Before football came to be formally organised and codified by the English in the middle of the eighteenth century, various ball games involving the use of the feet had developed in regional pockets around Europe. In Italy a multitude of localised games arose during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, one of the most notable being Calcio Fiorentino.
Originating, as the name would suggest, in the Tuscan city of Florence, this brutally physical game enjoyed the height of its popularity during the renaissance. With the official rules being published in 1580, the aim of Calcio Fiorentino was to score points (“cacce”) by throwing the ball over a clearly designated spot on the perimeter of the field of play, teams 27-strong facing each other in games which permitted the use of both hands and feet.
Originally the preserve of the elite of Florentine society, games of Calcio were played in public squares in the middle of the city with it being traditional for members of the Catholic Church (including the Pope) to play on the days between Epiphany and Lent. It was hardly a proletarian game, but this rather ragged, untidy sport clearly captured the imagination of renaissance Florence and became an integral part of the athletic zeitgeist of the time.
Despite its evident popularity, Calcio Fiorentino seemed to fade into obscurity during the eighteenth century, the game lying dormant until it was revived by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s. ‘Il Duce‘, intent on stirring up a nationalistic nostalgia for the days of both the renaissance and Roman empire, actively encouraged the playing of Calcio as a way for citizens to engage with the more emasculated traditions of Italian history.
Not only did Mussolini reintroduce the game into Italian culture, he also came to identify it as the major forerunner to modern football, exaggerating Calcio’s significance to football’s developmental narrative in the process. Games were ordered to be organised in Florence’s exclusive Piazza della Signoria and the rules altered to be more accepting of generalised physical violence.
While Calcio Fiorentino may have leant half of its name to the contemporary Italian word for football, the archaic sport has otherwise exerted little or no influence on the modern game. With its reputation hugely inflated by the Fascist re-writing of history, the Tuscan game has taken on a relevance that it does not entirely deserve.
That said, this traditional Italian game does provide a window into the days of pre-codified football and a fascinating insight into the rudimentary public games which pre-dated the widespread formalisation of sport in Europe. Football may not be a direct descendant of Calcio Fiorentino, but nor are they wholly unrelated either.