Wednesday, April 25, 2012


When I’m deep into my work for a new book, whether it’s in the research stage or the writing stage, I typically take only one day off a week. From the end of August until the beginning of February, that day is most frequently Sunday, not however, because of any religious practices, but because…that’s football day.

Yes, as a person of extremes, one of my favorite escapes from the heavy, old, and staid tomes that I love so much is the sweaty, scream inducing, adrenaline firing sport that is football. How stunned—wonderfully surprised to galactical proportions—I was when I found, among the history of Florence that I was investigating for The King’s Agent—the very sport with which I schedule my life around for half the year.

Giuoco del Calcio Fiorentino is, in translation and reputation, the Florentine Kicking Game. In Italy, it is simply called calcio, translated as ‘kick’. The game was born, where it’s played still, in the courtyard of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, one of the most visited squares in all of Europe, a rectangle anchored by the Basilica Santa Croce, where the most illustrious of Florentines are buried. But unlike most European courtyards, you’ll find no statues or fountains or shrines holding the place of prominence in the center, just one large open square that becomes a 50 by 100m sand covered pitch. The oldest documentation of the game appears sometime in the early 16th century, with the official rules published in 1580, but it’s accepted that the sport most probably began a few decades earlier, in the late 15th century.

Upon close inspection, calling this sport ‘football’ or a ‘kick’ game is an understatement; no, it’s a washed out understatement. Giuoco del Calcio Fiorentino is a combination of soccer, rugby, boxing, wrestling, and head-butting. These guys laugh at ultimate fighters. The object of the game is to score a goal by kicking, throwing or placing a ball in the opposing team’s goal area, one that spans the entire width of the playing field. The opposition to the objective? Twenty-seven other players that are ready, willing, and able to use whatever horrific physical obstructions at their disposal to stop it. What results is any number of one-on-one grapple bouts breaking out all over the field, brutal tactics employed to do whatever it takes to prohibit the other team from forwarding the ball toward the goal.

Historically, the game was played by aristocrats…counts, dukes and even former popes…and much of the violence on the pitch was a reflection of some off-field slight…a stolen girlfriend, a political backstab. The game and ill-feelings, having birthed such violence, has done very little to stem it, in fact, nothing at all.

As in those bygone days, the teams are formed within the four ancient quarters of the city: the (red) Rossi from Santa Maria Novella, the Verdi (green) out of San Giovanni, the (white) Bianchi hail from Santo Spirito, and the Azzurri (light blue) are from the quarter of Santa Croce. Though the sport took a two century hiatus, since 1930 a three match tournament has taken place every June.

Taking their well-being in their own hands, there are (ironically) eight referees on the course during the whole of the 50 minute-match. Their duty is to enforce no more than a couple of rules: there is no kicking to the head (yes, which means all other kicking of one’s opponents is allowed) and there is no sucker-punching (defined as a hit from behind). All other seemingly vicious maneuvers—choking, head-butting, and throwing sand in an opponent’s eyes—is fair game and necessary to score a goal (caccia).

With this my fourth book, but the second set in the land of my ancestors, and my current work-in-progress (a trilogy no less) set as well in the land of breathtaking landscapes and lip-smacking wine, I yearn to walk the rolling hills of Tuscany, to step upon the same cobbles as da Vinci and Michelangelo…and to watch a huge group of incredibly well-built men—naked to the waist!—try to get a ball past a goal line while surrounded by glorious historical buildings. For this particular historical novelist, it just doesn’t get much better.

One could make the case that I included this scene—this relic form of the game I love so much—as a bit of self-indulgence, and it wouldn’t be a completely erroneous statement. However, because of the timing of its appearance in the story it does so much to establish the character that is Battista della Palla, a factual historical character whom I like to describe as a patriotic plunderer and religious rogue, the male protagonist that steers the plot through all its incredible twists and turns. It reveals early on his eagerness to take risks, his ability to make split seconds decisions and the nerve to see them through. It puts him in the league with such men as Indiana Jones, Captain James T. Kirk, and Luke Skywalker.

Who would have ever thought I could use my beloved football for character development in a historical setting? Talk about having your sport and writing it too.

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