The History of Italy’s Second Favorite Sport—Bocce Ball

The ancient world delivered many traditions, none as appealing as bocce ball.

By: Jerry Finzi, Grand Voyage Italy

You can think of modern bowling as a distant cousin of bocce. In England, they have “bowls,” a lawn version of the game using a flattened ball which is rolled like a wheel (bocce balls are always spherical). The Latin word bottia (ball) is the root of the Italian word boccia or bocce. Latin also used the word boulles (balls), hence the name bowls for the British form of the game, and in France the game of Boules.

The name pétanque is also used in Provence in the South of France. The word pétanque is derived from a Southern dialect of French meaning “two feet planted,” describing the position of feet before tossing the ball. Italian balls are solid and made of wood or a composite and sometimes metal. French boules are made of hollow metal.

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During a game a ball is either rolled or tossed underhanded down a long lane with the aim of coming to rest near a smaller target ball called a pallino or boccino (in France it’s called the cochonnet  or “piglet”). Some form of bocce is played in more countries than any other ball game, with the exception of soccer. Still, Romans are the ones who spread the popularity of the game throughout the Roman Empire, which encompassed vast areas of Europe, Asia and North Africa.

Many people, such as Galileo and DaVinci, played bocce during the Renaissance, seeing its benefits to mind and body. It was also played by emperors, admirals, generals, poets, sculptors and scientists. Bocce was also exported to many countries by Italian migrants, and remains popular with bocce courts and clubs throughout the world.

Bocce being played in ancient Rome. 

Bocce in its current form was played in 264 B.C. during Rome’s Punic Wars against Carthage. Teams of 2, 4, 6 or 8 men were formed. Soldiers threw a small stone “leader” and threw it first. Then larger stones would be thrown at the “leader” and the stone coming closest to it would score. The game relaxed troops and gambling was a pressure release, taking their mind off the stress of war. Men played in teams, honing their military strategic thinking as they played.

No one really knows how old bocce is. There were stone balls found in Turkey that date to 9,000 B.C. Some say bocce dates back to ancient Egypt (5,200 B.C.), but others argue that Greece was its birthplace around 600 B.C. When you really think about the simplest game a child can play – tossing a stone – you might think of bocce as the very first game man ever played. Even the child’s game of Marbles is based on bocce.

When I was a boy, we’d visit my Aunt Antoinette and Uncle Sal in their Hoboken rowhouse in the summer. To keep cool, they always gathered down in the subway-tiled basement level where it was cool and big pots of Sunday Gravy and pasta awaited the mouths of hungry cousins and grown-ups alike.

But what I liked best was going out in their back yard past the tomato plants towering over me and through an arbor to where the court was–the bocce court. I’d watch my Dad and Uncle Sal and other neighborhood gents play and argue all afternoon.

They’d drink wine in little jelly glasses and pop out small measuring tapes or yardsticks when it was too hard to tell which ball was closest and who was the winner. At times they’d give us kids a try…

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