If you’re visiting Florence, Italy and want to see a piece of uniquely Florentine culture, Calcio Storico (historic football) is one event to watch out for. Also known as Calcio Fiorentino, after the city, the game is a peculiar combination of football, rugby, Greco-Roman wrestling, and often bare-knuckle boxing or what looks like street brawling. While it appears like a plainly brutal game?which it is?what makes it even more memorable is that the whole event is done in full Renaissance fashion. Literally, the garb of the players consists of tights and tunics. Even the referees and officials of the game, as well as members of the audience, watch the game in period costume.
Calcio Storico is an annual celebration of a game that was held on February 17, 1530, when Florentines staged a match at the city’s Piazza Santa Croce as a show of contempt and provocation towards the imperial armies of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who had laid siege of Florence. They played the football game in livery, and so it was called calcio in livrea, which is what modern celebrations of the sport continue to recreate.
While that particular game in 1530 is the historical basis of the yearly sports festival, Calcio Fiorentino is believed to have already been around as early as the 1400s. It was a sport that Florentines regularly played at Santa Croce until it was discontinued around 1739. A couple of centuries later, in 1930, the city re-established the games as an annual event.
Calcio Storico today is still being played at the Piazza Santa Croce, with three matches held usually during the third week of June. The finals often coincide with the Festa di San Giovanni (Feast of St. John), who is the patron saint of Florence.
The four competing teams are still grouped as they were in the 1500s, which is based on the four districts of Florence named after their respective churches. These are Santa Croce with the Azzuri or Blue team, San Giovanni with the Verdi or Green team, Santa Maria Novella with the Rossi or Red team, and Santo Spirito with the Bianchi or White team. Twenty-seven players, between the ages of twenty to forty, play for each team.
Calcio Storico is an event that commences in grand fashion, complete with a parade of costumed men, flags waving and the sound of booming cannons. The game is played on a giant sand pit, with four-foot-high wooden fences running along the width of each opposing end. Players pass a heavy ball around and throw it over designated goals in order to score. Throughout the fifty minutes that a match is played, the opponents play hard and rough. You have to be prepared to see a lot of kicking, punching, pinning, choking, and elbowing – and of course, a lot of blood – if you plan to watch Calcio Storico. It is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Calcio Storico usually happens mid- to late June. Actual game schedules vary and tickets are required so it’s advisable to check the official website if you plan on attending this incredible event.