Sa Sartiglia is the name of a magical event that, once a year, shakes the sleepy city of Oristano in Sardinia out of its customary torpor. Every year, on the last Sunday of Carnival and Shrove Tuesday, silver trumpets herald the commencement of the island’s most celebrated equestrian joust.
As the city grew in the course of time, so did the event. The first Sartiglia dates from the middle of the thirteenth century, but the area’s Aragonese rulers subsequently altered it in a number of ways.
Sa Sartiglia is a race in which knights in medieval costumes have to run through a star hanging from a thread in the middle of the road with their swords. The event is partly influenced by the Saracen military jousts introduced by Christian knights on their return from the second Crusade and partly by the ancient agricultural tradition whereby the gods were asked to promise the gifts of fertile soil and plentiful harvests.
Sa sartiglia, which invariably attracts huge crowds, is run in the Piazza Duomo (sa pratza e’ sa santa sea) in the center of Oristano, in front of the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. At one time, only noblemen were entitled to take part, while the common people had the chance to take their revenge in the pariglia, a contest featuring spectacular acrobatics on horseback, held after the Sartiglia proper in the present-day Via Mazzini, just outside the city walls.
The gremi, or guilds, of peasants and carpenters are the depositories of the tradition and compete against each other true to su connuttu, the unwritten code of Sardinian rules, customs and habits. The role of the gremi is decisive in every phase of the organization and staging of the joust. It is they, for example, who are responsible for appointing su Componidori, the master and captain of the joust on whose instinct and dexterity the destiny of the riders depends. The long ceremony of the vestizione, or dressing up, of Su Componidori is entrusted to a woman, sa massaia manna, who guides her younger assistants, massaieddas, through its various stages. Su Componidori stands on a table to be dressed; he is not allowed to touch the ground with his feet so as not to soil the purity needed for the competition and victory. The character that emerges – with his unlikely top hat, a woman’s mask covering his face, mantilla, lace shirt with puffed sleeves – is anachronistic, grotesque even: an androgyne, at once male and female. For outside observers, the atmosphere is Carnival-like. Not so for the local community: here people look for signs in the past to understand the present – this is the big moment of their year.
Nothing could be more thrilling than the sight of su Componidori galloping with fist outstretched, pointing his sword at the star. Spectators cheer if he hits the target, but boo and whistle if he misses. The number of stars run through by su Componidori and the knights who follow him is regarded as an omen for the new year.
The joust comes to an end with the benediction of the crowd. This is made by su Componidori holding sa pippìa de maiu, a band of periwinkles with a double bunch of violets on the top, and leaning full back, farrancas in susu, as his horse gallops forward, guided only by instinct, good luck and the voices of the spectators. .
Late in the evening, when the two equestrian events come to an end, su Componidori, accompanied by his loyal knights, takes off his tight-fitting mask, symbol of his double-gender role of life-giver and herald of the harvest.
No single gastronomic specialty is associated with the event. Nonetheless, in the Carnival period, Oristano offers delicacies which the curious visitor cannot afford to miss. One of the best is favata, broad bean soup flavored with pork rind and pig’s trotters. Carnival Thursday is the day given over to zippole, cakes baked with bread dough aromatized with brandy and orange peel, fried in boiling oil and sprinkled with sugar. Pillus frittus, made with violada dough (flour and suet) are cooked the same way and shaped into lozenge- and ring-shapes. Another variation on the theme are ravioli filled with almonds, custard or jam.
Piero Sardo, a gourmet and f&w writer, is a Slow Food vice-president and manager of the association’s Presidia Office
Photo: The Sartiglia (http://www.sartiglia.com)
Adapted by John Irving