Well, I’ve gotten behind, way behind, on my blog posts. Once the semester in Florence actually began, I knew I’d be neglecting cyber-space in favor of the three-dimensional spaces of Florence and the classroom. I did make one attempt at blogging after Easter, but the Blog-gods must have been offended by my post, and my comments disappeared in the cyber-ether as I attempted to post them.
Anyway, I have catching up to do. Currently we are on a four-hour bus trip from London to Derby in the center of England, and the weather here has brought back fond memories of our frigid February in Florence. As part of its mission of deepening the cultural experience of our American students in Florence, the Study Abroad Program introduces them to the national sport of Italy – calcio (“soccer” as Americans, and only Americans, call it). The Florentine calcio team is called Fiorentina, and students and faculty were able to purchase tickets to games held in the Florence Stadium through the Study Abroad program at a substantial discount. Incentives were necessary because the temperatures were expected plunge way below freezing. The soccer stadium is on the outskirts of Florence, and the walk across town to the soccer stadium took Lois and me close to 45 minutes.
We all attempted to dress for the occasion. The Fiorentina color is purple, and students and faculty were advised to display Fiorentina colors during the game or risk being subject to an inquisition on the grounds of disloyalty to the faith. Lois and, as it turned out, many of our American students, have an impeccable fashion sense, but even they couldn’t pull it off the way the Florentines do.
Still I don’t want to give the wrong impression. A Florentine calcio match is not an evening at La Scala. It actually gave me the same sort of feeling I’d have if I’d attended a tractor pull in February at Soldier Field in Chicago. Fashion sense notwithstanding, the fans made me uneasy. I was in the midst of a study abroad group consisting of approximately 50 American co-eds from 18 to 21 years age, and the Italian men in our section of the stadium were certainly not paying a great deal of attention to the game.
In a soccer match Lois and I had attended in Florence three years earlier the Fiorentina fans seemed to have much more interest in taunting the opposing fans than in watching the match. This is where we learned many of the words they generally leave out of college courses in the Italian language. The opposing team’s fans are caged off for their own protection in a segment of the stadium that is surrounded by a 15-foot high chain-link fence, which only the sober could possibly scale, and they’re given a police escort out of the stadium at the end of the match. It’s the sort of thing you’d wish they’d do at Dodger Stadium.
For today’s game, however, there were no opposing fans. The opponent of Fiorentina was Udinese. No fan from Udine, a somewhat obscure Italian town near the Slovenian border, is going to travel to Florence in bitter cold temperatures for the privilege of watching his/her team lose whilst being verbally and perhaps physically abused by a mob of salivating septuagenerians wearing furs and purple scarves.
Since the wind chill factor was expected to drive temperatures to minus 12 degrees Centigrade, all of the fans were crammed into the “warmer” end of the stadium so that the stadium appeared to list to the northeast. Remarkably the players still appeared on the field in shorts and seemed reasonably cheerful, as did the Italian fans from Florence, who stood and sang together for much of the first half. The study abroad students were doing their best to fit in. They came out cheering the home team and chanting “Forza Fiorentina!”
By the end of the first half, although Fiorentina was dominating the game, the score was tied (it’s always tied…. it’s soccer!). The Florentines in the stands were still optimistic and chipper; they were drinking a lot of Peroni. However, the American students were beginning to look hum-down and funky. They were huddled together attempting to wiggle their fingers and toes, some running up and down the stadium steps in vain attempts to de-ice the remaining fluid in their extremities. It was about 10 minutes into the second half when Fiorentina went ahead by one goal. Lois could no longer feel either of her feet. We sneaked silently out of the stadium and limped toward a nearby café/bar to get warm. It was teeming with study abroad students gone AWOL from the game. The Italians were steadfast. They remained in the stands, their voices swelling and falling in song and letting out a giant roar, which we could hear from the bar, as Fiorentina scored its third goal.
There is something raw and visceral about attending a professional calcio contest in Florence. You wouldn’t dream of taking your kids there. The reader may wonder why the opposing fans in Florence, one of the world’s bastions of high culture, would have to be caged in order to avoid being attacked by Florentine women in fur coats. Well, there are historical reasons for this. What is now called calcio originated in Florence in 1530 in a Renaissance sport that is now called calcio storico (historical soccer). To commemorate its glorious past, Florence puts on a yearly calcio storico tournament in the Piazza of the basilica of Santa Croce. The match to determine the champion is preceded by a ceremony of great pomp and pageantry complete with parades, a medieval drum corps, costumed flag throwers, and speeches by dignitaries in formal renaissance attire.
After the pageantry is over, teams of 27 burly brutes representing two of the four districts of Florence square off against each other in the Piazza, wearing renaissance bloomers. They begin the match wearing shirts, which have mostly been torn to pieces by their opponents a few minutes into the contest. No head gear, shoulder pads or protective equipment of any kind is worn by the competitors. The final match takes place on June 24, the festival day for St. John the Baptist, who famously died by decapitation. That theme is honored by the competitors who begin the game by trying to take each others’ heads off in a great fist-fighting, wrestling, kicking and street-fighting extravaganza until the opponents are incapacitated enough so that a goal can be scored. Huzzahh!
The winning team is awarded a gargantuan chianina ox – to eat! These are the same white oxen that pull the giant cart through Florence on Easter Sunday, mentioned in one of Lois’ earlier posts. A grown man is shorter than the back of one of these beasts.
Apparently, aside from the numbers of people on a team and the specifications as to what counts as a goal, this game is refreshingly rule-free, although recruitment violations recently forced officials to establish a rule stipulating that athletes/combatants may no longer be murderers or highwaymen.
Since the game has been going on for nearly 500 years, it has been played by some well known historical figures – including Florentine rulers Piero the Unfortunate (the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent), and Cosimo I de Medici. It has even been played by Popes Leo X, Clement VII and Urbano VIII. Apparently Pope Benedict XVI has just been offered a big bonus to sign on with the Santa Croce Carnivores.
Anonymous sources confirm that representatives of the Carnivores initially offered to sweeten the deal by transferring Galileo’s tomb from the basilica of Santa Croce to the Vatican, but this offer was rejected by Pope Benedict, who apparently still maintains the view that the Earth is the center of the universe. (Despite his predecessor’s long-overdue apology for the Inquisition’s prosecution of Galileo, Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger always defended the view that the Church had been correct to convict Galileo for his belief that the earth circles the sun…….really!) Rumor has it that Benedict would prefer the tomb of Machiavelli, who also rests in peace (improbably) at the Church of Santa Croce.