It has been noted—with good humor—that several of this summer’s World Cup matches have pitted the geographic areas of the Pre-Columbian world against those of the Byzantine. Colombia trounced Greece. Argentina defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mexico finished Croatia. But it was in neither the Byzantine nor the Pre-Columbian collection, but rather in a book from the Garden rare book collection that we come across Guiseppe Zocchi’s eighteenth-century engraving of Florentine calcio.
Zocchi worked under the patronage of Marchese Andrea Gerini, who oversaw his training and commissioned the Scelta di XXIV vedute delle principali contrade, piazze, chiese e palazzi della città di Firenze (first published in 1744, reissued in 1754). As with earlier works by Giovanni Battista Falda and Dominicus Barrière, such prints were purchased by visitors to Italy as a memento of their journey. Zocchi’s prints are noteworthy for the charming and human details that occur within the neighborhoods and piazzas of his title: dogs greet each other, men and women flirt. In the case of the illustrated game, individuals in the foreground climb over one another in an attempt to view the match.
And what of that match? “Calcio fiorentino,” or “calcio storico,” is one of the many predecessors of the game now known as football or—since Dumbarton Oaks is located in the United States—soccer. Calcio (also the modern Italian word for the game currently being played in Brazil) may trace its roots back to Roman harpastum and earlier Greek games, although these classical games seem to share few elements with the modern iteration besides the vying of teams for control of a ball. The Renaissance Italian version was documented by Giovanni de’ Bardi in 1580. Bardi’s handbook to the game was reprinted throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and it outlines the basics of the game: twenty-seven players per team, played between January and March, and the basic roles of different positions on the field (rushers, ball-keepers, interferers, strikers, and so on). It was typically a game for nobility and early editions of Bardi—as we see repeated in Zocchi—show the game being played in Florence’s Piazza di Santa Croce. Bardi defines the game as follows:
“Calcio is a public game, of two teams of young men, on foot and unarmed, who, in an affable manner and for the sake of honor, contend to pass an inflated ball from the posta (on one end of the middle-line) forward to the opposite goal. The field where it takes place should be a main square of a city so that the noble ladies and the people can better stand and see the game.”
The game might be played to celebrate a significant civic event, such as a coronation or the marriage of royalty. Players would don costumes of silk and gold. The conclusion of a match was marked with a feast. By the seventeenth century, commoners occasionally played as well, although not always successfully: a game on Carnival Sunday, 1679, had to be halted due to out-of-control crowds in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella. The “carnivalesque” aspect of the festival is on clear display in Zocchi’s engraving, where we see individuals in animal costumes, dwarves, and a decorated carriage pulled by two oxen (perhaps an example of the scoppio del carro). On the field of play we can see not only the teams but also their respective drummers, trumpeters, and standard-bearers. This eighteenth-century print documents “calcio fiorentino” at a period of waning interest, however, which coincided with the waning power of the Medici family in Florence.
D. Medina Lasansky documents a revival of interest in the sport in Fascist Italy. The regime used the Renaissance past to define a shared Italian culture, reinstating such festivals as calcio in Florence and the palio in Siena. Lando Ferretti, who oversaw propaganda under Mussolini, believed that such festivals hailed “the spiritual rebirth of a new era in which such initiatives have brought hidden treasures, traditions, and histories back to life.” These civic events taught people about history and united them in a shared Italian culture. This revival of the Renaissance version of “calcio fiorentino” survived the Fascists; games are still played annually in Florence. But interest in the modern version of calcio (a.k.a. football, a.k.a. soccer) far outstrips interest in the historical game!
Italy is no longer in contention for this summer’s World Cup, but some traditions are alive and well. They may not wear silk and gold livery, but the Italian team was surely among the best-dressed of the tournament.
Lasansky, D. Medina. The Renaissance perfected: architecture, spectacle, and tourism in fascist Italy. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.
Magoun, Francis P. “Il Gioco del Calcio Fiorentino.” Italica 19, no. 1 (1942): 1-21.
Magoun, Francis P. “The Long-Lost Instruzione del Modo del Giuocare il Calcio a I Giovani Nobili Fiorentini of 1739.” Italica 22, no. 1 (1945): 14-20.
Mommsen, Theodor E. “Football in Renaissance Florence.” The Yale University Library Gazette 16, no. 1 (1941): 14-19.