Florentine football under siege

The Medici Archives

Stefano DallAglio
October 30, 2008

In the very last day of the year 1544, Bernardo de' Medici, Medicean ambassador to France, wrote a letter to Duke Cosimo I de' Medici about a very special football match played at the French court in Fontainebleau: Yesterday, the most illustrious Dauphin, with thirty Frenchmen played football match against the Duke of Orléans and thirty Italians. The Dauphiness and Margaret, daughter of the King, where present to watch the match, rooting for the Frenchmen and the Italians, respectively. Since the Italians were losing, the Dauphin switched teams and made the every effort in order to score the very last goal.



This letter, part of the vast corpus of correspondence of the Medici grand dukes (Mediceo del Principato) housed at the Archivio di Stato in Florence, is just one of many documents describing the calcio fiorentino in the sixteenth century.


In this case, however, both the players and the spectators are slightly more glamorous than the usual lot. Three years after this letter was written, the dauphin, son of the Francis I, became Henry II, king of France. The dauphiness, then 25 years old, was none other than Catherine de' Medici, wife of Henry II and future queen of France. Catherine was also the cousin of Cosimo I and great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the most prominent figure in Florence during the second half of the fifteenth century. After the death of her husband, Catherine was queen regent of the French crown for many years and played a leading role in the government and cultural affairs of the country. The other lady watching the match at the Fontainebleau castle was the 21-year-old Margaret of France, duchess of Berry. It is worth noting that she was supporting the Italian team, while the Italian Catherine was supporting the French.


During the sixteenth century, France had a large Italian community, mostly Florentines. A number of them were noblemen who enjoyed important positions at the French court. It is not so surprising, then, that the craze for Florentine football caught on within the close entourage of the king and that a match was played on the premises of the royal castle.


Although the eternal football rivalry between Italy and France, recently revived in the last World Cup final, has roots deep in history, calcio fiorentino was quite different from modern-day football.


Originating in the Middle Ages, calcio fiorentino was played by men between the ages of 18 and 45, mainly noblemen, grouped in teams of about 27 players, called calcianti (kickers). Each match lasted 50 minutes, and the goal was to thrust the ball against the net at the end of the opposite field, scoring a point called caccia. Players used both feet and hands. In Florence, the typical prize for the winners was a chianina calf, but the larger prize was social achievement and self-celebration.


As with matches in many sports over the centuries, sometimes a game took on a more important meaning, with more at stake than the prize or personal glory. This was the case of the famous match played in Florence in February 17, 1530, when the town was under siege-circumstances very different from those of the luxurious courtly match played in Fontainebleau in 1544.


Florence was governed by the Republicans after the expulsion of the Medici, and the troops of the powerful emperor Charles V were trying to regain control on behalf of the Medicean pope Clement VII. The Florentines were starving and exhausted but wanted, at the same time, to show the enemy that they were very far from surrendering. The game, with its purpose to taunt the army besieging Florence, was held in Piazza di Santa Croce, clearly visible from the hills surrounding the town.


The Imperial Army was so annoyed that a cannonball was fired towards the square (no one was harmed). Although the enthusiasm derived from the game was only a momentary respite-in August 1530, the Florentines capitulated-the match left such a mark on Florentines and is so integral to the Florentine Republican tradition that the event is celebrated every year with a match played in the same square with the same teams and flags.


Indeed, we learn from a new document in the Medici Archives that the symbolic power of the football game played under siege was duly noted by other rival powers. When the Florentine army besieged Siena 25 years later, the townspeople, wanting to flaunt their psychological stamina, used the same ploy. On January 18, 1555 Bartolomeo Concini, Cosimo's secretary and Medicean envoy to Siena, writing from the Florentine camp outside Siena, informed the duke that ...on the last Sunday they played a football match in the main square. Like the Florentines before them, exhausted and outnumbered, the Sienese surrendered just a few months later.


That football was played as a gesture of defiance against near-certain defeat attests to its deep popularity. The Republican autonomy the Florentines sought to preserve came to an end and independence was never restored. But calcio fiorentino lived on.



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