“Ancient, honorable and somewhat murderous.” This is how a New York Times article from 1931 describes calcio storico, a sport that had resurfaced the year prior in the city of Florence. The occasion for its rebirth: the 400th anniversary of the siege of the city by the Emperor Carlo V. To boost tourism in Tuscany as well as promote virile, Italian sports, Florence’s fascist governor Alessandro Pavolini organized a tournament of the medieval game, pitting four of the city’s neighborhoods against each other.

The tournament now takes place every year with the final game played on June 24th, the day of the patron saint of Florence, San Giovanni. Rules have changed little since they were written in the 16th century. To the amusement of the New York Times journalist, whose article was titled “Football in Silks and Satin”, players wear historic costumes while confronting each other in what has been called the world’s most violent sport. At the firing of a cannon, the 27 players on each team try to get a basketball-sized leather ball into a goal, all the while kicking, wrestling and punching each other.

Photographer Alessandro Iovino followed team Azzurri (blue), which represents the Santa Croce neighborhood. It took him three months to convince them to enter their world. “These people are really close, and passionate for this event,” he said.

Aged 20 to 40, many of them work as bouncers or bodyguards, others are professional boxers and rugby players. Some are military veterans. And though they say they have won the tournament more than any other team, this year they were defeated. The Santo Spirito Bianchi players were the ones who received the winning prize: a Chianina cow, one of the oldest breeds of cow in existence. But what all the teams really play for, Iovino explained, is honor and respect, in addition to the bloodletting.

The blue team trains for the June tournament during the entire year.
Players warm up with weights before a training session.
Mirko Galli plays for team Azzurri.
Members of the blue team relax after a training session.
Before the opening game, all the players have to parade from Santa Maria Novella square to the arena in Santa Croce.
Moments before the game starts, the tension is high.
White supporters on the Santa Croce side.
The blue team makes an entrance.
Two players fight during this year’s calcio finals.
Wrestling, kicking and punching is permitted.
A member of the blue team lies injured after a tackle.