Walk through Florence’s piazza Santa Croce at most times of the year and you’ll find telltale signs of a tourist city: shops and restaurants spinning out from a central monument, pigeons trailing weary travellers, and, when the holidays roll around, mulled wine and market stalls. But in June, as the pitch for the city’s most dangerous game is set up, everything else fades into the background as Florentines prepare for impending battle.
Calcio Storico Fiorentino is a combination of rugby, football and rough-and-tumble. Renaissance-costumed savagery is played out among Florence’s four historic neighbourhoods over a series of early summer matches, culminating in a final game on June 24, feast day of Florence’s patron saint John the Baptist. Local lore tends to trace its origins to vaguely defined “remote times” when, according to Luciano Artusi and Anita Valentini, authors of Festività Fiorentine (Florentine Celebrations) , residents both noble and not-so-much “played football in the streets during work breaks and neighbourhood festivities; [the rich] competed in particularly sumptuous and presentation-oriented matches.”
But the best-known early game took place in 1530, during the Spanish siege of Florence. That tidy Florence-versus-outsider origin story has cemented Calcio Storico’s reputation as a celebration of local identity. Today, the game takes place in the piazza Santa Croce, anchored by the namesake Franciscan basilica, burial site of such legends as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo and Rossini. Given its grade-A list of luminaries, the church has been nicknamed the “Temple of the Italian Glories” – to say nothing of the gladiator-like local idols who occupy the square outside it each June.
Said idols are spread across four teams, each tied to a traditional district in the historic centre. Team affiliations are more based in philosophy than physical addresses these days, as fewer and fewer Florentines call their historic centre home. Colour-coded and fiercely competitive, the teams are the Azzurri (Blues) of Santa Croce, the Bianchi (Whites) of Santo Spirito, the Rossi (Reds) of Santa Maria Novella and the Verdi (Greens) of San Giovanni.
For many players, aspirations to join a team start early. Luigi Ferraro, a former Serie A Italian rugby player and a ball-carrier for the Azzurri, made his Santa Croce debut at age 18, but says, “I was training with the Azzurri from age 14 or so. I always wanted to be part of this grand Florentine party.”
Riccardo Lo Bue of the Rossi, another tattooed, hulking he-man (and Calcio Storico has a lot of them), echoes Ferraro, alluding to a kind of inevitability in his playing. “I was basically born into Calcio Storico,” he says. “When I was little, my friends would hang out in the area where the Rossi trained, and there was a café-bar nearby where they’d go, so I grew up fascinated by the whole thing.”
Athletes like Ferraro and Lo Bue are all unpaid glory-seekers with day jobs, family lives and, often, some level of neighbourhood notoriety. Training and team devotion are taken seriously not despite, but because of the game’s non-professional yet proud nature. Calcio Storico indeed asks its most ardent participants to shape their identities around it. Some take the shaping part rather literally: Lo Bue, who began his Calcio Fiorentino career as a 70kg (154lb) goalie, but longed to be more in the thick of the action, says, “[I] built my body over years of intense training to get there.”
To a non-Florentine, the game may not make sense. But there are strict rules in place, and strategy has become more obvious to observant spectators since authorities cracked down on excessive violence after numerous hospitalisations. Still, no one would call Calcio Storico sedate.
Two teams of 27 players – often unannounced until match day – take to the sand-covered field for 50-minute matches. Goal posts are set at opposing ends of two even squares and players must get the ball, which is launched into the field from the centre line, over the opposing team’s net “by any means necessary”. Use of hands, feet and fighting are all fair game – hence the mouth guards and bloodied fingers – but groups ganging up on individual players is prohibited.
Beyond the fine-print of play, all the other elements that make Calcio Storico so ceremonial – everything from the imagery used on costumes to the tunes played by parading musicians – are carefully governed. Such matters are overseen by a branch of public administration with few equivalents elsewhere: the Office of Florentine Folk Traditions. In the spirit of the game’s no-outsiders origins, safeguarding the Fiorentinità (the “Florentine-ness”) of the ritual is a top priority, too, if not a particularly PC one. Potential players are required to have been resident in the Florence metropolitan area for at least 10 consecutive years.
While rivalries and regulations are intense, and bad blood can sometimes surface in off-season brawls around town, “these days many players [from different teams] are friends,” says Ferraro. “At least until match day!” And though many of those same players wax poetic about the glories of the game no matter the outcome, victory is still paramount. “You’re training six, seven months and thinking about it all year, so of course you want to bring a win home and feel like the king of Florence,” Ferraro says. “But that’s the cherry on top of the cake.”