From all appearances, La Festa in Armi is aimed at a serious but not necessarily scholarly audience. It includes a substantial bibliography of both primary and secondary works (nearly all of them written in Italian or translated into that language). There are, however, no notes, and students wishing for citations to the source material behind Balestracci's presentation will find this book frustrating at times. La Festa in Armi was, however, never meant for specialists in chivalric sport. It presents, rather, a brief but stimulating introduction to jousts, tournaments, and other public competitions practiced in a variety of geographical and social contexts from the 11th through the 17th centuries. Readers interested in the general European preoccupation with formal deeds of arms and other more or less combative games during this period, and especially in Italian manifestations of the same, will find much food for thought.
The first half of the book is devoted to the specifically chivalric competitions of medieval Europe, jousts and tournaments, that were so important in the social life and literature of the time. Balestracci's survey of this material is efficient and unexceptionable, and indeed has the virtue of emphasizing the interest and participation of non-nobles in what were meant to be quintessentially noble activities. He is hardly alone among recent scholars in drawing attention to this aspect of chivalric sport -- the deep attraction it held for those who were in principle meant to be excluded from it -- but his graceful treatment makes this point very effectively. He also shows how activities that originated and were energetically pursued in Francophone regions spread elsewhere.
As the book progresses, Balestracci focuses more on Italy; its second half is exclusively concerned with sports and public competitions of urban Italy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Some of these activities were as combative as the more aristocratic joust and tournament; it seems that few towns lacked a tradition of battles on bridges, with clubs and shields, or with stones. Like the aristocratic sports, such competitions reflected social and political divisions. Perhaps they were meant to sublimate existing rivalries, but more often than not, formalized street battles expressed the determination of various subgroups within the community to be taken seriously as military and political actors. Often enough, despite all efforts at regulation of weapons and equipment, these "sports" turned into bloody battles with numerous casualties.
The final chapters describe activities that cannot be really classified as being "in armi," but were highly competitive nonetheless. The chief among these was the palio or the horserace. As is appropriate for a scholar based in Siena, where the palio still survives, Balestracci dedicates several chapters to palio competitions, their rules, and their variety of social meanings. If these are not formal combats, the reader understands why they were included in this book. Nothing could have been taken more seriously, by individual competitors, groups, or entire communities than these races. It was entirely in the spirit of the activity that a city wishing to taunt a neighboring town while besieging it, might stage a palio outside its walls, where the besieged could see the fun, but not take part in or put a stop to it.
La Festa in Armi puts the chivalric sports of the Middle Ages in a much wider context of formal competitions, some of which in modern terms would be called sports, others which were barely controlled riots. All of them are rightly seen as methods of self-assertion by individuals or groups within the social context of a wider community, whether that community was the nobility in a certain region, or an urban society including both noble and non-noble elements. Medieval communities were torn by many tensions and desired to work them out by means less dire than civil war -- something that often enough took place nevertheless. Balestracci's book succeeds in drawing attention to both the tensions that existed and the variety of ways in which they were expressed and sometimes resolved.
La Festa in Armi is beautifully packaged, with a gorgeous cover, 30 color plates and 28 black and white illustrations. Typographically it is an equally pleasant experience. Balestracci's prose is graceful and he uses anecdotes very effectively to make his points.