I am standing under the beating sun in Plaza Santa Croce, Florence. In front of me, 54 Florentine men are doing battle in a pit of sand. Their bodies are covered with blood, sweat, and grime. The ball being passed around seems to be an afterthought as most of the players are engaged in brawls, throwing punches, and trying to immobilize the opposition.
I’m surrounded by hundreds of screaming Italians all dressed in blue. On the other side of the pitch, an equally riotous crowd decked out in white cheers on their side. I have no idea what the fans are cheering, what the announcer is saying, or what is going on in general.
How the hell did I end up here…
Moving on from Budapest, I took a Ryanair flight (hopefully my last for a while) to Rome, then took a three hour bus ride to Florence. The total cost of this was about half of what flying direct to Florence from Budapest would have been, though admittedly it was a long day in transit.
Why not just stay in Rome before moving on the Florence, you ask? Great question.
The answer is that St. John the Baptist Festival was going on in Florence that weekend, which sounded like a sweet time. Anyway, I would return to Rome directly following my stay in Florence (I’m writing in serious retrospective right now!).
My first day in Florence was spent touring the Piazza del Duomo and the surrounding landmarks.
While ascending the bell tower, or Campanile, several times I find myself caught behind slow climbers. Moving at an unhurried pace, in a narrow passageway, going round and round the circular staircase, is somewhat of a nightmare.
But the views make it all worth it.
Considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence was one of the most prosperous cities of the Medieval age. It became an important city of commerce and artistic expression as people from around the world came to trade and to marvel at Florence’s grand Gothic architecture. It is a city founded on cultural and economic diffusion. That said, they still carry a fierce devotion to tradition, which I would discover as the Festival unfolded.
I pay a visit to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which houses many relics of the Roman and Medieval eras. I also step inside the Baptistery which, together with the Duomo and bell tower, comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There is plenty to see in the areas around the Piazza Duomo. Grand, towering buildings are ubiquitous throughout Florence. There are also a great many statues. Some are in line with the Roman or Gothic styles, others not so much…
I stay in an awesome hostel for my weekend in Florence. Every night all the residents gather in a dining room and are served free pasta and sangria until our bellies are full. It is a fantastic way to get to know people, trade stories, and discuss what we did that day. The prospect of free food and drink attracts a certain younger, budgeting traveller, and those folks are often the most interesting.
There are several Americans staying there, plus some Aussies, Swiss, and Brits (who lament on the Brexit vote). Most everyone speaks English. Many are in pairs or are solo travelers like myself. The festival drew in what would be a most excellent crowd.
One evening a large group of us go to a popular pub, Jimmy’s, and spend a night drinking, dancing, and, of all things, playing beer pong.
The morning of the festival, I get an early start and make my way to the Baptistery, where many Florentines and tourists are gathered.
As mentioned the weekend’s festivities were honoring St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, who was apparently the “symbol of moral rectitude and political correctness” of which Florence was founded on. (I suppose Donald Trump wouldn’t have cared so much for St. John. We are, after all, “at war with political correctness”. Does this mean we’re at war with St. John, Mr. Trump?)
At the Baptistery, a small civic procession occurs featuring many rank-and-file politicians from the city, religious leaders, and others dressed in traditional wear.
Around 10:30 the Archbishop of Florence emerges from the Baptistery at the end of the procession. All the churchgoers then follow him into the Duomo to celebrate holy mass.
I then make for the Galleria Dell’a Academica to see Michelangelo’s Statue of David. It was an absurdly long line, but was worth it to see one of the most recognizable statues in the world.
Michelangelo was just 26 years old when he began working on David. It took him three years, finishing in 1504. It has remained in Florence ever since. David serves a symbol for heroic resistance and the protection of civil liberties, much like the story in the bible. Michelangelo’s deft hand and attention to detail when crafting the muscles, veins, and determined eyes, are what make the statue such a masterpiece.
Later on I take to the Piazza Santa Maria Novella to follow the grand parade that would march through the city. Gathered there are dozens of folks dressed in traditional attire, readying themselves for the march.
Hundreds of civilians and tourists begin to arrive as I do to follow the parade through the city. This is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years – I’m thrilled to be a part of the spectacle.
As the parade begins to take form, the athletes of the main event start to arrive. People clamor with excitement when their team or favorite players enter the Plaza. Security has to keep the more eager fans at bay. The players are all looking pretty fierce in their traditional wear, bulging muscles, and mean-mugs.
All four teams are gathered for the parade, each representing a “quartiere” of Florence. The teams are as follows:
- Santa Croce: Azzurri (Blues)
- Santa Maria Novella: Rossi (Reds)
- Santo Spirito: Bianchi (Whites)
- San Giovanni: Verdi (Greens)
Since Verdi and Rossi were eliminated during the semifinals a few weeks ago, the final match would be Azzurri vs. Bianchi.
Pretty soon the procession starts and makes its way through the plaza. The various foot soldiers line up and march together in perfect concert. Pikemen, Cavalry, Archers, Knights, Drummers, and more. It is a colorful display of the Italian military from a time long passed.
As the parade enters the winding, narrow, packed streets of Florence, I reroute to Plaza Santa Croce. When I arrive, zounds of fans are swarming the entrance to the makeshift stadium that has been erected in the plaza.
I had tried weeks ago to secure tickets to the Calcio Storico final match. In fact, after reading about this ridiculous sporting event, it was one of the main draws for traveling to Florence. Unfortunately they sold out online in a matter of minutes.
I had never scalped a ticket in my life. The thought was running through my head as I weave through groups of people dressed in blue and white. I turn a corner and see what is surely and illicit transaction going down between two men. The sketchy broker in front of me selling tickets could very well be ripping people off, selling them for huge markups, or giving out fraudulent tickets. I decide to take my chances.
I haggle with him and talk him down in price a bit. It is still higher than face value, but at this point I have no other options and am going to do everything I can to see this game. I am relieved when the attendee scans my ticket and lets me into the arena.
By default I am an Azzurri fan due to being seated on their side. I watch the parade make its way onto the field of sand that is laid out in front of me and hundreds of others (see top of this post). Once the players arrive, everyone goes absolutely nuts.
Thick clouds of blue smoke are released into the air, the blue faithful belt out cheers as their players run onto the field.
“Azzurri! Azzurri! Azzurri!”
My eyes are burning from the blue tinted smog. My ears are ringing. I’m barely clinging to enough space on the bleachers to put my two feet. Sweaty bodies keep bumping into me.
It hardly matters; my adrenaline is sky high. The announcer belts out what could only mean a signal to the start of the game. Everyone cheers again as the players get in formation. Of the 27 men on each side, about 15 start the game right at half field, with the others standing in other tactical spots behind them.
The referee blows a whistle and throws the ball into the air. All hell breaks loose.
None of the frontline players go for the ball. They immediately take on a player from the other team and being grabbing them, throwing gut punches, trying to take their opponent to the ground. Bianchi wins the ball and begins passing it around leisurely through their back line as the brawl unfolds at midfield.
The rules of Calcio Storico, or Calcio Fiorentino, are to score the most goals, or caccia, in 50 minutes. The ball can be passed forward and backward. Players can use whatever means necessary to immobilize their opponents; only are sucker punches to the head expressly forbidden. Moreover, 1 v 1 is the only way to engage another player. Several players cannot gang up on one man.
That’s pretty much it. I am incredulous at the violence on display as the action gets going. And yet I’m loving it. Elbows, kicks, punches, hacking, tackling, wrestling. The sand is whipped up into the air as players scuffle and others move around them to advance the ball. It’s not long before I see some players bloodied up. But that’s not enough to slow them down.
The goals span the entire short length of a field and the teams switch sides after every goal is scored. Bianchi gets out ahead in the early going, mounting a two goal lead and holding it for a while. I learn that it is best to dunk the ball in the goal, because if you attempt to throw it and it hits the back net, the opposing side is awarded half a goal.
I notice the medical crew dressed in yellow walking around the sides of the field (you can see them in the pics above). Occasionally they come out to check on a player who looks a bit wobbly or is just lying on the field. One of the Azzurri linesman gets taken off. Bloodied up, exhausted, and likely concussed, he looks like a zombie from Walking Dead.
It is a whirlwind of action and a spectacle unlike anything I have ever seen. When Azzurri begins scoring a few goals and mounting a comeback, the fans around me cheer and jump up and down, rocking the bleachers. Before they can pull ahead however, the final whistle sounds and the game is over. Bianchi wins by the slimmest of margins, 6.5 – 6.
I return to the hostel and regale some of the other residents with what I had just seen over dinner. The rugby-crazed Aussies are upset they missed it. Definitely would have been fun to share the experience with some of the hostel folk, though being entrenched completely with Italians for the event is something I will surely never forget.
I meet Lilly, an American working as an Au-Pair in Torino who is there for the weekend. We decide to go check out the fireworks on the Arno river, the final event of the Festival.
While sitting on the bridge enjoying the colorful pyrotechnics, we meet three friendly, young dutch people. Joey, Charly, and Luca are all studying and/or working in Florence. They offer us wine and cheese which we happily accept.
I tell them I went to the game today, they are thrilled to hear that Bianchi won because they live in the Santo Spirito district. They beckon Lilly and I to come with them across the river to their area because it was sure to be packed with partiers.
I feel like I’m betraying Azzurri, whom I had cheered on so fanatically just hours before. But I can’t resist a victory party. The main plaza across the bridge in Santo Spirito is indeed teeming with people mostly dressed in white. As we sip our beers outside, Joey brings out his guitar and begins to play and sing (Wonderwall, predictably, but I wasn’t complaining, twas good vibes). I hear the same cheer I had heard many times from across the stadium at the game.
“Bi-An -Chi! Bi -An -Chi!”
Partying with the winners turned out to be a good move.
Rivalries aside, clearly the Florentines are united in their intense devotion to tradition. Calcio Storico is, by all accounts, a brutal and archaic sport. I can’t begin to imagine a competition like that flying in the states (American football isn’t too far off actually…though they do wear pads I suppose…).
But then, the US does not have the deep and enchanting old-world history that countries like Italy have. I appreciate their spirit and passion for keeping these institutions in place from generation to generation; critics of the violence be damned.
I’ve been blessed to immerse myself in many cultures these past few months; as far as being a part of a unique and electrifying tradition, Calcio Storico and the entire festival were altogether an experience right there at the top.