Music and balls at the Sferisterio

In the nineteenth-century, the so-called "pallonisti" earned higher wages than any other type of sportsman; and their game "bracciale", in all its various forms, filled the sporting pages of the newspapers of the time. We’re talking about something that goes back centuries, compared to which soccer seems like an upstart younger cousin. Crowds would flock to see the teams go head-to-head in a game whose scoring system most closely resembled that of tennis, and which similarly stirred the passions and wild vortices of betting.
Such an old sport in a country as politically fragmented as Italy could only splinter off into myriad forms. The Tuscan “bracciale” was elsewhere known as the Pallone Grosso, (big ball), with a leather ball that weighed a good 750g; the version in Piedmont, meanwhile, used a lighter ball of a mere 300g. All these games shared a common ancestry with tennis, deriving from the medieval jeu de paume, and fragmented into other scions like tamburello, pillota, swingball. It might not be an exaggeration to say that, until the twentieth century, bracciale was Italy’s national sport.
But from the 1920s onwards, the advent of Anglo-Saxon sports heralded its decline. Soccer was the chief culprit, which in Italy has since appropriated the word pallone for itself. Bracciale’s loss was also volleyball’s gain, and indeed the two sports shared some common features: in both cases the ball is ‘set’ from the back, before being spiked by the hitter into the opposition half, landing (they hope) inside the lines.

The great champions of bracciale’s heyday enjoyed tremendous popularity, so much so that their earnings compared to those of today’s Formula 1 drivers. The results were on everyone’s lips, like the football results today. Even the great poetLeopardi wrote an ode “A winner at the pallone", singing his deeds in a poem that remained current and relevant for at least another century.

The audiences that the sport drew in were colossal. So colossal that they necessitated the construction of dedicated, permanent structures: some made use of natural embankments and amphitheatres, while some were erected from scratch.These stadia were called sferisterii. Each one was ringed with a great wall (without which the game couldn’t function), around an oblong, almost elliptical field some 80 metres in length, with semi-circular stands for the crowds. None greater than the Sferisterio of Macerata, a structure that can not only boast of the greatest athletes of yesteryear, but which also shows that unique Italian ability to adapt to situations without losing sight of gusto di vivere, of Vivere di Gusto. That is, taste for the competition, but also for beauty and for things simply made well. Even if, sometimes, it seems that we do all these things only to immediately forget about them.

The Sferisterio was born of a huge communal effort. Sometime in the early 1800s, Macerata summoned all its citizens of age, who pooled their resources and funds to hire architects and buy materials. This was all organized by the so-calledCento Consorti, the hundred whose names remain carved into the building. The construction endured stops, starts and setbacks for almost a decade, right up to its inauguration in 1929. It could hold up to 10,000 spectators, and 10,000 spectators it routinely welcomed over the following 90 years, come to exhort their champions of the bracciale. It also served as the perfect venue whenever the circus came to town. As the new sport of soccer exploded onto the scene, the exploits of bracciale players were gradually supplanted by people running around in shorts. The Sferisterio played host to Macerata’s soccer team for a few years, but it took a long time before the supplanted the old company of bracciale players in public affections.

It was in 1921, and with the same irrepressible energy, that the sferisterio took its first tentative steps as an opera house. Its inaugural performance could hardly be anything but Verdi’s lavish, extravagant Aida: the loudest and most epic of operas. The spectacle required the making of a huge hole in the old backwall, while the playing field became an immense oval stage, with an orchestral pit scooped out beneath. It was a resounding success: the production ran to 17 nights, and notched up 70,000 spectators.

But the story of the Sferisterio was not always so rosy. It had some tremendous high points, but they alternated with low ones until the late 1960s, when people finally grasped that the Sferisterio played a vital, integral role in Macerata’s charm and attraction, whatever its considerable acoustic merits. Under various directors and boards, its stage welcomed the most important voices of international bel canto, and put on some game-changing productions. From then on, the Macerata Opera Festival has gone from strength to strength, bringing the most extraordinary music to this place that one rang with the sound of cheers, chants, and cries of joy and despair.

The face of glory and her pleasant voice,
O fortunate youth, now recognize,
And how much nobler than effeminate sloth
Are manhood's tested energies.

Take heed, O generous champion, take heed,
If thou thy name by worthy thought or deed,
From Time's all-sweeping current couldst redeem;
Take heed, and lift thy heart to high desires!
The amphitheatre's applause, the public voice,
Now summon thee to deeds illustrious;
Exulting in thy lusty youth.
In thee, to-day, thy country dear
Beholds her heroes old again appear.

His hand was ne’er with blood barbaric stained
at Marathon,
who on the plains of Elis could behold
the naked athletes, and the wrestlers bold,
and feel no glow of emulous zeal within,
the laurel wreath of victory to win.

[Giacomo Leopardi, from To a Winner at the Bracciale, 1921/24. Translated by Frank Townsend]