The Gioco del Ponte is a historic reenactment and display that takes place every year in Pisa, across two main moments: the historic procession-parade along the riverbanks (with more than 700 costumed figures) and the Battle of Ponte di Mezzo, in which teams from the main neighborhoods belonging to the city’s two rival factions challenge each other, putting each other’s physical endurance to the test, in an almost agonizingly engaging spectacle. The winner is determined by whichever team manages to maintain control of the bridge, pushing the cart (and the opponents) to the opposite end of the rail. During the fight, the Tramontana (Northern) teams are represented by the respective Magistrature (Santa Maria, San Francesco, San Michele, Mattaccini, Calci and Satiri), facing off against the Mezzogiorno (Sant'Antonio, San Martino, San Marco, Leoni, Dragoni and the Dolphins).
The game most likely dates back to a local transformation of the Gioco del Mazzascudo, which from the 11th to the 13th centuries featured a simulated battle in the centuries-old piazza degli Anziani, today piazza dei Cavalieri. The Mazzascudo was carried out between single players, equipped with armor, clubs and shields. On the final day, the individual face-offs gave way to a general battle with warriors divided into two troops: the Gallo and the Gazza.
The first known edition of the Gioco del Ponte dates back to February 22, 1568. The Ponte, seat of the battle, was Ponte Vecchio, which is the present-day Ponte di Mezzo. The goal was to conquer, either partially or completely, the half of the bridge occupied by the enemy faction. The Tramontana and Mezzogiorno players were divided into teams of varying numbers, usually around 50 or 60 soldiers, distinguished by colors and emblems.
After being put on hold for 128 years due to the excessive violence that it was known for, the game was revived in the modern era in 1935, using the same methods as the historic editions. But it was in the early postwar era that, in order to avoid direct conflict, a mechanical element was introduced (the rolling cart), on which the teams’ pushing takes place.
Before the battle, the Tramontana and Mezzogiorno troups parade separately (bringing to life two distinct processions, each with 314 figures), but simultaneously, in a counterclockwise fashion, along the four riverbanks contiguous to Ponte di Mezzo. There’s also an 81-piece third procession made up of the judges. The 15th century-Spanish-style costumes that the people wear were created for the 1935 edition, based on drawings by the art critic Fortunato Bellonzi, inspired by Medici era prints.