THERE IS NO CITY quite like Florence. Quintessentially Italian in culture, its history is both artistically rich and intertwined with political upheaval. The architecture is breath-taking, food and wine exquisite, and day-to-day life blissfully nonchalant. In short, the peninsula’s central metropolis has beauty in abundance.
Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to some of the most creative minds in history, imparting to the world the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. Furthermore, it is also accredited with the rise of what we know today as calcio.
Calcio Fiorentino, a sport that portrayed scenes nowadays more akin to watching gladiators engage in some form of barbaric rugby, was played in the piazzas of the city. It became a major source of national pride and was later reintroduced to mainstream society by fascist leader Benito Mussolini in a bid to nationalise the country and aid Italy’s global standing as an authoritative calcio force.
An Olympic gold medal in 1936 sandwiched between two World Cup victories would point towards his success, however, to this day, Italy remains fiercely regionalised. This is something Florence takes immense pride in; pride the locals call campanilismo – an idiom which loosely translates to ‘bell tower’. The origins of campanilismo are deep-rooted in religion and hark back to a time when regional pride revolved around the local church or cathedral. Indeed, Catholicism pervades much of Florentine life and its inhabitants have historically been intensely protective of their own gothic-come-renaissance masterpiece: the iconic Duomo.
La Divina Commedia – known in English as The Divine Comedy – is the preeminent work of Italian literature. In it, Florentine poet Dante Alighieri describes the three journeys one must walk after death, for purification, before entering heaven: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Whilst some complete their journey to Paradiso, others are condemned, left to wallow in the fiery pits of Lucifer’s Inferno.
One group in particular, the Ghibelline, were disparaged by Dante and sentenced to an eternal state of damnation. A political faction that supported the Holy Roman Emperor, they sought to take control of various Italian provinces throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. The city of Florence, which supported the Papacy, opposed this and fought for their autonomy at the Battle of Campaldino through a party called the Guelphs.
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Medieval bloodshed aside, modern-day animosity between Florence and districts that allied with the Ghibelline remains rife. Siena, one of the Ghibelline’s most prominent backers, have since enjoyed a heated rivalry with Florence. Over the years, as Catholicism slowly eased its grip on the Florentine psyche, calcio became its natural heir.
Football is a modern manifestation of war. The control of space and territory, the continuous physical competition for supremacy, and the incessant fight for regional pride. Disputes are no longer settled by bloodshed on battlefields but rather by the snarling poetry of the pitch. That said, the past still very much fuels the present with matches between Fiorentina and Siena known as the Guelph-Ghibelline derby – a contest which stood until 2014 when Siena went bankrupt; having to reform and begin again in Serie D. Surprisingly, then, this Tuscan feud isn’t even La Viola’s most heated rivalry.
Turin’s Juventus represent a fitting microcosm of northern Italy. Opulent and powerful, and no stranger to corruption. Their part in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal tarnished the club’s name and brought about many vocal critics, few of which shouted louder than Florence. Though the Old Lady’s dealings were unquestionably underhand – not to mention Fiorentina’s own dealings in the scandal – Florentine criticism derived from much more than just a disdain for match-fixing.
In 1982, La Viola lost out to Juventus in their race for the Scudetto on the final match of the season, courtesy of some rather dubious refereeing. Eight years later and they were again denied a trophy by their rivals, this time the UEFA Cup as Fiorentina lost the final to their Italian adversaries in another contest shrouded in controversy.
Italian football expert Luca Hodges-Ramon recounts: “With the first-leg in Turin tied at 1-1, a blatant push by Pierluigi Casiraghi on Fiorentina’s Celeste Pin was missed by officials, allowing Alessio Angelo to fire the home side in front. The game finished 3-1 and as Juve coach Dino Zoff gave his post-match interview, Pin walked past and yelled ‘ladri’ (thieves) in earshot of Zoff and Rai Sport’s microphones. Juve’s goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi would later remind La Viola that while they might win the war of words, his side would win on the pitch. He was right, the Bianconeri lifted the UEFA cup after drawing the return leg 0-0 in Florence.”
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Perhaps what hurt Florentines the most, though, was the sale of club forward Roberto Baggio to Juve for what was then a world record £8m fee. To the romantic souls of Florence, the Italian maestro wasn’t so much a player as he was a God. Similar to how Neapolitans regarded Diego Maradona, the divine ponytail was adored, blessing the city with supreme skill, unerring vision and goals aplenty. Baggio’s sale left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone on the Curva Fiesole. Their hero had departed. Just 12 years later, however, something far worse would disappear – the club itself.
In 2001 the dire state of Fiorentina’s finances came to light as La Viola stated they were unable to pay wages and held debts of around $50m. Owner Vittorio Cecchi Gori clambered to gather all the funds he could but soon came to the realisation that his insufficient resources could no longer sustain the club. Fiorentina were relegated in 2002 and filed for bankruptcy. They were denied entry to Serie B and consequently ceased to exist as a club.
Florentines are nothing if not resilient. From the ashes of their fallen club they rose once again, forming a new team under the guise Associazione Calcio Fiorentina e Florentina Viola. The necessary funds were provided by Diego Della Valle, an affluent businessman whose family were the founders of Tod’s, the luxury leather and shoe-making company.
Rich and powerful families are synonymous with using calcio to push their own personal agendas. It is seen as a vehicle to govern society, manipulate political influence and drive business ventures; a trend that began in the 1960s when wealthy families ploughed heavy investment into clubs across the land.
The Moratti family sunk their oil riches into Internazionale, the Agnellis’ Fiat fortune helped drive Juventus, and the Lauros’ ships set sail south to aid Napoli. Cutting through the blurred line of good will and questionable vested interest is a difficult one, but if one family in Italian history have proved masterfully adept at using wealth to gerrymander power, it’s Florence’s very own Medicis.
A family of bankers who later formed a political dynasty, the Medicis rose to great prominence in the 15th century. In many respects, their exertion of power can be used as the blueprint of how to influence greater society and exact control. After forming allegiances with the Pope, the house of Medici gained the support of the people – similar to how a rich businessman or politician uses the emotional attachment of a city to its football club to dictate local affairs.
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The Della Valles – ostensibly viewed as heroes for having guided the club back from ruin to Serie A and European football – would ultimately strike grim similarities with their Renaissance counterparts. After the club’s re-establishment in the nation’s top flight, the owners became increasingly reluctant to show any ambition of rubbing shoulders with its elite.
Matters are not helped by the fact the Della Valles often refer to their supporters as ‘vustomers’, a term that does not sit well with the average fan, let alone the Ultras Viola, their most ardent supporters group. As Chloe Beresford, a lifelong Fiorentina fan, notes: “The growing disillusion has prompted some to take drastic steps and avoid funding the Della Valle project. Many have chosen to watch their team solely away from home, and declining attendances at the Stadio Artemio Franchi are becoming a trend.”
Disenchantment and anger are two of the strongest emotions felt by those who regularly vacate their homes to travel to their footballing cathedral on matchdays. Though the noise of hostility may be rising, the recent death of club captain Davide Astori has left a stunned Florence in befallen silence. Disenchantment has been replaced by disbelief, anger by inextricable pain and sadness.
Astori was one of the people. Although born in Lombardy, he characterised the true essence of Florence through his captaincy, consistently showcasing his commitment, pride and passion. Calcio pales in comparison to the life of an individual, but it also has the amazing ability to bring people together in the face of despair. With the words Ciao Capitano draped over the gates of the Artemio Franchi, similar sentiments can be seen at stadia throughout Italy.
As Gianluigi Buffon – captain of arch-rivals Juventus – paid a touching tribute, this sentiment couldn’t be clearer. Everything else is put to one side in times of such tragedy: “You were the best expression of an old-fashioned world, one that people have left behind, with values like altruism, elegance, politeness and respect towards others.”
Florence is in mourning. Time will heal the pain, but the memory will always be there. For now, the city can fall back on its unrelenting resilience, strength of character, and the undying love for a game they originally gave to Italy. If Dante’s Divina Commedia is anything to go by, Astori will be resting peacefully in the eternal comforts of Paradiso.