Football is the prominent sport in Italy, but it wasn’t always so. There are many sports in Italy that are unique to the country and have their origins in its long and colourful history. The sport of Pallone col bracciale was, at one time the most popular sport in the country.
Traditional Italian sports:
Pallone col bracciale
The Spanish have their bull fighters, the Japanese have the Sumo wrestlers, you don’t hear about them much anymore but at one time the pallonista was a national hero in Italy and professional players commanded the highest salaries of any professional athletes in the world and enjoyed the passionate support of their countrymen.
Dating back to the 16th century, balls are struck back and forth with a wooden cylinder with wooden spikes, called a bracciale worn over the forearm. The game is played on a specially made court called a sphaeresterium, that is often built alongside city walls, thereby integrating the ancient structure into the gameplay. If played carelessly a broken arm can result as the bat can weight up to 2 kg. The ball was in the beginning inflated but later a hard rubber version was used. Scoring is in 15s and 10s, the same as tennis and the winner is the first to win 12 games. Some reckon that the game’s origins go even further back, all the way to Ancient Rome and Greece, where evidence of similar ball games has been unearthed.
While the regions most associated with the game were Tuscany, Piedmont, Emilia -Romagna and Lazio, the game was played widely and was a significant contributor to the formation of national unity after the country’s unification. It was, unusually, played in the north and the south and served to bring the two very different cultures together. Goethe famously wrote about it during his Italian journey in 1786-7, Le Marche’s poet laureate Giacomo Leopardi eulogised his favourite pallonista in verse.
Just as footballers today command the attention of the whole of Italy, the Pallonista was a figure of adoration and intense interest. After about 1930, when British military started to import their Association Football rules into every country in Europe, and, after a number of high profile betting and corruption scandals, the game went into decline around the country. There is a revival of the sport these days, but it exists as an exhibition sport of cultural curiosity rather than the living, beating heart of the country’s sporting theatre which it was for some many centuries.