Italy’s Traditional Games: A Realm of Timeless Merriment and Heritage

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Last Updated on 2023/06/15

Playing Through History: Italy’s Traditional Games Unearthed.

Savoring a warm, silky bowl of pasta or feeling the notes of a captivating Puccini aria wafting through the air—these experiences may leap to mind when one contemplates Italy’s rich cultural landscape. However, the fascinating realm of Italy’s traditional games, rich in history and infused with spirited camaraderie, merits equal attention. Among the sun-kissed vineyards and ancient piazzas, these games have been passed down through the generations, much like secret family recipes or local folk tales. As we journey through this tapestry of tradition, you’ll gain a window into the heart and soul of Italy, not through its famed Colosseum or the romantic canals of Venice, but through the joy of its age-old games.

1. Bocce: Italy’s Answer to Petanque

The bocce players by Jan Miel, between 1633 and 1663
The bocce players by Jan Miel, between 1633 and 1663, source

You may have glimpsed Bocce (or Bocci) in charming Italian villages, or perhaps in your local park. This is a game as old as the Roman Empire, its roots embedded in the 5200 BC Egypt, when soldiers tossed polished stones in a competition of accuracy. Adapted by the Greeks and then passed onto the Romans, Bocce quickly became a beloved pastime. Eight balls, typically colored red or green, and one smaller white ball or pallino—the tools of the game are simple.

Participants throw the pallino, then compete to throw their Bocce balls as close as possible to the pallino. What makes Bocce intriguing, however, is the strategic depth. Skilled players employ spins, knocking away opponents’ balls, or even using the field’s curve. The Roman Emperor Augustus was known to be a keen player, and Italy’s heart has ever since held a special place for this game.

2. Morra: A Game as Old as Time

Roman Morra player, Constantin Hansen, 1837
Roman Morra player, Constantin Hansen, 1837, source

Morra, a game known for its blend of simplicity and enthusiasm, stretches back to the very cradle of civilization. Thought to originate from ancient Greece, the game moved to Italy where it flourished, enduring through millennia. It is believed that Roman soldiers played Morra to pass the time during long campaigns.

In Morra, two players simultaneously reveal their hands, showing any number of fingers from one to five. At the same moment, each player attempts to guess the total number of fingers their opponent will show. There’s an air of intensity to this seemingly simple game—a lightning-fast battle of prediction and intuition, usually accompanied by boisterous shouts and laughter.

3. Pallone col Bracciale: Renaissance Splendor

A match of "balloon with bracelet" at the spheristerium of Porta a Lucca, in Pisa, which has now disappeared
A match of “balloon with bracelet” at the spheristerium of Porta a Lucca, in Pisa, which has now disappeared, source

Tracing its origins back to the 16th century, Pallone col Bracciale was once considered the most prestigious game in Italy. Inspired by the Greek game of Episkyros, this game is often cited as a precursor to modern football along with Calcio Fiorentino. In the Renaissance era, this spectacle of sport was so popular that it even drew attention from Popes and royalty.

Pallone col Bracciale involves two teams of five players, a ball, and a court with walls on the sides. The players wear a wooden bracelet or ‘bracciale’ on their arms, using it to strike the ball against the wall with a might that could rival a cannonball. Points are scored based on where the ball lands after being struck. Despite falling out of favor for a while, there has been a revival of interest in recent years as Italy rediscovers this piece of its sportive history.

4. Scopone: Duel of Wits

Una scena tratta dalla commedia all’italiana Lo Scopone Scientifico, diretta nel 1972 da Luigi Comencini

Scopone, a derivative of the popular Italian card game Scopone Scientifico, is a game of strategy and calculation. Developed in the 18th century, the game has withstood the test of time, with Italians gathering around tables at home, in cafés or clubs, locked in an intense battle of wits.

Two teams of two players face off with a deck of Italian cards. The objective? To ‘scoprire’ or ‘uncover’ the opponent’s strategy and outmaneuver them by capturing cards with higher values. Points are awarded based on the cards captured, and the team that accumulates the highest score over several rounds triumphs. Scopone has even found its place in the world of cinema, featuring in the classic film “The Seduction of Mimi.”

5. La Ruzzola del Formaggio: Rolling with the Past

Ruzzola launchers from Barigazzo (MO) in the 1970s
Ruzzola launchers from Barigazzo (MO) in the 1970s, source

In the bucolic setting of Italy’s rural heartlands, a game has endured the tides of time, carried through centuries from Roman times to the present. La Ruzzola del Formaggio, or “Rolling the Cheese,” sees participants pitting their skill and dexterity in a race against gravity and time.

A wheel of aged pecorino cheese, hefty and round, becomes the centerpiece of this contest. The players hurl it along a designated course, trying to make it cover the longest distance possible. The cheese, spinning along dusty country lanes or village streets, paints a mesmerizing spectacle. It’s a game that blends precision, strength, and a dash of luck, echoing a rural past when work and play were often intertwined.

6. Gioco delle Biglie: Italy’s Marbles Masterpiece

Gioco delle Biglie, or the game of marbles, holds a nostalgic charm for many Italians. You might conjure an image of children huddled in a sun-dappled piazza, eyes focused intently on their spherical treasures, as they immerse themselves in a game of biglie.

The rules of the game can vary from region to region, but the objective generally involves striking the opponent’s marbles to move them out of a drawn circle or hitting a target marble. Like Bocce, the game requires precision, tactics, and a keen understanding of angles. It’s not just a child’s play—it’s a game that transcends generations, a symbol of simpler times, and a beloved pastime in the Italian cultural memory.

7. Tressette: A Battle of Cards

Our journey would be incomplete without venturing into the captivating world of Italian card games. Amongst many, Tressette stands out, revered for its complexity and depth. Originating in the 17th century, Tressette is a strategic partnership trick-taking game, typically for four players, which involves capturing cards with higher values.

Played with a 40-card Italian deck, the game begins with players bidding to decide the trump suit. High strategy ensues as players attempt to control the number of tricks taken while scoring points. Tressette holds a place of prestige in Italian culture, often sparking heated, hours-long battles over the card table, and providing a snapshot of Italy’s fondness for skill-based social games.

8. Lippa: A Game of Strike and Chase

Originating in the agricultural societies of ancient Rome, Lippa is a dynamic outdoor game that combines precision, agility, and strategy. Its central equipment includes a wooden peg (lippa) and a long, flat stick. Players take turns striking the lippa, launching it into the air, and then trying to hit it again in mid-flight. The second strike, if successful, sends the lippa hurtling across the field.

The competition arises when other players attempt to catch the flying lippa before it lands. If they succeed, the original hitter loses a turn. If the lippa lands without being caught, the field players then use the flat stick to fling the lippa back towards the hitter, aiming to strike a designated target. Filled with laughter and friendly rivalry, Lippa is a testament to the human joy of chasing and being chased.

9. Tamburello: Echoes of the Roman Empire

Tamburello, also known as pallatamburello, dating back to ancient Rome, has its origins linked to the classic game of handball. However, this game added a twist: the use of a ‘tambourine’ or ‘tamburello,’ a circular frame with a tight skin or fabric, used to strike a small, hard ball.

The game, played in open spaces, sees two teams aiming to strike the ball over a line in the opposing team’s half. The opposing team then tries to catch and return the ball using their tamburello. Points are scored when the ball is hit out of the designated field or if the receiving team fails to return the ball. This fast-paced, highly energetic game is a combination of skill, reflexes, and teamwork, embodying the passion and spirit of Italian traditional games.

10. Guardi e Ladri: A Game of Shadows and Pursuit

Guardi e Ladri, a traditional Italian game equivalent to the globally recognized ‘Cops and Robbers,’ is steeply rooted in Italy’s societal fabric. Often played in the narrow, winding streets of Italian towns, it involves two groups – the ‘guardie’ or ‘cops,’ and the ‘ladri’ or ‘thieves.’

The game’s goal is to guard a designated ‘jail’ while attempting to catch the ladri, who try to infiltrate the jail to free their imprisoned teammates. The game, filled with excitement, intrigue, and exhilarating chases, brings together participants of all ages. It’s a celebration of camaraderie, strategy, and a reminder of the childhood joys of hide and seek.

From launching wooden pegs in Lippa to energetic rallies in Tamburello, and the thrilling pursuits in Guardie e Ladri, these games further enrich our understanding of Italy’s dynamic gaming tradition. They present an enticing blend of agility, strategy, and community spirit, mirroring the diverse, vibrant soul of Italy. With this, our scenic tour of Italy’s traditional games completes a grand total of ten, each echoing with stories, laughter, and the timeless joy of play.

Yopics: Traditional Games of Italy, Historic Italian Card Games, Ancient Roman Traditional Games, Famous Games from Italy, Games Played in Traditional Italian Villages, Classic Italian Outdoor Games, Italian Games with Historic Roots

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