Apr 14

Calcio Fiorentino

Football (or soccer) is one of the world’s most popular pastimes; professional leagues have extensive, devoted, and extremely passionate followings.  The sport is believed to be the descendant of a variety of ancient ball games, particularly those enjoyed by the Romans and Greeks.  Although nearly all of these versions eventually died out and gave way to the current form of football, one precursor to the modern game has survived.

Originating in the sixteenth century, the game is now referred to as calcio storico (historic football) or calcio fiorentino (after Florence, the city where it is still played).  While the roots of modern football are evident in calcio storico (primarily as players use their feet to maneuver the ball toward the opposing team’s goal), there are also stark contrasts between the modern and historic games.  Storico matches often appear more similar to rugby than football, as players can also use their hands to manipulate the ball and are permitted to be exceptionally violent.


Calcio storico allows the use of a wide range of strikes against opponents.  Throwing of punches, elbows, and headbutts are all legal according to official rules, as is choking an opponent.  Its combative style requires a unique type of athleticism from its players.  During the 1500s, the game became notorious beyond Italy for its violent nature.  The French king Henry III, who attended a match while on a diplomatic visit to Venice, is said to have remarked that storico was “…too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.”


Like many other predecessors to football, calcio storico eventually lost popularity and support.  It largely fell from practice during the 1600s.  Fortunately, however, cultural and historic interest (as well as a desire to distinguish Italian sport from that of its neighbors) brought about its revival in 1930.  A limited number of games are played annually in Florence, with four teams representing each quarter of the city.  As with many traditions in Italy, the final match corresponds with a religious holiday, and is held on the feast of the patron of Florence, San Giovanni (St. John).

Rules established in the sixteenth century remain in use today; calcio storico is still as brutal a sport as it first was.  Fifty-minute matches are played on sand fields, with long, narrow goals at each end.  Teams consist of twenty-seven men, and matches require a total of seven officials.  Traditional uniforms (namely pants in the sixteenth-century style) are used by the teams from each quarter, which are designated by a color (red, blue, green, or white).


The rebirth of calcio storico has preserved a unique aspect of Italian history and culture.  Its annual matches bring the Renaissance back to life each year, and just as modern football is linked to this sixteenth-century ancestor, storico has its roots in the ancient Roman game of harpastum.  Although the immediate attention of locals and visitors at the yearly matches is always on sport, calcio storico calls to mind a rich history and the importance of its preservation.


Feb 14

Food Fights

Binissalem, Spain

In many parts of the world, crops can become a dominant part of a people’s culture.  For those areas economically dependent on agriculture, the labors of planting, cultivating, and harvesting are an integral component of daily life.  Therefore, when months of work finally result in a successful crop, it is often met with a period of relaxation and celebration.  Ironically, however, the celebration of a harvest in Binissalem, Spain often leads to the destruction of a considerable portion of the fruit that it yields.

Binissalem, located on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, is home to a large number of vineyards and wineries.  Each year, the September grape harvest brings a week of traditional festivities in which residents and visitors throw the (literal) fruits of Binissalem’s labor at one another.  While the daily grape fights may sound like madness for a town of winemakers, harvesters are careful to only offer up what is not suitable for production.  Furthermore, removing unhealthy fruit from the vineyards prevents it from jeopardizing the rest of the crop.  The least-desirable grapes from each vineyard are brought to fields beyond city limits, where crowds can gather and fight with the fruit until it is reduced to juice and skins.


La Festa des Vermar, commonly known as the Grape Throwing Festival, also includes grape stomping demonstrations and competitions in honor of traditional manufacturing methods.  This lively time of year is also, of course, celebrated with large amounts of local wine yielded from the more favorable grapes of previous years’ crops.

Ivrea, Italy

Fruit is also the highlight of an annual festival in Ivrea, Italy, where townspeople are divided into nine teams to fight one another with oranges.  Because of Italy’s Catholic heritage, The Battle of the Oranges coincides with the beginning of the Lenten season.  Ending just before Lent begins (on what is traditionally known as Fat Tuesday), Carnevale di Ivrea contributes to the excess that typically precedes this austere period of the Church calendar.  Its origins, however, are far from religious in nature.

The Battle is a unique commemoration of a revolt said to have taken place in the 1200s.  When a young bride, the miller’s daughter (la mugnaia), was forced to spend a night with the Duke (according to ancient traditions), she refused to comply and instead decapitated the Duke.  Inspired by la mugnaia, the townspeople rose up against the palace guards and liberated themselves.

During the Battle of the Oranges, fruit is thrown between armored participants in carts, meant to represent the Duke’s guards in his palace, and a larger mass of townspeople playing the role of revolutionaries.  The festival can become considerably violent, but is nevertheless a cherished tradition throughout all of Ivrea.


Buñol, Spain

Perhaps the most famous of large-scale food fights is La Tomatina, celebrated in Buñol, Spain.  Legend holds that, while watching a parade, spectators tried to disperse a group of nearby animals by throwing tomatoes at them.  When a stray shot hit one of the attendees, a tomato fight spontaneously erupted and a tradition was born.  As in Mallorca, only the least valuable fruit is used for fighting.  Buñol differs from Ivrea, however, as it now requires that all projectiles be crushed before throwing (an effort to prevent serious injury in a more lighthearted event).

Prior to the fight, a ham is placed atop a grease-covered pole.  The signal to begin is not given until someone can climb the pole (palo jabón) and remove the ham.  Trucks then bring roughly 150,000 tomatoes to the town square, where participants eagerly throw them at one another for an hour.  Around midday, the fighting is finally stopped and gives way to other festivities while firetrucks are used to clean the town square.  The popularity of La Tomatina has led to its imitation in other countries, including the United States.


Oct 13

Carnevale di Venezia

Venice, Italy

Italy has had strong ties to Catholicism throughout much of its history.  Consequently, many aspects of its culture have been influenced by the Church.  In Venice, for instance, the celebration of a military victory grew into an annual carnival preceding the holy season of Lent (a period of solemn fasting and prayer).


Although now famous as Italy’s city on the water, Venice was an autonomous republic between the seventh and eighteenth centuries.  Because it served as a significant trading port on the Adriatic Sea, the city was frequently forced to defend itself against foreign navies.  Following a victorious battle in 1162, the people of Venice celebrated so enthusiastically that they chose to commemorate the event each year.  The celebration was gradually lengthened and became less oriented around celebrating a single military success; instead, it shifted to fit the Catholic calendar.

The Lenten season is a somber time, meant for reflection through personal sacrifice.  In preparation for Lent, which begins each year on a day known as Ash Wednesday (ashes are used as a sign of penitence), many Catholics enjoy a last day of indulgence before they begin fasting.  The Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday has become the occasion of numerous celebrations, including the culmination of the Carnival of Venice (Carnevale di Venezia).

The Carnival developed alongside Venice throughout what remained of its time as an independent city-state.  It grew increasingly unique, enjoying the height of the Renaissance and enduring hardships like the Black Plague and numerous foreign attacks.  Unfortunately, with its infamous navy greatly reduced, the Venetian Republic fell to Austrian invaders (sent by Napoleon Bonaparte) in 1797.  The Carnival and many traditions associated with it were outlawed under the new rule.

In 1979 the Carnival was finally revived by the Italian government, hoping to preserve the rich traditions stemming from Venice’s unique history.  Lasting roughly twenty days, the modern Carnival attracts millions of international tourists who, along with the city’s residents, enjoy a wide array of new and old festivities alike.

Venice’s Carnival brought new life to one of the city’s oldest traditions: the wearing of masks.  Historically, decorative masks were worn for almost any celebratory occasion.  Venetians spent exorbitant amounts on ornate, hand-painted masks of varying styles so that they could conceal their identities before attending social events, including the Carnival.  Disguises allowed for unrefined behavior without the fear of ramifications; some acts were so outrageous that they led to laws restricting the wearing of masks in Venice, although they were always permitted during Carnival.

The Bauta was an extremely popular design because it allowed the wearer to speak, eat, and drink without removing the mask.  The feminine counterpart to the Bauta is called the Columbina.  The Plague Doctor (Medico della peste) design came into style as Venice was recovering from the disease.  When the Carnival began to be celebrated again after nearly a third of the city’s residents had been killed by the Plague, the doctor’s mask originally meant to reduce the risk of contamination was taken up as another Carnival-goer’s costume.


Masks remain an important aspect of the modern celebration of the Carnival of Venice, with both new designs and variations of the classics.  Music is often played in the city’s streets and many squares, including St. Mark’s (Piazza San Marco).  The city features many other forms of entertainment during the Carnival, with live performances, fireworks, and numerous other attractions for visitors.  Parades are held throughout the city, and the festival ends with a silent procession of boats along the Grand Canal.


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