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Throwing balls at a target is one of mankind’s oldest pastimes, and a sport you may have never heard of is likely the world’s oldest competitive game. Bocce. Having evolved over the centuries, Bocce is an ancient game whose origins are clouded by antiquity. Perhaps the first players were the inhabitants of Pharaoh’s Egypt, where tombs dated to 5200 B.C. depict a bowling game played with polished stones. Historians believe that the Greeks latched on to the game during the 6th Century B.C. and introduced it to the Romans.
Indeed, Roman influence looms large over the history of Bocce. The most reliable sources agree that Bocce, as we know it today, was played between battles during Rome’s Punic Wars against Carthage, in 264 B.C. As the Roman Empire expanded throughout Europe, the Mideast, and Asia, the seeds of Bocce were sown and the sport’s popularity spread like wildfire.
Titus Plautus (254 – 184 B.C.) said, “Not every age is fit for childish sports.” Apparently Plautus never played Bocce. People from all walks of life played the game as Bocce is easily adapted to the old and the young, men, women, and children. Throughout the centuries innumerable variations of bocce have been played in streets, churches, castles, beaches, alleys, country greens, and front lawns.
Oh, the Debauchery!
As the game enjoyed rapid growth throughout Europe, being the sport of peasants and nobility alike, it began to threaten the health of nations. In 1319 Roman Emperor Charles IV outlawed the game to people of lesser nobility since he felt it interfered with military training. Edward III of England followed suit in 1361, and in 1511 King Henry VIII imposed a similar ban not only because it may have created a diversion from the military preparedness but he thought it unsavory and an activity that led to moral decay. Further, even the Catholic Church once condemned the sport, citing a “pernicious gambling influence”. Over time the bowl games of England became increasingly associated with taverns, drinking & gambling, and became unfashionable.
It’s hard to keep a good thing down. Any game that people find competitive and enjoyable will overcome attempts to prevent it. And Bocce is no exception.
What’s in a Name?
The name Bocce has its own muddled history. Some etymologists say the word bocce is derived from the Italian bacio, meaning kiss. (The idea is to kiss or snuggle, or otherwise get close to the object of your affection – the pallino or target ball). Still others say bocce is a direct descendant of the Latin word bottica, a vulgar term meaning boss.
And famous names throughout history are connected to a passion for playing, including; Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who spoke highly of the game and claimed playing Bocce was beneficial to one’s health; Emperor Augustus (31 B.C. – 14 A.D.) who played, perhaps, with coconuts the Romans brought back from Africa; English Admiral Sir Francis Drake, whom legend says was told an attack by the Spanish Armada was imminent. His response…? “First we finish the game, then we have time for the invincible armada”; and George Washington purportedly played bocce and built a court at his Mount Vernon estate in the 1780’s.
Sizing up the Court
As the game spread throughout the world, people’s interpretations of things like the “rules” and the “official” size of the court were as varied and diverse as the region in which Bocce was played. It’s generally agreed and accepted that the dimensions of a proper Bocce court today fall between 60’ and 84’ long by 10’ to 12’ wide. And, as it is with baseball parks, the attraction of each individual court is found in the variety and unique characteristics. The court at Aunt Chilada’s is 60‘ long and 10’ wide.
It’s also generally agreed that as long as one has a natural surface, the court’s dimensions can be marked and the pallino can be thrown! The playing surface at Aunt Chilada’s Bocce court is a mixture developed by one of the game’s masters - Tom McNutt - who concocted a number of recipes to come up with the ideal formula. The crushed oyster shell mix helps maintain an optimum playing surface as it allows water to percolate through and slowly re-level itself.
Kiss the Fanny
Pétanque (the French version of Bocce) is responsible for the tradition whereby losing teams who score no points are obliged to “kiss the fanny.” ALL players defeated by a shut-out have to kiss the fanny with the winning team serving as witnesses.
Legend has it that the tradition started in France’s Savoy region. Fanny (a common name in France) was a waitress at the Café de Grand-Lemps circa World War I. Fanny would allow players who lost with no points to their credit to kiss her on the cheek. One day it was the village mayor who had been “skunked” and came to collect his kiss. Reportedly there was bad blood between the two and, intending to humiliate the mayor, Fanny stepped up onto a chair, lifted her skirt, and offered him…her fanny! The mayor was up to the challenge and two loud kisses echoed through the café.
It was the beginning of a long-standing tradition and one that we dutifully support at Aunt Chilada’s. Our own “Fanny” awaits inside the bar, a Diego Rivera-inspired piece completed by an artist in Guanajuato, Mexico in January 2009.
The Mexican Connection
As Bocce’s historical emphasis is primarily rooted in European and Mediterranean lore, the tendency is to see the game’s origins and rich history as specific to those regions.
Half a world away, however, there’s evidence that a similar game was being played in Mexico! It’s believed that the Pre-Columbian people of Mesoamerica (an area generally known as Central America today) played a version of a ball game on long, narrow alleys for over 3,000 years.
While the game was played casually for simple recreation, including by children and perhaps even women, the game also had important ritual aspects, and formal matches would be held as ritual events, often featuring human sacrifice.
Today it’s not unusual to find a game of Bocce being played throughout the many resort towns of Mexico as enthusiasts find the beaches to be excellent playing surfaces.
Bocce has undergone many changes throughout history, evolving from a crude sport played with stones or coconuts, to the modern game with composite or metal balls. Playing surfaces are as different as the imaginations of the players – lawns, beaches, stone dust, clay, or crushed oyster shells.
What’s clear in the muddied waters of Bocce history is that versions of the game have been played by many different cultures and people and by many different sets of rules. (Aunt Chilada’s has our own set of Bocce Open Rules)
It should be noted that the oral traditions of Bocce are just as much an important part of the game. Throw out a pallino and become part of the long heritage of the game from great thinkers like Galileo and da Vinci, to rulers Augustus and Queen Elizabeth, to the noble Sir Francis Drake and America’s own George Washington. Enjoy the world’s oldest sport, a sport known to revive the body and mind and, next to soccer, the most popular game in the world.