La Giostra is the biggest event that should feature on your list of things to see in summer in Sulmona. The pandemic stopped it for two years, but every year since 1995, during the last weekend in July, the city’s largest piazza is transformed into a Medieval arena, complete with sand, damsels, galloping horses, and knights, drawing thousands of locals and tourists. And oh, those costumes!

La Giostra Cavalleresca in Sulmona. Photo via the event’s Facebook page

La Giostra is an historical re-enactment from the 16th century. Sulmona residents are deeply involved for many months in the preparations for this spectacular, colorful festival that takes place on Piazza Garibaldi: sewing elaborate Renaissance costumes, rehearsing trumpets and drums, and cooking up a storm. About 2000 people, all volunteers, are involved in organizing and running the event.

Started by a group of locals, the event is based on the historic jousting competition that took place in Sulmona for centuries until the 1600s when it was stopped due to “lack of interest and knights” as attested by a 17th century document.  “Nowadays, we re-live the joust adapted to the times: no more errant knights to engage in violent clashes, no broken spears or bleeding wounds,” explains Maurizio Antonini, the regent commissioner of the cultural association Giostra Cavalleresca di Sulmona

La Giostra parade. Photo by Giovanni Bartolomucci

The Joust

The Giostra Cavalleresca di Sulmona, or Knightly Joust of Sulmona, features tournaments over two weekends in late July and early August. The first weekend joust — Giostra Cavalleresca di Sulmona — pits the seven different neighborhoods (3 borghi and 4 sestieri) of Sulmona against one another in a more-or-less friendly, but intense competition. During the two-day event, each knight competes with four other knights for a total of 14 competitions; at the end, the top four knights meet in two semi-finals and then in the final, to win the coveted Palio, once a precious cloth, now a special painting on canvas made by a different artist every year.

The horses are required to run around the complete figure-eight oval in about 30 seconds, while the knights (mostly professional jockeys hired by the neighborhoods) try to pick off rings of various sizes as they ride. The score is determined by the number of attempts that the knights make to insert their lances into the rings; in case of tie, the size of each ring is considered (the 10 cm ring is worth 1 point, the 8 cm one is worth 2 points, and the 6 cm circle is worth 3 points). In case of another tie, the time is considered to evaluate the score.

Sulmona’s main piazza is ready for La Giostra. Photo via the event’s Facebook page

These are raucous events, with falls and lots of controversies, and thousands of spectators packing the stands around the piazza, cheering their knights. But that’s just the beginning.

Next comes a one-day Borghi Più Belli d’Italia tournament, where the most beautiful villages in Italy send their most skilful riders. Finally, there’s the Giostra Cavalleresca d’ Europa (European Championship), where each foreign delegation of riders is hosted by one of the local Sulmona neighbourhoods.

La Giostra costumed parade. Photo via the event’s Facebook page

Almost as spectacular as the jousts themselves are the processions that take place every day of the competition. About 600 participants are decked out in gorgeous (and so heavy for the season!) replicas of 15th-16th century costumes handmade by local seamstresses promenade along Corso Ovidio to Piazza Garibaldi, accompanied by the waving of colorful flags. And of course, there’s the crowning of a Queen.

Community spirit

And in 2013, yet another event was added: September marks the Cordesca (from “to ripen,” representing the future of the event) in which children from ages 8 to 14 become the actors, ladies, musicians, and flag wavers themselves. “Since then, there has been even a greater involvement in the community. Now three, and sometimes four generations, participate in the event. The Giostra has become part of daily life of Sulmona locals,” says Maurizio Antonini. “In every family there is one or more people who in one way or another are part of the Giostra.”

La Giostra parade. Photo by M.Palmas

The sound of trumpets and drums reverberates for days around this transformed town. Colorful banners mark off the rival districts — along the streets and on the balconies. Night time brings neighbours together under the stars for feasting because, after all the hard work of the hot summer day, what could be better than to gather with good food and wine and celebrate the victors?

“Over the years, the number of tourists and enthusiasts who come to see La Giostra has been constantly increasing, with about 100,000 people coming to Sulmona in the 10 days dedicated to the event,” says Antonini.

When: July 30-31 – La Giostra Cavalleresca di Sulmona, August 6 – La Giostra d’Europa

For the full schedule of events and updates check the Giostra website and their Facebook page. The parade and some other events are free. If you want to see the tournament, buy your tickets online here.

By Lina Dini Jenkins

This div height required for enabling the sticky sidebar