Jousting in Pistoia

La Giostra Dell’Orso

Sarah Humphreys
July 11, 2013

Although less well known than Siena’s Palio, Pistoia’s annual Giostra dell’Orso (‘bear joust’) is a spectacular event, steeped in centuries of tradition, and a delightful outing for the entire family.


On July 25, 2012, about 4,500 spectators crowded into Pistoia’s magnificent piazza del Duomo to watch the Giostra dell’Orso, the culmination of the events celebrating San Jacopo, the city’s patron saint.


The Giostra dell’Orso dates back to the Middle Ages. Originally a horse race known as Il Palio dei Berberi, in the 1660s it was transformed into a jousting match with a live bear.


The bear has since been replaced with a bear-shaped target, known as Il Micco, the heraldic symbol of Pistoia. Each July 25, the day’s events start at 10am, when a historic procession of around 300 participants meanders its way through the centre of Pistoia, featuring musicians, alfiere (flag-wavers) and ‘lords and ladies’ of all ages, dressed in intricate medieval costumes. The procession then makes its way to the cathedral square, where Mass is celebrated in honour of San Jacopo. The Palio, a cloth painted by a local artist, which is the prize for the winning team of the Giostra, is blessed and lots are drawn to choose the riders for the joust.


Pistoia is divided into four rioni (neighbourhoods) according to the four gates of the town, and the rioni compete against each other during the Giostra. San Marco is represented by the Leon d’Oro (golden lion), whose colours are red and yellow; red and white Porta al Borgo’s symbol is the Griffone (griffon); the red and green Drago (dragon) represents Porta Carratica; and Porta Lucchese is characterised by the Cervo Bianco (white stag), whose shades are green and white. With the streets leading towards each gate decorated with flags in the colours of their symbols, the entire city is involved in the event.


At 7.30pm, the members of the four rioni solemnly make their way towards piazza del Duomo, led by the previous year’s winner (Griffone will lead this year). Drums and trumpets herald the arrival of the horses and riders, which are blessed by the Bishop of Pistoia.


The Giostra officially begins at 9.30pm. Three riders from each rione compete in a series of 18 rounds, attempting to hit Il Micco. Taking starting positions in the archway of the Palazzo Comunale, the riders start the charge on the sound of a gong. Two by two, they gallop at a breathtaking pace around the square in opposite directions, each attempting to hit the target with a lance on his second circuit. Three points are awarded to the knight who arrives first and hits the target, and one point to the knight in second place; no points are given if riders fail to hit the ‘bear.’

The Giostra typically lasts between two and three hours, depending on whether extra rounds are needed to produce a clear winner, with flag-wavers and musicians entertaining the crowd between rounds. At the end, the prizes are given: the Palio for the winning rione and, for the individual rider who scores the most points, the victory Sperone d’oro (golden spur).


The Giostra dell’Orso certainly does not have the same fanatical following as Siena’s Palio, but it is a theatrical event in a stunning location, and brings Pistoia to life. Extremely popular with tourists, it is an ideal event for children, who can choose to support a rione and enjoy the race in safety and comfort. Tickets, which cost 22 euro (seated) or 8 euro (standing), can be bought from the Tourist Information Office next to piazza del Duomo on July 25.

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