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A look inside Sardinia's mysterious medieval carnival

Sa Sartiglia is one of the most ancient and spectacular horse races in the Mediterranean area
Sa Sartiglia is one of the most ancient and spectacular horse races in the Mediterranean area Copyright Archive of the Municipality of Oristano/Limone Marketing - All rights reserved
Copyright Archive of the Municipality of Oristano/Limone Marketing - All rights reserved
By Rebecca Ann Hughes
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The modern equestrian events of Sa Sartiglia are thought to have originated in 12th-century military tournaments common in the era of Europe’s crusades. Now, ceremonial rituals are combined to create a curious conflation of pagan, Christian and folklore practices.

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As a thunderous drumroll begins, an eerily costumed rider on horseback appears from around a corner galloping full pelt down the sandy track. As he reaches the stands crowded with breathless spectators, the rider raises his sword, ready to pierce a hole in a metal star dangling above the track.

This is the main event of Sa Sartiglia, one of Sardinia’s most famous carnivals. It takes place in the small town of Oristano on the west coast of the Italian island. The area sees a smattering of tourists in summer but it’s a mainly sleepy, quiet place in winter until the carnival comes around, marking the beginning of the Easter calendar and the start of spring.

In early February, the anticipation begins. The Sartiglia refers to two days of equestrian events on Sunday and Shrove Tuesday that round off the carnival period. The days are a roster of weird and wonderful historic rites and rituals, many of which have their history mired in mystery.

Archive of the Municipality of Oristano/Limone Marketing
Impressive stunts on horseback at 2023's Sa Sartiglia festivalArchive of the Municipality of Oristano/Limone Marketing

The curious origins of Oristano carnival

The modern equestrian events of Sa Sartiglia are thought to have originated in 12th-century military tournaments common in the era of Europe’s crusades. By the 15th century, these had become grand public spectacles and the first reference to one in Oristano dates from 1547, although they likely began earlier.

Ring jousts were popular at these tournaments and this tradition has evolved into the events of today’s carnival. The main competition of Sa Sartiglia involves horse riders charging down a track and using a sword to spear a tiny hole in a tin star suspended a couple of metres above the ground.

While this part of the proceedings is fairly straightforward, the ceremonial rituals that bracket it are a curious conflation of pagan, Christian and folklore practices.

The whole event technically remains privately organised, although now it has strong support of the town council. Sa Sartiglia is run by two historic guilds: the farmers and the carpenters. The two religious brotherhoods – there were once seven of these associations in Oristano – each take charge on one day of the event. Sunday is led by the guild of farmers and Tuesday the carpenters.

Archive of the Municipality of Oristano/Limone Marketing
Reaching for the stars - jousting horse riders at Sa SartigliaArchive of the Municipality of Oristano/Limone Marketing

Transforming a horse rider into a demi-god

The president of each guild nominates a horse rider to command proceedings each year – a role that can only be held once in a lifetime. Known as su Componidori, he is a revered character at the event.

On each morning of the Sartiglia, su Componidori undergoes a transformation with what is known as the Vestizione. This hour-long ritual involves the horse rider being slowly sewn into his historic outfit by costumed local women.

They methodically dress him in a white shirt and tan-coloured waistcoat and sew on red ribbons for the farmers’ Componidori and light blue for the carpenters’. Then comes the symbolic masking – tan for the farmers’ and white for the carpenters’.

The women raise the blank mask to the rider’s face and from this point on he is no longer a man. The costume, with a lace veil and top hat and the curiously feminine features of the mask transform the man (or woman, as has been the case four times) into an androgynous demi-god.

Now figuratively a deity, su Componidori is not allowed to touch the ground for the rest of the day. The Vestizione takes place inside the guild headquarters with the rider raised on a small stage. His horse is led inside the building and brought before the platform so he can mount without putting his feet on the ground.

Once su Componidori is safely astride, he uses a bunch of violets to bless the crowd in a vaguely Christian ritual that also heralds the arrival of spring.

Reaching for the stars

The main event of the day is the competition to spear the star. Around 100 riders arrive for the contest organised in groups of three with matching costumes. Many have influences from historic Spanish dress – the country was ruled by the Aragonese for centuries – while others wear traditional Sardinian outfits. All are masked – an impressive if unsettling sight – and their horses bedecked in colourful rosettes.

Piercing the hole in the star is not an easy feat. Each year, around a dozen riders might succeed. Each hit is vital, though, as it apparently determines how successful the farming or carpentry industries will be over the following year.

While men have traditionally been the ‘stars’ of the carnival, women are gradually becoming increasingly accepted into the event, beyond their role as seamstresses. In 2023, six riders were women and two among them managed to skewer the star.

Archive of the Municipality of Oristano/Limone Marketing
Reaching for the stars - jousting horse riders at Sa SartigliaArchive of the Municipality of Oristano/Limone Marketing

Acrobatic acts on horseback

The two days end with Le Pariglie, a breath-taking, nail biting display of equestrian acrobatics. All the horse riders take part in their groups of three. They ride at full speed down a spectator-lined track and attempt to perform a trick. Some stand up, others ride backwards, and the most ambitious balance the centre rider on their shoulders. The antics continue until the sun sets.

After the adrenaline-filled events, there’s still a final ritual: spectators and participants descend into the streets of Oristano for multiple toasts with the local Vernaccia di Oristano wine.

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Sa Sartiglia will return in 2024 on 11 and 13 February.

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