Florentines will claim that soccer was invented here in this city; Englishfolk will claim it comes from their country, as will Germans… in all likelihood, since there have been inflated round bladders, people have probably kicked them around. But calcio fiorentino, Florentine Soccer, is a game of its own. The modern version is still played, and represents a cross between football and rugby, with few rules. If you can get tickets, you can still see it today – or watch some matches on YouTube. There are three matches a year, with each of the four historic quarters contributing a team. It is bloody, and kicks, punches and other means are permitted. To stave off injuries, sucker punches, kicks to the head, and assaults by multiple players on a single player are currently banned.
During the Renaissance period it was played by aristocrats, every night between Epiphany and Lent. In an early record from 1490, the game was played on the frozen Arno during a particularly frigid winter. It really took off in the sixteenth century and became hugely popular, with even Medici Popes such as Clement VII and Leo XI apparently playing it in Vatican City to keep up their home traditions. Interest waned in the eighteenth century, and the game was revived in Fascist Italy and played by amateurs in streets and fields around the country.
Renaissance calcio was one of many civic traditions that mixed violence, sport and inter-neighbourhood competition in Italian cities. Though not as famous as Siena’s semiannual palio horse races, it was and is a point of pride for the annual winners of the three-game tournament. In Renaissance cities, civic identity was defined largely by neighbourhoods, and competition both friendly and serious was a means for Renaissance people to define and promote those identities. There are similar rituals across Italy. Most of these were revived, if not wholly invented, in Fascist and post-war Italy to promote a historical interpretation of Italian culture based on the experience of its street life and the physical divisions of its cities.
Those with real historical roots, which were never revived, are perhaps even more fascinating than Calcio Storico. A Venetian tradition, now long lost, involved men from the city’s various island neighbourhoods battling for control of the bridges connecting them in outright brawls. These “Wars of the Fists” emerged organically at neighbourhood level and were coopted and promoted by Venetian governments who organized them as spectacles for visiting dignitaries: in 1574, King Henri III of France witnessed one and demanded it be stopped, proclaiming it “too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game”. Lucky for Henri, he saw bridge fighting at its most restrained – by then, official rules prohibited armour and weapons, and stone bridges had replaced the rickety wooden bridges of the medieval city, which frequently collapsed under the crush of fighters. Florence, of course, had its own version: regular brawls between potenze, the young men of various neighbourhoods.
Calcio Storico, Palio and the Wars of the Fists remind us that Italian streets were stages on which Renaissance Italians enacted rivalries and competitions to define their civic and neighbourhood identities. For a birro like Ercole, calcio storico must have been a hassle: though tasked with restraining and controlling the violence in his city, Ercole would have been hard-pressed to interfere in a game played by aristocrats, including members of the ruling family, that brought open conflict into the heart of his city. Today and in the past, these traditions served as rituals to create meaning for the civic life of Italians, rituals celebrating their continued vitality. They had rituals for justice too, as we will see at the next stop .
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Colin Rose, ‘Street life and soccer’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/ercole-crime-and-punishment/ercole4_calcio/
Robert C. Davis, The War of the Fists : Popular Culture and Public Violence in Late Renaissance Venice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
David Rosenthal, Kings of the Street: Power, Community, and Ritual in Renaissance Florence.. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015.
Nicholas Terpstra, “Creations and Re-Creations: Contexts for the Experience of the Renaissance Street.” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance 16, no. 1/2 (2013): 221–29.