Renaissance Football in Florence

03 November 2010 Published in Tuscany Itineraries
image copyright Lorenzo Noccioli image copyright Lorenzo Noccioli


Firenze e Il Suo Calcio Storico

Florence's football or soccer team may play in pink, yet there is another, older game played every year in Florence. The feast of St. John (Giovanni) the Baptist, patron of Florence, is celebrated by the Florentines in a very particular way with a no-holds-barred Renaissance version of soccer. In medieval times, Florence divided the city into four geo-political subdivisions (or quartieri) from which it mustered its militia from the most easily riled populous.

On February 17th, 1530, in Santa Croce Square (image below), they devised a tournament (descended from a ball game called Arapasto which was played by Roman legionaries and is a mixture of wrestling, rugby, basketball and soccer) with the intention of using it to keep Florentine citizen-soldiers in fighting trim and, more importantly, to force those in adjacent neighborhoods - hence the most mutually antagonistic and vendetta prone groups of citizens - to work together as teammates and future comrades-in-arms.

Santa Croce in Florence © Copyright Delicious Italy

Each quaterieri fields a team of 27 players for a three game sudden death tournament, the heats of which are played on each Sunday of June culminating in the final, championship game which is played on the Sunday following June 24th (which is the actual celebration of the St. Giovanni). The object is to throw a 25cm diameter ball into the opponents' goal. Rules: almost none.

The tournaments have been played virtually uninterrupted since they were begun. Millennia-old habits die hard and the events continue to serve as an annual outlet for still quite lively intramural animosities. All players are costumed in epoch dress and the town celebrates in and around these tournaments with song, drink and merriment.

In the evening of June 24 there is a palio of rowboats on the river in which hundreds of rowboats are unleashed to the mercy of the river's current with lit candles as their only passengers.

The vision of these blazing boats can be best viewed from the Ponte Santa Trinita (the Ponte Vecchio will be in the foreground) which will give you a great spot to watch the fireworks at 10 PM! The rowboat palio is repeated after the grand tournament on the following Sunday. It is an event not to be missed!


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.

Text kindly supplied by and Dan Hostetler. Main image CC BY-SA 3.0

Calcio Storico Fiorentino Website