The Renaissance Giostra Cavalleresca in Sulmona
Every year, the ancient city of Sulmona, Abruzzo, hosts a very picturesque medieval festival – La Giostra Cavalleresca. During the last weekend of July, there takes place La Giostra Cavalleresca di Sulmona, when 4 sestieri (districts) and 3 boroughs contest with each other. At the first weekend of August, the Giostra becomes an international event. Each district or borough hosts a delegation from abroad.
La Giostra Cavalleresca di Sulmona has ancient origins. It can be traced back to the time of the Swabian rule and flourished under the Aragonians. The first record of Giostra in Sulmona was made in 1578 by humanist Ercole Ciofano. He wrote that it was held in Piazza Maggiore, actual Piazza Garibaldi. Sulmonese historians presume that it could be initiated at least one century earlier, in 1475. Presumably, annual chivalrous tournaments ceased in the middle of the 17th century. The Giostra wasn’t mentioned since 1643. In 1995, la Giostra was revived due to the enthusiasm of citizens of Sulmona under the leadership of Gildo Di Marco.
Three years ago, I visited La Giostra di Sulmona. It was a really stunning show. I was greatly impressed by very rich Renaissance garments and noble appearance of participants. It was hard to believe that those beautiful ladies and brave knights were our contemporaries. It seemed, that they came straight from the Middle Ages.
The last day of the festival begins with procession of all districts and boroughs. The cortege starts from the St. Panfilo Cathedral and proceeds to the Garibaldi Square. The cortege slowly and solemnly stalks along the main street – Corso Ovidio which is full of spectators. Each delegation is preceded by drummers and trumpeters. Standard bearers show their skills of juggling with banners. They are followed by grand seniors and beautiful ladies, accompanied by knights and soldiers in chain armours with swords and spears. Sometimes, knights hold horses by the bridle and falconers carry falcons on their gauntlets.
The tournament takes place in the Garibaldi Square which is covered by thick layer of white gravel. The beautiful baroque piazza makes a perfect arena for chivalrous performances. Three arched spans of the famous medieval aqueduct form a magnificent entrance to the piazza. The square is encircled by ancient churches and elegant mansions. A faraway blue silhouette of the Maiella Mountain serves as a spectacular background for this natural arena.
The tournament opened with the procession of representatives of districts and boroughs. I had a seat at the first raw and made photos of the show from a very short distance. When a falconer was walking very close to the audience, he suddenly let a big brown falcon fly. The bird made few circles far above the piazza and landed at the barrier just in front of me. It was so unexpected that I didn’t manage to take photo.
To say the truth, I was slightly disappointed by the fact that the Giostra resembled equestrian games but not a chivalrous tournament. Medieval combats, where knights sought to knock each other flying, were gone. Today, the riders, mostly professional jockeys hired by competing town districts, race apart, though in the same arena. In each head-to-head contest, two riders set off in opposite directions from the center of a figure-of-eight track. With their lances, they pick off rings which hung from manikin knights set around the piazza. Each half-minute contest ends with the pair racing toward each other to the finish line and a final ring. The winner should score more points and the speed counts. Meantime, the audience was very busy counting points won by each team and filling in tables on special sheets of paper.
I just started to think that the show was rather dull and cool-tempered, when an accident took place. A rider fell down from a horse and an ambulance car immediately drove into the square. The medics picked up the wounded and carried him away accompanied by loud cheers of the audience.
On August 7, my friends and I visited La Giostra Cavalleresca d’Europa. Early in the morning, we took a train from Pescara to Sulmona. It took us about an hour to get to the Sulmona railway station. We took a bus which brought us to the historical center. We had few hours in our disposal. Of course, we began our visit to Sulmona with a cup of cappuccino. Then, we started sightseeing the beautiful town. It was decorated by multicolored standards of districts. As soon as I had visited Sulmona many times before, I showed my friendsmy fovourite sites. We visited the Palace of Santissima Annunziata, the Garibaldi Square, Corso Ovidio and the beautiful Church of St.Francesco della Scarpa. I am fond of its magnificent portal, but whenever I saw it, the entrance was always barred. To my great surprise, this time the grating was widely open and there were many people inside the court. It appeared that there was situated the headquarters of the Giostra. So we got the opportunity to observe the courtyard and a small exposition of pictures depicting annual cultural events in Sulmona. We also visited the Museum of religious arts which is situated in the former Convent of Saint Clair.
While we did our sightseeing the city changed into the land of Nod. We walked about completely deserted and sultry streets. With great difficulty, we found an open café but we were met very unfriendly. Nevertheless, we managed to get there some tasteless meals.
About 2 p.m., we came to the Palace of Santissima Annunziata. I knew from my previous experience that its staircase would be an excellent observation post to watch the cortege. We occupied the best place on the top of the stairs. Little by little, the people started filling up the place. They occupied tables in the street cafés opposite the palace and the stairs. Finally, the place was so crowded that there was not room to swing a cat. We were cramped from all parts and could hardly move. But we didn’t notice any discomfort because the spectacle was really fascinating. We observed participants slowly gathering near the palace. It was terribly hot, and they wore thick and heavy garments and armoury. Some of them drank cold water and washed their faces in the nearby fountain.
Suddenly, we heard sounds of drums and trumpets. Delegations of some districts quickly passed Corso Ovidio heading to the Cathedral of San Panfilo. The procession started at 4 p.m. I saw familiar personages and costumes but there were some novelties if compared with the Giostra 2008. In one borough, there was a very artistic court jester who reminded me Jonny Depp as a pirate of Caribbean Sea. Another borough presented a small sketch depicting a young and beautiful witch who was dragged by soldiers.
The main intrigue consisted in participation of very picturesque groups from abroad. Each district or borough hosted foreign guests who represented medieval personages. This year, la Giostra Cavalleresca d’Europa hosted 8 delegations from Bruxelles, Zante (Greece), Burghuasen (Germany), Xaghra (Malta), San Marino, Ptuy (Slovenia), Ciutadella de Menorca (Spain) and Orastia (Romania).
There was a troop of Maltese knights with large red crosses on their wide chests. The group consisted of 20 participants who represented the Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette and knights of the Order of St. John. There was a sultan under a luxurious canopy carried by his sumptuous suite. There were two horsemen who made their horses rear up. But the most spectacular show was performed by the Belgian delegation. They walk along the Corso on very high stilts. Some of them were walking on a level with roofs of the houses! The audience was very enthusiastic about them. They cried: ”Bravo” and applauded loudly. About 6 p.m. the stupendous performance was over. The spectators followed the procession to the Garibaldi Square. We treated ourselves with a very tasty ice-cream and headed for the railway station.