Bat-and-ball-games — an Italian obsession

Italy today is synonymous with football, but it wasn’t always so — historically, a great variety of bat-and-ball games enjoyed huge success throughout the peninsula — and created famous champions in the process.

Ball game italy
Rome, a view of the gardens of Palazzo Barberini, with elegantly dressed figures watching a game of 'Palla a Bracciale'. Credit: Asar Studios / Alamy Stock Photo

Using sport or games as a keyhole through which to glimpse a foreign land has a long and noble literary tradition: some books, like David Winner’s Brilliant Orange or Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pyjamas, climb right through that keyhole and reveal the historical and psychic subtleties of, respectively, Holland and Japan.

Being football-addicted, it’s hard for me not to look at Italy through the lens of football, its presidents, players, fans and ultras. But football is a very recent arrival on the Italian sporting scene and I’m always aware that it lacks the longue durée. The country’s oldest club, the Genoa Cricket and Football Club, was only founded 129 years ago, in 1893 (one year after Liverpool); and although there were obviously precedents to football across the peninsula, most notably Calcio Fiorentino, a mash-up between fight-club and rugby, the country had another genre of sport with far deeper roots than foot-and-ball games: bat-and-ball ones.

There were so many regional variations to Renaissance thwack-a-ball that it’s incessantly confusing: Pallone col BraccialePallaPalla PugnoPantalera and Tamburello. I made the mistake of raising the issue in a social setting recently — with representatives from all corners of the peninsula — and the conversation quickly caught fire with everyone giving their regional twist on these simple games. ‘No, no, Balon’s different,’ one young woman said, patiently explaining yet another antiquarian sport.

The rules of these games were continually invented and altered according to the incline of the street, the presence of balconies, the number of players and the type of bat allowed. In 1555, an Abbot from Salò published three volumes about these ancestral versions of tennis. Antonio Scaino’s Trattato del giuoco della palla (contemporary value £13,200, according to an auction in Christies in 2005) describes how those varieties were beginning to coalesce and formalise their rules. Scaino’s preference was for the more challenging game involving ‘la corda’ — the string, or net: it was, for him, ‘the rarest and most valued’ version. The net made decent shots ‘a difficult and excellent feat not to be found in games played in the open.’

But it was less net games than pallone col bracciale that created sporting superstars on the peninsula. It usually (but not always) required a high wall along the length of the rectangular playing field (in the absence of that longitudinal wall, there were four players to each side instead of three). Since the longest uprights in a city usually belonged to the castle or the city walls, games were played in dry moats and between the ravelins. The size of the courts varied, but were roughly 80 metres long and 20 wide: the ‘bracciale’ was a knobbly glove made out of walnut wood weighing one — two kilos: it was spiked with 105 pyramidal teeth made out of rowan or dogwood.

The spectacle of Popeye-armed men passing the time by punching a ball is often recounted in Italian literature. And like all sports, pallone threw up iconic champions. Carlo Didimi (1798-1877) was a Mazzinian revolutionary who was pardoned after the failed uprisings of 1831. A local man who was born, and died, in Treia [the Marche], Didimi, hit the ball so hard and far that Leopardi wrote an Ode to him: ‘A un vincitore nel pallone’:

On this day your dear country drives you, in the peak of your youth, to emulate the ancients … Therefore lift your head to the horizon; what is the aim of life? It is only to criticise life itself…

The Marche and Tuscany were the regions most famous for the sport. Small towns like Poggibonsi (between Siena and Florence) had eighteen professional players at one time. One of them, Silvio Bencini, was nicknamed ‘Braccioni’ — big arms — and was once chased out of Florence for having, allegedly, chucked a match. Like all sports, pallone was surrounded by bookmakers.

The game suffered a schism when the innovation of vulcanised rubber persuaded the Piedmontese that a smaller, bouncier ball was more fun. In the north-west of the country, players now began playing with a hand-wrapping made of cloth and leather in a game called ‘fist-ball’: palla-pugno. The ball travelled further, so the court was extended to 90 metres. One champion, Felice Bertola, was so loved locally that he was the torch-carrier for the 2006 Turin winter Olympics even though the sport had nothing to do with the games.

Pantalera was almost identical to palla-pugno but with a different serve (the ball bounces on a board mounted on the wall just above head-height). Palla (or ‘palla-Eh’) is more vernacular, played on any random court chalked onto a street in the hill-top towns of Maremma (Tuscany): the courts are often irregular, lumpy spaces, complete with slopes, cars, pedestrians and balconies. Tamburello is (usually) a five-a-side game on a wall-less, net-less court 80 metres by 20 in which players use a tambourine to hit the ball.

These various versions of pallone in Italy are still played, followed and bet upon. But they feel like relics from the past. There’s a heritage feel to many of the local tournaments, as if they’re part of the high-summer pageantry at which Italian hill-top towns excel. But you also see spontaneous games in streets and fields, matches that happen just because there’s already a white line on the cobbles and a friend has two gardening gloves and a ball.

The human capacity to invent new games seems almost limitless: Teqball was invented in Hungary in 2012 and is a cross between football, volleyball, and table tennis (with the table now curved downwards). At the other end of the serious-comedic spectrum, there are inflated balloon tournaments which have huge YouTube followings (they’re an evolution of the game many parents and kids played during lockdowns).

What’s interesting to me is how, despite the understandable global obsession with football, there’s still a yearning for games involving hands and bats. Padel — a sport invented in 1969 in Mexico with an enclosed, mini-tennis court for doubles — has grown exponentially in Italy post-lockdowns. Heavily-booked courts now cost over €50 an hour. However serious the world situation, humans always seem to want to play.

Author

Tobias Jones