Imagine Florence during the Renaissance, but not in the full splendour that you see in the tourist guides. Imagine it in the bloody grip of its enemies. On the 17th of February 1520, the Florentines were suffering famine and pestilence, they were under the threat of excommunication from the Church, and under siege by the imperial troops of Charles V. As a gesture of defiance against the enemy, they proudly staged a gallant football game in Piazza Santa Croce. So as iron balls were being fired over the city ramparts, leather balls were being thrown around in the square to the animated shouts of most of the city’s population. Moreover, to be better seen and heard by the enemy encamped on the hills of Giramonte, Florentine musicians played resounding notes from the roof of the church. This historical event perfectly illustrates the competitive spirit of the city, as well as of its citizens’ passion for football.
As for the game, it has historical origins dating back, to the “arpasto,” which was carried out on sanded ground by the Roman legionaries during their free time. The only clear rules were that there were two teams; everything else revolved around contending possession of the ball. After many centuries a more structured set of rules was developed, fragmentarily passed on by historians such as Luca Landucci and Scipione Ammirato, who, among other things, memorably tell us that a game was played on the 10th of January 1491 on the frozen Arno between Ponte Vecchio and Ponte Santa Trinita’.,
At this stage, the game resembled a combination of soccer and rugby with a bit of wrestling thrown in. Teams had 27 players each, and they scored goals by throwing the ball into their opponents’ net, by any means necessary. Fights would often break out between groups of players, and the team captains were called on to pacify their team-mates. In the case of a genuine melee, the Master of the Field would intervene to restore order and prevent bloodshed. This game has become a Florentine tradition that remains to this day, albeit with substantially less actual bloodshed.
It is a wild, chaotic game which occasionally involved the presence of the ball, and which was mostly a show of strength between players intent on proving the supremacy of the Quartieri that they belonged to., Historically, Florence has 4 Quartieri, which take their name from the main church in their area. The Quartiere of Santo Spirito is represented by the colour white, and its standard shows a white dove on a blue field. Santa Croce, represented by the colour blue, has a standard showing a golden cross on a blue field. Santa Maria Novella, whose colour is red, bears a golden sun on a blue field on its standard, while San Giovanni, represented by the colour green, bears the Baptistery on a blue field.