Every year on July 25, the Giostra dell’Orso returns, a cornerstone on the rich calendar of summer events in Pistoia.
The Giostra dell’Orso is a modern reinterpretation of the centuries-old “palio race” which has been documented as going back to the first half of the 13th century, taking place on July 25 for the Feast Day of Saint Jacopo, patron of Pistoia. The race was so important for local residents that it ran uninterrupted through the centuries except in extreme cases of wars, epidemics and internal political strife. Although the route and rules have undergone many changes through the years, the ritual continued up until the explosion of the first World War. In 1947 it was taken up again but renamed the Giostra dell’Orso, and from that moment it ran in the evocative piazza del Duomo. Once again put on pause in 1957, it returned in 1975. For the occasion, a court parades through town, made up of banners from both the mountain range and the plains, not to mention flags from the major and minor arts of the city and its four rioni, or historic districts. As in olden times, each district is represented by three companies, with each one made up of a captain, a flag, a knight, a trumpet player, a good number of halberdiers, captains of the districts, with attendants and ushers. Nearly 300 people make up this parade and they all don medieval costumes; the route runs through the streets of the historic center and ends in piazza del Duomo.
The battle takes place among twelve knights, three for each of the four districts, which take their names from the city doors and have as their symbols the Lion, Buck, Dragon and Griffon. With their arrival announced somberly by the sounds of the trumpet players and a drumroll, the twelve knights enter the square trailed by a picturesque procession; greeted by the authorities and representatives of each district, they take their positions underneath the arcade of the Palazzo Comunale. A herald then reads the rules that regulate the tournament, and the Giostra begins. Two against two, the knights, with their spears lowered, gallop along the designated circuit, laid out along the perimeter of the square, until they reach two stylized bears who serve as the “bull’s eye”; points are awarded each knight as they hit them. At the game’s end, the winning district is announced, and the knight who accumulated the most points on his or her own earns the title “Cavalier speron d’oro di Pistoia e contado.”