Italians quite seriously say that the only guaranteed loves of their lives are their mothers and their football (soccer) team. In common, these two passions have that you are born with one, to whom you stick through thick and thin throughout your whole life, for good or bad or otherwise. Whilst Italian football is the most world-famous sport associated with the ‘Bel Paese’, there are many other ball sports in Italy, some of which have a tradition dating back through the ages.
Greeks and Romans were actually great lovers of ball games, and ball sports were played right through to the Middle Ages and beyond. In 1555, during the Renaissance, a ‘Trattato del Giuoco con la Palla’ (a ‘Treatise of Games with a Ball’) was written by Messer Antonio Scaino da Salò in which several practical games were referenced including ‘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’).
The official ball game treatise dating back to Renaissance times.
Many of these less-known (and, let’s face it, quite strange) traditional games in Italy have been transformed over time, and some even forgotten. However one example of a wonderfully 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 recognised 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.
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, which being famed for its great pecorino cheese sees a real cheese wheel used as the ‘ball’ of the game! 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 of one of Tuscany’s most charming hilltop towns. The cheese wheel is then 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 Bernado Rossellino as part of major works to re-design Pienza by Pope Pio II. 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 splendour 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 Cacio al Fuso came, 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.
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.
Then there is Bocce. This great Italian traditional game has been played since Roman times and is still popular to this day in Italy, and around the world thanks to the great migration of Italians to other lands where they have introduced some wonderful Italian traditions that have become just as loved abroad as on Italian shores. 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.
You can visit charming hilltop towns of Siena and San Gimignano and Monteriggioni on our Best of Tuscany small-group tour. See the highlights of Tuscany in one spectacular day tour from Florence, immerse yourself in the Tuscan wine-producing countryside, 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.