Calcio Storico or “historic football” originated as an aristocratic pastime in Italy in the 16th Century. As a primitive mix of rugby, soccer and street fighting, the game is governed by few rules and is known for the violent conduct of its players or calciante. Today, three matches are played each year in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence at the end of June. The teams are known by their colors: Azzurri (blues), Rossi (reds), Bianchi (whites) and Verdi (greens), with each representing the districts of Florence: Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito and San Giovanni, respectively. The crowds of spectators present at the games are known for their boisterous behavior, while the pre-game proceedings are a feast of medieval pageantry. The Italian photographer Clara Vannucci has been documenting the annual event in her hometown of Florence for the last three years, putting her Leica Q to the test in the most demanding conditions. The following series tells the story of how sport can combine such seemingly disparate elements, where tradition meets modernity and the brutality belies the sense of pride the players feel for their heritage.
After studying graphic design in Florence you worked as an intern at Magnum Photos and as an assistant to Donna Ferrato. How did these experiences influence your own approach to photography?
When I moved to NYC right after my degree I saw interning at Magnum as a dream come true. I met special people such as Paul Fusco, who gave me a lot of advice and I took my first steps into photography, getting to know the masters’ work.
However, the real revolution in my photography world began when I met Donna Ferrato. I had never studied long-term at a photography school, but being Donna Ferrato’s assistant for over two years gave me so much. She taught me all I needed to know to approach the people I wanted to photograph and to tell their stories. She’s definitely my mentor and my inspiration. She forced me not to be lazy and to really carry my camera with me. It has become a tool that now allows me to enter into the lives of others and, if only for a short time, to fuse them with my own. Through images I have found a way to communicate with everyone, from any country, that’s why I think photography is so unique and I find reportage and spontaneity the best way for me to represent the subjects I photograph.
When did you discover your passion for documentary photography and what is it about this particular field, which interests you the most?
I discovered photography for the first time, when I went to Ethiopia. I was 18 at the time and when I came back I started printing my first pictures in my father’s darkroom. This is where I first experienced a sense of pure magic.
I’d say that my first documentary work started in 2007 when I began a project about a prison theatre in Tuscany, called Crime and Redemption. Through my lens I am continually trying to capture the remarkable transformation these men undergo; adopting the roles of various characters and, in the process, leaving behind the stigma and pain of their own past regressions, albeit for a brief moment on stage. This moment proves to be profound experience, as it provides the actor-inmates with an opportunity to reconnect with their deeper humanity and figuratively escape the physical barriers that cut them off from society. Through my photography I aim to reveal that, for these men, theatre is redemption.
The works that represent my approach the most are my long-term projects, which are all related to the criminal justice system; Crime and Redemption, documenting Volterra’s prison theatre company since 2007; Rikers Island, documenting the battered women section of the NYC jail and one of the prisoner’s family; Bail Bond. Bondsmen, defendants & bounty hunters, documenting the bail bond system in the US and published as a book by Fabrica following a two-year residency.
Of course, growing up, my work has changed and I now also focus on other topics. The varied nature of my work is something I really appreciate, being able to tell different stories from different fields. For example, as a correspondent for the New York Times and other magazines, I have started to work on fashion, travel, sport and portrait projects.
Why did you choose to shoot this story about Calcio Storico? And what were you hoping to show with these images?
I first covered the Calcio Storico back in 2015. It was something I had always heard of in the past and I had been there before as a spectator. When Becky Lebowitz from The New York Times assigned the reportage to me in 2015 I was so thrilled to have the possibility to see it from a different point of view.
I wanted to tell a story about my hometown, that has only garnered international interest in the past few years. It’s a story of sport, tradition and culture, but also visually very impactful and violent, providing a different image from the one people usually have of Florence.
What challenges did you face while shooting at the Piazza Santa Croce and how did you overcome them?
You have to consider that the Calcio Storico is played in June at one of the main squares in Florence, Piazza Santa Croce. The heat can be really challenging, as well as the dust and running or moving fast on the sand can be tough. The first time I went there I remember I had a big bag with so much useless stuff and, of course, I learned my lesson and reduced my set up to be as light and agile as possible.
The crowd and the smoke bombs at the beginning were quite disorientating but then, as I got to know the conditions a little better, I learned how to react as best I could and navigate the field in the most efficient way, without getting caught up in any of the fighting myself.
You are from Florence originally. Were you also supporting one of the four teams?
I am from Florence but I’m not a fan of any team in particular. I have just moved to the district, which the red team, Santa Maria Novella, represents so let’s see.
Which camera did you use to capture this story? And what did you appreciate most about your set up?
I used the Leica Q and the camera’s small size really helped me to move nimbly between all those bodies before and after the match. I managed to get very close to my subjects while remaining very discreet.
Your close-up images are testament to your intrepidness. How did you go about getting so close to the action?
During the match itself I had to be behind the balustrade, so I had to anticipate the action coming closer to me because I was shooting with a 28mm lens. I was pretty safe, protected by the barriers but, of course, you need to be careful. You can’t allow yourself to be distracted, because a clenched fist could always arrive when you least expect it.
It is different when you’re on the field, while the players are warming up before the game. There you don’t have any protection and you have to sneak about, paying a lot of attention to what’s happening around you.
In addition to showing the action itself, your series also documents the role of the medieval performers, the crowd and the historical setting. What was your thinking behind this? And how happy are you with the complete narrative of your series?
It’s quite a shock to watch a brutal sport like this in one of the main squares of your city, as a part of your own culture and tradition. As a photographer, is very fascinating at the same time.
It’s not just a brutal game, but also a way of representing history and the pride a lot of people feel for the city. It reveals a side of human beings that comes out for a few days a year. It’s a way to release one’s animalistic tendencies, both for the crowd and for the players.
This particular sport is played for the glory, not for money or prizes, but for the players and fans to honor their neighborhood and color. Once a year, the players are transformed into idols for the whole neighborhood. Most of the spectators are local, Florentine people, who follow the tournament with great passion and love. The whole neighborhood of the winning team celebrates the victory for months. I am quite happy with the series I have shot to date, but I am still not sure when and if it will be done for good.
How did you go about keeping up with the action around you? Were you reliant on the autofocus of the Leica Q or did you also work manually?
I actually worked mostly with the autofocus, because the scenes were so fast and I had to be as quick as I could to get the right shot. I believe the autofocus of the Leica Q was simply perfect and certainly fast enough to cover the movement in front of me.
Which of these images is your favorite? And why?
My favorite is the shot of the fans letting off their flares where the blue sky and the clouds merge with the darker blue of the smoke. I like the surrealism of this image. It could be a painting, where you don’t actually understand what’s going on. It could also be four people diving in the ocean.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I’m working on a forth project related to the criminal justice system. This one is more intimate and will take some time to complete. Then, hopefully, I will continue working with magazines and newspapers, bringing interesting stories to light. I’m sure it won’t be an easy challenge but I’ll do my best to make the most of my personal and photographic experiences, my background and enthusiasm, to tell the stories that need to be told, whether big or small.
If you could offer just one piece of advice to anyone looking to improve their documentary photography, what would it be?
Always go back to your story until you feel it is truly over.
Clara will be part of the upcoming exhibition at Leica Store Bellevue to celebrate #WomensHistoryMonth this March. The group exhibition called “#PhotographForProgress: A Journey Through The Female Perspective“, features images of women, by women created using Leica cameras. The exhibition will be on display at Leica Store Bellevue from February 25th through April 7th.