I grew up in Oristano province so I’m naturally very close to the Sartiglia Carnival. If you are planning to visit Italy in February to have the chance to attend some of the most popular Italian Carnival celebrations, keep in mind that Sardinia has some pretty cool traditions.
While the main days of Carnival rituals are usually two (Sunday and Fat Tuesday), the preparation for Oristano’s Sartiglia takes a couple of weeks. Visitors from other parts of Sardinia, Italy, and Europe usually attend on Sunday and some on Tuesday, but locals are in a ferment from the beginning of the month.
While I’m not suggesting you spend a month in Oristano to see every single happening, if you are interested in old traditions, Sa Sartiglia is a must-see.
Also, if you are in Sardinia for the whole duration of the Carnival, you can even attend the Sunday celebrations in Oristano and the events of Fat Tuesday in a different town. Some other fantastic Carnival festivals in Sardinia take place in Mamoiada with the Mamuthones masquerades and Ottana with the Boes and Merdules.
Of course, if you are staying longer than the Carnival, there are plenty of things to see and do in Sardinia to fill an exciting trip to this gorgeous and wild Italian island.
For now, let’s dive in Oristano’s Sartiglia!
History of Oristano’s Sartiglia
The Sartiglia is one of the oldest equestrian carousels that still take place within the Mediterranean area. The name refers to both “ring” and “luck”, which are both strictly connected to the festival where horse riders rely on their luck to catch the star, Oristano’s version of the ring/target.
While the costumes of the riders evoke medieval times, it’s likely that the Sartiglia has much older origins as it probably was an ancient equestrian military training. An expert eye won’t fail to notice also a rich symbology reminding of ancient propitiatory rituals to augur fertility and a plentiful harvest.
Over time, as cultural, social, and political circumstances changed, also this festival adapted. Gradually, from routine military training, it became more of a mundane event to entertain the public during celebrations important for the whole community. These were usually in honor of saints, kings, and leaders as well as for royal weddings and births. To some extent, we can say that the joust has been downgraded from the world of chivalry to entertainment.
So far, the most ancient document mentioning Oristano’s Sartiglia dates back to 1546. An official document from 1722 tells us that the Sartiglia was also part of the local celebrations of the wedding of Carlo Emanuele II of Savoy in Turin on April 27th. For this particular occasion, all the local professional leagues participated in the tournament. The professional Guilds (Gremi) played a major role in the local community. They had strict rules to follow and their own elections.
It’s not fully clear when the Sartiglia went from being the entertainment on the big occasions to representing the official Carnival of Oristano. Some documents and a spoken tradition reveal the existence of a legacy from a priest who lived in the 16th century and left a piece of land to the guild of farmers. The endowment didn’t come without conditions. The income produced on this land was supposed to be used to pay the expenses for the Sartiglia race to be run every year.
It is at least from 1807 that the Sartiglia has been celebrated every Carnival as well as for other important events such as the visit of the Turin royal family, future crowns of Sardinia, too, or the inauguration of monuments such as the statue of Eleonora d’Arborea in Oristano.
Main characters and preparations for the Sartiglia
Carnival dates are not fixed like Christmas and change every year. They depend, in fact, on the religious calendar, on when it’s Easter, and on the moon’s cycles. This being said, the beginning of the preparations for the Sartiglia is always on February 2nd. This is the day known as “Candelora” in all Italian regions and symbolizes the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
The most common professions during the Middle Ages were organized in guilds, such as the guild of carpenters, farmers, tailors, shoemakers, and more. Each of these professional corporations is known as “gremio”, and in Oristano’s Sartiglia there are two “gremi”, the one of the carpenters and the one of the farmers.
The celebrations show a strong connection between the Sartiglia and these professional leagues which are the groups that run the race itself. These “gremi” don’t constitute official bodies anymore as they did in the Middle Ages, there are only two guilds left, those that are behind the Sartiglia.
Each of these leagues runs its own day of the Sartiglia guided by their leader that in Oristano is called “Su Componidori”. You will immediately spot “Su Componidori” because he’s the only one wearing a different costume from the rest of the riders of his guild.
All riders wear a mask but only the leader has his head and neck wrapped in an embroidered white veil all the way to his shoulders and topped by a black top hat. The shawl reminds Sardinian female costumes, while the rest of the outfit is a men’s one. This is to mean that “Su Componidori” is beyond the human concept of male and female. Another item that tells the leader apart from the rest of the horsemen is the scepter he waves to salute the crowds.
The dressing of “Su Componidori” is a long ritual that lasts a couple of hours and is an important part of the celebrations. It takes place in a private home and only one leader is prepared on each day of the carnival, so on Carnival Sunday, they dress the leader of the farmers’ league while on Fat Tuesday, the leader of the carpenters’ guild.
One year, we were lucky enough to receive the invitation for the dressing (“vestizione”) of Su Componidori of the “Gremio dei Falegnami” (Guild of the Carpenters) and was a very heartfelt ritual.
The other main moments of Oristano’s Sartiglia include the race to catch the star and spectacular equestrian vaulting. Up until 20/30 years ago, also riders from other Sardinian villages such as Sedilo, Ghilarza, Seneghe, and Abbasanta participated in the second race of the day, the equestrian vaulting.
The equestrian vaulting you will see during the Sartiglia requires very hard training, and riders start preparing months before, even from fall. Riders are mainly men even though you can find also some women. When I attended the Sartiglia, I saw at least two women that also took part in the races.
While the riders are the undisputed stars of the show, their private homes are also in ferment. The women of the family are busy weaving and creating stunning costumes and colorful decorations and cockades to adorn the horses.
On February 2nd, the day of “Candelora” (from “candle”), 40 days after Christmas, each “Gremio” (guild) chooses its own “Componidori”, leader of the race. Then, the main representative known as “maggiorali” gives him one of the candles blessed during the Mass and finely decorated with the colors of the guild: red for the farmers, pink and blue for the carpenters.
The day of the Candelora was an intimate celebration among the members of the same guild. The name of the leader of the race often remained a secret until the day of the Sartiglia, and sometimes even after the race itself.
Every year, the scepter decorated with fresh flowers that Su Componidori uses to salute and bless the crowd is prepared the day before the race. This part of the backstage preparations is the prerogative of the members of the guilds. The first step of this event is when they arrange and assemble the flowers, and for this, the wives of the members of the leagues are in charge.
Sartiglia celebrations – A step-by-step guide
The Sartiglia route
In the past, the race to catch the star, the first event of the day, took place in front of the government building. Today it runs in Via del Duomo, in front of the city’s cathedral.
The second race of the day is the equestrian vaulting that runs in Via Mazzini. Wherever you are in Via del Duomo, it will take you around 10 minutes to get to Via Mazzini for the second leg of the race.
For these occasions, both streets will be covered with hay to allow the horses to run better. This is also how you will quickly spot if you are in the right place.
The phases of the Sartiglia festival
Preparing the horses
The large stables and courtyards where the riders dress up their horses and get them ready for action are a bit out of the city. The process is a ritual in itself and the townspeople love to take part in any way they can, from decorating the horses to making the food to offer the visitors of the stables.
If you happen to visit the stables, tuck into traditional dishes such as stews and grilled meats and sausages, as well as cakes and pastries, and wines. Just like everywhere else in Sardinia, when they offer, “no” is not really accepted as an answer. Besides, the food is delicious and you will really want to try it.
When I visited the stables on Carnival Sunday before making my way to the ritual of the dressing, I saw all riders taking care of their horses, brushing them, decorating them with rosettes and cockades with a preference given to the traditional colors and symbols of the Gremio they belonged to.
Vestizione de Su Componidori (The Dressing of Su Componidori)
Around noon, after their tour to the stables where horses and riders get ready, the parade reaches the house where Su Componidori will get the help he needs to wear the costume. The parade is announced by drums and trumpeters and the “massaieddas”, young girls wearing the local costume, are right behind carrying the different parts of the costume Su Componidori is about to wear.
Obviously, the parade is much bigger than that. The members of the Gremio in charge that day will carry the swords and what’s needed for the race. The “massaia manna”, literally the great housewife, the woman in charge of the dressing of the leader, and Su Componidori himself follow to reach the place where the dressing ritual will happen.
If you are either invited to the “vestizione” or manage to peek into the room or courtyard where it takes place, you will see how crowded is with spectators and how whenever each piece of the costume is applied to Su Componidori, the gesture is met with drums and trumpets followed by cheering applause.
All the phases of Sa Sartiglia follow very detailed rules that have been repeated every year in the same manner. Clothing the front runner is one of the most complicated steps of the whole festival.
The horseman chosen to be the leader of his Gremio that year reaches what is called “sa mesitta” in the local dialect, which is the table where the dressing ritual takes place.
The ritual starts with the leading horseman sitting on the chair/throne and the women in charge begin to put the ancient costume on him. A toast and one last salute define the pivotal moment of wearing the mask. This last gesture symbolizes the last moment of the transformation and Oristano has a new Componidori for the day.
From the moment he or she goes up to that table, the ritual starts and the leader is forbidden from touching the ground because he/she is becoming a sort of transcendent divinity. Only once the festival is over, Su Componidori proceeds with the undressing. Taking off his stage clothes symbolizes becoming human again, and only then he/she will be allowed to touch the ground.
Since now the leader of the race can’t touch the ground, the members of his Gremio bring his horse to him near the table and he mounts from there. Now, he’s ready to meet the crowds and greet them with his decorated scepter.
The Race of the Star (Corsa alla Stella)
This is the first horse race you will see. Corsa alla Stella kicks off after Su Componidori and his first assistant cross their sword under the star symbol of the race.
From now, the race is on and all riders try to hit the target by sticking the sword in the small star. The first to try his luck is the leader himself followed by his two assistants and then the riders who receive the sword by the leader “allowing” them to participate and try their luck with the star.
This might sound easy but in fact, it’s a very difficult task. The star is very small and the horse rider needs to place the sword in the tiny hole at the center. All while running fast on horseback. Despite the fact that all riders are very experienced, only a few are successful in hitting the target.
At the end of the race of the star, Su Componidori gallops across the whole street one last time. To show everyone the deep loyalty between him and his horse, he does it with his back on the horse’s saddle. After blessing the other riders and the visitors, he heads to Via Mazzini where they are waiting to start the equestrian vaulting.
Pair equestrian vaulting (Pariglie)
Like all (or most) of the folklore in Sardinia, there are written sources telling us about the history that brought them to us and there is also oral lore preserved and transmitted throughout generations that makes old traditions richer.
According to some spoken tales, the race to catch the star was exclusive to noble families and military training, acrobatic equestrian vaulting was usually an exercise of ordinary citizens. In fact, if you see the historical geography of Oristano, you will notice that while the race of the star took place in the heart of the city, the equestrian vaulting was organized out of the ancient city walls.
However, even though both are difficult tests, the vaulting is the most eye-catching and sensational of the two races. The 3-rider teams show their abilities in the hardest vaulting among thrilled spectators and cheering.
The leader of the day, Su Componidori, won’t do any of the risky feats of acrobatics because, in his temporary state, he can’t run any risk. With his team, he limits to open this last event by racing in the middle of his two assistants with his hands on their shoulders.
After the opening, the equestrian vaulting will take place for the rest of the evening.
What to do in Oristano for the Sartiglia – 2023 Edition
See the races
During the Sartiglia Carnival, you obviously don’t want to miss the two major events, the races themselves, both the contest of the Star and the equestrian acrobatics stunts.
In the 2023 edition of the Sartiglia, the races will take place on Sunday 19th of February, and Tuesday 21st of February, Mardi Gras. Carnival Sunday is the day of the Farmers’ Guild (Gremio dei Contadini) while Fat Tuesday is the day of the Carpenters’ Guild (Gremio dei Falegnami).
As a practical tip, I recommend properly calculating your time. If you manage to reach Oristano early, walk from the Duomo (cathedral) where the race of the star takes place to Via Mazzini where the vaulting will happen, and see how long it takes you.
Of course, if you were lucky enough to get invited to see the ritual of the dressing of Su Componidori (Vestizione), don’t miss it as it will add excitement and plenty of details of this incredibly visual festival of central Sardinia.
On Sunday 19th, the Vestizione of Su Componidori of the Farmers’ Guild will start at 12 pm in Via Aristana. On Tuesday 21st, Su Componidori of the Carpenters’ Guild will start getting dressed also at 12 pm in Via G.M. Angioy.
Once you know your average traveling time, I suggest you move from the Duomo before the race of the star is over and make your way to Via Mazzini to start looking for a good spot to see the vaulting. You will find already plenty of people lined up and waiting, so the earlier, the better.
The race of the star runs pretty much similar from beginning to end, so I would say you can watch a few, maybe wait until a rider actually manages to catch the star with his sword, and then move to the next spot.
Join the parade
Once the process of dressing the race leader, a parade of music bands of drummers and trumpeters, the horses, and the townspeople make their way towards the cathedral where the show is about to start.
To experience the festival in a deeper way and closer to the locals, it’s a nice idea to join the procession and reach the main spots together with the big players. The only downside of this is that you might reach the places when they are already full of people and you probably won’t find a spot with the best visibility.
Still, people come and go, and often, after seeing a few riders running for the star, some spectators leave and you can take their place. On the other hand, if you have booked a seat in the bleachers, you can get there and see everything from a privileged location. Keep in mind that February in Sardinia is pretty cold and often up in the stands the wind might blow stronger.
Tuck into the local street food and see artisan markets
All around the streets of the city center, there will be several food stalls selling anything from sandwiches to Carnival pastries, to deep-fried seafood.
There will also be plenty of places to have a drink, especially the local Ichnusa beer very common in Sardinia.
Apart from the street food vendors, there will be also handicraft markets and stalls, perfect if you want to do some local gift shopping.
Attend the undressing (Svestizione) of Su Componidori
Even though the ritual of dressing the leader is closed to the public, the process of undressing him called “Svestizione” is open and anyone can enter. So if dressing him made him Su Componidori and a sort of transcendental being, undressing him makes it human again.
This means that he can go to touch the ground again. The moment when they removed the mask is greeted with drum rolls and hand clapping. When the mask is off, the members of his Gremio approach to congratulate him.
This Carnival 2023, the Svestizione takes place on Sunday 19th at 6.30 pm for Su Componidori of the Farmers’ Guild and on Tuesday 21st also at 6.30 pm for the leader of the Carpenters’ Guild.
Tips to enjoy the Sartiglia in Oristano
Plan in advance
Carnival dates are not always the same and every year they are set depending on Easter, which is the Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. This year, the three main Carnival days are Shrove Thursday on February 16th, Carnival Sunday on February 19th, and Fat Tuesday on February 21st.
I suggest you start planning your Sardinia trip as soon as you can because hotels will be fully booked. Keep in mind that Oristano is not a huge city and hotel vacancies are just as many.
Also if you want to book your seat in the stands to watch the race, check out the official website of Sa Sartiglia for availability. The price for the stands to watch the race of the star range between 15€ and 45€ depending on the position, while for the equestrian vaulting between 25€ and 35€.
Look for the best viewpoints
Finding the spot with the best view is necessary especially if you want to take pictures but not that easy because the city will be very crowded. Obviously, the best viewpoints are from the stands but if you prefer to move around or don’t want to spend money on the tickets, try to find your way among the people.
To see the race of the star, the best viewpoint is in front of the cathedral. The closer you get to the star, the better you are going to see if the rider catches it. Obviously, if you want to take photos and own a DSLR, use your zoom lens!
As the paired acrobatic race takes place in Via Mazzini, all along this road is a good viewpoint, from the beginning at the crossroad with Via Figoli up to the end in Piazza Mariano.
Oristano is not that big and the two contests take place less than 600 meters away from each other, so in less than 10 minutes, you can reach the second spot.
Of course, making your way through the crowds is the biggest endeavor here. So here is an ideal plan you can try to stick to. The race of the star is the first event and you can reach ahead of the start. Enjoy a few riders until one catches the star (they do, don’t worry!), and make your way to Via Mazzini for the acrobatic pair race. This takes place when the sun starts setting and the day gets dark because these are not ideal conditions to try to catch the star.
If you stay at the star race until the end, it’s very hard to find even a teeny tiny spot among the crowds for the second race. Remember that the equestrian vaulting is the most spectacular and where most of the tourists go. I definitely recommend making your way to Via Mazzini long before the star race ends and starting looking for a good spot.
Where to eat in Oristano
During the Sartiglia, Oristano’s restaurants will be pretty packed so make sure you call in advance. Some places around the historic center and close to the celebrations include “Trattoria Portixedda” (Vicolo Solferino 6, tel. +39 334 7941010) and “Cocco & Dessì”, more expensive and very good (Via Tirso 31, tel. +39 0783 252648).
If you don’t mind walking, a 10-minute walk away you will find “Lo Zen” (Via Umbria 5, closed on Monday), popular for its hearty dishes, generous portions, and reasonable fares.
Of course, you can also eat the delicious street food you will find on sale all over the city!
Where to stay in Oristano
As I mentioned, room availability in Oristano is not unlimited, so if you want to attend, make sure you book ahead. Some of the hotels around are Mistral2 Hotel, Mariano IV Palace Hotel, and TH Collection Rooms.
If you are traveling by public transport, staying in Oristano is your best option because there is a train station, but if you have rented a car, you can opt for hotel options in the surrounding towns, not directly in Oristano city but close and easy to reach.