When I think about Florence, I think Dante, Lorenzo de Medici, Michelangelo. I remember 2013 when I lived there - the sleepless summer nights I spent swatting angry mosquitos that relentlessly sieged my apartment. I also think about today, June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist.
The festivities start early in the morning with municipal authorities parading through the streets in the wake of Renaissance flag throwers and drummers, while the entire city pays tribute its patron saint as it has done for hundreds of years. Excitement brews and tensions grow with every beat of the drum. The Florentines eagerly anticipate a single shot that will burst from a canon in Piazza Santa Croce at 5PM sharp: the beginning of the Calcio Storico championship match.
I often wondered what it must have been like to witness a Gladiator fight in the flesh. But, when I had the opportunity to attend the Calcio Storico championship three years ago, my curiosity was put to an uneasy rest that left me wanting to come back for more.
The game is ancient. They trace it back to the Roman days when Caesars's legionaries played to pass the time. During the Renaissance, Calcio Storico became more organized and was usually played in Florence's major piazzas by members of the noble class, even future popes.
The rules are simple:
- Four teams for Florence's major neighborhoods
- Bianchi: white for Santo Spirito
- Azzurri: blue for Santa Croce
- Verdi: green for San Lorenzo
- Rossi: red for Santa Maria Novella
- Two rules
- You cannot hit your adversary from behind
- Anything else goes (hits, kicks, punches, body slams and head butts)
- One objective
Okay, so maybe the rules are a little more involved than that, but that's the long and the short of it.
The game lasts less than an hour, but for the first 20 minutes the teams wrestle, box, brawl and tackle - anything to tire the opponents out. A second whistle is blown, the ball is thrown onto the pitch and the bloodied players, or calcianti as the Florentines call them, try desperately to score.
In other words, if you take Quidditch and mix it with UFC Wrestling, what you get would probably look a lot like Calcio Storico.
A few years ago, my friends invited me to join them in the white section to cheer the Bianchi di Santo Spirito in their final match against the Azzurri di Santa Croce.
I was uneasy at first - the game seemed brutal to me, almost barbaric. I went more out of curiosity than anything... But then the cannon fired, the crowds roared and it wasn't long before I jumping out of my seat to cheer along with my friends.
The calcianti were merciless - they tackled each other to the ground and punched relentlessly. But oddly, in the midst of all that excitement none of it mattered. A few cuts and bruises were nothing compared to what draws the players and the fans to that arena every year.
The calcianti spend months training for this sport; they invest every ounce of energy they have in the elimination rounds and the final game. It's a way of life for them; but, they don't play simply to win... They play to pay homage to their ancestors that competed before them - the very people that made Florence the great city it is today. They give their all, not to the game, but to their city.
In the stands, the thousands of Florentine fans cheer for more than their favorite team or players... They gather around the pitch to exalt their heritage.
Sure, the game is rough, but we're talking about more than a virile display of testosterone. We're talking about CALCIO STORICO, and as long as its played to celebrate the great heritage of the Florentine people, I'll be there in the stands cheering with them every chance I get!
FORZA BIANCHI, congratulations on your victory today!
All pictures from the Calcio Storico Final (Bianchi vs. Azzurri) - 2013.