The snorting of steeds and stomping of hooves, the clanging of harnesses and roll of drums, the excited chatter of the audience: it’s a show rife with unforgettable emotions. Sa Sartiglia is an equestrian joust whose roots are set deep in ancient pagan rites of fertility and prosperity, it is the most anticipated yearly event in Oristano, a city that has made its mark on Sardinian history since the times of the Giudicato. More than a hundred masked horsemen elegantly clad in period Sardinian-Spanish dress gallop at full speed on horses fitted with decorative harnesses to the dramatic and insistent beating of drums. The aim of the “race for the stars” is to hook the hanging stars onto one’s sword and it takes place twice: once on Carnival Sunday when the horsemen compete during the gremio dei Contadini, and then again on Mardi Gras, for the gremio dei Falegnami, while Monday’s Sartigliedda is for young people. After the races teams of horses engage in daring exhibitions, and then the Carnival partying continues on the town squares into the wee hours. Almond sweets and delicious local vernaccia wine are enjoyed by all.
This celebration is part sacred and part profane, very popular in the city of the giudici Mariano and Eleonora. Sa Sartiglia started out as an equestrian event for the entertainment of rich and poor alike to celebrate victories, coronations and visits by members of the ruling family. It features the bright colours, the sounds and sensations of medieval and then Hapsburgian Sardinia. A council meeting report dating to 1546 recorded details of the Sortilla organized for a visit by Charles V. The event remains unaltered to this day, boasting the same rites popular five centuries ago. It all revolves around the dressing of the su componidori, the lead rider. The ceremony symbolizes the transformation of the knight into a supernatural figure as he gets dressed as is massaieddas, under the guidance of sa massai manna. Each gesture is sacred. The rider dons leather trousers, a white shirt (decorated with red ribbons on Sunday, pink and light blue on Tuesday) and a jacket that stretches out in front of him. An androgynous mask covers his face, white for the Falegnami, earthen coloured for the Contadini. A veil covers his head, forehead and neck.
The horseman who has been transformed into a componidori may not touch the ground and is carried from the dressing table onto his steed. The lord of the joust crosses his sword three times with that of his second in command and the horsemen may then take off downhill at full speed to hook a star onto their swords. Then all the other knights, to whom the componidori concedes the honour of the sword, may attempt the feat. Only he and his helpers may engage in the second descent with the su stoccu, or wooden lance. The race is accompanied by the ancient sounds of beating drums and blaring trumpets. The stretch of the race that covers the area in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is special. Here, the lead rider performs the sa remada, proof of great courage. He rides backwards in his saddle and blesses the crowd with his sa pippia de maiu, wishing them prosperity. The noble procession then makes it way to Via Mazzini where teams of acrobatic riders form human pyramids and towers on the backs of their steed. At the end of the exhibition a military march marks the undressing of the su componidori, who removes his mask and thus reveals the man who impersonated the divinity.
From 10am on Sunday the 11th and Tuesday 13 February, a herald reads out the announcement of the upcoming joust on the streets of the city centre, inviting all to take part. The dressing of the su componidori of the Contadini begins at noon on Sunday, the one of the Falegnami on Tuesday. The lead rider first pays his respects to the house of the president of the gremio, where the procession of the massaieddas (who carry the garments) and the participants in the gremio (who safeguard the swords) begins led by drummers and trumpeters. After the dressing ceremony, which is broadcast onto a maxi screen on Piazza Eleonora, the procession arrives in Via Duomo. The race of the componidori to get the star begins at 1:30pm and includes his team of horses, the team of the other componidori and another 120 horses. Then the downhill race with the stocco (lance) and sa remade take place. The acrobatics of the teams of horses begins at 4:30pm from su Brocci, the tunnel that leads to Via Mazzini. The final procession starts as the sun begins to set, at about 6:30 pm. On the 12th of February, in between the two events, is the Sartigliedda, an event designed for young male and female riders between the ages of 5 and 17 who perform the exact same rites as their elders. The only difference is the addition of plenty of decorative confetti. The Sartigliedda is repeated mid-August along the shoreline of Torregrande.