Italy – a medieval game that survives the centuries…

I was reminded of the medieval hand ball game ‘pallone col bracciale’ by an Italian TV programme yesterday…..

My ears pricked up when I heard mention of the town of Macerata…..and I saw an old photo of a group of gents in white who looked exactly like the ‘Pallone col Bracciale’ players of Le Marche! Sure enough they were the very same, brave and possibly foolhardy characters. These are individuals who launch a rock hard leather ball off the walls of the local castle, to then be intercepted by an opponent wearing a giant mitten carved from the hardest wood available (often walnut). The ball is then whacked back towards the ‘server’ who can either hit the ball directly or allow it to ricochet off the castle walls before hitting it back to the opponent once again. It’s like a primitive version of squash, played with a cricket ball and a wooden mallet.

This game has been played since medieval times and is still occasionally played in the fortified towns of Le Marche, including Cingoli, Macerata, Mondolfo and Treia. In fact the game, traditionally could be played in any location as long as there was a long, straight, high wall to act as the back wall of the court or field. Consequently the fortified towns of Le Marche, with their massive stone ramparts and towering walls were a perfect choice.

Just to be clear, ‘Pallone col bracciale’ is a medieval hand-ball type game, where players throw a hard leather ball down a rectangular field or court. The ball must then be returned, by the opposing player, using his ‘bracciale’ attached to his forearm. The player wears this ‘bracciale’ as an arm shield to protect his arm. The shield is made of wood and is carved with blunt spikes, a little like an armadillo’s shell. The idea is that the ball is kept in play using the ‘bracciale’ like a racket or hard surface to return the ‘pallone’. The game requires a great deal of skill, precision and strength. It also requires bravery, the ball is rock hard, like a cricket ball and the wooden armour is hard and strong but there’s no cushioning……

In renaissance times the leather ball and carved wooden arm covering (arm-our) were given as gifts to neighbouring dukes and lords. Giacomo Leopardi the poet, even wrote a poem about ‘pallone col bracciale’ where two teams fight it out on the ‘sferisterium’ as the high-walled court was sometimes known. These ‘sferisterium’ courts can still be seen in Macerata, Treia and Mondolfo today.

I was wondering if anyone knows of other ‘pallone’ courts still in existence today. Certainly they existed in Forli, near Rimini and in other locations in Emilia Romagna and also Le Marche. The black and white photos below show heroes of the sport in the 19th century. One such character was Carlo Didimi a champion player, who was born and lived in Treia. He was such a fantastic shot that one of his ‘pallone’ left the ‘sferisterium’ in Macerata, where he was playing, cleared the boundary and landed in the neighbouring piazza. So in cricket terms that would definitely have been a ‘six’. Today Carlo Didimi is remembered with great reverence in the Museum of Treia, where a whole room is dedicated to the game and the numerous trophies won by the local team.

The ‘giocatori’ (players) were heroes of their day!

The rules of the game (1555) Venice
The rules of the game (1555) – Venice. This book is in the Royal Academy Collection, London

In the last few decades it’s become fashionable to embrace the traditions and spectacles of the past. Treia and several of the other Marche towns now have active ‘pallone’ teams and tournaments take place each summer. Here’s a rather dated but descriptive video from 1995. It shows the power and bravery required to play the game effectively. Whenever I watch this film I’m amazed by the proximity of the spectators to the fast-moving and did I mention rock-hard leather ball.

Treia – city of ‘pallone col bracciale’ promotes the history + culture of this small fortified city in Le Marche, in this charming if dated video of 1995!
A recent ‘pallone’ match with spirits running high. Photo: www.avvenire.it

Notes:

  • If you find yourself in Le Marche, which is a charming region of Italy I’d strongly recommend a visit to Treia. You’d soon spot the ‘pallone’ court. Once inside the walls of this gorgeous medieval town the views across the countryside from the ‘belvedere’ are simply stunning.
  • Some of the photos – thanks to: www.newsrimini.it and also: www.avvenire.it
  • History is so fascinating, it is just so fascinating, behind every medieval wall and every palace door in Italy there’s a story waiting to be told. I now know that the courts used to play these types of hand-ball games are called ‘sferisterio’ or ‘sferisterium’ depending on whether you go for a spot of modernity or not!
  • Why not visit the Museums of Treia: www.treiamusei.it
  • Carlo Didimi, champion ‘pallone’ player lived from 1798-1877. It’s quite possible that Giacomo Leopardi, the romantic poet, saw him play.

Le Marche region is located on Italy’s east coast, south of Venice and east of Tuscany.

Other articles about Le Marche:

Corinaldo – the facade of ‘Casa di Scuretto’ and why you should…Never send money home!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.