At the visceral sound of a small cannon, the sound ricocheting off of Florence’s ancient structures, 27 players rush forward into the lurid brawl which is the sport of Florentine Football. Imagine a strange combination of handball, rugby, and hand-to-hand combat, in a sandy gladiator cage 80x40m, surrounded by jeering fans. This is the revived version of the 16th century Italian sport, calcio, which itself may be a revival of the antique Roman sport of harpastum.
In the Renaissance era, the brutal sport was limited to the most elite. Rich aristocrats played before Lent, and even Popes (Leo XI, Urban VIII) entered the game in the Vatican. The game was accompanied with classic Renaissance-carnival festivities. Trumpeteers, horse riding, feasting, balloon-like pants &c. It was a grand affair of spectators, rivalries, and strategy.
Today, the sport is played with much of the same style. The players march through nearby streets amid the ambiance of a Renaissance fair. Men dressed in uniform march up and down the cobbled streets with large flags and horns. Fans fill the area, vocally accosting the heavily tattooed opposing team. All file into the sand pit stadium. At this point, the arena begins to appear more as a German soccer stadium than as a delicate Florentine carnival (complete with dozens of women in bodices, doing traditional dances). Colorful powder flairs are erumpent with pastel, the two teams colors now filling the air with a haze. It is at this point that the trumpeters gush in and march complexly, followed by elaborate WWE-style introductions of the two teams. The players line up and stare each other down, some praying, and then quickly rush back to their sides or launch themselves at their opponents to begin punching.
The game is played in the strangest way. Henry III of France remarked after watching that the game is “Too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.” The players are delineated into positions, as in soccer, and maintain different functions. There are goalkeepers, fullbacks, halfbacks, forwards, and a captain. The captain actually has a tent in the middle of the net on his side of the pit. The captain’s job is essentially to calm down his players during fights, as well as strategize runs. The biggest rule of a game with no rules is that a player cannot leave the arena or sub out, even if injured. It is for this reason that the players are generally outnumbered by the fluorescent green shirts of EMTs. After the cannon shot, the players are lined up at the midline, and begin an elaborate waltz of boxing designed to tire and slowly incapacitate the opponent. The scene appears like a great group dance of bouncing, shirtless men. They lunge at each other, and every little boxing match yields blood and great cheers from the stands. Each player is matched up, and as soon as one team has knocked out enough players, the ball can be grabbed out of the sand and rushed by any means possible to the opponent’s net. The game lasts fifty minutes, and at its completion the sand is spattered with blood and littered with the spent shells of large, bald, very large, and luridly tattooed Italian fighters. The winning team earns the finest lamb in Florence.