If there’s one month Florentines count the days to, it’s June. But why, you ask. Is it the arrival of the warm summer weather? The mostra del chianti, a sixty-year old wine festival? Or maybe the sagra del fungo porcino, a two weekend event with a diversity of locally made porcini mushroom-based dishes? Perhaps. But there is one event that lives deep inside Florence’s heart and streets—the Calcio Storico.
Each year on June 24th, Florence’s Santa Croce square in Italy turns into a sports arena for the entertainment of thousands of viewers. Gathering around the square is almost like fulfilling a civic duty for the people. Groups of men march through Florence before every final match wearing traditional vests, filling the city’s square with a wave of colors for everyone to admire. But what is Calcio Storico? Translated literally to “historical football,” it has its origins rooted deep in the ancient roman harpastum—a Roman ball game. The easy explanation is that it’s a mix of football, wrestling, and rugby with a fine thread of tradition to link it all together. Curious yet?
Part of the Festa di San Giovanni, a feast day for its patron St. John the Baptist, is this ancient form of football. It features four teams of 27 players from each of Florence’s classic districts . They are identified by colors: Azurri of Santa Croce (blue), Bianchi of Santo Spirito (white), Verdi of San Giovanni (green), and Rossi of Santa Maria Novella (red). The background of each and every player that makes his way into the dirt-covered arena has no importance in this game, only their passion for the sport. In that moment, they’re known as calciante—players that represent their district color with pride, purpose and great honor. But make no mistake, they’re not professional fighters. You’ll find men of all occupations and ages participating every year.
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Tracing back all the way to the 16th century, this game was a regular occurrence. It all started when Florence was under siege in 1530, as a match occurred symbolizing an act of defiance against Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. During his stay in Venice in 1574, Henry III of France was presented with a staged Calcio Storico in his honor in order to impress the king. He described the event as “too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.”
It was only in the 17th century that it became ostracized and forgotten for a few hundred years. Fast forward in time, and with the intent of glorifying Italy’s proud past during his regime, dictator Benito Mussolini brought the game back to life in the 1930’s.
With the sound of cannon fire, the game lasts for 50 minutes in an arena with two goal nets on each end. As the ball is thrown in the middle of the arena, players must try to catch it, move it all the way into the opponent's field, and kick it into the goal net to score a goal. Usually it's the innanzi—or runners—that make their way through the other team's side and score the goal, or caccia.
Players are allowed to use both their hands and feet, using a mix of punching, headbutting, elbowing, and choking to bring their opponents down to the floor, which takes this game to a whole other level of violence. Alas, there is an extensive list of rules to keep injuries to a minimum. Kicks to the head and sucker-punches are moves strictly forbidden in this game. The official rules that have guided this game since ancient times were written by a Count from Florence itself, Giovanni de Bardi. Even if a player is injured during the course of the game, there is never an interruption and no substitutions are allowed. During 2007 this game was banned for a whole year by city officials due to an instigated brawl that led 50 players taken into court, but there has never been a single death during all these years.
After enduring the whole match, there is no trophy and no monetary compensation. No player who steps into this game expects any less, since this is the way Florentines have always done it. The winning team was traditionally gifted with a Chianina cow, one of the oldest breeds of this species in existence. Nowadays, that has been swapped for a free dinner and a drape to celebrate the achievement of that year’s game.