Sa Sartiglia is Oristano’s pride and joy and, together with a few other events, it is considered one of Sardinia’s representative festivals. It is held each year on Carnival Sunday and Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday) and it had its 556th edition in 2023. Although there is no irrefutable proof, historians think the first edition was held in 1546 to honor King Charles V – and that tradition never stopped after.
The festival consists of a horse race where a maximum of 120 “knights” per day try to catch a star-shaped token (simply called “the star” by the audience) with a sword or spear; another race where the knights (divided into groups of three) make spectacular acrobatics on their horses’ backs, and several smaller, but essential, events.
The two festivals, although same in format, are arranged by two different associations, called “Gremi” that were born in the Middle Ages as workers’ guilds: on Sunday, the Farmers’ Guild (Gremio dei Contadini) is responsible for everything; on Tuesday, the event is coordinated by the Wood Workers’ Guild (Gremio dei Falegnami).
Curious to find out more about the Sartiglia? Continue reading, I will tell you everything you need to know about it!
Table of Contents
The Origins Of Sartiglia
It is thought that, during the Crusades times, horse competitions where participants have to hit a small target at the maximum speed they could handle were an effective method to train the soldiers to battle and, at the same time, made for a great exam to establish the most promising recruits.
As time passed, gunpowder was discovered and new weapons were made: swords and spears became less and less useful, and the old training method changed into a show for the masses. Noblemen would gather on specific occasions and festivities and challenge each other’s abilities, while the lower classes would be only “allowed” to watch them.
The Sartiglia was supposedly brought to Sardinia from Spain during the Giudicati period and became a yearly occurrence that mixes Christian rites and Pagan Carnival traditions; the same happened in other parts of Italy and Europe, and some of the festivals are still held nowadays, just like Oristano’s Sartiglia, which became so important that the government, as early as in the XVI century, decided to make a specific fund to grant its yearly happening.
Check out my post The History of Sardinia.
Important Roles And Figures Of The Sartiglia
Although the most important role in a festival is always played by the people, whose cheers are the real soul and core of the day, and without whom none of the event’s official protagonists would enjoy themselves as much, there are three formal, irreplaceable figures defining the essence of the Sartiglia itself.
They are Arts and Crafts Guilds that were founded during The Aragonese era. Each of them had a patron saint and their own representative colors; until the XIX century, there were seven Guilds in Oristano, but now there’s only three left.
The two that are responsible for the Sartiglia planning are the Farmers’ (protected by Saint John the Baptist) and the Wood Workers’ (protected by Saint Joseph) Guilds. Both of them choose their Cumponidori and are in charge to make sure that the Sartiglia is held no matter the weather, the social situation, and the economy.
He (or she, actually!) is the main character of the event, head of the knights, in charge of guiding them, give blessings to the crowd and city, and represent the Guild’s patron saint. He is chosen and officially nominated on February 2nd and has to follow a series of strict rituals during the Sartiglia day.
In fact, from morning until night, he isn’t considered a human anymore: he becomes a demi-god, a powerful androgynous figure mediating between men and God, appearing on Earth to assist the citizens in their rites for the incoming farming season, which are always hoped to be abundant. He performs several tasks during the day to separate the various parts of the festival and to symbolically grant God’s favor.
Tamburini and Trombettieri
Since Sartiglia is a Medieval festival (also called “Giostra”, Jousting), the accompanying music matches the age it was created. One of the unique charms of this event is the trumpets and drums echoing through the streets from the morning: the musicians are all Sartiglia veterans and know the songs by heart.
Every song has a specific time and role and must be performed perfectly: they need to announce when Su Cumponidori, his assistants, the other knights arrive; when they race for the star begins, and so on. These musical performances are not only for ritual and folklore purposes: they also serve as a warning to stay away from the horses’ track.
If you hear their loud sound, it means someone is racing down the street, so be careful not to be too close to the barriers dividing the public from the track: the horses are really running at their maximum speed, and it would be extremely dangerous to be in their way.
The Stages Of Sa Sartiglia
Bando, or “The Calling”
In the morning of Sunday and Tuesday, a herald rides his horse around the city and announces the upcoming race in a real medieval fashion. He starts from Piazza Eleonora and, escorted by ensign bearers, the Tamburini and the Trombettieri, marches to the city’s points of interest and invites the population to watch the afternoon competition. He discloses the time and place of the event, the prizes for the winning knights, and reminds the crowd to follow the law and Su Cumponidori’s lead.
Vestizione, or “The Dressing Up”
While the herald is going around and entertaining the citizens, the man (or woman) who has been chosen to become Su Cumponidori goes to the place he (or she) will be invested with his (or her) role.
He is escorted by his guild’s members and by young women, called massaieddas, who are in charge of dressing him up with the traditional clothes under the guide of an older, more expert woman, called sa massaia manna.
The candidate is seated on a chair put on a table and, from that moment on, he will not be allowed to touch the ground until the end of the festival, or he will lose his sacred aura and powers.
The girls skillfully dress him up with the clothes, which are slightly different and carry different colored decorations on Sunday and Tuesday, representing the two guilds’ official colors: red for the Farmers, on Sunday, and pink and blue for the Wood Workers, on Tuesday.
One last cheer is shared among the few allowed to be there before the ceremony reaches its climax: the mask is placed on Su Cumponidori’s face, who has just lost his human status.
His horse is brought into the room, which is now completely silent as not to scare the animal, and he is helped on the saddle. He receives his scepter, called sa pippia de maju, a bouquet of violets he will use to give blessings during the day.
Cerimonia delle Spade, or “The Rite of Swords”
Su Cumponidori leaves the place and slowly marches towards Piazza Duomo with his two assistants, the segundu (second) and tertzu (third) cumponi. Here, he gives his first blessing to the crowd, leaves sa pippia de maju in the guild leader’s hands and receives the sword and spear he will use for the race.
He then holds a propitiatory rite under the star shaped token: he crosses his sword with su segundu’s sword three times as a wish for a good race and, consequentially, a good farming year.
The Race to the Star
After the rite of swords, Su Componidori marches back to the race starting point and officially begins the race, trying to catch the first star of the day; then, he gives his sword to his assistants and to the other Cumponidori’s team. He then decides who will race for the star, giving his sword to the knights he thinks worthy or to the ones he wants to challenge: how many knights will try to catch the star is entirely up to him.
The race’s itinerary is very simple and follows the straight road from Piazza Manno to Piazza Duomo, to favor the horse riders’ crazy speed.
Once Su Cumponidori is satisfied with the number of stars won, he will leave the swords to the guild’s chief and receive a wooden spear, called stoccu, with which him, su segundu and su tertzu can try to catch one more star.
Once they are done, he will give away the weapon and again receive the violet bouquet, to perform sa remada, the most important of the rites of blessing to the city: he lays down on the horse’s back and, again at a crazy speed, runs from Piazza Duomo to Piazza Manno drawing big crosses in the air with his scepter.
It is a very difficult ride, so any person would stand up at some point: in fact, there has only been one Cumponidori who, in 2008, managed to perform the whole remada without sitting back up in the saddle.
The Pariglie, the Last Blessing, and the Undressing
Sa remada marks the end of the star-catching competition. After that, the crowd moves to Via Mazzini where the knights’ trios perform spectacular paired acrobatic races while, again, riding their horses at a crazy speed.
Such exhibitions of dexterity are granted to leave any audience stunned, but there is someone who’s not allowed to perform any: if Su Cumponidori were to fall on the ground, he’d lose his sacrality (and possibly hurt himself), so he and his assistants can only have a normal ride through Via Mazzini and put one hand on each other’s shoulders.
Once all the Pariglie trios have completed their performances, Su Cumponidori gives one last blessing to the crowd, once again supine on his horse but this time helped by su segundu and su tertzu, who hold his horse’s reins, and then goes back where his dressing up took place: in a ceremony that this time is open to virtually anyone who wants to assist, the demi-god turns back into a human, is allowed (once the traditional clothes and mask are removed) back on the ground and can celebrate the rest of the festival (which is to say, eat and drink until late at night) with the rest of his guild.
And that’s what everybody else will do as well: there’s plenty of food and drinks for anyone in the city who still doesn’t feel like going home. A particular, traditional wine called Vernaccia is considered the symbol of Carnival and Sartiglia, but there are several things to choose from, which will meet every person’s taste.
Practical Information And Tips For Attending Sa Sartiglia
When does the Sartiglia take place?
The main events of the Sartiglia take place each year in Oristano on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Sunday.
Keep in mind that Carnival dates are set depending on Easter, which normally falls on the Sunday after the first full moon of Spring.
If you are hoping to attend the Sartiglia during your trip to Sardinia, review the exact dates of Carnival and plan your visit in advance. Hotels are usually fully booked weeks before the event.
Regarding the time of the event, the Bando starts at 10:00 am, but the star-catching competition only begins at 1:30 pm, and the acrobatics show at 4:30 pm – but there often are delays.
Can you see the Race to the Star and the Pariglie on the same day?
Some people do that, and if you are tight on time it can indeed be done. Indeed, the Pariglie actually start immediately after the Race to the Star and the knights will have to make their way to a different part of the city for this. The main issue is that as soon as the race is over, most people will be walking along the same route which means you’ll be moving really slowly!
If you do have time, plan to spend a few days in Oristano – see the Corsa alla Stella on the Sunday and then the Pariglie on the Tuesday. There are plenty of places to see in Oristano and its surroundings to keep busy!
Plan to spend the night in Oristano
I’d recommend being in Oristano from the night before (and stay the night after the event as well) so that you can enjoy your Sartiglia experience to the fullest. If you decide to spend the night in the city, be sure to book your place of stay early: Sartiglia is a huge, popular event and all hotel rooms, B&B, apartments and the like sell out terribly fast!
Find your accommodation in Oristano here.
Tickets for the Sartiglia
Although you don’t have to pay to watch the Sartiglia, you are way better off and more comfortable opting for one of the paid tickets along the route where it takes place.
The race to the star takes place along Via Duomo, and there are stands with seats along the entire route – some offering assigned seats, others just plain seats so you’d have to go a bit earlier for a better spot.
I attended the latest edition of the Sartiglia with a friend and we had seats in Stand B, seats 11 and 12, and we had perfect vision of the star and could see the exact moment in which the knight caught it. Other stands may be a bit cheaper but the view is not as good – you’d see the knight before, or after the star.
For the acrobatic race, we had seats in Via Mazzini Stand H and it was ok, though perhaps Stand I immediately down the road may be even better.
Tickets for the seats are usually put on sale about a month and a half before the event takes place. You are looking to spend around €45 for assigned seats for the Race to the Star and €35 for the acrobatic race.
You can find all the information you need to get tickets on the official website of the Sartiglia here, but it’s actually better to tune in with the social media channels of the Sartiglia (ie their Instagram account) from the beginning of January as they will announce the exact date the tickets will be on sale, and plan to be online on that very day as tickets get sold out fast! You must do this, unless you obviously prefer standing in the crowd!
If you decide to stand among the crowd, try to find a good viewpoint. Here are a couple of tips.
The best viewpoint for the race of the star is in front of the Cathedral. For the paired acrobatic race, Via Mazzini all the way up to Piazza Mariano is a good place.
You should not have troubles finding your way from one place to the other, but keep in mind that you’ll have to walk through the crowds to find a suitable place. Overall, you may be better off investing in a seat!
The Sartiglia festival is a unique event in the world, so, if you have the chance, be sure to visit Oristano and witness it at least once!
Whether you are in Oristano for the festival or not, make sure to check out the small but very well curated Sartiglia museum. It will take you through the history and rituals of the Sartiglia and give you a better understanding of what you will be seeing. Keep in mind it is closed on Sundays.
Make sure to read my other posts:
- The Most Important Festivals In Sardinia
- The Best Guide To Sant’Efisio Festival
- The Best Things To Do In Sardinia
- A Quick Guide To Oristano
- The Best Time To Visit Sardinia