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History of Bocce
The origins of bocce will probably be forever shrouded in antiquity, but most historians agree that the game that would eventually evolve into what we know as bocce was first played circa 5200 BC by the Egyptians. Little is known of the exact rules they used, or even what the balls were made of, but the hieroglyphics are unmistakable in depicting a game that is broadly recognizable to us today. From Egypt, the game spread to the surrounding lands of the Middle East and Asia Minor; at this time, bocce was a simple pastime, practiced by common folk.
Bocce really took off once it made its way to Greece, which in 800 BC was considered the height of civilized society. The Greeks were busy exporting ideas around the Known World, and their embrace of the sport meant that it would achieve the widest exposure possible. If the Greeks had not taken to bocce, we might not be talking about it today.
After several centuries, around 300 BC, the Romans replaced the Greeks as the most powerful empire in existence. The Romans eagerly pilfered culture from the Greeks, and bocce was soon taken as well. Originally, Roman legionaries brought the game along with them on their many conquests. While in foreign lands, they often had to make do with whatever supplies were close at hand; historical records reveal that the Romans substituted coconuts, melons, carved wood, and bound rags for bocce balls. Bocce became synonymous with the social elite, the game of Emperors and Senators. As Roman rule spread far and wide, bocce turned up in ancient Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and as far east as Persia.
The end of widespread Roman rule saw a waning of the popularity of bocce, as new cultures and empires sought to distance themselves from the previous rulers.
The Middle Years
As Europe emerged from the horrors and barbarism of the Dark Ages, scholars and learned men turned to antiquity for inspiration in all areas of life & culture, including sports and leisure activities. The Romans' embrace of bocce was regarded as a fitting tribute, and the sport experienced a revival in popularity. In 1299, the Southampton Olde Bowling Green Club was formed in England – this bocce club remains in existence today, making it the oldest sports club of its kind in the world.
Despite its newfound popularity, bocce faced many obstacles in these middle years. The Vatican condemned bocce on the basis that it lead to rampant gambling. In 1319, Charles IV, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, outlawed bocce, claiming that is detracted from more useful military-themed pastimes, such as archery and horsemanship, and thus threatened national security.
Henry VIII also believed bocce to be a great distraction. Although the king himself enjoyed playing bocce, in 1511, he banned anyone but nobility from playing. According to Henry VII, "Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowhead makers" were spending far too much time at recreational events like bocce rather than performing their jobs. Both King James I and Charles I upheld the ban. Not until 1845 was the ban finally lifted by Queen Victoria.
It happened again in 1576, when the Republic of Venice along with the Vatican condemned bocce by discouraging the general population and officially prohibiting its clergymen from playing the game, decreeing that bocce constituted a means of gambling.
Consecutive kings in Spain were also sticks in the mud, and bocce fled underground – games were played in back alleys, deep within the fertile grain fields of Europe, and at secretly-built courts – and being caught playing could mean a fine, imprisonment, or even death.
The flourishing of culture that took place during the Italian Renaissance provided another springboard for bocce to make cultural inroads. Even though bocce in Italy dated to Roman times, its revival in the Renaissance is responsible for its enduring popularity today. Bocce reclaimed a position of great acclaim during the Italian Renaissance, when many of the leading lights of the day – including famed scholars Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo – enjoyed playing a round or two on the bocce court.
The feast of ideas and innovations that arose from the Renaissance provided people with much to do, and diversions abounded. At this point, bocce was deemed a sport of the upper classes, and its popularity waned for several centuries as the common folk who had made it so popular moved on to other interests.
The Modern Game
During the early years of America, bocce was frowned upon as a game of the hated British (particularly popularized by Queen Elizabeth and her many suitors), and the sport fell into disfavor for a number of decades. Bocce re-entered America through its popularity in Canada, but the sport didn't truly take off again until 1896, when it was featured as a competition at the 1st Modern Olympiad in Athens. This provided a springboard for renewed interest in the game throughout the world. Bocce was later removed as an Olympic sport, but its grassroots popularity endured.
Following WWII, leagues were formed in several countries (particularly Italy) that sought to bring order to the somewhat rowdy sport. The Federation Internationale de Boules (FIB) was formed in 1946 to regulate leagues in Italy, France, Switzerland & Monaco, and today it remains a prestigious bocce authority.
In the 1970's, bocce experienced a revival in America. Since then bocce in all its forms, particularly as a leisure sport ideal for backyards and parks, has become a common sight across the country. There are currently over 200 official bocce facilities in the United States along with thousands of local and regional tournaments and special events.
The popularity of bocce continues to grow as tens of thousands of players of all ages are exposed to the sport. In 2010, the American Bocce League was formed, using BocceNation.com portable courts and scoring system, as the first nationwide bocce league with organized play on the local, regional and national level.
Who's Who of Famous Bocce Players
Since ancient times, bocce has enticed some of history's most famous people to have a bowl. Here a just a few of them:
Galileo George Washington Renaissance Man, physicist, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher... and bocce enthusiast! Galileo is one of history's most famous learned men, and he enjoyed bocce as a way to relax and refocus his mind. Equally at home on the bocce court as on the battlefield, George Washington reportedly built a court at his home in Mount Vernon in the 1780s. The Father of our country can also be said to be the father of bocce ball in America! Giuseppe Garibaldi Henry VIII Latter-day bocce hero, this Italian soldier re-popularized the game in the 19th century following a lengthy hiatus. His enthusiasm and energetic fervor for his favorite sport helped ensure that the game of bocce would never be forgotten. An avid player of Britain’s version of bocce, boules, the king favored only the wealthy ruling class’s enjoyment of the game. He feared that too much leisurely bocce was distracting the peasants and general population from their trades. Henry VIII banned bocce play by anyone but the well-to-do in the 16th century (1511), and the game remained outlawed until 1845. Hippocrates Leonardo Da Vinci The Greek father of medicine as we know it, Hippocrates was also an early devotee of bocce. He claimed the spirit of competition and athleticism of playing was beneficial to your health, rejuvenating the mind and body. Bocce has long been embraced by people of distinguished character and lasting achievements, going back thousands of years. Perhaps the most famous inventor and genius of all-time, the term 'Renaissance Man' was coined specifically in his honor. When he wasn't busy innovating new technologies, he would retire to the local bocce courts to relax. It was because of his affection for the game that bocce remained legal in much of Italy. Queen Elizabeth Roman Emperor Augustus Another in a long line of rulers and royals who enjoyed bocce greatly. While bocce is often associated with the upper class, it has always been enjoyed by the privileged and the poor alike. Augustus brought bocce into mainstream Roman life, after seeing the game played by his soldiers. The Emperor's enthusiasm was infectious, and the sport thrived for centuries. Sir Francis Drake Sir Walter Raleigh Infamous sea captain, explorer, and fighting man, it is said that Sir Francis Drake enjoyed playing bocce with his patroness, Queen Elizabeth. In fact, legend has it that in 1588 Sir Francis Drake was enjoying a game a bocce with his compatriot Sir Walter Raleigh when word broke that the Spanish Armada was on its way to England. Upon receiving this news he said, “First, we finish the game, then we have time for the invincible armada.” Another bocce fanatic from the Age of Sail, time spent ashore was a cherished opportunity to indulge his passion. Umberto Granaglia “Fanny” One of the all-time bocce greats. Umberto was named the bocce 'Player of the 20th Century', and amassed an unsurpassed record of thirteen World Championships, twelve European Championships, and forty-six Italian Championships. A player of his caliber comes along not once in a generation, nor even once in a lifetime, but a handful of times in the seven thousand year history of the game. The legend of Fanny arose between 1860 and 1870 in Lyon, France. While not a bocce player herself, she was known as a common spectator who would expose her backside to the losers of the match. The losers eventually became obliged to kiss it in defeat! Today it is common in bocce clubs to have a picture or sculpture of Fanny on hand, providing something to kiss for anyone who loses without scoring a single point.Share |
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