The game of Calcio in Costume bears no resemblance to football, although calcio is Italian for football, or soccer.
It was probably invented in the military encampments where the soldiers resting between battles would have lost strength without exercise. Here was a game which developed arm and leg muscles in a real hand to hand struggle for what was the size and shape of a cannon ball.
It was first played in Florence not so much as a sport as for training young men in the art of combat. The most famous match was probably that played on 17 February 1530, in Piazza Santa Croce. The Florentines had taken advantage of the sack of Rome by the imperial armies in 1527 to drive the Medici out of the city for a second time and place themselves under the sovereignty of Christ and the Virgin, determined to defend Florence to the last against the imperial armies spurred on by Pope Clement VII.
The imperial army, the most powerful of the time, laid siege to Florence from the summer 1529 to that of the following year. It was a memorable siege, which became steadily more severe, the city began to feel the shortage of food, although the general feeling in the city at that time was summed up by the graffiti on the walls; poor but free. It is in this atmosphere that a game of Calcio in Costume was played in mid-February, not just to keep up the ancient tradition of playing during carnival but more to show the city’s scorn for the besieging troops, who considered Florence exhausted and already defeated.
To emphasize this scorn a group of Florentine musicians played from the roof of Santa Croce so that the enemy would have a better idea of what was going on. Suddenly a cannon ball from the imperial batteries flew over the heads of the musicians and landed on the other side of the church; no damage was done, and it was greeted by the jeers of the crowds and the clamour of the instruments. There are no records of who won the match, maybe because it seemed more of a joint effort against the enemy than a tournament amongst teams. Although the match was a success, the city soon capitulated and the iron rule of the Medici returned.
The matches were played almost without interruption until the end of the 18th century, and only in May 1930 on the fourth centenary of the siege of Florence was the historical manifestation started up again.
Nowadays three matches are played, by teams drawn from Florence’s four major neighborhoods, in Piazza Santa Croce, on 16th, 24th, 30th of June on the recurrence of the patron-saint. After the long parade headed by the nobles on horseback, starting in Santa Maria Novella and culminating in Piazza Santa Croce, the game begins to cries of Viva Firenze!
It is an hour of continuous struggle, attacks, scuffles, blows and tangling of bodies dressed in fifteenth-century costumes. It is intended to echo the famous match of 1530, in the desire to revive and to record a memorable page of the city’s glorious history.
Don’t miss it!
Source: About Florence
Discover Florence and its traditions with the Institute Galilei History of Florence course!