A festa diabolica for Saint John: The Saint’s Day Tournament in Florence, 1513

On 24 June Florence celebrates the feast day of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the city. This religious observation is accompanied by city-wide events and celebrations and has been practiced in Florence for centuries. The modern festivities retain many practices with historic origins, such as parades and the observation of Mass in the Duomo, but the intra-city Calcio Storico – a cross between football, rugby, and wrestling – did not exist until the late sixteenth century. Prior to this, tournaments were held as part of the celebrations – in one of the key dates in the Florentine calendar, which often lasted for several days. Tournaments in republican Florence were often associated with a civic event or religious observance and were organised and sponsored by the Signoria, the highest level of contemporary government. The majority of these tournaments took the form of jousts and included a diverse range of competitors such as Florentine citizens, the younger sons of elite families, and condottieri in Florentine employ. In contrast to some other parts of contemporary Europe, Florentine tournaments were open to non-nobles – with some exceptions. In rare cases, such as in 1513, group combat was held instead of jousting. Luca Landucci, a Florentine apothecary who kept a detailed diary between 1500 and 1514, recounts the celebrations for the feast day and briefly narrates the tournament – and how it went wrong.[1]

            Landucci is often sparing with details in his diary, with the exception of accounts of his own property and affairs, for example the effect of the weather on the fruit trees at his villa at Dicomano. However, it is easy to recreate the tournament in 1513 from Landucci’s limited information on the participants, their equipment, and especially from his comments on the aftermath. We are informed, for example, that the tournament was held in the Piazza della Signoria, the political centre of the Republic of Florence. This is unusual as tournaments were more commonly held in the Piazza Santa Croce, as is the modern grand final of the tournament’s successor, the Calcio Storico. Temporary stands were also built to accommodate the spectators who came from miles around for the feast day. To give an idea of the size of the crowd, the spectators at the feast day in the following year, 1514, were so numerous that they even used the rooftops surrounding the piazza. Landucci recounts such vast crowds of people ‘never having been known, for numbers of strangers had come from many different parts’ – including four Roman cardinals in disguise.[2]

            Within the list, the area where the combat took place, a wooden castle was constructed as the centre and focus of the fighting, but no description or iconographic representation has survived. This temporary edifice was defended by one hundred men, who aimed to resist the three hundred attackers.[3] A secondary near-contemporary Florentine commentator, Giovanni Cambi, recounts that the castle was eighty braccia, or arm-lengths, around but, in contrast to Landucci, states that there were four hundred attackers ‘of our territory’ – possibly soldiers in Florentine employ.[4] Both sides used ‘lances and divers weapons’, which may have been whatever they had to hand, and crucially fought in the tournament without armour. There is nothing particularly unusual with the story so far – it was an urban tournament fought without armour. Both writers describe what happened after the combat, which led Cambi to decry the whole tournament as a ‘festa diabolica’.[5] The actions of the defenders, or possibly a small group of them, who led ‘bad lives’ caused serious injuries and some deaths amongst the attackers – it should be remembered that intentionally killing an opponent was never a part of tournaments. These injuries were inflicted by a somewhat unusual tournament weapon – unbaked bricks! The defenders may have taken these bricks from a construction site in Florence, possibly on their way to the tournament, and were presumably thrown from the walls of the wooden castle onto the unarmoured attackers. It is easy to imagine the effect of an unbaked brick, travelling with some force, on an unarmoured body, and it is no surprise that some of the attackers were badly wounded and others died later in hospital.

            It is not clear from the sources if the defenders intended to cause such injuries to their opponents. There is no record of names, district origins, or factional groupings in the records. Cambi clearly views these men as evil, due to the outcome of this festa diabolica, but Landucci simply refers to the brutal nature of the fighting – which is not difficult to imagine. However, this was not the end to the fatalities. In their eagerness to watch the spectacle, a group of soldiers built a platform over a nearby doorway and invited two courtesans to watch the combat. This platform collapsed onto two brothers and all four were killed. It is little surprise that the celebrations for the feast of St. John in the following year, 1514, was a smaller scale, and arguably safer, joust of ‘about sixteen jousters, all soldiers’.[6]

[1] A Florentine Diary from 1450 to 1516 by Luca Landucci continued by an anonymous writer till 1542 with notes by Iodoco del Badia, trans. by Alice de Rosen Jervis (London: J. M. Dent & Sons LTD., 1927), p. 270.

[2] A Florentine Diary from 1450 to 1516, p. 275.

[3] Ideas of those ‘within’ defending against those ‘without’ had existed from the earliest days of the tournament.

[4] Istorie di Giovanni Cambi Cittadino Fiorentino, Volume 3, ed. by Fr. Ildefonso di San Luigi (Florence: Cambiagi Stampator Granducale, 1786), pp. 23-24.

[5] Istorie di Giovanni Cambi, pp. 23-24.

[6] A Florentine Diary from 1450 to 1516, p. 276.

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