Festa di San Giovanni Battista (the feast of St John the Baptist), its patron saint, is pre-eminent in the calendar of the Tuscan city of Florence. It explains why the many celebrations include the eagerly awaited final of the city’s oldest sporting contest -Calcio Storico (historic football), sometimes described as a cross between Graeco-Roman wrestling, football and rugby.
It’s a tradition that began in 1530, when Florentines, exhausted by a long siege, played football in full view of
their besiegers (the Medici). It was a calculated insult. Swaggering Florence lost the battle but won perpetuai moral advantage for its arrogant insouciance. Now, Florentines practise on each other. Four teams (Blues, Reds, Greens and Whites) of 27 strapping yormg men represent the four quarters of Florence. Their pitch is the Piazza San Croce, a mess of sand and mud surrounded by protective netting, with the whole of each end as the ‘goal’ over which players tip, throw or boot a special leather ball (particoloured with the combatants’ colours) to score caccie (goals); and there are penalties for missing or hitting the side netting.
It might sound like football, but it isn’t. Anything goes. To begin with, eveiyone is in lavish Renaissance costume, including the team captains, who sit in a magnificent tent in the centre of the goal mouth, stirring only to fire a gun when a goal is scored, while their standard bearer runs up and down the pitch waving his flag. Referees wear doublets and hose, with ostrich plume accessories and swords. While players get their clothes ripped off (‘playing the ball’ is an unheard-of concept), referees ignore the strangling, biting, chopping and kicldng unless death is imminent. It’s a primeval, exhilarating contest, as authentically bloodthirsty as its historic origins.
June 24 WHERE:
Piazza San Croce, Florence BEST FOR:
History, culture and local folklore YOU SHOULD KNOW:
No one with a criminal record is allowed to play Calcio Storico. And although many players view the Calcio as an opportunity to wreak revenge on rivals for a particular girlfriend, the actual prize is a live cow – now interpreted as Bistecca Florentina served up for everyone.