The role of the horse and of jousting in Renaissance culture
 (part 2)

Luca Signorelli (attributed to), Two Knight Jousting,
XV-XVI cent., Musée Bonnat Helleu, Bayonne

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the first part of this article, we saw how horses and jousting played an important symbolic role during the Renaissance in the representation of the power of the ruling class.

After this necessary and, I hope, not too boring premise, I would now like to try to offer you a quick overview of the various chivalric trials that characterized the Renaissance and the centuries following. Between these trials, the different types of jousting were the largest and most representative category.

First, it should be noted that the terms “tournament” and “joust” are often used as synonyms, but they indicate two types of chivalric trials that are quite different, even if later assimilated, given the disappearance of the former and the survival of the latter. In medieval times, tournaments were real simulated battles that, on a limited but fairly large territory, engaged two or more factions. This type of trial could become rather bloody and engage the fighters over several days. The violent nature of these manifestations led to their condemnation by the Church and to their progressive abandonment in favor of less dangerous and bloody trials, such as jousts. These had a more spectacular character. They took place in a confined space, often a town square, specially set up in the form of a theater.

Symbolic tournament, Fifteenth cent., Manuscript Bibliotèque Nationale de France

A characteristic of jousting that emphasizes their theatrical dimension was that they were generally inscribed in a narrative framework. Their development followed a literary plot, with a prologue and an epilogue that constituted the spectacular and narrative framework within which the real knightly trials were placed. In the days before the joust, a knight, the so-called “Maintainer”, presented his challenge. Usually this happened during a show in which sonnets were recited and music was played. Generally, the Maintainer presented himself impersonating a fairy-tale character, of exotic origin. Alternatively, an actress appeared impersonating a princess from some distant country, threatened by an evil power, and invoked the protection of local knights, a courteous game, clearly inspired by medieval chivalric novels and perfectly in tune with the ethics expressed in works such as Ariosto’s Orlando furioso.

Belvedere Torunament, XVI cent., Museo di Roma

There were different types of jousts. First of all, the so called giostra all’incontro (“joust at the meeting”). In this type of joust, two riders at a time faced each other with lances. Without going into too much detail, we can distinguish two main types of joust: those in the open field, such as the one held in the Belvedere courtyard in the Vatican, in 1561, to celebrate the wedding of Annibale Altemps and Ortensia Borromeo, and those at the barrier (like that of Cesena). In the first type, the knights faced each other in an open space. In the run-up, however, the risk of colliding was high. This type of joust was therefore abandoned because it was considered too risky. The other type of joust at the meeting was the so-called “joust at the barrier,” in which the two contenders were separated by a barrier which could be a fence, or simply a cloth fixed to a rope stretched between two poles, so that the horses were obliged to travel along two parallel paths.

Lucas Cranach the Elder,
The German Tournament: “Anzogen-Rennen”,
German, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,

Other chivalric trials were particularly widespread, starting from the end of the 15th century, in the Iberian Peninsula and in European territories under Spanish rule, such as the Kingdom of Naples and Flanders. These were the so-called “game of reeds” and the “carousel joust.” Spaniards and Portuguese had probably borrowed these chivalric trials from the Arab early rulers of the Iberian Peninsula, as testified by the habit of playing them while wearing Moorish costumes.

Crispijn van de Passe, King Louis XIII jousting, in Antoine de Pluvinel, L’instruction du Roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval, Paris, M. Nivelle, 1625, Figure 46

Both trials were played between teams of riders. In the game of reeds, the teams lined up on the opposite sides of the field. Then a first group of riders cantered towards the opposing team and threw reeds at them, as if they were javelins. Often these fictitious weapons had sticky tips which would stick to the opponent’s cuirass. At that point, those who were assailed began to counterattack, chasing the others, who turned towards their friends’ ranks. When, in turn, the pursuers arrived in the opposing field, they threw their darts.

Juan de la Corte, Game of Reeds on the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, 1623,
Museo de Historia, Madrid

The carousel joust had a similar dynamic, but the riders chased each other, throwing clay projectiles, which the adversaries had to dodge with rapid changes of direction of their horses, or protecting themselves and their animals with small shields, generally made of leather.

This type of knightly trials remained particularly popular in the Iberian Peninsula, up to relatively recent times. In Portugal, for example, this type of equestrian games continued to be practiced until the end of the 18th century, as shown by two splendid plates, of the monumental Portuguese equestrian treatise by Carlos de Andrade, Luz da Liberal and Nobre Arte da Cavallaria, from 1790.

Carousel joust
Carlos de Andrade, Luz da Liberal e Nobre Arte da Cavallaria (1790)

Also, in these different types of jousts, the actual race was preceded by pageantries, like the one immortalized by Filippo Gagliardi and Filippo Lauri in a famous painting, now in the Museum of Rome. It represents the Carousel Joust that was held in the courtyard of Palazzo Barberini, to celebrate Christina of Sweden, on the night of February 28, 1656. It gives a very clear idea of ​​the magnificence of these shows.

Filippo Gagliardi e Filippo Lauri, The Caroussels Joust in the courtyard of Palazzo Barberini in honor of Christina of Sweden, 1656-1659, Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi

Another very popular type of joust, which is still quite widespread and played in many historical re-enactments, is the so-called Quintain, or Saracen Joust. This 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. 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. This latter was another type of the “ring race”, which was very popular, and it is still played in many Italian cities, like in the “race of the star”, during the Sartiglia of Oristano.

The ìRace of the Star at Oristano

The Quintain was also called “Saracen Joust” 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 the Italian coast at that time.

Jan Van der Straet, Saracen Joust on the Via Larga, 1561 – 1562,
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

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, rather it’s head. In fact, if the rider hit the shield he was penalized. 

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