Once a year, the genteel streets of Florence take a surprisingly violent turn. The beating of drums fills the air. A historical parade with medieval costumed figures leads the way to Piazza Santa Croce, which has been transformed into a sandy field surrounded by stands of cheering crowds. Splendid flag throwing and bands are just the beginning of the day’s events, because now it is time for the Calcio Storico game to begin. This is Florence like you’ve never seen it.
While there is no simple description of Calcio Storico, also called Calcio Fiorentino, the game is an early form of football—although more like rugby—if you add in bare-knuckle boxing and remove very nearly all the rules. In 1574, Henry III, King of France, described the game as “Too small to be a war, too cruel to be a game.” In all the centuries since, no one has come up with a better description of Calcio Storico. Nowaways, every June 24th on the festival of Florence’s patron San Giovanni Battista, the players—often called “modern day gladiators”—take the field to quite literally fight for the honor and traditions of the city they love.
A Powerful History
How did such an intense game become one of the most-loved symbols of Florence? If you’ve seen Giorgio Vasari’s grand fresco of the Siege of Florence in 1530 at the Palazzo Vecchio, or have delved even a little bit into Florence’s past, you’ll know this small city has an epic history – of wars and struggle and rebellion. The roots of the Calcio Storico are thought to go back about 2,000 years to when the city of Florentia was founded by Julius Caesar in 59 BC as a settlement for veteran soldiers in the style of an army camp. Yet to understand Calcio Storico today, the story begins just about 500 years ago.
The warlike elements of Calcio Storico are tied to a very specific date in the 16th century: February 17, 1530. These were the dark days of the Siege of Florence from 1529-1530 when the city was under attack from the Imperial and Spanish armies fighting to overthrow the Republic of Florence and return the Medici as rulers of the city. These violent games in Piazza Santa Croce were the city’s way to flaunt their strength to the Imperial army – and since then the game has captured the fighting spirit of the city. The Florentines are fiercely proud of their history, which is channeled into the epic Calcio Storico games each year.
While not very well known to many travelers, locals are passionate about Calcio Storico in Florence. Interest in the game is spreading and Home Game, a Netflix series about unique sports around the world, even dedicated its first episode to Calcio Storico. If you have a chance to watch, they did an excellent job telling the tale of the city’s connection to this historic game.
How to Play Calcio Storico
While it’s unlikely you’ll want to recreate the Calcio Storico in your backyard, the game does have its own set of curious rules. There are four teams in Florence and players can only play for the district they were born in – forever. Each team is associated with a district of Florence and has a color: Rossi (red) is Santa Maria Novella, Bianchi (white) is Santo Spirito, Azzurri (blue) is Santa Croce and Verdi (green) is San Giovanni.
Under the heat of the Tuscan sun, the players arrive in Piazza Santa Croce—often bare chested—wearing pants that look like they’ve come straight out of a Renaissance painting. These historic costumes are why the game is also called calcio in costume. Each team has 27 players who take to the sandy playing field with one goal in mind. This is to get the ball in the goal net, which is the length of the two short sides of the rectangular field. Goals are worth 1 point, but with a catch. If you try for a goal and miss, the other team gets half of a point. After 50 minutes, the team with the most goals wins. Sounds straightforward, right?
Well, this is where things get dicey.
After the toss up, the battle begins. 15 players on each team go on the attack in the middle of the field to clear a path to the goal while the remaining team members focus on getting the ball to the goal. But this is no blocking and tackling like in American football. This is full on bare-knuckle boxing and fighting—without any of that heavy football padding—to make a pathway to the goal. There are very few rules for how players can be taken down and you’ll see fights break out all over the field as players turn into attack mode. And here’s why. Once a player is tackled or sent to the ground, that player can’t get up until a point is scored.
Because of the intensity, Calcio Storico is played only once per year. There are two semifinals a little over a week before the final game on June 24th. When the day of the final game arrives, a historic parade that includes colorful historical costumes, bands and flag throwing leads up to the big event. The stands around the field are full of supporters dressed in the two colors to support their teams in the final game.
What’s the grand prize? You could take a lot of guesses but you probably wouldn’t be right. That’s because the prize is a cow. This also dates back to the 1530 games when a cow was a great prize, especially in a city under siege. Today the cow is just paraded through town. (In case you were wondering exactly why a cow is in the parade.) Besides the unexpected history, what’s fascinating is that the players don’t receive any sort of compensation for participating – even at great personal risk. Well, definite personal risk. They train all year and their participation is entirely voluntary. They play for the love of Florence – its history, its glory, its traditions. The teams have a strong bond and they go into each game with a battle spirit to fight for their city.
It’s aggressive. It’s intense. And, yes, violent. But you’ll never see anything more powerfully traditional than Calcio Storico.
The Best View of the Calcio Storico
Curious to experience Calcio Storico in person? It’s a thrilling experience – especially if you have a great view. That’s the catch though. Being such a beloved Florentine tradition, tickets are very hard to come by. That’s where Italy Perfect can get you some of the best seats in the house. Book one of our beautiful properties overlooking Piazza Santa Croce and you’ll enjoy a front row view without the crowds. Our S Croce Miravista apartment has a gorgeous terrace where you can enjoy the most spectacular bird’s-eye view of the games. The charming S Croce Mimi also has a terrace with picture perfect views. There are several more properties in this historic palazzo directly on Piazza Santa Croce—or just nearby—that have incredible views for watching the Calcio Storico in a comfortable home setting.
While the final game is on June 24th, the semifinals are also thrilling to watch. The actual dates aren’t known very far in advance, but if you reserve one of our vacation rentals overlooking Piazza Santa Croce for a week a bit earlier in June, the possibility is good you’ll get to see one of those matches. And for the final match, guests staying in any our apartments in this historic palazzo—even the ones that don’t have a view of the piazza—may watch from the piazza-facing windows of the office. A great opportunity! Just picture yourself taking in the experience from the elegant S Croce Medici apartment!
Above all, planning well in advance is key for finding availability during the Calcio Storico since it’s one of Florence’s top events of the year. Booking is now open for the Calcio Storico 2023 dates, but they go fast! However, we have the rare chance for you to experience this year’s Calcio Storico with a stay at the S Croce Miravista. This 2-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom apartment has availability the week of Calcio Storico this year – and the experience could be yours! Contact our team to score this incredible Calcio Storico stay in Florence.