The crowd of over 2000 exuberant fans roars, “Viva Fiorenza!” The blast of a cannon marks the entrance of the noble horsemen clad in velvet, gold, and leather, perched atop radiant stallions clip-clopping their way through Piazza Santa Croce. Armored foot soldiers, alabardieri, follow close behind with intimidating swords tucked neatly into their leather corselets. They march to the beat of 20 Florentine drummers in colorful silk tunics, with the crimson fleur-de-lis emblazoned on their instruments. The crowd grows louder as the players enter the sand-covered piazza. I hurry to my seat amongst the eager crowds, weaving through frantic tourists and fanatic locals, the stiletto heels of my new Italian boots catching in the cracks of the cobblestone streets. I find a spot between a fair-haired tourist and a local teenage boy with two Marlboros tucked casually behind his ear. Even in this innovative era, it is easy to travel back in time in Tuscany, especially in Florence. It is time for Calcio Storico Fiorentino, the historical football game to begin.
On February 17, 1530, the Florentines recall the most famous game of Calcio Storico in history, which catapulted this sport into a local tradition of the Tuscan culture. During that time, Florence was under siege by the Spanish army. Playing a Calcio match in full view of the enemy soldiers and the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, displayed the ultimate message of defiance. Today, a Calcio Storico tournament is played annually during the Festa di San Giovanni, in the last week of June. Although this game is only a reflection of the past, it is a miracle that it can even be played anymore as it has continued to be a bloody and violent competition between the rivaling neighborhoods of the historical Tuscan city.
The major church in the area determines the four neighborhoods of Florence. A team made up of volunteers represents each neighborhood. The Azzuri stands for the church of Santa Croce. The Verdi represents the neighborhood of San Giovanni. The Bianchi, battles for Santa Spirito and Santa Maria Novella is represented by the Rossi. Each team participates in the annual tournament, fighting in the name of tradition, bragging rights, and the ultimate prize. I wipe my brow of the collecting sweat beads. The Tuscan sun is unforgiving, yet the Italians seem to wear their pancakes of perspiration with pride, and so will I.
Calcio Storico, esteemed as one of the last gladiator games to be played, was originated as a military training exercise and reflects a cross between Greco-Roman wrestling, rugby, and soccer. The objective is to score more cacci than the other team by pitching a heavy, round, leather ball over a four-foot wooden wall that runs the entire width at each end of the field. Players can do anything they like in order to achieve this. The only rule is “no sucker-punches.” To outsiders and tourists like me, the game resembles nothing less than a huge street brawl in which a ball is occasionally brought into play.
“Forza Verdi!” chant the enthused fans supporting the greens of San Giovanni. I watch, perplexed, as 27 men in dark green short-sleeved shirts and matching stockings stretch, twist, bend and run on the spot to prepare themselves for the legendary match. They are wearing leather shoes and mid-length, voluminous green and purple striped pants gathered in a tight band below the knee. I stand to join the crowd in their excitement, my body sways in the cluster surrounding me. The spectators are nearly as raucous as the players. I find my way back down into the safety of my chair.
“Forza Azzuri!” answers the blues fans. The Santa Croce team is dressed similarly, with blue accents instead of green. The loud crack of a gun startles me, causing me to spring from seat once again. The fifty-minute battle has begun. Players go from zero–to–sixty. Half of them are moving the ball towards an end zone, and the other half are wrestling one-on-one with opposing players as some sort of defensive tactic. I watch between the cracks of my white knuckles as the players combat each other, grappling through the sand, head-locking, and tripping opponents in desperation. A haughty younger player with bulging muscles struggles to get up while spitting sand from his mouth, a less than pleased look plastered on his face. The young girl beside me grips her mouth and I cringe as the rest of the crowd whistles at the first sight of blood — one minute and twenty seconds into the game. Green and blue tattered shirts quickly cover the sandy piazza and the now fleshy Italians resemble Michelangelo’s “David” — on steroids.
The sound of another cannon and the crowd erupts as Green smoke hovers over the blue end zone. 1-0 for San Giovanni. Throughout the fifty-minute play of the game, doctors and nurses hover the sidelines apprehensively. Six referees sporting soft, velvet caps adorned with ostrich plumes, jewel-toned velvet doublets, and puffy knee-length pants monitor the game and the fights but rarely intervene despite the sight of blood and obvious injury.
Time moves quickly in (or observing) action. The blast of another gun indicates the end of playtime, and I can finally remove my makeshift blindfold. The blood rushes back to the tips of my fingers. The rowdy Italian boy beside me whistles in delight spraying saliva and reaches behind his ear to light up a victory cigarette. The petit tourist to my right shrinks down into her seat in what seems to be relief. I share in her respite. We have just survived our first Calcio Storico experience.
Today the players survived unscathed of any “real” injuries, with only bangs, bruises, black eyes and bloody noses to tend to. Historically, players haven’t always been so lucky. Locals tell me, it is not unusual to see multiple players leave on stretchers, in fact, in 1681, it is reported that Piero Fillipo Strozzi killed Florentine, Francis Gerini in a match. For this reason as well as the brutal nature of the game, it has been recently mandated that anyone with a criminal record is prohibited from playing the game.
The victorious San Giovanni team celebrates with fist pumps and lots of kisses. The clammy and fatigued players turn and embrace their teammates, their opponents, the referees, and then each other again. And finally, after all the kissing is finished, it is time for the great payoff — the big prize that makes all the blood and bruises worth it.
I join the crowd in intermittent spurts of claps and whistles as the Maestro di Campo, takes center stage of the piazza, accompanied by a white heifer calf, symbolic of the prize long ago. The recent trend is for all the players to retreat to a traditional meal of Florentine steak and fine Italian wine, compliments of the losing team. So all of this bloodshed, pain, and sweat for a piece of steak? Esteemed to be the thickest, and the largest slab of perfectly cooked meat, it is served with only a lemon and hangs off each end of the plate. Bistecca Fiorentina is a fine Florentine decadence that appeases everyone’s taste buds. I’ll take mine medium rare, please.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Swisste Digital Luggage Scale: I have a tendency to, well, shop when I travel (especially in Italy!) which makes things difficult when I’m packing up to leave. This digital luggage scale has saved me more times than I can count. Despite my shopping habits, my luggage is never overweight (which means no extra fees). I can easily fit it into my purse, backpack or carry on, thanks to its light and compact design.
Fitbit Alta Fitness Tracker: I’m obsessed with my Fitbit. Especially when I’m traveling, I love to see how much ground I’ve covered in a day. Fitbit covers all my tracks (steps, distance, idle hours, hours of sleep, water and food consumed, etc.) and keeps me motivated to stay active on the go. It also helps me justify that extra scoop of gelato when I have the step stats to back up my cravings.
Rebecca Minkoff Charging Zip Wristlet: If there’s one thing I hate, it’s lugging around a big heavy purse when I’m trying to explore a new city. I don’t have to do that anymore thanks to this uber-fashional and ultra-functional wristlet. This wallet-sized accessory houses my phone (and charges it on the go!), all my important cards, and also has a zipper pouch for cash. The wrist strap offers hands-free convenience.