Photos by David Ramos/Getty Images
Text by Ye Charlotte Ming
Known as the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, Florence is home to masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Dante. Today, it houses more than one million art works from the period. But it is also where visitors can find one of the world’s most violent sports — calcio storico, an ancient form of football dating back to the 15th century that is still played today.
To find out why people are attracted to the bizarrely savage sport, photographer David Ramos set out to photograph it in May 2013, a month before the game officially kicked off.
The game, mixing football, rugby and wrestling, is played by four teams representing four historical neighborhoods of Florence. Ramos followed the two strongest teams that year, the Santa Croce Azzurri (blue team) representing the southeast of Florence and the Santo Spirito Bianchi (white) from the southwest. The other two teams are the San Giovanni Verdi (green) in central Florence and the Santa Maria Novella Rossi (red) in the northwest.
Ramos gained the trust of the captains, who granted him free access to the players. “I was following them during the day and then having dinner with them and their families,” Ramos said.
Each year, two semifinal rounds are played in early June. Then the winners face off in a final on June 24, in celebration of the Patron Saint of Florence, San Giovanni. But when Ramos was there, a heavy rainstorm ravaged the city and canceled the game, a rare occurrence.
A week later, on June 30, when the sun finally shone, a crowd of 3,000 people gathered in front of Basilica of Santa Croce, where Michelangelo and Galileo were buried, to cheer for their team.
A typical game lasts 50 minutes without a break, with 27 players on each side simultaneously engaged in play. The goal is to get a ball into the other team’s goal net, which is the entire width of each end of the field, a 80-meter long and 40-meter wide sand pit. Players wear the color of pants that represents their neighborhood and a white shirt, but many play shirtless, revealing their heavily tattooed and muscular bodies.
A seasoned sports photographer, Ramos conceded that shooting calcio storico was nothing like covering other events. “When you're shooting football, basketball or tennis, they are actually more or less predictable,” Ramos said. But with dozens of men constantly punching, choking and elbowing each other in the sand pit, it is difficult to spot the ball among the chaos.
“The first frame I got was after 22 minutes,” Ramos said. “It was crazy.”
Because there are no substitutions, eliminating the other side by physically knocking players out is a basic strategy to gain advantage. Their mission in the field, many players told Ramos, is to simply "kill the opponent.”
After forging a strong bond with the players, Ramos became quite concerned about them as they went to fight. “I was not enjoying it as I would enjoy shooting a football match,” he said.
So far, no one has actually died playing in calcio storico, but injuries such as abrasions and even concussions are common. In 2012, three players landed in the hospital in a coma, Ramos was told. Ten players were hospitalized after the final in 2013. In the 2017 semifinal, police had to break up fights, after a player allegedly punched the referee.
Calcio storico began without many rules, but in recent years, new guidelines have been instilled to ensure players’ safety. The game now prohibits tactics such as teaming up on individual opponents, attacking from behind and kicking the head.
Some teams had also been involved in the controversial practice of recruiting professional wrestlers, bodybuilders and even thugs from outside the city to play the games. Now, the rules require players to have lived in Florence for 10 years, so the game can stay true to its roots. Many players are just regular Florentine men, with run-of-the-mill occupations.
“There are lawyers, designers, and even a teacher of philosophy from the University of Florence,” Ramos said. “They are normal guys, defending their neighborhoods and their color.”
They also don’t do it for the money. Players are unpaid, and winners won’t receive more than a handmade flag and a butchered cow, which is then taken back to the neighborhood for a community feast.
So why on earth would anyone risk his life to play such a primitive sport in the 21st century, while the rewards are so insignificant? Ramos pondered this as he photographed. In the end, he concluded that observing tradition and celebrating community is hardwired into the locals, but participation in calcio storico is also about masculinity and stardom, even if it is short lived.
When the game is over, and they come off the most famous square in Florence, victors will have earned a nod of respect, a boost to their masculinity, and perhaps most importantly for young men — the hearts of girls in town. And that is a good enough reason for them.