The Fascinating History of Bocce Ball8 min read

No portrayal of quintessential Italian culture can be quite complete without a scene of Sicilian retirees playing a game of bocce in the town square. Although the game has instilled itself deeply into Italian culture since the time of Roman soldiers, its roots can be traced much farther back than that. Some speculate that the game originated in ancient Egypt, while others believe it was played as far back as 9000 BC in Turkey.

These speculations alone are enough to show that bocce ball has a long and interesting history, and that’s exactly what we will be discussing in this post. You’ll find out more about the history of bocce ball and some fun facts surrounding the game. If you’re wanting more bocce insights, check out some frequently asked questions.

Bocce Ball in Ancient History

As mentioned earlier, the origin of bocce can be traced back to ancient Egypt. The oldest documentation of the game is in an Egyptian tomb painting, which dates back to 5200 BC. It depicted two boys playing with what appears to be a bocce ball.

ancient bocce
Image Source: Max Pixel

The other possibility is that the game goes back as far as 9000 BC. This speculation is largely due to some stone balls that were uncovered in Turkey from the era. However, there is no certainty that these balls were used to play bocce.

What is certain is that the popularity of the game spread from Egypt to Palestine and from Palestine to Asia Minor. By 800 BC, the game had made its way to Greece. It was eventually passed on by the Greeks to the Romans. During those periods, the game was played everywhere – from city streets to castles and even churches. And it was a game that people could play across all generations and all walks of life.

It is believed that the Roman soldiers were the first to play bocce based on the current rules during the Punic Wars in 246 BC. The game provided them with a pleasant distraction from the stress of war and helped keep them entertained.

The Banning of Bocce Ball

Bocce ball became so popular that in 1319 AD, the lower classes were prohibited from playing it. The reasoning behind this ban was that their engagement in the game prevented them from focusing on more important activities like war training and archery. So the game was mostly confined within the nobility and was considered a game that only the privileged classes should play.

Even Henry VIII, who was infamously known for his six marriages and his extreme attempts to get his first marriage annulled, was an indulgent bocce player. His name is often included in discussions about the history of bocce ball. In 1511, he declared another ban on the sport among people of lesser nobility. To better enforce this ban, he levied a fee of £100 on private bowling greens. This ensured that the game could only be played by the wealthy. There were classist prohibitions on other sports like tennis, soccer, etc. during this period.

Image Source: Wikimedia

Like the earlier ban, the main reason for this ban was to ensure that the working class had minimal distractions from other important tasks.The ban made it mandatory for able-bodied men to practice archery in their free time, so they could be prepared to defend their nation during wars. The same ban applied to craftsmen like bow-makers and arrow-makers; they were not as productive as desired because of the time they spent on bocce.

Once it reached Italy, bocce became so popular that the Republic of Venice ended up condemning it publicly on December 11, 1576, with punishment for disobedience involving fines and imprisonment. The Catholic Church also prohibited their clergymen from playing bocce ball by declaring it as a gambling device. Yet in spite of all these bans, the game has survived and flourished till now.

Growth of Popularity in Italy and Around the World

In spite of these bans, people in remote and rural regions still played the game, often competing in underground bocce circuits to evade attention from the law. The game then regained its popularity during the Renaissance with widespread adoption by poets, scholars, and royals. It was particularly popular in Italy and France.

By 1519, bocce had become a public game and was popularly played in Belgium, Holland, and Flanders. It was then spread by Greek colonists to what we now know as Italy, after which it became incredibly popular again. In fact, it became so popular that it was once again in danger of being banned. This was a result of people playing it in the streets and hitting passing noblemen with their bocce balls.

Eventually, bocce ball got the attention of the Italian nobility, who quickly turned it into their favorite pastime. Giussepi Garibaldi ended up popularizing it in its contemporary form while he was unifying Italy into a nation. The game experienced a resurgence in popularity in 1896, when the first Bocce Olympiad was held in Athens, Greece.

Since then, it has become an international sport loved by many. In America, it was introduced by the British who called it “Bowls,’ and its popularity has been growing steadily since the bocce wave hit California back in 1989. It has even become popular enough to be played as a tournament sport, with tournaments being held weekly in some places. Now bocce is considered part of the World Corporate Games. It is also currently a Special Olympics event, with proposals being made to be included in the Olympics.

The Evolution of Bocce

If we look at the history of bocce ball, we can see that the game has undergone a multitude of changes through the years. Starting as a crude sport, it evolved to become a game favored by European nobility. And from being played using rounded rocks and coconuts, we now have metal balls and balls made of composite material.

bocce ball gravel
Image Source: Max Pixel

It has even been called different names including lawn bowling, skittles, and nine pins. Some people also know it as petanque, although there are some variations between the two games. It has witnessed plenty of rule changes over the centuries. The current rules of bocce were believed to have originated during the time of the Romans.

Fun Facts about Bocce Ball

Now that you’ve taken a thorough look at the history of bocce ball and its evolution over the ages, let’s take a look at some fun facts about the game.

  1. It is believed to be the ancestor of similar games like bowling and curling.
  2. Bocce was believed to have been endorsed by the astronomer Galileo and the Greek physician Hippocrates. The sport was reportedly part of Hippocrates’ therapeutic advice, and he believed that the invigorating exercise involved in the game had health benefits.
  3. Even the great Roman emperor Augustus was said to have enjoyed the game.
  4. Bocce has even been featured in the works of famous artists like Henri Matisse in his painting titled “Il Gioco Delle Bocce.”
  5. Sir Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth I were big bocce fans.
  6. There are more than 25 million bocce enthusiasts in America today.
  7. As popular as the game was in Italy, the first bocce club was formed in France in 1850. It was called “Le Clos Jouve.”
  8. The oldest bocce club in America is the Aquatic Park Bocce Club, which was founded by Italian immigrants in San Francisco, California.
  9. George Washington, the first president of the United States, was known to be a fan of the sport. In the 1780s, he built a bocce court at Mount Vernon.     
  10. Currently, the world’s biggest bocce tournaments are the Italy-based Gara Alassio and the France-base Penteconte Tournament Bellecour.
  11. The quadruples single elimination for both tournaments usually has more than 4,000 participants each and is held for 2 days.
  12. When the Roman soldiers started playing bocce, they would use anything that resembled a ball. This included bound rags and fruits.
  13. One of the most reputable bocce players is Umberto Granaglia, who won 13 world championships, 12 European championships, and 46 Italian championships during his career. Due to his achievements, the Confederation Mondiale des Sport de Boules named him “Player of the 20th Century” in 2005.
  14. There are two main versions of bocce ball – Volo and Raffa. Volo is the more traditional version and is played with wooden or bronze balls. Raffa is the more modern version and is played with plastic balls.

Conclusion

Based on this look at the history of bocce ball and some of the fun facts associated with the game, you can see that the game has evolved over centuries. Its popularity has seen a rise and fall according to the changes in culture and society. Now it has regained its old glory and bocce ball has become a popular recreational game in America. It has even become a tournament sport with league nights and tournaments being held regularly.

One of the best things about the game is that you can play or practice it basically anywhere. You can even play it on the beach with a drink in hand, if you have the right set of balls. This is perhaps one of the factors owing to its current and growing popularity.