A riding academy in Sicily during the Renaissance: the Congregazione dei Cavalieri d’Armi

Le splendide tavole de Le guerre festive (Palermo, 1680), mostrano il lusso delle armi e delle bardature impiegate nelle giostre che si tenevano in Sicilia tra il XVI e il XVII secolo

The beautiful plates of Le guerre festive (Palermo, 1680) 
show the luxury of weapons and harnesses used in Sicily 
 between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

di Giovanni Battista Tomassini

At dawn on Friday, May 18, 1565, the sentinels of the Knights of Malta saw on the horizon, the sails of the Turkish fleet, commanded by Admiral Piyale Paşa. The fleet consisted of approximately one hundred and seventy vessels: galleys, galleass and galliot, eight large transport mahon and dozens of smaller boats, carrying supplies and horses. The Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), was launching an attack on the Christian stronghold at the center of the Mediterranean with one of the largest armies hitherto ever seen. The news of the siege threw Europe into dismay and caused a real panic in nearby Sicily. The siege lasted nearly four months, but in the end, the brave resistance of the Maltese knights got the better of the powerful Ottoman army, which was rejected back into the sea, after suffering heavy losses.

Armatura da Giostra Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli

Jousting armor
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Nevertheless, in Sicily the final victory of the Christians did not dispel the widespread feeling of an impending threat. It seemed urgent to form a militia ready to repel possible assaults on the coasts and to uphold the honor of the Sicilians, rivaling in value with the Spanish rulers. It was, therefore, with this purpose that soon after the siege of Malta, the viceroy of Sicily, García Álvarez de Toledo y Osorio (1514-1577), founded, an equestrian academy in Palermo in which the nobles could practice horsemanship and military disciplines, but also study mathematics, geography and navigation. The academy was named Congregazione dei Cavalieri d’Armi (Congregation of the Knights of Arms) and San Sebastian became its patron saint, while the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (the Admiral’s Bridge) was chosen as its emblem. The Admiral’s Bridge is a twelve arches bridge dating from Norman times, which at that time, was on the eastern borders of the city of Palermo (today it is visible from Corso dei Mille). It was probably chosen as a symbol of the city’s glorious past and because its name (“Admiral’s”) evoked one of the top military positions of the Norman army. The Latin sentence Et suos hic habet Oratios (“And here it has its Horatius”) was the academy’s motto. It referred to Horatius Cocles, the Roman hero who (in 508 BC) defended the Sublicio Bridge, blocking by himself the Etruscan army, led by Porsenna, which was marching towards Rome. The sentence means that, like Rome, «also Palermo had its Cocles, virtuous and brave men in arms able to defend the city from any danger» (BILE, 2011, p. 30).

Il Ponte dell'Ammriaglio a Palermo venne scelto come emblema della Congregazione

The Admiral’s Bridge was chosen as emblem of the Congregation

A public ceremony held on San Sebastian’s Day sanctioned the establishment of the Congregation. A pageant of the knights traveled through the streets of the city following the blessing of the academy standard:

January 20, 1567 – The day of Saint Sebastian the standard of the Academy’s knights was blessed and in the evening, the knights, completely armed with cold steel, escorted it throughout the city, holding torches. The illustrious Marquis of Avola was the Academy’s general, Baron Fiumesalato the counselor and Mr. Carlo Marchisi the standard-bearer. (PARUTA – PALMERINO, 1869, p. 27)

That same day, the knights gave the first public demonstration of their skills in a joust, organized at the Pian della Marina (now Piazza Marina, at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, in Palermo). At that time, jousts and carousels represented the main occasions for the nobles to demonstrate their skills in martial exercises in times of peace. In this sense, jousts and pageants played an essential political and social role. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the growing strategic importance of firearms and the military role of the infantry had, in fact, drastically reduced the role of cavalry and fed into the nobility, “the frustration that comes from being nominally knights but with little chance, if not in carousels and tournaments, to prove themselves to the world” (Antonelli, 1997, p. 194).

Burgonet, depicting the Roman emperor Trajan Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Burgonet, depicting the Roman emperor Trajan
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

In Sicily, as indeed in the rest of Europe, jousts were very frequent and were very popular shows. So much so that the Senate of the city of Palermo, decided to build an “Aringo”, i.e. an ephemeral wood amphitheater, which could hold up to twenty-five thousand people, with boxes reserved for the vice royal court and the representatives of the Senate. “Every opportunity was good to organize these choreographic shows of arms: the celebration of a victory or of a wedding; a peace or an alliance or another important political event, such as the visit of a king or a prince; but sometimes they were also an occasion to find husbands for maidens, or to allow young riders to stretch their limbs after the inertia of a long winter and keep them in constant exercise and always ready to use weapons “(MANSELLA, 1972, p. 16). These chivalric trials had their peak in the sixteenth century, but they continued to be practiced, with great pomp, even in the next century, as evidenced by the superb plates that illustrate this article and which are from the report devoted by Pietro Maggio to the jousts held in Palermo during the celebrations for the wedding of the King of Spain, Charles II, with Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Orléans, in 1679. The report was published in 1680 under the title Le guerre festive (The festive wars: Palermo, Giuseppe Barbera and Tomaso Rummulo & Orlando).

Shield Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Capodimonte Museum, Naples

On October 10, 1567, with another solemn public ceremony, the Congregation took possession of Palazzo Ajutamicristo, on the borders of the walls of Palermo (now in Via Garibaldi), not far from the Admiral’s Bridge. The pageants was led by Ottavio del Bosco, appointed general of the Congregation, who was escorted by armed pages on horseback, each of them bearing the insignia of his lord. “In the palace, the knights gathered in the morning for mathematics lessons, and during the day to ride horses” (NARBONE, 1851, p. 101). The statutes of the Congregation (Maurizio Vesco has recently published their frontispiece in VESCO, 2016) regulated minutely the tasks, the meetings, the ceremonies and the devotions, and fixed the requirements for the aspirants, as well as how to behave in the presence of the Viceroy. Academics practiced daily for two hours in the riding arena, divided into two classes. The session of the most experienced was open to the public, while the extraneous could not be present for that of the novice riders (see MAYLÄNDER, 1926-30, vol. I, p. 523).

In 1620, the Congregation changed location and moved to another building just in front of the Senate Palace, so that the knights could defend the Senate more effectively and promptly if necessary. In case of an alarm, the knights were required to gather, fully armed, at the Admiral’s Bridge, and each of them had to bring with him a similarly armed companion. The Academy, however, was abolished in 1636.

Dettaglio della rotella da giostra con Orazioo Coclite a cavallo Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli

Details of the shield with Horatius Cocles on horseback
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Soon after the establishment of the Congregation, the academy turned to Lombard armorer, which at the time was among the best in Europe, to supply the knights with war and parade weapons. A few years ago, the deputy manager of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, Umberto Bile (who died in 2013), discovered that the most valuable pieces of Capodimonte’s armory did not belong to Alessandro, or to Ottavio Farnese, as it was believed for at least two centuries, but they went back just to the knights of the Congregation. During the seventeenth century, some of the most valuable weapons of the knights of the Congregation were transferred to the armory of the Castle of Canicattì, where they were stored for about two centuries. After some years, the memory of their origin was lost and they were erroneously considered dating back to Roger I the Norman (around 1031 – 1101). In 1800 Giuseppe Bonanno and Branciforte, prince de la Cattolica, gave to Ferdinand of Bourbon a shield, a sword and a burgonet (helmet), which were considered the weapons belonged to the “Great Count” Roger I, conqueror of Sicily in 1062. Bile demonstrated that they, obviously, were the burgonet, the shield and the sword of extraordinary workmanship, which are the most valuable and famous pieces of Capodimonte’s armory. The iron, embossed, damascened and golden shield depicts Horatius Cocles on horseback, facing the enemies, while the Roman soldiers are demolishing the Sublicio Bridge, to prevent the Etruscan from entering in Rome. It is the same Roman hero summoned by the motto of the Congregation of Palermo. The beauty of such weapons gives us an idea of the magnificent elegance of the knights who drilled in the Sicilian academy.

Graziano Balli Barone di Galattuvo in Pietro Maggio, Le guerre festive, 1680

Graziano Balli Barone di Galattuvo
in Pietro Maggio, Le guerre festive, 1680


ANTONELLI, Raoul, Giostre, tornei, accademie: formazione e rappresentazione del valore cavalleresco, in AA. VV., I Farnese. Corti, guerra e nobiltà in antico regime, a cura di P. Del Negro e C. Mozzarelli, Roma, Bulzoni, 1997, pp. 191-207.

HERNANDO SÁNCHEZ, Carlos José, La gloria del cavallo. Saber ecuestre y cultura caballeresca en el reino de Napóles durante el siglo XVI, in AA. VV. Actas del Congreso Internacional: Felipe II (1527-1598). Europa y la Monarquía Católica (UAM, 20-23 de abril de 1998), coord. J. Martínez Millán, Madrid, Parteluz, 1998, pp. 277-310.

MANSELLA; Giovanni Battista, Le giostre reali di Palermo, a cura di R. La Duca, Palermo, Sellerio, 1972.

MARINO, Salvatore Salomone, La Congregazione dei cavalieri d’armi e le pubbliche giostre in Palermo nel secolo 16°: notizie e documenti, Palermo : Tip. di P. Montaina e Comp. gia del Giornale di Sicilia, 1877.

MAYLANDER, Michele, Storia delle Accademie d’Italia, Bologna-Trieste, Cappelli, 1926-30 (rist. anastatica Bologna, Forni, 1976).

NARBONE, Alessio, Bibliografia sicola sistematica, o apparato metodico alla Storia litteraria della Sicilia, Palermo, stamp. di G. Pedone, 1851.

PARUTA, Filippo – PALMERINO, Niccolò, Diario della città di Palermo 1500-1613, in AA. VV. Diari della città di Palermo dal secolo XVI al XIX pubblicati sui manoscritti della Biblioteca Comunale, a cura di G. Di Marzo, Palermo, Luigi Pedone Lauriel editore, 1869.

VESCO, Maurizio, La Regia Razza di cavalli e le scuderie monumentali nella Sicilia degli Asburgo: il modello “negato” delle Cavallerizze dei Palazzi Reali di Palermo e Messina, in AA. VV., Las Caballerizas Reales y el mundo del caballo, Cordoba, Edicioneslitopress, 2016, pp. 391-428.

Ajutamicristo palace in Palermo was the first seat of the Congregation

Ajutamicristo palace in Palermo was the first seat of the Congregation

The Saracen Joust in Piazza Navona (part 2)

Filippo Gagliardi e Andrea Sacchi, The Saracen Joust in Piazza Navona (1656-1659) Museo di Roma - Palazzo Braschi

Filippo Gagliardi e Andrea Sacchi,
The Saracen Joust in Piazza Navona (1656-1659)
Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the first part of this article we analyzed the rules of the Saracen Joust in the seventeenth century. In this second part, we discover the complex dramaturgy of these types of equestrian festivals of the Baroque era.

Since the Renaissance, jousts and tournaments undertook eminently theatrical features. They were carried out following a literary plot, which included a prologue and an epilogue that constituted the spectacular and narrative frame in which the chivalrous trials took place. In the days preceding the contest, a knight, the so-called “Maintainer”, presented his cartel. This usually took place during a show in which sonnets were recited and music and dances were performed. Generally, the Maintainer impersonated a fairy-tale character of exotic origin. In the case of the joust in Piazza Navona, the role of the Maintainer was attributed to Marquis Cornelio Bentivoglio, who was considered a great expert in matters of chivalry and was the nephew of Cardinal Guido, who was the chronicler of the joust. Cardinal Bentivoglio’s very detailed account of the Joust and the beautiful drawings by Andrea Sacchi, which enrich the 1635 edition, offer us the opportunity to discover and “see” the complex and very interesting dramaturgy of this kind of equestrian festival in the Baroque era.

The first act was held on the Shrove Saturday of 1634, in the house of Orazio Magalotti, where the pick of the Roman nobility had gathered. During the evening, a chariot drawn by an eagle, appeared in the hall. It carried a singer impersonating Fame. After he had sung some verses, a herald entered the room and read the cartel of the Maintainer, which was written by the poet Fulvio Testi, who was also the author of the verses sung by the singer of Cardinal Barberini, Marc Antonio Pasqualini. The Maintainer presented himself as a mysterious Egyptian knight, Tiamo of Memphis, and challenged his opponents to prove him false with weapons of the assertion:

that secrecy in love is a superstitious abuse, who supposes or lack of merits of the Lady, or poverty of spirit in the Knight (BENTIVOGLIO, 1654, p. 201).

Andrea Sacchi, The Charito of Fame (impersonated by Marc’Antonio Pasqualini, singer in the service of Cardinal Barberini) in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The Chariot of Fame
(impersonated by Marc’Antonio Pasqualini, singer in the service of Cardinal Barberini)

The presentation of the mysterious character of the Maintainer, and the challenge he launched thus, represented the fabulous premise of the joust and placed it within a rich texture of symbolic cross-references to the aristocratic and courtly culture and the chivalric imagery.

In order to make the joust magnificent, twenty-four knights, divided into six different teams, were designated to participate. These knights were the so-called “adventurers,” that is, those who accepted the Maintainer’s challenge, and were ready to demonstrate with weapons in hand, that his statement was false. The first team to reply to the Maintainer’s challenge was the team of Cardinal Barberini. Again, participants impersonated fictional characters of exotic origin. In the scenic fiction they were, in fact, presented as four kings, who were held prisoners by the Romans: Aristobulus, King of Palestine; Tigranes, Infant of Armenia; Artaphernes Prince of Bithynia and Ossatre, ruler of Cappadocia. Their response was proclaimed on the occasion of another party, held at Falconieri’s palace a few days after the presentation of the cartel. During the evening, after attending a ballet, the guests moved into a room where the chairs had been arranged as in a theater. Then two actresses, dressed like Nymphs, appeared. They were there, together with some shepherds and a herald. This latter read the answer of the four knights, who said they were willing to demonstrate:

the need for secrecy in love more adequately with the spear than with the pen. (BENTIVOGLIO, 1654, page 206)

Andrea Sacchi, Ballet of Nymphs, and Shepherds in teh Falconieri Palace (during the evening in which the

Andrea Sacchi, Ballet of Nymphs and Shepherds in the Falconieri Palace
(during the evening in which the “adventurers” replied to the challenge of the Mainteiner)

In the following days, in Piazza Navona, the fence for the joust was prepared, surrounded by boxes and tiers of seats. It occupied about two-thirds of the square, which stands on the ruins of the Diocletian’s stadium and preserves, in part, its shape. The boxes and the stands for the public were placed at a certain height, so that horses and operating personnel could be placed below, without disturbing the audience. The box for the ladies was set up right across from the Saracen dummy, and was accessed directly from the Mellini Palace (later incorporated into the Pamphili Palace, which still overlooks the square). The box, covered and lavishly decorated with rich fabrics, was intended first and foremost for Anna Colonna, the wife of Taddeo Barberini, the brother of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, and for Costanza, who was the mother of the same Cardinal. Beside them sat, in an order of precedence established strictly according to their rank, the wife of the ambassador of Spain and the other ladies of the Roman nobility. The stage of the judges was, instead, placed on the opposite side of the fence, inside the competition area. The whole arena was surrounded by stands for the public. The race course was of an octagonal shape. The career (i.e. the track on which the horses run during a joust) consisted of a double fence, divided by the lists and was paved with bricks. Finally, to the right of the theater’s southern gateway, there was the Maintainer’s pavilion: a rich marquee, from where the challenger watched the competition, surrounded by his retinue.

Andrea Sacchi, Andrea Sacchi, View of Piazza Navona during the Joust, the 25 the february 1634 (on the right, marked with the letter N, the box of Donna Anna Colonna; on the left, marked by the letter M, the boc of the judges) in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, Andrea Sacchi, View of Piazza Navona during the Joust, February 25, 1634
(on the right, marked with the letter N, the box of Donna Anna Colonna;
on the left, marked by the letter M, the box of the judges)

On the morning of Saturday, February 25, 1634 people began to crowd the boxes and the stands around the competition field. Many high-ranking personalities attended, leaning out of the windows of the buildings, while their servants and common people crowded on the roofs of the palaces. When the ladies and the judges took their places in their respective boxes, the festival began. The teams of knights, accompanied by their seconds and by a large cortege of pages, grooms and trumpeters, made their entry into the field, following a strict order of succession. The view was magnificent, considering that three hundred and sixty people, and a hundred and thirty eight horses, took part in the show.

The first to be received by the Master of the Field was the Maintainer. He was dressed in a sumptuous green silk costume, embroidered in gold and decorated with many pearls and precious stones. He had a giant feather headdress, with a sun and the motto “Non latet quod lucet” (“what shines is not hidden”) in the center. The horse’s harness was just as rich and exotic. He was preceded by a procession made up by four trumpeters, six horses led in hand, twenty-eight grooms on foot and four pages on horseback who were carrying baskets from which they distributed printed copies of the cartel and of various sonnets. They were followed by the seconds, Don Prospero Colonna and the Count of Castel Villano, and by a page who carried the spear and the shield of the Maintainer.

Andrea Sacchi, The entry into the field of the Maintainer in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The entry into the field of the Maintainer

The magnificence of the clothes and of the rich harnesses of the horses had a great importance in this kind of show. This is demonstrated by the fact that, at least since the Renaissance, the very detailed description of the quality of the fabrics, the style of the clothes of the riders, and their retinue, took up pages and pages in the chronicles of jousts and tournaments, even being the largest part of the chronicles. These parades, in fact, represented an opportunity for the public expression of the power of the aristocracy. The noble wanted to dazzle the people with showy and flashy clothes, made with rare and precious fabrics. On the other hand, the showing off of wealth by the nobles was not directed only to common people, but also to their peers, in a competition for which they were ready to spend huge sums, in some cases up to getting into debt and ruining their finances. But it was not always gold that glittered. In some cases, the showy trappings of pages and footmen were made, as real theatrical costumes, with the poorest materials, such as papier mâché and plaster.

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Kings prisoners of the Romans (The parade was open by the dwarf in the service of Cardinal Barberini) in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Kings prisoners of the Romans
(the parade was open by the dwarf in the service of Cardinal Barberini)

The first team of adventurers to enter the field, after the Maintainer was, of course, the team of Cardinal Barberini. The parade was opened by the dwarf of the Cardinal who rode a small bull, covered with gaudy trappings. At that time, almost all nobles kept dwarves at their service, as jesters, or just for company. He was followed by a cortege similar to that of the Maintainer, made of seconds, trumpeters, pages, grooms and spare horses. Again, the knights had extravagant dresses and tiaras with feathers on their heads and were holding a dart in their right hand. It should be noted that one of the knights of this team was Domenico Cinquini, one of the most famous Roman horseman of the time. In the second edition of his book La perfettione del cavallo (The perfection of the horse, 1669), Francesco Liberati wrote about him:

[he was] of such great value and experience in the Chivalric things that without any exaggeration it can be said that in our century he was the Apollo of this noble profession; since there was not any wild and untamed horse that under him did not acquired a wonderful gentleness and obedience; nor it was ever found such a skilled professor of this art, who did not voluntarily surrender and admire the lightness and the gracefulness with which he held himself on horseback, so that I sometimes saw him riding with such steadiness that if any subtle thing would have been placed between the stirrup and the foot, or between the boot and the saddle no one would have seen it move at all.  (LIBERATI, 1669, p. 78)

Andrea Sacchi, The teamo of the Indignant knights in BENTIVOGLIO 1634

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Indignant knights

After entering the field and parading before the audience, the knights of the first team faced the Saracen. Then the following team entered and so on. All knights were impersonating fabulous characters. There was the team of the Roman knights, that of the Provençal, the team of the so-called Pertinacious, the one entitled to the Goddess Isis and that of the Indignant knights. Each of them “paced the field”, ie paraded before the boxes and the stands, while the pages distributed sonnets and printed copies of the knights’ replies to the Maintainer’s challenge. Then they took the place of the team that preceded them and the riders competed in the joust, charging the dummy with their spear. In this way the teams were continuously moving,

so that the Theater could easily gaze fondly, from all sides, the dresses and liveries of each Squadron.  (BENTIVOGLIO, 1635, p. 115)

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Provençal knights (At the end of the joust this team won the deciding-game for Masgalano prize) in Bentivoglio, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Provençal knights
(At the end of the joust this team won
the deciding-game for the “Masgalano” prize)
in Bentivoglio, 1635

When all the riders had run against the Saracen, the Master of the Field ordered them to made another parade before the audience. Finally, the blare of trumpets announced the trail of “the spear of the Lady”, a sort of special prize, which consisted of a jewel studded with diamonds, placed in the middle of a bunch of red roses, offered by Anna Colonna. During this trial, twelve knights hit the dummy in the front and then resulted at an equal score. The judges therefore decided to draw lots for the winner. After the end of the trails, the knights kept in showing off, demonstrating their skill before the audience. In particular, the Maintainer charged the dummy holding a spear in each arm and driving the horse with the reins between his teeth, finally hitting the target with both spears. Then he ordered to tie together three spears and charged and hit the dummy with them, nearly cutting off his head. His superiority over his rivals in the chivalric trials was overwhelming, so much so that he won sixteen awards. These were jewels that the knight gave as a present to the most prominent ladies, as a sign of gallantry.

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the knights of the the Goddess Isis in BENTIVOGLIO 1634

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the knights of the the Goddess Isis

In addition to the prizes awarded for the chivalrous trials, each joust also included a prize to the squadron that was judged the more elegant and with better bearing. It was the so-called Masgalano (from the Spanish “mas galante”, i.e. the more gallant). This prize still survives today in the Palio of Siena, in which it is awarded to the contrada whose “comparsa” (i.e. team) is considered the most “elegant”, during the parade that precedes the race. In the Joust of Piazza Navona the prize, offered by Cardinal Barberini, consisted of a magnificent silver sword and a beaver hat, gloves and other ornaments. The judges were the Ladies, and they decreed an ex-aequo among the knights of the First Squadron (the one of the four Kings) and that of the Provençal knights. It was decided to elect a champion for each team, who had to run three times with his spears against the Saracen, to determine the verdict. The winner was Ambrogio count of Carpegna, of the Provençal team.

Andrea Sacchi, The ship of Bacchus (Along the broadside are the emblems of those who at the time were the two most powerful families of Rome: the bees for the Barberini and the column for the Colonna) in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The ship of Bacchus
(along the broadside are the emblems of those who at the time were the two most powerful families of Rome: the bees of the Barberini and the column of the Colonna)

The entire show lasted over five hours. When it was beginning to get dark, some cannon shots were heard. Then two chariots entered inside the fence: one shaped like a ship, the second in the form of a boat. The first was richly decorated with the emblems of the Barberini and the Colonna (at the time, the two main noble families in Rome). The ship was armed with cannons and fireworks and carried actors impersonating the god Bacchus, accompanied by the Laughter, bacchantes, satyrs, shepherds and gunners firing blanks with cannons. The boat was, instead, carrying several musicians, who held a concert under the box of Anna Colonna and of the Marchioness of Castel Rodrigo, wife of the Spanish ambassador. The spectacle of the Ship of Bacchus excited such wonder that the people demanded that it was exposed, so that even those who had not attended the joust could come to admire it. And so it was done, while the ladies and the knights spent the evening at the reception hosted by Cardinal Barberini, in the Palazzo Mellini, which overlooked the square.

Andrea Sacchi, The musicians boat (After covering the field, they held a concert under the Ladies box) in BENTIVOGLIO ,1635

Andrea Sacchi, The musicians boat
(after covering the field, they held a concert under the Ladies box)


ADEMOLLO, Alessandro, Il Carnevale del 1634 in Piazza Navona, in Il carnevale di Roma nei secoli XVII e XVIII : appunti storici con note e documenti, Roma, A. Sommaruga, 1883, pp. 23-58.

BENTIVOGLIO, Guido, Festa fatta in Roma alli 25. di febraio MDCXXXIV, in Roma, data in luce da Vitale Mascardi, 1635.

LIBERATI, Francesco, La Perfettione del cavallo, Roma, per Michele Hercole, 1639 (2° ed. Roma, 1669).


Hati Trust Digital Library

The Saracen Joust in Piazza Navona (part 1)

Giovanni Ferri, Saracen joust in Piazza Navona in the 25th of February 1634 (Seventeenth century) Museo di Roma - Palazzo Braschi

Giovanni Ferri, Saracen joust in Piazza Navona in the 25th of February 1634 (Seventeenth century)
Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

With the typical unscrupulousness of the Popes of the time, in 1628, Urban VIII ordained his nephew as cardinal when he was just twenty. In a short time, Antonio Barberini gained a prominent position in the Roman Curia, where his brother, Francesco, and his uncle, Antonio the elder, also sat in the college of cardinals. To celebrate his role and the power of his family, which was enormously increased because of the protection of the Pope, at the beginning of 1634, Antonio decided to finance, with the fabulous sum of 60,000 scudi, a large Saracen Joust in honor of Prince Alexander Carl Wasa of Poland, who at that time was on a visit to Rome. His intention was the joust had to be the culminating event of that year’s Carnival and it would then remain in the memory for posterity. Piazza Navona was chosen as the scene of the joust. For several centuries, in fact, the Carnival jousts and other chivalric trails were held in that square. The literary conception of the joust was entrusted to the poet Fulvio Testi, who was resident (akind of diplomat) of the Duke of Modena, while the staging was commissioned to architect Francesco Guitti, from Ferrara.

We have several testimonies of this formidable joust. Beginning with two beautiful paintings, preserved in the Museo di Roma at Palazzo Braschi, one by Filippo Gagliardi and Andrea Sacchi, which offers an overview of the square, and the other attributed to Giovanni Ferri, giving a closer view. We also have a detailed account of the event by Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio, published in 1635, and enriched by splendid drawings by Andrea Sacchi.

Carlo Maratta, Portrait of cardinal Antonio Barberini (1670) Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini - Roma

Carlo Maratta, Portrait of
Cardinal Antonio Barberini (1670)
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica
di Palazzo Barberini – Roma

The Saracen Joust is a special type of chivalric trial that consists of charging, at the canter, and hitting, with a spear, a rotating dummy that is placed on top of a pole. Usually the dummy has his right arm armed with a mace, or a lash, and has a shield on his left. According to some, this exercise would be based on that of the palus (pole, in Latin), described in Vegetius’ Epitoma rei militaris (IV-V century A.D.), which was used to train Roman soldiers to strike with the sword. The Saracen Joust was also called Quintain and included the variant in which, instead of hitting the dummy, the rider had to insert the tip of his spear in a ring suspended from the dummy’s arm. It is called “Saracen” because the rotating dummy typically had the features and clothing of a Moor, i.e. of a Muslim, like the pirates who, having come from North Africa, raided tat the time he Italian coasts.

On the contrary to what we see today, in many re-enactments of this type of Joust (for example in Arezzo, or in Ascoli Piceno), originally the rider did not have to hit the shield of the dummy, but its head. In fact, if the rider hit the shield he was penalized. This is explicitly explained in the “chapters to be observed in the Feast,” that is to say the rules of the joust held in Piazza Navona in 1634.

The one who will hit from the eyebrows up, and in the sign adjusted for this purpose, breaking [the spear] will gain three strokes. From the Eyebrows to the Mouth, he will gain two, and one from the Mouth to the Chin, according to the distinction made apparent by the lines. Without breaking [the spear], it will be deemed he had not hit, nor made the stroke. Breaking from the Chin and the Throat down he does not gain any stroke. If the ferrule falls, without breaking, and without detaching wood from wood, it will not be deemed broken, and if the Spear touches one of the lines it will be granted the next lowest stroke. […]
Who will hit the shield, or other place in the body of the Saracen, breaking or not, will lose a stroke among those already gained or between those he still has to gain.
The one who during the Charge will lose the Spear, the Hat, the Sword, the Bridle, or the Stirrup will lose the Charge. (BENTIVOGLIO, 1635, p. 20)

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Roman knights in BENTIVOGLIO 1634

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Roman knights

The score was then awarded as follows: three points (“strokes”) to the rider hitting the dummy on the front (“from the eyebrows up”), where a specific target was placed (“the sign adjusted for this purpose”). Two points were awarded if the rider hit the face (“from the Eyebrows to the Mouth”), one if he hit the chin (“from the Mouth to the Chin”). These areas were delimited by lines drawn on the dummy’s head (“the distinction made apparent by the lines”). To be valid, the blow had to produce the rupture of the tip of the spear, which for this purpose was made of a softer wood than the one used for war spears. In the event that the blow just produced the detachment of the tip of the spear (“ferrule”), but without breaking the wooden pole, the blow was considered invalid, while if the spear had hit one of the lines that divided the target, i.e. the head of the Saracen, the rider was awarded with the score associated to the lower part of the target, that is to say the lowest. If the rider hit the shield, or another part of the dummy’s body, whether breaking the spear, or not, he was still penalized by one point. Finally, if, during the charge the rider lost his spear, sword, hat, stirrup or bridle, he lost the “charge”, that is to say that he received no points.

Crispin de Passe the young, Quintain, in PLUVINEL, 1625, Plat. 47

Crispin de Passe the young, Quintain, in PLUVINEL, 1625, Plat. 47

We find these same rules in the slightly foregoing French treatise by Antoine de Pluvinel L’instruction du Roi en l’exercice de monter à cheval (1625), proving that not only they were already in use before, but also that they were wide spread also outside Italy. The treatise is written in the form of a dialogue between the author and the King of France, Louis XIII, who was his pupil in the knightly disciplines:

SIRE, sometimes the riders get tired of doing always the same thing and they find too difficult and sometimes painful to often repeat the exercise of confronting each other entering the lists; instead they enjoy the ring joust, of which they rarely get tired. But considering this exercise not martial enough, the more inventive among them found an intermediate exercise, which consists in placing the figure of a man in the same position and at the same height as an opponent who is facing them at the lists. Fully armed, they break their spears against this silhouette, which they also call Quintain, attacking it as they would do with a real man; thus performing an exercise that is halfway between the fury of facing each other at the lists and the gentleness of the ring joust: the point at which to break [the spear] is in the head, the best blows are the ones above the eyes,  in the forehead, the less good are those who hit below. And if some evil man-at-arms hits the shield that the Quintain has on the left arm, this last turns on a pivot, and it is likely to hit the one who uses his spear so badly, who thus loses his charge because of his bad grace. (PLUVINEL, 1625, pp. 138-139 [1627, pp. 177-178).

The author’s words are made explicit by one of the wonderful plates by Crispin de Passe the young, which decorates Pluvinel’s book and make it one of the most beautiful treatises about horsemanship ever. In plate number 47 we see the king in the act of hitting the Quintain (which looks like a Roman emperor, armed with sword and shield, and with his head crowned with laurel). The sovereign hits a target at the center of the dummy’s forehead. In the background, some courtiers and the author mounted on horseback watch with a pleased expression, while a page follows the rider closely, carrying a new spear.

Go to part 2… ->

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Pertinacious knights in BENTIVOGLIO 1634

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Pertinacious knights


BENTIVOGLIO, Guido, Festa fatta in Roma alli 25. di febraio MDCXXXIV, in Roma, data in luce da Vitale Mascardi, 1635.

PLUVINEL, Antoine de, L’instruction du Roy en l ’exercice de monter à cheval, desseignées & gravées par Crispian de Pas le jeune, Paris, M. Nivelle, 1625.


Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi: http://www.museodiroma.it/

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica – Palazzo Barberini: