The Calcio Storico Fiorentino is a combination of soccer, rugby and big time wrestling that originated in 16th century Florence and is played today in historical costume in Florence, the city in which Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, is set.
The sport may have started as a revival of the Roman sport called harpastum, which was most likely played by two even-numbered teams on the sandy ground using a large ball stuffed with rags or leather, and the objective of which was to get the ball into the opponent’s side of the field, by any means necessary.
It involved continuous body to body and head to head contact for the possession of the ball and was very popular among soldiers who spread it throughout various regions of the Roman Empire. It could have been played as early as 59 A.D., when Fiorenza (historic Florence) was founded by retired soldiers and their families.
Calcio was originally only played by members of the higher social classes and took place every night between Epiphany and Lent.
This game was probably already being played in the 15th century, as evidenced by the fact that certain matches occurred on a completely frozen-over Arno river in 1490.
The official rules of the Calcio Storico were first published in 1580 by Giovanni de’ Bardi, a Florentine count.
The game today
The four teams of the historical neighborhoods of the city play against each other, first in two semi-finals, then in a final match to determine the winner.
The four teams are: Santa Croce (blue), Santo Spirito (white), Santa Maria Novella (red), and San Giovanni (green).
Piazza Santa Croce has always been the home of this game and is known as “giuoco del calcio fiorentino,” or simply as Calcio (which means “kick” in Italian).
The square field is covered in dirt to “return” to those times when it was just a dirt square (today it is covered in stone) and to recreate the setting. Naturally, today’s bleacher are set up in such as way as to allow spectators to better enjoy the game.
The two semifinals are played over a weekend in June.
The final match is always played on June 24 (5 p.m.) in grand style on Florence’s feast day for its patron saint, St. John the Baptist. On this day, a splendid parade in historical costume starts in Piazza Santa Maria Novella and passes through the city center on its way to Piazza Santa Croce.
The winning team used to receive a Chianina, a type of cow. However, the prize has been reduced to a free dinner for the winning team; the players earn no other form of compensation.
Matches last 50 minutes and are played on a field that is covered in sand and twice as long as it is wide (approximately 80 x 40 meters ). A white line divides the field into two identical squares, and a goal net runs the width of each end.
Each team has 27 players, and no substitutions are allowed for injured or expelled players. The teams are made up of four Datori indietro (goalkeepers), 3 Datori innanzi (fullbacks), 5 Sconciatori (halfbacks), and 15 Innanzi o Corridori (forwards).
The Captain and Standard Bearer’s tent sits at the center of the goal net. They do not actively participate in the game, but can organize their teams and sometimes act as referees, mainly to calm their players down or to stop fights.
The Referee and his six linesmen officiate the match in collaboration with the Judge Commissioner, who remains off the field. The referee, above everyone else, is the Master of the Field. He makes sure that the games runs smoothly, stepping into the field only to maintain discipline and reestablish order in case of a fight on the field.
The game starts when the Pallaio throws the ball towards the center line, followed by the firing of a small cannon, which signals the beginning of the contest.
From this moment, the players try by any means necessary to get the ball into the opponents’ goal, also called caccia.
The teams change sides with every caccia scored. It’s important to shoot with precision, because every time a player throws the ball above the net, the opposing team is awarded half a caccia.
The game ends after 50 minutes, and the team that scored the most cacce wins.
The modern version of calcio allows tactics such as head-butting, punching, elbowing, and choking, but sucker punches and kicks to the head are banned.