The Cultural Travel Company

The War Games of Central Italy

Raymond E Role explores the evolution of the intramural games that began in the Middle Ages and still flourish in Italy today.

Italy's enervating summers are invigorated by the pageantry of annual sporting events, with Siena's bare-back horse race, La Corsa del Palio, being the most famous. Unforgettable as visual experiences, full of the bold patterns and colours of period costumes, these events have roots that reach deep into a less languid medieval past.

Beginning around the year 1080 in a few cities like Pisa and Lucca, the commune, a republican form of political system, emerged, and by 1143 communes had been established in all major cities from Rome to the Alps. City-dwellers were elevated to citizenship by taking an oath of obedience to the commune, which in effect governed a city-state whose inhabitants spanned all circumstances and means. Italian nobility increasingly participated in the commercial life of the cities, while the urban merchant class steadily increased its wealth, so that many of the distinctions between these two classes diminished. They began to share a common style of life, and became the cities' political class.

As the rural nobility began living in cities during the early twelfth century, they brought their aristocratic mentality with them. Soon city folk of middling rank were emulating the nobles' ostentatious, arrogant and violent behaviours, including the vendetta. With lawlessness endemic among the urban elite, the custom of the vendetta seems to have spread quickly to all levels of society, so no medieval citizen was ever far from a potential street fight.

Men instinctively turned furst to their relatives and then to their friends for protection. Kinship ultimately determined status, power and security. By the mid-twelfth century, large kinship groups, or clans, had incorporated themselves into defensive alliances or consorterie , while groups of smaller, unrelated familiaes had bound themselves together by solemn oaths into mutual defence associations called 'tower societies'. Consequently, communal governments had constantly to struggle to assert their nascent right to govern and to establish their authority over an unruly populace, while simultaneously striving to unify their citizenry into something more than a quarrelsome tangle of rival factions.

Within the walls of the cities, inhabitants' mutual fear can be seen reflected in their arrangement of housing - a patchwork of neighbourhoods, each the stronghold either of a consorteria or of a 'tower society'. The architectural nucleus of such a neighbourhood was its stout stone or brick tower, like those surviving at San Gimignano or Lucca's Torre Guinigi, designed for throwing, shooting or catapulting projectiles at rival fellow-citizens and/or their property nearby. Built tightly around this fortification were the houses of the members of its consorteria or its 'tower society', along with their parish church. This whole complex formed a compact urban refuge, whose narrow alleyways could be easily barricaded off and defended when vendettas flared up. The very fabric of the medieval Italian city was a constant invitation to future violence.

Even beyond the city walls, this parochial mentality can be seen in the medieval map of northern and central Italy - a patchwork of city-states, each trying to expand at the expense of the other. The survival of a city as an independent state ultimately rested on its armed forces, which comprised combat units levied from each of its semi-autonomous neighbourhoods. If the internal divisions from within the city were allowed to reach the battlefield, they could destroy military cohesion and possibly endanger the city itself.

Legislative attempts to curb blood-feuds occurred as early as 1100 when Pisa limited the height of towers and forbade private possession of catapults, mangonels, cross-bows and ammunition. City governments, often in concert with the local bishops, demanded oaths of peace en masse from their citizens and extracted sums of money from past offenders as surety bonds. Punishments usually took the form of fines, confiscation of property, razing of family palazzi or towers, permanent exile or death - but the clannish nature of the vendetta was so engrained that some legislation, such as the Florentine Ordinances of Justice enacted in 1293, went so far as to punish not only those guilty of violence, but their innocent relatives as well. Some punishments even included a grant of immunity from prosecution to victims' families, in order to allow its members to take revenge with impunity upon the peace-breakers, their close relatives, even their children as yet unborn.

Communal governments also developed a safety-valve to release built-up rancour at a diminished level of violence, and in doing so demonstrated their authority over their disorderly constituents. They coupled major annual religious festivals with a government-sponsored intramural game, or giocca, a mock combat pitting contestants from rival neighbourhoods against one another. This offered a non-lethal outlet with, hopefully, a cathartic outcome as a substitute for the vendetta. Such events were preceded by impressive religious-civic processions, formally manifesting the government's jurisdiction. Today, the direct descendants of these paramilitary games come alive each summer.

Almost as old as the communes themselves was the most widespread of all the intramural games, the Giocca di Mazzascuda, or the Game of Club and Shield, where fully armoured foot soldiers sought to drive their opponents from the field with blows from wooden maces. Known to have been played at various times in almost every city throughout Tuscany and Umbria, and at Pavia and Gubbio too, this 'sport' was probably played widely elsewhere in Italy as well.

From at least the early thirteenth century, the communal government of Pisa encouraged its citizens to play the Giocca di Mazzascuda annually between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday. To underscore governmental control and sponsorship, a field was set up directly in front of Palagio Maggiore, Pisa's seat of government, in the city's main piazza, the Piazza dei Anziani (now Piazza dei Cavalieri di San Stefano). This large circular enclosure, surrounded by a cordon of chains with entrances at two opposing points, was guarded from dawn to dusk by Pisa's police forces to maintain order among combatants and spectators alike. This field of honour was available daily, except Sundays, for privately arranged contests, either single or group combat, a handy place to settle a grudge, even a score, or repay an insult. On January 17th, the feast day of St Anthony Abbot, the government also sponsored a large group combat, similar to a popular knightly tournament called a melée , or battagliaccia. This civic 'sport' allowed even humble citizens to publicly display their martial skills on foot in the same vainglorious way as the noble citizens displayed their derring-do on horseback. For centuries this annual martial exercise kept its citizen-soldiers in fighting trim, but in 1406 Pisa lost its independence to the Florentines, who swiftly confiscated the Pisans' arms, including their wooden maces for playing the Giocca di Mazzascuda .

Undiminished by Florentine rule, however, internecine violence continued at Pisa throughout the fifteenth century, taking on the form of rock-throwing incidents between the then unarmed neighbourhood factions, often staged impromptu on the narrow bridges spanning the Arno. Since little was needed to convert this spontaneous mayhem into a new government-sponsored martial arts tournament, Lorenzo de' Medici, towards the end of the century, encouraged the establishment of the Giocca del Ponte to be held on June 17th, the feast day of San Ranieri, patron saint of Pisa. The earliest form of the Giocca del Ponte probably consisted of two numerically equal squads of combatants, armed with blunt weapons and protected by shields and armour, contesting the crossing of a bridge. There were no rules, but the first squad to bludgeon its way across to the opponent's side won.

The rules of the Giocca del Ponte were made slightly more genteel in the early sixteenth century, by limiting contestants to just six per side, defining the martial techniques permitted and eliminating some of the game's more entertaining 'plays' such as tossing a heavily armoured opponent into the Arno. Gone too were the traditional wooden club and shield, replaced by the targone, a long narrow type of wooden shield, a meter long with a semi-circular top 25cm wide, tapering to a blunt point 5cm wide. Fitted with horizontal wooden hand grips top and bottom, the targone could be used both defensively, to parry opponents' blows, and offensively, to push and to 'butt end' by gripping its handles or to club by holding its small end. The Battagliaccia del Giorno di San Antonio was also reinstated on January 17th, preserving the no-holds-barred style of 'play' - a kind of minor league event where aspiring combatants could hone their skills.

In the late sixteenth century the game was reorganised into just two large opposing teams, called Tramontana and Mezzogiorno, representing the northern and southern sides of the city divided by the Arno, each incorporating the neighbourhood squads. This arrangement forced those in adjacent neighbourhoods - normally the most mutually antagonistic and vendetta-prone groups - to work together as teammates and future comrades-in-arms. Organized in military fashion into six companies of sixty each, with a captain and commanded by a general, these small armies battled against each other for two hours (later reduced to one hour and then to forty-five minutes). These rule changes ushered in a period of increased popularity for the Giocca del Ponte , that lasted from 1600 to 1785, when Pietro Leopoldo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, an enlightened Austrian, banned it, considering it a barbarous anachronism.

After a suspension of over a century and a half, Pisa's city government reinstated the annual Giocca del Ponte , in 1947. Its combatants then became contestants in a modernised game, a tense 'push-of-war' with neighborhood squads pushing in opposite directions against a seven-ton carriage, or carrello , mounted on a fifty-metre metal track running the length of Ponte di Mezzo. Reborn as Tramontana and Mezzogiorno, each team now composed of six squads of twenty, still representing the same neighbourhoods on opposite sides of the Arno, compete in six consecutive contests. As riotous as the conclusion of any single contest may be, the end of the deciding contest that awards the annual victory to either Tramontana or Mezzogiorno is pandemonium - with unofficial fireworks and the unfurling of home-made banners, while the winners' side of the Arno is brilliantly lit up, leaving the losing side to brood in twilight.

Medieval Florence had its own version of the Giocca di Mazzascuda , but also had long played an indigenous ball game called Calcio , a descendant of Arapasto , a conditioning exercise for Roman legionaries akin to rugby but more violent. It was not until the early fourteenth century, when Florence's communal government was first able to divide the city into four sub-divisions or quartieri , that it also began to sponsor a Calcio tournament at Carnevale. Its purpose was to force adjacent neighbourhoods in each quartiere , from which Florence also mustered its militia, to work together as teammates, just as at Pisa.

Each quartiere fielded a team of twenty seven players for a three-game, 'sudden death' tournament played on a rectangular field (one hundred metres by forty six), set-up in one of the city's larger piazzas, usually Piazza Santa Croce or Piazza Signoria. The object was to throw a 25cm diameter ball into the opponent's goal, a net 1.2 metres high stretching the full width of the field - one point if successful, but a half-point to the opponent if unsuccessful. The rules were almost non-existent. Played annually until the late 1700s, this cross between wrestling, boxing, rugby, basketball and soccer was reinstated with its original rules and staged in its traditional venues in 1930. Known today as Calcio Storico Fiorentino , it continues as an annual outlet for (still quite lively) intramural animosities. In 1997, the final match had to be cancelled when disgruntled fans from one quartiere violently assaulted a player from a rival quartiere as he left his home, in retaliation for his particularly foul play in the semi-final match; and the 1998 final was marred when fans purposely injured an opposing player by throwing fireworks into the field during the pre-game festivities.

If old habits refuse to die at Florence, they are as healthy as ever at Siena, whose very urban structure on its three hills has caused dissension for so long that the city was already referred to in the plural by the ancient Romans - the Sienas. During the Dark Ages, residents descended from the hills into the valley between them to trade with each other in a large, open field, a market site that was to become the heart of the medieval city, Piazza del Campo. Commercial disputes regularly led from quarrels to blows and bloodshed, particularly during the weeks before Lent when scarcity caused high prices. After 1125, a communal government was established in a tripartite manner with each hill becoming a political unit of the city, or terziere , with equal representation in the government. Each had its own internal governmental structure.

These initial building blocks of Sienese political life must have been the clan and the 'tower society', which provided Siena's armed forces. A series of devastating wars, along with the Black Death outbreaks in 1348 and thereafter, combined to decrease drastically the numerical strength of consorteria and 'tower society' alike, so that by the late 1400s, the survivors had to seek protection from each other by banding together in a new type of association called a contrada . A contrada was begun by unrelated families living in a neighbourhood as a corporation with a written constitution, laws, membership requirements, dues, officers, a court, a headquarters, a parish church, a patron saint, geographical boundaries, an army, a heraldic symbol, colours, a banner, allies, enemies and vendettas. Originally numbering as many as sixty, depopulation caused some contrade to merge until the last geographic revision, in 1729, reduced them to their present number, seventeen. Today, the Sienese contrada , demilitarised yet militant, retains all of its other original elements. It is still a mutual aid society and social club. needy members are aided by funds raised from its dues, philanthropic contributions, rental properties, bar and social events such as dances. Each contrada sponsors a club for women and another for children, while its headquarters are bar are a focus for male social activity. With both its original structure and social mission preserved, the contrada is more modernised than evolved, generating an intense sense of identity and loyalty among those born within its boundaries.

Faced with an already centuries-old culture of intramural violence, Siena's earliest communal governments sought to condone and control what they could not eliminate by also initiating an annual Sienese version of the Giocca di Mazzascuda 'played' at the end of Carnevale. Called the Giocca dell' Elmora , the Game of the Helmet, it was a city-wide group combat, pitting Siena's most populous terziere against the other two. For generations, thousands of Sienese, participating under their military banners, wielding wooden weapons (maces, swords and spears) and throwing stones, sought to drive their fellow citizens from Piazza del Campo under the watchful eyes of their elected officials looking on from the windows of Palazzo Pubblico, the seat of government. Sheer numbers, however, made effective control nearly impossible. When even the intervention of the city's police forces still failed to prevent ten fatalities in 1291, sufficient political will was finally generated to ban the 'game' permanently.

Besides the Giocca dell' Elmora , its less life-threatening and much older, possibly Etruscan relative, the Giocca della Pugna , or the Fist Fight, was a favourite pastime in medieval Siena. Wearing cloth caps with protective cheek-pieces tied together under the chin similar to the sparring head-gear of modern boxers, and with their fists wrapped in cloth bindings to protect their knuckles, participants sought to drive their fellow citizens from one of the city's piazzas. Whether arranged in advance or held impromptu between just two neighbourhoods in a nearby piazza, or organized by the communal government between the full terzieri in Piazza del Campo, the Giocca della Pugna seemed to satisfy the blood-lust of the Sienese, judging from the participation of 1,200 in a city-wide pugna, in 1324. During the Renaissance, bans did little to dull the appetite for the 'game' among the Sienese, who staged a pugna just as heartily in 1536 to celebrate the visit of newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, as they did nearly twenty years later to raise their own morale during the siege of the city by his Imperial troops. La pugna survived even Napoleon, with the students of Siena University's class of 1816 being the last to enjoy the exhilaration of this 'sport'.

Siena's communal government, like those of other cities in Italy, originally linked their paramilitary games to celebrations of some annual religious festivals, but by the mid-twelfth century it had also coupled as many as six horse races with other religious events. Beginning at some point outside the city walls, these horse races ran a course, point-to-point or al lungo , through Siena's streets to a finishing line at the cathedral, where the winner received as a prize, a bolt of expensive cloth, or palio . Later, a single contrada , in celebration of the feast day of its patron saint, would periodically stage a palio , inviting others to participate. It is uncertain when the contrade began to send entrants to the annual city-wide races, but by the last half of the fiftenth century they sponsored all the contestants.

After Siena lost its independence to Florence in 1555, Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, fearing massive public gatherings, reduced the number of races to just one, honouring St Mary, patron saint of Siena, on August 15th, in commemoration of her Assumption. In 1656, a second race was permitted on July 2nd to commemorate the Visitation and the purely local feast day of St Mary of Provenzano - a race run alla tonda , three times around Piazza del Campo, allowing viewing of the race start-to-finish for the first time. So exciting was this new form that a third race, also alla tonda , was soon added on August 16th. Although the older race, al lungo, on August 15th failed to survive the nineteenth century, the other two races, both now called La Corsa del Palio , have been run continuously ever since, under the sponsorship of the competing contrade . Such longevity is due in part to the incorporation within them of many aspects of Siena's former paramilitary games and races so that, with the partisan enthusiasm for all of them distilled into these two events, La Corsa del Palio releases the seemingly eternal fanaticism of the contrade .

Lucca's Tiro dei Balestrieri , where cross-bow men test their archery skill, Arezzo's Giostra del Saracino and Pistoia's Giostra del Orso , where teams of modern-day knights tilt at the quintain, and Gubbio's La Corsa dei Ceri , where teams race up-hill carrying thousand-pound weights, are some of the other sporting events whose origins are entwined in their cities' history. Each is unique yet quintessentially Italian, not so much folkloristic re-enactments as modern expressions of the passions that generated their institution.

Raymond E. Role is a practising architect and freelance writer based in Lucca, Italy.

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