Bracer Handball

"Di gloria il viso e la gioconda voce, / garzon bennato, apprendi…/ Te l'echeggiante / arena e il circo, e te fremendo appella / ai fatti illustri il popolar favore";.../ ("Thou, lofty youth, learn of Glory's face and playful voice… The booming arena and court acclaim Thee, clad in people's favour for thy illustrious endeavours…"), thus, Giacomo Leopardi, one of Italy's most renowned poets celebrated in his 1821 poem, "Ode to a handball champion", the success and fame won by his young contemporary, Carlo Didimi, from Treia, a champion of a very popular sports at that time in north and central Italy: the game of bracer handball.

The oldest reference by Bolognese chroniclers on the ball game, played nearby the Church of St. Damiano in Bologna, dates back to 1432. Gaspare Nadi, architect and chronicler, reported in his "Bolognese Journal" that for the wedding of Lucrezia d'Este with Annibale Bentivoglio, celebrated in 1487, a handball game was organised as entertainment.

The handball game was certainly one of the most favoured pastimes of the Bolognese, who also loved to follow theatre plays, public celebrations and horse races held on the town streets. The enthusiastic following of the public attending the matches was particularly lively. From the mid 17th century onward the game was no longer played inside palaces, but in squares and areas open to public attendance. The Market Square, near the Montagnola, thus became the place where matches were held (P. Patrizi).

In order to keep spectators' enthusiasm in check and to find room for thousands of people flocking to see matches with famous teams and champions, new stands and tiers were built, where the public could follow the game, after having paid an entrance ticket. Other stands were built specifically for "trumpet, horns and timbal players", who before, during and after the match "played tunes" (C. Ricci). According to the rules of play, the game was played in a 90-100 m-long and 16-18 m-wide court, divided across in two parts by a line ("cordino"). The inflated leather ball, 10-15 cm in diameter, was thrown against a 20 m-high smooth wall by players with the help of a sort of hard-wood cylinder-shaped glove, or bracer, 17 cm-high, provided on the outside with rows of slightly rounded teeth. The bracer was worn over bandaged hands.

Matches were played by two teams usually composed of three players: the batsman (throwing the ball and starting the match), the backer and the mid-fielder (S. Jacomuzzi). Also very important were the "mandarin" (throwing the ball to the batsman running down from his "spring-board", a sort of sloping pitch), the "caller" (calling the score out-loud) and the "ball-keeper" (setting up the court and preparing the balls for the match).

The batsman threw the ball on the other team's side, where they had to hit it back and so forth, until one of the players incurred in a foul. The ball could be hit only with the glove.

The growing enthusiasm for this sport, with its related problems concerning disruption of the peace, forced the Municipal Administration to build a sports arena; in 1820, near the Montagnola gardens, the building for the "Ball Game" was erected as "locus ad follis pugilatoriis ludum adtributus in solatio civium."

The decline of bracer handball started in the late 19th century, as it was slowly replaced by football.


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"Map and Relief of the Handball Game in Bologna", 1820. Copper etching of the sports facility project for the bracer handball game, in Neoclassic style, drafted by Municipal engineer, Giuseppe Tubertini (ASCBo, Carteggio amministrativo, tit. XVI, rubr. 3, 1817, Photo: MV).