Italian Traditions: Strange Games & Ball Sports in Italy

The Colosseum – resembles a modern day football stadium

‘Calcio’ – a true love story

Their mother and their football team. The only two guaranteed loves of an Italian man’s life! In all seriousness, it’s not just family an Italian is born with, to stick with, through thick and thin. Their soccer team receives equal devotion and dedication, a lifelong marriage, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. Although Italian football – calcio – is the country’s most popular and famous sport nowadays, the ‘Bel Paese’ has many other ball sports – some with a tradition dating back through the ages to classical times.

Italia vs Poland – Rome, 1965

Boys and balls, through the ages

The ancient Greeks and Romans were actually great lovers of ball games. The Romans enjoyed a sport with a small ball called Harpastum. Somewhat similar to American football, the aim was to keep the ball in your team’s half of the field. Take a look at a reenactment of Harpastum here!

Romans playing Harpastum

Variations of ball games were played through the middle ages too. In 1555, during the Renaissance, a ‘Trattato del Giuoco con la Palla’ (Treatise of Games with a Ball) was written by Messer Antonio Scaino da Salò in which several practical games were referenced. These included  ‘il bracciale’ (a kind of handball and the most popular game throughout the 16th century), ‘la pallacorda’ (ball with a cord), ‘la palla con lo scanno’ (ball game played with a ‘scoop’), ‘la palla con la racchetta’ (the predecessor to racquet ball and the cousin of ‘Tamburello’).

A page from The Official Ball Game treatise from the Renaissance

Many traditional games in Italy have been transformed over time, and some even forgotten. However, many lesser-known and wonderfully unusual sports remain!

From Tambourines to Cheese

One example of an amusingly strange traditional game in Italy that is still played to this day is Tamburello – a tennis-like sport with a twist. Instead of using a racquet, the ball is hit with a tambourine! Dating back to 1890 when the  Federazione Ginnastica d’Italia recognized Tamburello as an official sport which had been played throughout Rome and Florence since the beginning of the century. The rules of the Tamburello game are quite unchanged since these ancient times although the Tamburello playing equipment has been very slightly updated to modern times.

man with a tambourine
Play with a tambourine instead of a racquet!

Then, there is Cacio al Fuso, a game similar to lawn bowls but played in the town square of the charming Tuscan hilltop town of Pienza. But there’s a twist! The town is famed for its great pecorino cheese so instead of a ball, they use a real wheel of cheese! Played by young and old, the townsfolk gather in the town’s central piazza, Piazza Pio II, pegging out the playing field on the cobbled stones.

Now, pay attention to the rule! The cheese wheel is rolled, wobbling along, towards a central wooden peg which is placed in the centre of a marble ring set into the pavement. Chalk is then used to mark out an extra few rings on the cobblestones. If you manage to roll your cheese wheel within the ring, you earn 5 points… 4 points for the external ring and so on and so forth. This marble ring was placed into the pavement about 500 years ago by architect Bernado Rossellino as part of major works to re-design Pienza by Pope Pio II himself.

The Towns Take it Seriously…

Hailing from Pienza himself, Pope Pio II wanted to reconstruct his home town according to Renaissance ideals of a perfect town. Major works included the building of churches and town buildings which still stand in all their splendor to this day. Whilst his plans were never fully completed, Pienza is still a tiny and charming village town in Tuscany that is well worth a visit. Since 1996, Pienza has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.For the game of Cacio al Fuso, the Pienza townsfolk are divided into a ‘Contrada’ – a team allocation based on where you live in the Tuscan village – with divisions based on 6 areas (4 within the Tuscan town’s walls and 2 outside) of Pienza. Each contrada has a flag which is proudly displayed on the occasion of the game. A nice rug is placed on one side of the square, and player by player, team by team, the cheese wheel is taken in hand, the player kneels on the rug and rolls the cheese towards the pin.

For the game of Cacio al Fuso, the Pienza townsfolk are divided into a ‘Contrada’ – a team allocation based on where you live in the Tuscan village – with divisions based on 6 areas (4 within the Tuscan town’s walls and 2 outside) of Pienza. Each contrada has a flag which is proudly displayed on the occasion of the game. A nice rug is placed on one side of the square, and player by player, team by team, the cheese wheel is taken in hand, the player kneels on the rug and rolls the cheese towards the pin.

Calcio al Fuso from Pienza.org

Whilst the complexity of the game is low, the tension is high as the wheel wobbles closer and closer towards the peg. One rolled, the  Pienza cheese wheel heads (all going well) towards the central peg, then slowing down it loses momentum, wobbles and topples over. Cheers cry out – from the player’s team for a stop close to the centre peg, and from the opposition if far away.

Bocce, Pétanque, Bowls…

Then there is Bocce. Essentially Italian pétanque or bowls. Its been played since Roman times and is still popular to this day. Thanks to the migration of Italians to other lands many wonderful Italian traditions have become just as loved abroad as in their home country. Played with perfectly spherical metal balls which are rolled along the rectangular playing ground, the aim of the game is to roll the ball as close as possible to a central jack – and if you knock out the competitor’s ball along the way, all the better! The rules have changed very little since Roman times, and it is quite common to find players claiming a flat piece of land in a traditional Tuscan hilltop town to peg out the playing area and passing a lovely afternoon in Tuscany playing this traditional Italian ball game.

Siena at sunset

Visit the charms of Tuscany with us…

To visit for yourself these beautiful hilltop towns join our Best of Tuscany small-group tour. You’ll see the highlights of Tuscany in one spectacular day tour from Florence, immersing yourself in the Tuscan countryside of vineyards and olive groves. Enjoy a wine tasting and cellar visit, and be part of the scenery that has inspired so many great artists.  Our small group Best of Tuscany tour visits Siena, San Gimignano and Monteriggioni, as well as stopping for lunch and wine tasting at an award-winning Tuscan villa wine estate.

To learn more about the fascinating history of Florence, Artviva’s Original Florence Walk a guided tour of Florence with an expert guide, includes visits to two of Florence’s oldest buildings, and tells fascinating stories about their amazing history. Many other must-see sights in Florence are also covered in this guided city walk tour.

hills of tuscany in the mist

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