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History of Bocce Ball

Neha Deshmukh Mar 12, 2020
Get a glimpse of the interesting history and stories behind the humble Bocce ball - one of the oldest recorded game, through this post.

Did you know...

... that Bocce ball was hugely popular in ancient times, and is thought to be the ancestor of Bowling, Skittles, Curling, and other similar games.
The existence of Bocce ball can be traced to times before the civilized world was established, that had the simple aim of throwing an object towards a target. But before we track it down memory lane, let's take a quick look at what it is, and how is it played.
The game involves two teams, each trying to get their ball as close to the 'Bocce' or 'jack' as possible - jack being a smaller ball, which a randomly chosen team throws first. The teams throw the balls alternately, with a total of 9 balls - 4 balls for each team and a Bocce.
There are two main versions of the game - Volo and Raffa. Volo leans more towards the traditional game and is played with bronze or wooden balls, approximately 4 inches in diameter, with the jack being significantly smaller. It is played on a natural surface such as mud or clay.
The modern version, Raffa, uses plastic balls on a synthetic surface like resin. Many forms and versions of the game exist, and people are known to play it in a specially constructed court, a beach or even on the backyard lawn.

The Beginning

This game is thought to have originated around the Nile Delta in the 5th Millennium BC - during the Neolithic period, around the same time that the first wheel was invented.
It is thought that hieroglyph from 5200 BC, of figures throwing polished stones are depicting the earliest version of Bocce ball. It slowly became a common diversion in the Middle East and the surrounding region.

The Spread

Greece, suffering from famines and wars, was establishing its colonies in the 8th Century BC, and this is when the Greek soldiers learned Bocce ball which quickly became a way to relieve pressure and spend a few light moments.
As the Greeks spread their civilization, so did the game. It became quite popular with the Roman soldiers around 300 BC, and they would play the game with anything resembling a ball - from fruits to bound rags.
The Romans introduced the game to far-away countries in Europe and Asia, where it was associated with the aristocrats and rulers. The game also transformed and was played with wooden balls carved exclusively for the purpose.

The Ban

This ancient game had been banned several times due to its popularity. The most famous of these bans was the one imposed by Henry VIII, the King of England in the 15th century. His reasoning being that the game was too distracting and soldiers would skip on their archery practice to indulge in it.
He himself, was an avid player and the ban was only imposed on the working class. Other sports such as football, tennis, etc., were also banned during this time. Several other rulers are also known to have banned the game, like King Carlos of Spain and the Roman Emperor Charles IV.
Citing moral reasons, the church too opposed games from the Republic of Venice, and prohibited anyone from engaging in Bocce ball. Anybody playing the game during this time could face heavy fines, imprisonment or even death and the game's popularity diminished significantly.

The Revival

Although several games and sporting activities, including Bocce ball, were occasionally prohibited during the Middle Ages, it was still played in the remote, rural areas and even in some underground circuits.
It regained its popularity during the Renaissance, particularly in Italy and France, with many renowned scholars, poets and royals enjoying the game. Its popularity again waned, thanks in part to the rapidly changing culture and social fabric.

The Modern Game

The game as we know it, is credited to the General Giuseppe Garibaldi, who used it as a means to unite Italy in the 19th century. It was introduced in America by Britishers, who called it 'Bowls' and was quite a hit amongst a select few, including the first President of United States, George Washington.
Today, it has attracted a dedicated following from all over the world. It has leagues and tournaments in over 30 countries with 25 million Bocce enthusiasts in the US alone (as per the United States Bocce Federation). But, for most Italian old-timers, it is a tradition - a fun-filled Sunday noon activity, with close friends and family.