Florentine football game, as shown in the Palazzo Vecchio

It’s World Cup time, and whether you love or hate it football has a big place in history. So here at History Matters we thought we’d ask for your top historical footballing moments. Personally, I’m a football dilettante, the sort of person who tunes in for the World Cup and not much else. But football has turned up more than a few times in my current research on sixteenth-century Florence, and that’s made me think about its significance in politics and culture more broadly.

For Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence from 1537-74, football was one means of keeping the people happy. This was a tricky task that had to be managed through ‘justice and abundance’, and civic spectacle, football included, played a key role. Among the lavish entertainments hosted in Florence by Cosimo’s predecessor Alessandro for the visit of his fiancée Margaret of Austria in 1533, was a match in Piazza Santa Croce, where historical football is still played today. According to one historian, Alessandro’s personal enthusiasm for playing football allegedly led to a broken nose (caveat: I’m still trying to firm up the sources on that one). It’s not implausible, though: athleticism was an important attribute for the self-respecting Renaissance prince, whose aptitude for rulership could be demonstrated by his physical prowess.

Pontormo - Kicking Player My current fascination, though, is with a football-related art commission that was never carried out. Sometime in the 1530s, Jacopo Pontormo was asked to produce a fresco of ‘nudes playing football’ for the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano, just outside Florence. The fresco was never completed and only two sketches survive, including that of the ‘Kicking Player’ shown above. The design is sometimes said to allude to a game played in Florence on 17 February 1529, while the city was besieged by Spanish troops – a symbol, then, of civic defiance. But I’m not convinced that’s the whole story. So, while I try and work out the possible significance of the elusive fresco… does football feature in your research? Tell us your favourite history and football tales in the comments section…

Catherine Fletcher is Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield. Her other posts for this blog are here. She’s currently writing a biography of Alessandro de’ Medici, which you can read more about here.

Header image: Giorgio Vasari, ‘Game of Football’, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence ©Catherine Fletcher
Inset image: Jacopo da Pontormo, ‘Kicking Player’, Uffizi Gallery [Wikicommons]

Tags : artFlorencefootballhistory
Catherine Fletcher

The author Catherine Fletcher


  1. In ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) Virginia Woolf uses football as an example of a “masculine value” in society, which in turn shapes our understanding of what is “important” in fiction. By contrast, “feminine values” are often dismissed as trivial and unimportant:

    “Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”

  2. I believe that there was a game played around Christmas time during WW1 on the western front. German and English and (to a lesser degree) French troops emerged from the trenches to have a game of football. I’m not 100% sure of the accuracy of this but I can’t help but wonder whether it went to penalties and if so, is this where the English tradition of losing on penalties began…

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