The answer has its roots in Renaissance Florence – from Calcio Storico Fiorentino. The two sports became inextricably linked in 1909, when the Federzione Italiana del Football changed its name to Federazione Italiana Gioco del Calcio (FIGC). Although the Fascist Party did not take power in Italy until 1922; feelings of nationalism had been brewing well in advance and the change of name was a swing towards emphasising an ‘Italian’ national identity.
Calcio Storico is a source of great pride in Florence, although there is opposition from those who do not like its violence, and it is currently undergoing resurgence, especially among younger people. For one family in particular, the sport has extra special significance. I spoke to Stefania, daughter of Marcello Corti, who played Calcio Storico for 20 years from 1949 onwards. As she recounted player’s nicknames: I immediately got the impression that these players were elevated to hero status
“My father was nicknamed il Pelle (the skin) because of his courage. Each one of the players were identified by a nickname. I remember Morino (because of his hair colour), cimitero (cemetery) because he was always quiet and Il bambino because he was young.”
Stefania often speaks of her father’s “great satisfaction” that his team, i bianchi (the whites) from the Santo Spirito area of the city, were unbeaten during this 20 year period. Marcello opted to play for the Bianchi – even though he resided in the red district of Santa Maria Novella.
It is thought that Calcio Storico, almost gladiatorial in its violent nature, was adapted in the fifth century from the violent Roman ball game of Harpastum. It was played in the streets of Florence and in January 1490, it was even played on a frozen over River Arno. In recent years the amount of violence has varied. As Stefania tells me, in the 1950s and 60s the “54 adversaries would all drink together after the game” although she confesses visiting hospitals set up in Piazza Signoria and the Boboli gardens after each match to see her father with an ice pack on his head.
In the 1970s and 80s however, things changed and tensions in the city would be resolved ‘man to man’ on the field of play. In 1977, a particularly violent incident in which a player bit off an opponent’s ear saw people distance themselves a little from the sport when in 1977. Stefania described the fighting during this period as ‘below the belt’. Today the sport can still fall foul of inner city tensions – in 2014 the Mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, cancelled the final to avoid violence boiling over into the streets.
The sport made a huge impression on Stefania as a child, she remembers vividly clinging to her mother’s skirt in sheer terror because of her fear of the noisy procession and her tears when her father disappeared into the ‘human mountain’ of players on the field. Now she is an adult, she clearly feels great pride in her family connection with the sport and speaks of it giving her a sense of belonging. Her daughter, also a passionate supporter of the Santo Spirito quarter continues this family tradition.
But while the sport plays a huge role in the lives of some, what is the general feeling toward Calcio Storico in the city? There is sometimes annoyance among the locals when they are unable to get tickets for the games because of the sheer number of tourists that flock from all over the world to see the event. In terms of public support, she feels that the Palio, a traditional horse race held in nearby Siena, is more fervently embraced by its residents. However, for the thousands that do feel pride in calcio storico, their support couldn’t be more passionate.
The rules of giuoco del calcio fiorentino were formally established in 1580 by an eminent Count named Giovanni de’Bardi, a patron of the arts and music and friend of the powerful Medici family in Florence. De’Bardi was the founder of a group called the Florentine Camerata, whose members included Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo) and Piero Strozzi, who belonged to another powerful Florentine family. De’Bardi’s rules of the sport stated players must be: “Gentlemen from 18 years of age to 45, beautiful and vigorous, of gallant bearing and of good report”. Many of the Medici family themselves played the sport, including the Medici Popes Giulio de Medici (Pope Clement VII) and Alessandro de Medici (Pope Leo XI).
By the end of the Renaissance period, interest in the game had waned. The last official match on record was held during January 1739 in Piazza Santa Croce. It was not until the early 20th century that this historical sport was revived as part of a nationalist drive that was spearheaded by Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party.
Between 1739 and 1930, the sport endured in the memories of the citizens, who continued to play in the streets. Calcio Storico was resurrected by Florentine and prominent fascist Alessandro Pavolini. Pavolini led a squad of blackshirts during the 1922 march on Rome, marking the beginning of Fascist rule in Italy. In 1927, he became the deputy of Luigi Ridolfi, founder of ACF Fiorentina and financier of the Stadio Berta (now Stadio Artemio Franchi). Between 1929 and 1934, Pavolini was the local leader of the National Fascist Party in Florence.
Pavolini set the first game for May 4, 1930, to commemorate 400 years since The Siege of Florence, when a large Imperial and Spanish army unseated the Republic of Florence and installed Alessandro de’Medici as ruler of the city. The rules followed those laid down by De’Bardi in the 16th century, as they still do today. Although in 2008, these rules were altered to exclude men over 40-years-of-age from playing as well as those with serious criminal convictions.
There are four teams consisting of 27 players, each representing one of the city’s quartieri (districts) and all donning 16th Century costume denoting their allegiance:
Santa Croce – Azzurri (blues)
Santo Spirito – Bianchi (whites)
Santa Maria Novella – Rossi (reds)
San Giovanni – Verdi (greens)
Modern day matches are 50 minutes long and played on a field covered in sand, which is doubly as wide as it is long, roughly the same size as a football pitch. The games are played in Piazza Santa Croce, overlooked by the majestic 15th century Basilica di Santa Croce. The aim of the game is to get the ball in the opponent’s goal to score a caccia (goal) by any means necessary. This means that players can use both feet and hands, and the brutal sport allows punching, elbowing, choking and head butting – although no more than one player must attack at any one time. A Maestro di Campo (more like a referee of a boxing match than a football match) has the unenviable task of re-establishing order in the event of a brawl.
In keeping with the traditional nature of the sport, the team that wins the tournament is rewarded with as much Bistecca alla Fiorentina (a famous local steak) as they can eat, the prize being a Chianina – a Tuscan cow that is one of the largest and oldest cattle breeds in the world. Each year a “Magnifico Messere”, a kind of master of ceremonies that is usually an ex or current Fiorentina player (last year’s was Luca Toni) makes the following announcement before each game:
“State attenti al commando! Badate a voi, le armi in pugno!
Presentate le vostri armi. Salutate!
Rimettetevi le armi a terra! Riposatevi sulle vostri armi!
GRIDATE CON ME: VIVA FIORENZA!”
This roughly translates to:
“Pay attention to the command! Take heed, weapons in hand.
Show your weapons, salute!
Put your weapons to the ground. Return your weapons!
SHOUT WITH ME: VIVA FIORENZA!
It is not just the game itself that is steeped in history and symbolism. The finals are held on June 24th, which is the feast day of San Giovanni, (St. John the Baptist) patron saint of Florence. A spectacular parade is held on the day, with representatives from each quartiere wearing their renaissance colours. They are accompanied by trumpet fanfares, flags and marching drums. The participants, also dressed in 16th century costumes, parade from Piazza Santa Maria Novella through the City until they reach Piazza Santa Croce. As the day draws to a close, there is a fireworks display from the magnificent Piazzale Michelangelo – high above the city – so that all can enjoy the spectacle. There is nothing quite like Calcio Storico Fiorentino!
Follow Chloe Beresford on Twitter: @ChloeJBeresford