Today, other Italians may think of the Florentines as a rather effete, innocuous sort. But each June they manage to summon up some of their old medieval berserker spirit in Piazza Santa Croce with the rib-crunching violence of the football game called the Calcio Storico (Also known as Calcio Fiorentino or Calcio in Costume).
Its origins go back to the Middle Ages, if not further. Every Italian city had some sort of communal game of this nature. Florence's became something special on 17 February 1530, at a time when the friendless republic of Florence had been besieged by the army of Emperor Charles V for three months.
People were cold, hungry and miserable, but they were grimly determined to repel the Emperor’s troops, who could look down over Piazza Santa Croce from the surrounding hills. It was then decided to give them something worth looking at, to show them exactly what the Florentines thought of their siege: they played a rowdy, noisy game of football.
Medieval football gradually fell out of favour, but the Florentine game was revived in 1930, to commemorate this last great thumbing-of-the-communal-nose at the forces of the foreign powers that smothered Florence for centuries. Now, every year around the summer solstice, young bloods from the four quarters of the city don hose and baggy striped pantaloons, and get ready for serious mayhem. The four teams represent San Giovanni (the Verdi), Santa Croce (Azzurri), Santa Maria Novella (Rossi) and Santo Spirito (Bianchi). There are only three matches; the winners of the first two face each other in the final.
The tourists inevitably think it's a show put on for them. They couldn't be more wrong—this is for personal honour, and for the hood. It does begin with a double dose of medieval pageantry: banner waving, gonfalon tossing, and a magnificent display of caparisoned horses. After that the 27 players on each side take the field, an immense rectangle of sand laid in the centre of the piazza. A cannon is fired, and the two sides charge at each other, butting heads, swinging fists, kicking and grappling in a mix of rugby, Gaelic football, boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts.
Play usually starts with a long period of general fisticuffs between the two lines, while the backs of the team with the ball look for an advantage to break through. There's more plain fighting than ball-handling skill to this game. Players may do almost anything to get the ball into the adversaries’ goal, a narrow slit above the back wall that runs the length of it (if their aim is too high the other side gets half a point). If there is strategy it isn't readily apparent, and rules are very few: no kicks to the head, no sucker punches and no ganging up on an opponent: all fights and tackles are strictly individual combat.
The prize used to be a pure white calf; recently it's been changed to a free dinner for everyone on the team. That's all.
If you don't believe any of this, you can watch the 2016 Azzurri-Bianchi final.
The semi-final matches are held at different dates each year in mid-June; the final always takes place on St. John's Day, June 24th. If you'll be around then, it's possible to get tickets online in advance (about €10-50); information here.
Image by Lorenzo Noccioli