A Tuscan Game – Pallone

WHAT Englishman, what sport-loving foreigner, is there who, after a brief residence in Italy, does not lose his head over the Italian national game of Pallone? It is as exciting as cricket, a good deal older, ten thousand times more aesthetic, and it takes up but two hours of your time when business for the day is over, instead of three whole days when the business of the day is left to shift for itself. It is strange that Pallone should never have been played before an English public; strange, too, that the English athlete, who knows the ins and outs of base-ball, the niceties of French and Italian fencing, the points of all foreign wrestling, the rules even of the Spanish bull-ring, should never so much as have heard of Pallone. The only parallel to it in nescience is the blank, hopeless, childlike ignorance of the Italian on the subject of cricket. And the Italian is less excusable than the Englishman, for in some of the Italian ports eleven sons of Albion from the ages of fifteen to sixty-five have been known to challenge on Italian soil an eleven of the Royal Navy or the Mercantile Marine, while Pallone requires a large and specially constructed court which no Italian would lightly think of setting up in Liverpool or London.

But to try and describe the game. Pallone is played upon a mud Court 312 feet long and 53 feet wide, a goodly area, as will be seen. On one side of the Court rises a wooden or stone wall some 50 feet in height. On the other side, and at either end, stand or sit the excited spectators. The Court is divided in the centre by a line. The players are usually six in number, three on one side and three on the other. And there is also the modest little mandarino, the sender or server. One of the three players is it battitore (the striker); the second spalla (shoulder), who stands, as it were, at the shoulder of the striker and backs him up when the ball is in motion; and the third is it terzino, who plays forward. Each player has on his hand a curious instrument, which, at first sight, looks like nothing so much as a huge pine-cone. This is the bracciale with which he strikes the ball. It is made of walnut wood, and studded at regular intervals with wooden spikes, but that part of it which strikes the ball is made of the extremely tough wood of the Cornelian cherry. The centre of it is hollow, and into this the player inserts his hand, which grasps a comfortably-shaped cross-piece at the bottom. The bracciale weighs a good 41 lbs. avoirdupois. It is about 8 inches in length, and has, owing to the projection of the spikes, a circumference of quite 24 inches. The “drive” which it produces is surprising. The ball is of stout leather, distended by pneumatic pressure; it weighs 12 ounces, has about 15 inches circumference, and is capable of doing grievous bodily harm.

The set consists of any number of games previously determined upon. Each side receives the service for two consecutive games, which together are styled a trappolino. But it is not one side which serves to the other. The battitore, or striker-off, stands upon an inclined spring-board at his end of the Court; the mandarino, or server, stands some twenty yards in front of him, and sends him a gentle lob, which the battitore receives and strikes as he rushes down, full tilt, from his point of vantage. The server skips out of the way, or lies down flat if he sets particular store upon his life, and the ball flies whizzing into the opposite Court. Then much the same rules and much the same tactics follow (though on a grandiose scale) as in our Lilliputian lawn-tennis. A point is lost in the same way, and a point is gained in the same way, save that if the ball drops outside or beyond the Court at either end, that counts to the side that sent it, for it needs a real tour de force to drive the ball so great a distance. I have seen Gabri, a famous Piedmontese battitore, send the ball served to him clean beyond the Court three times in succession, amid yells and bravos of which Tuscan throats alone are capable. But if the ball goes out of the Court, either on the right-hand side of the Court or the left-hand—that is, either among the spectators in the third-class places, or over the high wall opposite them, that counts against the side which sent it. The first point is i 5, the second 30, the third 40, the fourth game; there is no deuce or vantage.

But besides the giant and virile proportions of the game, there is another feature wholly unlike the tactics of lawn-tennis. The ball may strike the great wall as often as it chooses without disqualifying the stroke; and sometimes the cunningest and most maddening play is done close up to the wall with the ball creeping insidiously along it from Court to Court, Sometimes the forward player, for instance, will strike the ball against the wall, whence it rebounds at an angle at which only the nimblest adversary can hope to take it. In Pallone, all the science of ” placing” consists in a right calculation of the force and extent of angles. Most surprising, most tantalising, wildly exciting, are the results of some of this fierce play against the wall.

There is yet another variant of the game. In place of the line drawn across the Court, a narrow strip of net is raised some t0 feet above the ground, and over this the balls have to go. The netting is covered with little bells which ring out tunefully if the ball touches it, for, unlike lawn-tennis, the stroke is against you if you do not completely clear the net. The Italians on the whole prefer this game. It keeps the ball high, allows of long and exciting rallies, and prevents ” Whitechapel ” (bruciare), or the short low stroke which admits of the ball being sent just over the line in a manner in which it can rarely be taken in so huge a Court.

The players are dressed all in white; a loose white frilled jacket, which resembles a garment that may be seen on English clothes-lines, and is, I believe, called a petticoat body; white frilled knee-breeches, white cotton stockings, and white canvas shoes—a far more picturesque and serviceable get-up than our heavier yellowey-white flannels. Flowing from beneath the jacket hang the two ends of a sash which is either red or blue, for the two sides are always known as the Rossi and the Celesti, the Reds and the Blues. The mandarino, too, is dressed in white, but his jacket is tight-fitting, and his trousers are not knee-breeches. One other figure, he also a white one, stands in the Court by the dividing line, the scorer and umpire, who trills out in a musical sing-song the position of the game after every stroke, e.g. Trenta Celesli e niente Rossi!—Blues thirty, Reds love! Nor must I forget another important functionary, bronzed and burly as a rule, it Gonfiatore, whose business it is to inflate and reinflate the balls during play, and see that the server is served only with such as are sound and in good condition.

The players in a public match are almost always professionals. They are not poorly paid as pay goes in Italy. A good battitore will get as much as 500 livres a month, and terzino 350. It is true that the professional cricketer would have to renounce sport on such terms, but simplicity and unpretentiousness are still Italian characteristics. Famous among living players are Mazzoni (Tuscan), a squarely-built sturdy athlete, who would certainly be champion if there were a championship; Gabri (Piedmontese), brown, and very handsome, with his twinkling eyes and boyish geniality, whose smile gets more childlike as his stroke gets more demoniacal; Pettinari of the Marches, a crafty left-handed player, staid and philosophical in his bearing, whose unruffled calm adds to the surprise of his insidious strokes; Beppe Banchini, Franchi, Nidiaci, Silli, Bessi, Moggi, Marini, Tuscans all of them, and all full of renown; and greatest of all, perhaps, both living and dead, Domenico Bossotto of Cuneo, now long past play, but still doing work as Director of the game at Turin.

To the habitual observer the public is almost as diverting as the game itself. At either end of the Court, both dangerous positions, are the second-class places (admission 50 centimes, or 3d.). Opposite the great wall, stretching the whole length of the Court, are three terraces—the third-class places—where stand in rapt ecstasy the popolo (admission 30 centimes, or 2 1/2d.). There you will recognise your cabman, your barber, the waiter of the restaurant where you lunch, your postman, your butcher’s boy and your baker’s boy, your boatman and your favourite beggar: all doff their caps to you with a genial grin in commendation of the foreign gentleman who appreciates their national game. Above the second-class places (usually only at one end of the Court), rises the loggia of the first-class places (admission one whole livre, or 7 1/2. at the present rate of exchange) where sit, securely protected by wire netting, the signori, their mothers, their wives, their nursemaids and small children. Do not keep your face too near the wire protection, or at least keep your eyes open: one of Gabri’s “demon” drives will force in the netting a good twelve inches and deprive you of eyesight forever. But fairly secure behind the wire-netting, you may watch and enjoy the discomfiture of the good-natured popolo when the ball gets wild and flies among them: there is no time for them to dream of Socialist ideals, or to think of the iniquities of Municipality, or the faithlessness of sweethearts: all their attention is needed to fly before the false stroke that sends a ball whizzing into their midst. Even when the ball flies over their heads and strikes the wall behind them, there is no saying at what angle it will return among them. But a ball which rebounds and knocks off a hat or two, or bruises a pair of sturdy shoulders, is only matter for chaff and hilarity, and the injured, with Tuscan good-humour, are loudest of all in the general delight caused by their discomfiture. Death has resulted from blows received at Pal-lone, and cases of serious injury (especially to the poor players) are not infrequent. If the statistics of casualties are favourable when compared with football, they are at least evidence sufficient to show that the game has that element of danger required in all true sport. In many parts of Italy, however, the whole of the audience is protected from the vagaries of the ball, and certainly no Italian impresario would dream of setting up Pal-lone in London without properly sheltering the whole of his British audience.

Great zest is added to the game by innocent and unpretentious betting. One does not wager on the side that will win, but on that man among the six players who shall make the most points. The system adopted is that of the Totalizzatore, or ” pari mutuel ” as it is called in France. All the money collected is divided equally among those who have backed the winning player, less ten per cent. which the totalizzatore keeps as his commission. So you have the comfort of knowing, if you lose, that ninety per cent. of your stake does not go into the pockets of a ravening bookie, but may be shared in by your lawyer, your doctor, your water-carrier, and your favourite beggar.

And supposing Blue Terzino makes the greatest number of points, then there remain 63o francs to be equally divided among the ninety people who have backed him, and each receives seven francs. The system is simplicity and fairness itself, and is not without its charms. Of course any one person may take as many tickets on the same player as he chooses.

A careful note is kept of the points made by each individual player, and they are publicly scored as the game proceeds. Look at this representation of the scoring-board. It is divided into two parts, the left half facing you is red, the other half, blue. Of the four figures on the extreme outside, the upper two indicate the number of services received by each side—Reds one, Blues two—(remember that each service consists of two games), the lower and bigger figures that the Reds have won two games, and the Blues three. Of the remaining twelve figures, the upper line with the larger figures shows the number of points made by Battitore, Spalla, and Terzino of either colour respectively, the lower line or smaller figures indicating the number of faults or failures each player has made, for if two players should leave off equal in points, then the winner of the two is he who has the fewest faults against his name. This wagering on individuals who really form part of two opposing sides is perhaps a trifle unsportsmanlike, but it extends the possibilities of the betting, works well, and somewhat softens the asperities of excessive party feeling.

A very charming game, then, is this Italian national game of Pallone. Into its history and antiquity I forbear to go. The origin of the game is lost in obscurity; the hackneyed phrase, as it happens, literally tells the truth about it, and does not serve as an excuse for shirking research. One must read Greek and Latin to study the origin and first beginnings of the game. Quite a recent treatise on it is that of Messer Antonio Scaino, printed at Venice in 1560; the last notable book on the subject is ” Gli Azzurri e i Rossi ” (Turin, 1897), by a novelist famous here, and well known in England, Edmondo de Amicis. Nor can I now spare space to sing the prowess of past worthies. But one of them I must at least just mention, for I have been fortunate enough to secure a very striking portrait of him, a delicate line engraving, which brings out clearly all the frills and furbelows of the costume sixty years ago. This is Angelo Donati, whom very old Tuscan gentlemen can still remember, and still speak of with bated breath. He as Battitore, his brother as Spalla, and his son as Terzino made up the most formidable trio the game has ever witnessed. Angelo, from his demon stroke, was known as it Diavolone or the very devil, his brother as it Diavoletto or the devil of a fellow, and his son as it Diavolino or the little devil. Those were the palmy days of the game, when athletes were of more account than patriots and politicians.

Pallone has a fine flavour of antiquity about its appearance and mise en scene. The bronzed muscular players with their slight white picturesque costumes, the dense excited crowd, half-squatting, half-sitting, half-standing, the brilliant sun, the blue sky, the huge arena, recall without any effort of the imagination a Roman amphitheatre. The game (alas!) is on the decline. Time was when Royalty, on its visits to a favoured city, was always entertained with a gala game of Pallone, and authentic history has it that in the year 1814 King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies and British Vice-Consul Thomas Watson played a set on opposite sides in the great piazza of Livorno. But Royalty has heavier duties nowadays, and the burden of civilisation leaves the people little time and less money for innocent pastimes.

The English traveller in Italy would do well to leave for a while churches and picture-galleries and seek out a Pallone Court. He will not be disappointed, and will certainly come again. And I think I have a piece of good news for all English lovers of athletic sports. I know that with a little encouragement more than one impresario would be ready to set up a Pallone Court in London, and provide London audiences with the best of living players. Our Italian brother athletes would be heartily welcome, and may rest assured of that loyal and vigorous support which Englishmen as a nation are ever ready to accord to all forms of manly and healthy exercise.

Post scriztum.—It is to be hoped that a Pallone Court is not a ” place ” within the meaning of the Act, and that the harmless necessary totalizzatore will be allowed to discharge his functions unmolested.