Introduction by the photographer
My interest in Calcio Storico Fiorentino is not in violence. Nor is it in athleticism. It is solely in the eyes of the men before the arena, before the start, the first blow. These are not the eyes of professional athletes, but of tobacco clerks, mechanics, baristas and Michelin-starred chefs.
I see fear, doubt, commitment, prayer and most of all love. I cannot tell you what all these men see, but I can say the champions see themselves and the amateurs see their opponent. All see their teammates, families and neighbourhoods.
For this project I took five trips to Florence across six months of extensive interviews, training sessions and photography following the Rossi team, none of which would be possible without friend, scholar and Florentine Giuseppe Maitino, who had introduced me to Calcio Storico Fiorentino and its Calcianti fighters. Between his introduction below and my images we hope to make the human themes of a little-known Florentine tradition universal.
Henry III of France described Calcio Storico as “too small to be real war, too cruel to be a game”.
Four colours, four churches, four teams, 27 players (calcianti) per team, 50 minutes without pause, an arena set under Santa Croce Basilica. Forty degrees, 360 days of physical and psychological training, broken bones, broken noses, brain traumas, insults, jubilation, comas, death, glory. Two semi-finals, with the final held on 24 June, Saint John, patron of Florence’s day, pray for us.
The game rules are simple: two teams occupy halves of the sandy arena. Each team tries to penetrate the opponent’s half, aiming to toss the ball into the net goal running all along the width of the shorter side of the rectangle. Only one-to-one fights, no sucker punches (officially), everything else is allowed. MMA, wrestling, boxing, choking, eye gouging, sumo, karate, rugby, football, scoring by any means necessary.
If the ball ends in the net, the team scores one caccia, if the ball misses the net, then the opponent team receives half a caccia. Who scores the most cacce wins. Tactics and strategies based on tackle and penetration usually disappear after five, at best 10 minutes. When oxygen stops organising thoughts and adrenaline takes over, then it becomes about nerves, concentration, scope of sight and communication with your teammates.
Although once a noble game played by popes and lords, today’s players are heterogeneous, from ex (or future) prisoners to architects, labourers, traders, thieves and bodyguards. Their biography is their performance in the arena. Their integrity and their audacity are proven with fists addressed to their 50-minute rivals.
An old Calcinate from the Azzurri team said to me: “If someone punches me, pray to God that he’ll knock me out for good because you don’t want me to get up again.” Two young men had punched him to the ground at a party; he got up then too, throwing them off the Ponte alla Vittoria bridge, for which he served 12 years.
At a previous match I met a younger man I knew, a former student. “Why?” I asked him, dumbfounded. “For my neighbourhood,” he replied. “What does it mean exactly? Would it better it in any way?” I insisted insolently. “Girls,” was his second and probably more sincere reply. “Calcianti are always surrounded by hot girls, mate.”
I saw him before the match, torn red shirt unveiling his entirely tattooed body, taut like Michelangelo’s prisoners, mild eyes, stooping to hug his little child and whispering to him that it was only a game. I understood in that moment part of the Greek idea of moral and physical perfection. It wasn’t about perfection. It was about limits and love.
That man was using part of his body to make up for his moral limit, his fear.
He was using the only muscles he wouldn’t have used in the following fight to reassure his little boy. The muscles of his smile. His beautiful wife was enveloping both her men like the Bandini Pietà a few blocks away. “We’re family,” was his last answer.
I followed him in the arena. He was fighting like a gladiator, the geometry of his jabs, hooks and roundhouse kicks was not only majestic, it was also extremely efficient. His guard was relaxed, sometimes pompous but always dignifying his opponent.
His ears focused on the dull noise of the fists hitting his teammates’ jaws, his neck combing around for brothers to lift up while dodging punches; his mind recalling, like a mantra, the old masters’ recommendations: ‘gladiator, make your plans in the arena—any expression of your enemy, any movement of his hand, even a slight leaning of his body will warn you during the fight’.
Then, all of a sudden, a ferocious flying elbow hit him on the back of his head. His body collapsed on the sand followed by the sound of a coin echoing into an empty charity box. Referees and teammates gathered around his body looking for the coward culprit. A massive brawl followed. His body was carried out on a stretcher. The referees broke up the fight. The game started again.
There’s a word used on a Cycladic island borrowed from a local place where shepherds take their flock: kafkara, meaning literally desolation, solitude, and at the same time an opportunity to find life.
In the throng of the crowded street as the teams approach the arena, in the months of training leading to the match I see the eyes of men entirely alone, facing and discovering themselves in a desert of the mind. In the scrum of the fight, dust, blood, the violence becomes abstract. In the eyes of the fighters there is only pride in belonging, fierce loyalty, determination, total defeat, the fleeting feeling of immortality.
Words by Giuseppe Maitino
Photographs by Robert Spangle