In the tiny town of S. Agata dei Goti where I live, Bocce is my preferred spectator sport. It is based on the most primitive and mesmerizing of athletic concepts: to aim and hit a target. Every afternoon, as the evenings become longer, from early Spring to mid-Autumn, small groups gather at the covered outdoor alley on the edge of town to spend a few pleasant hours chiding each other and showing off their playing skills. Although the game might look deceptively easy, I have come to admire these men (aged 50 – 90) and their various throwing techniques and the incredible accuracy they achieve.
Also known as ‘skittles’, Bocce is the precursor of modern bowling. Originating in Egypt, the game was first documented in a tomb painting dated 5200 B.C. and shows two boys playing with shiny stones. The game was introduced to Italy by the Greeks in 800 B.C. and the Romans took to it with a passion, introducing the concept of spherical balls, by first using coconuts and eventually carving them from olive wood.
During the 14th century Bocce was banned in many countries as Europe’s monarchs realized that the game was distracting the population from more serious occupations such as military training. The aristocracy however did not seem to have to obey these laws and it is rumored that Sir Francis Drake refused to stop a game of Bocce while England was being invaded by the Spanish Armada. He is said to have grumbled “First we will finish the game, then we will worry about the Spanish.”
The general gist of the game is that players have two bocce balls each. A smaller ball called a pallino is launched first and contestants attempt to throw each bocce ball as close to it as possible. There are a number of ways to launch the ball: softly to get as near to the pallino without touching it; hard, to whack an adversary’s sphere out of the way; bouncing, to overcome a rival’s placement…
I love to watch as the men gather at the far end of the court after each round, arguing in dialect over whose bocce is closer to the pallino. After a heated discussion a tape measure inevitably appears and the most accurate shot is often only a matter of a few millimeter’s. Then, laughing, they all start another round…
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