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 [Charles II de Valois] 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
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
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 [Senese] 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.