One of the traditions of Florence that I have heard about many times, and never gotten to observe, is the historic soccer (“calcio storico”) games that are played in the summer, with four local teams of young men playing off to the final game on the Festa di San Giovanni, St. John the Baptist’s name day. He is the patron saint of Florence, and all the markets are closed for the day, the fireworks light up the sky after dark over the Arno River, and the final game of the soccer tournament is played in the piazza of the Santa Croce church (the play-off games are there also, the previous weekend). This church contains the tombs for Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and Marconi, among others, and is one of the most important landmarks in Florence. For the two weeks of play-offs leading to the final match, the piazza is ringed with bleachers, dirt is trucked in to cover the cobblestone surface, and the tickets for seats become the most difficult and elusive purchase in town.
I got a call from my landlord, Paolo Caselli, asking me if I were planning on attending the game, and I told him that I was going to be leaving for London, and would miss the date. When he told me it was to be played 24 June, for the Festa di San Giovanni, I realized that would be the day before I flew to London, and I set out to find a ticket to the final match. For nearly a week, being given directions and information over and over, I didn’t find the box office near the train station. I kept asking around, I was sent to talk to many people who were involved in the event, and finally I found the box office and secured a general admission ticket, in the section facing the front of church.
I left hours early, but all of the attendees were held back at gates until 4:15 p.m., when we were allowed to go and find a seat. I had planned to get to the top row of the bleachers, shooting down over the fence surrounding the playing field, but then there were seats open just above the entrances, with stairs beneath my feet but where no one could stand in front of me.
Turns out that was a good choice, despite the fact that the fence from the arena would be in every shot—most of the game the crowd was on its feet, cheering or jeering or even breaking out in a few fights. I had a wonderful set of twins from Stuttgart, both speaking clear English, and I got to tell them some of the history, and that there would be more activities for the San Giovanni holiday after the game. We all got situated and got our cameras ready, and the festivities began at 5:30 (that’s “5:30, Italian time”—when they were good and ready to get started, it was close to 6).
I have seen many special events here, including the “Explosion of the Cart” (Scoppio del Carro) on Easter Sunday, some parades for Carnevale, and small holiday processions, so I began to recognize some of the “players” as they paraded into the stadium. Some of them are in previous photos of mine, and I am beginning to recognize specific faces, but this parade was the biggest, most elaborate, and with the most people involved, all in costume. In came the flag tossers, at the run with their flags held overhead, all with the lily symbol of Florence on their flags.
They set up for a demonstration, following the drumbeats of the drummers who preceded them into the ring, and tossing the flags high into the air, catching them as they came back to the ground without a single one dropped. These men are the “first string” team, and not the younger boys we saw practicing in the fall in the piazza near the Mercato Centrale.
They lined up at the reviewing stand, where dignitaries in medieval velvet costumes stood to greet them, dipped their flags in tribute to the “royals” and then brought the flags back up over their backs.
As more and more groups in costume paraded into the arena, to the slow drumbeats of the many drum corps, the two teams—red and blue—joined them, the teams who were battling for the victory this year. The blue team was the clear crowd favorite from the start, with booing and catcalls for the red team, who appeared last in the arena. All were young men, under 30 is my guess, and dressed in balloon pants and a light t-shirt, which was quickly peeled off and left on the dirt before the game began. I noticed that the pants were all taped around the middle, many with our ubiquitous “duct tape,” to keep the pants from joining the shirts on the dirt during the game—a good idea, I think, after watching some of the play in the game later.
For nearly an hour, more and more groups of soldiers and drummers and musicians and horsemen and crossbow archers arrived, filling the arena. One group brought a cannon along, which was used to signal a successful score each time a team got the ball into the goal, so it was getting a lot of use all evening. It was over 90 degrees, in direct sunlight with a thunderstorm threatening, and those costumes must have been very hot to wear. I did notice a couple of “inauthentic” costumes with regular athletic shoes, but I suppose those handmade leather ones must require an investment, and some were not prepared to go that far for their costumes. Eventually, the piazza was filled with costumed men; they all saluted the royals together, and then marched out so that the game could begin.
The officials threw the soccer ball up in to the air, and the runners fought for the ball and carried it in their arms or rarely kicked it on the ground. The field is ringed with a red foam wall, and points are scored by getting the ball over the wall on the ends of the field, changing sides after each goal is scored.
After that, I could not see any other rules—punching, kicking, tripping, and full body tackles were plentiful, and players were wresting with the opponents’ defenders, keeping them out of play by sitting on them, pinning them to the ground. The biggest team on the field was the yellow team—the ambulance and emergency personnel. When an injury occurred, the play continued while the player was examined or removed on a stretcher for more medical care. I would not be surprised at broken bones and lost teeth, with the intense play from the start of the game.
In the heat, and as the play went on, some of the pairs of men being held down to keep them out of play began to relax, and just hold on to each other loosely. The aggressive wrestling gave way to just holding an arm around, or standing side-by-side. Most of the shirts were long gone, and the ones that remained were only torn, stretched and soaking wet.
During the game, some of the costumed men in the opening ceremonies appeared in the grandstand, and I caught one with a little anachronism—talking on his cell phone in his medieval costume.
There were many opportunities to catch men in costume holding babies for their wives, and catching part of the game until it was time to report for the closing ceremonies, where they paraded in once again.
The game was VERY one-sided, with the red team scoring 14 goals (and cannon shots after each score) to the 3½ score of the other team. (I have no idea how half a goal is scored, partly because so many people were standing that I really didn’t get to see what happened.) When the whistle signaling the end of the game was blown three times, the red team assembled for their victory photos right in front of us.
The rest of the costumed troupes marched back into the stadium for the closing ceremony, and all saluted the officials with a low bow of their heads, including the team members, now universally shirtless. The flagmen waved their flags to the crowd, and then the game and festivities were over for this year.
If Paolo hadn’t pointed out the date of the game, so that I realized I would be in Florence that day, I would have missed this opportunity and felt like I had really made a mistake. I think once seeing the game was enough for me, although I was offered a press pass and that would have put me down onto the area and in the preparation area for the costumed troupes, but I enjoyed getting to see it as a spectator for the first time, with my German friends nearby. I spent the entire game thinking how much my son, Steve, would love playing this game with no rules, and how often my heart would be in my throat when he was violently tackled without any pads, helmet or protection of any kind. I think there may have been a cast or two sported by players the following day, from injuries sustained at the game. Still, I think Steve would have loved to try this one out—young men, testosterone, a cheering crowd and a soccer ball. Speed, strength, fearlessness and teamwork—it was wonderful to watch, once.
I walked to the river for the fireworks that night, at 10 p.m., and then back to finish my packing for my London trip the following morning. I was really happy to have had the chance to see the game and understand how it is played, and bring a little of that to you via photos and story.
Ti voglio bene!
The Old Broad Abroad