The Florentine Historic Football
Fifty minutes of passion
Fifty minutes of muscle power, of passion and sweat, effort and competition, played in the brilliant costumes of the time, quickly transformed in rags revealing powerful naked chests, fighting with determination on a carpet of sand which absorbs the thuds of those who fall but also impedes movement as the game progresses.
The objective is the “hunt” to get the ball through the adversary’s goal posts.
Dante doesn’t mention it, a sign that in his day, the game was not played, given that his writings are also an enormous encyclopaedia of the period. But we know that already in the second half of the 1400s, the young Florentines played football in the streets and piazzas, wearing the colours of their livery.
Slowly, they moved into the more important piazzas, from piazza Santo Spirito to Santa Maria Novella and piazza Santa Croce. And so the Historic Football began to be a game played for entertainment, particularly during carnival and other special occasions. It was always a tough game in which the noble youth showed off to the ladies. It was, however, in Santa Croce, where it is still played, that the really memorable game was played, the game that has made history and marked the beginning of the tradition.
17 February, 1530, the Imperial troupe of Carlo V besieged Florence, the Florentines, to show their indifference and contempt of the enemy, went instead to watch the Whites and Greens play.
Carlo won the battle. But the historic football continued, uninterrupted for the whole of the seventeenth century. Then it began to lose popularity. The last game was played in front on Maria Teresa d’Austria, in 1739. After which, silence, except for two occasions, 1898 and 1902. Until there was a revival under Fascism, in 1930, in remembrance of the siege of Florence four hundred years before. This revival was the work of the primate Alessandro Pavolinias part of the cultural packet which included the May Music Festival and the Craftsmen’s Show. Since then year after year, except for the recent interruption, there have always been three games, every June, in the heat of Santa Croce.
On the rectangular round, divided into two perfect squares, the two teams of 27 players a side, begin the game when they hear the shot of the small canon and play in honour of the city’s great, who watch from the terraces. Almost everything is permitted by the referee-judge who is assisted by two linesmen. He directs the game with ease. The players have to get through the barrier of their adversaries and get the ball into the net which is as wide as the field. Every error costs a point to the other team. Every point is a “hunt” and every two, half “hunts”, the players change ends. With every “caccia” obtained by the fans’ team, the crowd goes wild, in front of the Basilica of Santa Croce, firecrackers and bangers in team colours. The team which wins the final, June 24, receives a white calf which, once upon a time, was immediately killed but is now symbolic, more like a banner as the painting by a local Florentine painter is called.
Every team is assigned a colour, at first there were only two but soon there were four and then more still. So here is a custom which has never died, even though it has seen good times and bad and the rules of the game have changed. The last “under the belt” punch came with the spiralling violence in which many were involved and the violence was often a cover for the settling of private arguments.
In 2005 the ex President, Elisabetta Meucci (today is è Michele Pierguidi), decided tit was time to change: or the violence had to stop or the rules had to change. She began, with the local councillors, to try to understand first of all, the feelings and mood of the city. Their survey concluded that football in costume was still popular. They are particularly concerned about conserving the parade of 530 people in the costume of the time, no other such parade exists in Italy, all men, who, before the match, cross the city, starting from Santa Maria Novella and taking with them the prize, the white calf.
The parade stops in Piazza Signoria to pay tribute to the ladies and then continues to Santa Croce, the nobles on horseback, the rest on foot, all to the splendid sound of the trumpets and tambourines. «Our work has been to ensure the continuation of the tradition of the historic football, but also to up-date it and bring it back into the realms of legality», explained Meucci.
The ambition of the society is now to affiliate the historic football with the Coni, in the Federation of Historic Games. The first results of all these efforts are visible. Last year, the matches were played in an atmosphere of order, the rebirth of the tournament was taken for granted. A suitable place for a great tradition, the seat of the historic football, is the fourteenth century Palagio di Parte Guelfa, right in the centre of Florence in the Piazza of the same name.
Born as a Guelfa palace at the time of the rivalry between Guelf and Ghibelline, it has been continuously altered and restored over the centuries. One of the most important alterations, that of Filippo Brunelleschi who added the wing in which, still today, is the salon named after him, and the other, of Vasari. In 1921, during the restoration of Piazza della Repubblica, the Palagio underwent a heavy restoration with a neo-mediaeval focus. The great fresco on the façade by Gherardo Starnina and the paintings by Giotto had already been lost, but there is still the work of Luca della Robbia, the Madonna and Child and Two Angels, above the door which opens into the Room of the “Drappeggi”.