourteenth-century ark of Saint Donato stands out, and those who triumph in September make their way to the chapel of Our Lady of Comfort.

Lancia d'oro giubileo
The Lancia D’Oro dedicated to Pope John Paul II was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI visiting Arezzo.

Every district still has its own saint to turn to

Every district still has its own saint to turn to. Not so much for the now known scongiuri, but to celebrate the feasts of the district patron: Porta Crucifera commemorates Saint Martino on 11th  November, Porta del Foro the Saints Lorentino and Pergentino (also patrons of Arezzo) on 3rd  June, Porta Sant’Andrea the Apostle of the same name on 30th  November and Sant’Andrea Guasconi (born Andrea Aretino) on 18th  August. Finally, Porta Santo Spirito celebrates Saint Jacob on 25th  July. As usual,  each banner bearing these sacred images receives the blessing in its own district  church a few minutes before the historical parade: a rite that is celebrated every Joust in front of the church of Santa Croce in Porta Crucifera, of San Domenico in Porta del Foro, of Sant’Agostino in Porta Sant’Andrea and of Sant’Antonio Abate in Porta Santo Spirito.

This is without doubt one of the most intense moments of the jousting ceremony: in front of their places of worship the four people, headed by rector, captain and jousters ask for the last time the protection of God to face the battle in Piazza Grande. It is in this precise context that the parish priest of each district shouts to his knights “Go and come back victorious!” while the bells are ringing in unison and the songs of tradition rise from the sides until the departure of the historical procession.

After a little time, more than four hundred people from every part of the city will be again in the presence of Saint Donato, above the immense churchyard of the Cathedral: they will receive the blessing of the Bishop and then march following the rhythm of the drums towards Piazza Grande. Waiting for them is the challenge against King Buratto, the “enemy of Christianity” who remembers  the history of a people forged by a thousand battles every year.

Only the neighborhood kissed by destiny will be able to thank God for the winning of the Lancia d’Oro and come back with it right there, where it all began in  a riot of tears, among the gazes of saints, quartieristi and dreamers.

Benedizione Porta del Foro a San Domenico
Iin front of their places of worship the four people, headed by rector, captain and jousters ask for the last time the protection of God – Foto by Quartiere di Porta del Foro.


Find out more:

The Saracino Joust