No one knows exactly when "Calcio Storico" - historic football – also informally known as Gladiator Football for it’s bone crunching characteristics was first played here, but its pitch, the piazza of Santa Croce, dates from the 14th Century and the rules of the game - in so far as there are any - were written down in the late 1500s. The game was originally played by aristocrats, even on occasion, by the reigning Pope. Its inherent violence was borne of the violent times. Family rivalries in medieval Florence (home of the infamous Medicis) would often explode into chaos.
Today the four quarters of the city - Santa Spiritu (Bianchi), San Giovanni (Verdi), Santa Maria Novella (Rossi) and Santa Croce Azzuri), named for their great local churches - each put up a team of 27 men to slug it out over two heats and a final. The aim is for players to get the ball over the 4ft (1.2m) fence at either end of the pitch over a 50 minute game to make a goal. To achieve this, players can use both hands and feet, as well as every other part of the body when it comes to wrestling, punching and generally immobilizing their opponents on the way. In other words - sport as muted warfare; dignity and respect are somehow retained.
A 15th Century Florentine would still recognize much of the event. Each game is preceded by trumpet fanfares and marching drums as costumed dignitaries and flag-throwers in the rich hot renaissance colours of their teams march from their various quarters to the piazza. The only concession to modernity - the players' coloured t-shirts with sponsors' logos - are off within minutes of getting onto the pitch, so that all one can see is naked upper torsos, caked with sand and sweat, hurling themselves at each other, as the crowd roars its approval and each goal, or caccia, is greeted by cannon fire. The teams are made up of four Datori indietro (goalkeepers), 3 Datori innanzi (fullbacks), 5 Sconciatori (halfbacks), 15 Innanzi o Corridori (forwards). The Referee and his six linesmen referee the match, in collaboration with the Judge Commissioner, who remains off the field.
“The most important component of the Calcio Storico is the fear. Those who say they don’t feel fear are telling lies,” says Alessio Giorgerini, 38, a player of the Santa Croce Azzurri (blue) team. “Fear is the engine that drives us. When you walk into the arena and the cage is closed, the fear becomes a pleasurable sensation. All my unnecessary senses are suppressed, and the necessary ones are intensified with an sole aim; to survive 50 minutes against 27 men that want to kill me in the arena.”
The winner of the tournament receives a prized cow, though the 2014 tournament’s final was uncharacteristically cancelled due to a dispute between Florence’s Mayor’s office and the organizing committee of the Calcio due to certain rules being broken.
This project was commissioned by Adam Scholes Creative Director of JWT / London for Come and See Canon Campaign 2014.