It was only a few years ago when some people in Zakynthos decided to revive an old custom that had its roots in the Venetian occupation of their island. Since then, Giostra di Zante has taken part in all Carnival festivities of the island and has also represented Zakynthos in similar festivals abroad.
"We decided to revive Giostra because we wanted to give to the Carnival of Zante a special character, based on the tradition and the history of our island", said Mr Dionysis Flemotomos, president of this society, and kindly narrated us the story of this special custom.
"We don't know exactly when the festival of Giostra started in Zakynthos. Based on some historical references, we believe that it was being organized since the Medieval times. However, it took an official form during the Venetian occupation. That time, and particularly on January 29th 1656, the Capital General of the Ionian Islands Lazaros Motsenigos ordered that 32 realia (coinage of that era) would be given every year from the Public Fund to buy the prizes of the winners."
What exactly included Giostra?
At first, Giostra had the form of armed competition between two knights. But later on, after prohibitions of the Pope, the competitions took softer forms. The most famous are Giostra dell'annello (Giostra of the ring) and Giostra del Saracino (Giostra of the Saracin). In the first case, the contestants used pikestaff and tried to catch a small cringle hang from a special wooden construction. In the second case, the contestants tried to cut a feather put on the head of a Saracin idol, that symbolized the greatest danger of that era in the Mediterranean Sea, the pirates. The prize for the first winner was a silver sword and for the second winner a couple of silver rowels. A rose was given to the rest of the contestants.
Where would it take place and when?
Giostra di Zante would originally take place in the region of Arigos, next to the Old Town, which was surrounded by fortification walls for security reasons. Later on, when the town centre was moved closer to the port, the horse competitions would take place in Rouga Square (today known as Alexander Roma Square), along the main street.
The official date of the Giostra was Thursday before Carnival. However, other giostras were also organized to honor special people or events, such as the Giostra on May 1st, the anniversary of the incorporation of Zante to the Democracy of Venice. Similar events were also held in the farmhouses of the noblemen around the island. The contestants would usually fight for a woman in order to win her heart and marry her.
Another impressive thing is that on the day of Giostra, people would remove the iron nettings from their windows. These nettings served so that women could watch the street, without being noticed by the people passing by. The removal of these nettings gives Giostra a feministic aspect.
Although only noblemen could take part in Giostra, it was a very popular competition and villagers from all over Zakynthos would come to the town to attend it.
When did this festival stop?
Officially, Giostra stops in 1740, after the murder of the local politician Petros Makris. In the centuries that followed, there were some efforts to revive this competition but with few results. The most famous effort to revive Giostra was held in 1835, when a Giostra for common people (not only noblemen) was organized outside the church of Agios Georgios Petroutsos on the southern side of Zakynthos Town for the name day of Agios Georgios (Saint George).
However, since 2005, Giostra di Zante has been revived by our non-profit organization. Of course, today's Giostra is adapted to present demands and it is held on the Carnival Saturday.
How much time do you need to prepare Giostra?
It takes all year to prepare Giostra. This year, our organization took the decision to revive the Giostra of Saint George, which was held till the earthquakes of 1953 on the name day of Agios Georgios Petroutsos. Also, from 2011, a Children Giostra will also take place, so that tradition is spread to the younger generation. Our organization always tries to make next Giostra better than the last.
Can individual people take part in this carnival festivity?
Everyone can take place in the Parade of Giostra di Zante, as long as they are dressed in special costumes of that era. However, for security reasons, only trained horsemen can participate in the competitions. The aim of our organization is to give Giostra a traditional style and we believe we have managed it well.
How do you keep in touch with other countries where giostras are organized?
From the beginning, our effort was to contact other European countries, where similar events are organized and to go on cultural exchanges. Yet every year representatives from Zakynthos participate in the European Giostra, that takes place in the Italian town Sulmona. In exchange, a representative group from Sulmona takes part in Giostra di Zante. Moreover, representatives from Slovakia and San Marino take part in our Giostra di Zante. Our aim is that every year a new country participates so that Giostra di Zante gets a pan-European character. All these contribute so that our island, Zakynthos, gets its own identity through history and a creative connection with Europe and the other Ionian islands.