See the Violent Italian Sport that Inspired Modern Football

Despite horrific injuries, Florence’s neighborhoods still compete for glory in calcio storico every summer.

Even though you’ve probably never heard of calcio storico, the chances are nearly 100 percent that you’ve played some version of it. The Italian sport created during the Italian Renaissance is the original goal game, where two teams fight on a field to defend their side and invade their opponent’s goal. Soccer, hockey, lacrosse, rugby, and American football are all iterations on the same theme.

Players interlocked in combat during the 2017 calcio storico
Players interlocked in combat during the 2017 calcio storico
Photograph by Clara Vannucci, Institute

With calcio storico, however, the fighting is real. And not a byproduct of the game, as with hockey or football, but the main sport itself. “It’s why people come,” says Carla Vannucci, an Italian photographer who grew up watching matches, and then, about three years ago, decided to photograph them.

Under the rules, two teams of 27 players each start the game on different sides of a rectangular field. A ball is placed in the middle. For 50 minutes, the men with bulging muscles do whatever it takes to get the ball into the opposing team’s net. Participation was once limited to native-born residents of Florence, but officials now allow each team two outside ringers. The points matter, but the crowd’s attention tends to fixate on the hand-to-hand combat. At one of the matches in June, one of the neighborhood teams recruited a professional mixed martial artist (MMA) athlete from the U.K. The man fought until he was covered in blood, wobbling woozy on the field as though about to faint, and then found a new opponent for more battle.

Men routinely leave the field with bloody faces and broken limbs, sometimes with bones protruding from their skin. And for what? Not the prize, which is traditionally a cow, a little money, and a painted piece of fabric called a palio, a bit like a flag. As with most sports, the most valuable currency is the glory. One can’t put a price on being a neighborhood legend for a year.

Is calcio storico is an influential sport that helped create many modern sports or, instead, a barbaric footnote phased out in place of gentler sensibilities? The answer is probably both. But the better question might be why Italians love such a bloody sport played so publicly, often in Florence’s central Piazza Santa Croce. There’s immense cultural pride in the game’s history. And besides, says Vannucci, “It’s a way to set free everyone’s animalesque side—the public’s and the players’.” Violent fighting normally considered a crime becomes, on one day, something the mayor shows up to cheer.

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