As the story goes, during the Punic Wars, when Rome was fighting against Carthage, the Roman soldiers played bocce to help relax the troops.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of stress that comes with fighting a war, and bocce helped the troops unwind in between battles.
To date, playing bocce is known to be a great stress reliever. The game also helps to sharpen the mind as well.
The Roman military would play the game not only to unwind but also to plan their military strategy against Carthage mentally.
The Romans then spread the popularity of the game across the vast Roam Empire which at the time, covered a sizable portion of Asia, Europe, and North Africa.
So, there you have it. There is no clear origin of the game of bocce, and so no one really knows how old the bocce game is.
The one thing that’s certain though is that this game has a rich and diverse history spanning thousands of years.
Well, bocce or not, the oldest game that is known to humankind is throwing balls at an intended target.
When playing bocce, the intended target is the small white ball known as the jack, pallino (Italian for ‘littleball’), or boccino (Italian for ‘littlebocce’).
Notable Bocce Players In History
Besides the Roman troops, the game of bocce evolved to become a popular sport among rulers, sculptors, poets, scientists and peasantry alike.
Artists such as David Teniers (Flemish Baroque Painter), and Henri Matisse (French Painter) have portrayed bocce in their works.
Even historical figures such as Galileo Galilei (Italian Astronomer) are known to have regularly played the game claiming that it was beneficial for both the body and mind.
Other notable bocce players include:
The Roman statesman was also a fan of bocce. He became the first of many rulers and statesmen to enjoy the game.
The ancient Greek physician attributed playing bocce to significant health benefits. So much that this sport was included as part of his therapeutic advice.
The first president of the United States built a bocce court at Mount Vernon in the 1780s.
The Italian general used bocce to unify and nationalize Italy in the mid-19th century. His popularization of the sport on a larger scale is what ultimately led to the first Bocce Olympiad held in 1896, in Athens.
Guiseppe even took bocce balls with him on his military expeditions and introduced the game to rulers in other parts of the world.
Leonardo Da Vinci
The Renaissance man was an avid bocce player, and he even helped keep the game popular and legal in Italy.
Sir Francis Drake
Legend has it that when messengers came to notify the naval officer than an attack by the Spanish Armada was imminent, the admiral did not budge. He declined to set out on a mission to defend the English fleet, insisting that he first had to finish a rousing game of bocce.
Fun Fact: Bocce Ball Was Banned In 14th Century
Similar to many games played in the middle ages, bocce was banned quite a number of times by both rulers and the church.
In 1319, Charles IV (Roman Emperor) outlawed the game claiming that it took people’s attention away from military-related matters. As a result, bocce was thought to interfere with the security of the state.
Instead of focusing on archery and other military exercises, everyone was busy playing bocce.
The ban only applied to the lower classes; however, leaving the game exclusively confined within the nobility and privileged classes.
King Carlos IV and V of Spain would thereafter issue a similar ban based on similar reasons of distracting from military matters.
The republic of Venice, through Andrea Gritti, also outlawed the game in 1576.
Anyone caught playing the game following this ban would be fined heavily or in some instances, the offender would face imprisonment.
The Catholic Church once lashed against bocce, condemning the game because it promoted gambling which was and still is considered a vice. As a result, clergymen were officially prohibited from playing the game.
Henry VIII (King of England), infamously known for his six marriages, was an avid bocce player. In 1511, he declared a ban on bocce prohibiting players of lesser nobility.
He went as far as to levy a £100 fee on private bowling greens to better enforce the ban.
Of course, this is not too surprising. During this period there were classist prohibitions on a variety of sports including tennis.
Queen Victoria lifted king Henry VIII’s bocce ban in 1845.
Despite all the bans issued against the game, the fact remains that bocce was a fun and entertaining game which ultimately overcame all official attempts at outlawing it.
The Evolution of Bocce Balls
Through the years, bocce has undergone a multitude of changes.
What started as a crude sport evolved to become a game for the European nobility, and the game now has over 25 million enthusiasts in America.
According to the Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Egyptians played a form of bocce using polished rocks.
When the Roman troops first started playing the game, they would use anything which resembled a ball. Initially, they used coconuts brought back from Africa.
Later on, they began carving wooden bocce balls from hard olive wood.
The wooden balls used were sometimes fortified with blacksmiths’ nails.
These balls deformed fast, especially when used on rocky terrain.
When factory-made nails became available in the 1850s, bocce balls started being covered in iron nails having flat or rounded heads.
This resulted in more durable balls, and by using nails of different metals (brass, copper or steel) and colors, the makers could achieve different patterns and designs on the balls.
Custom-made bronze bocce balls started being used in 1923 as metal technology caught on. These balls came in various weights, diameters and patterns.
The players now had a chance to choose balls which suited their style of throw as well as balls which suited their hand size.
The Spread of Bocce Around the World: Evolution of The Sport
The game still found a following in the town squares or European cities, in parks, streets and alleyways alike.
The game became particularly popular in Italy and France, and international play is mainly limited to the two countries.
Bocce thrived in Great Britain too, contrary to the rest of continental Europe. Even Queen Elizabeth I was known to be an indulgent bocce player.
Following Guiseppe Garibaldi’s popularization of the game and the consequent Athens Bocce Olympiad held in 1896, Bocciodromo (taverns with adjoining outdoor bocce courts) shot up all over Italy in every Italian town.
During the 19th century, between 1880 and 1924, a massive number of Italians immigrated to the United States.
Just as they brought their culture, music, cuisine and language with them, they also brought bocce.
In 1934, the first public bocce ball courts were established in New York City, and this was done by Mayor La Guardia.
The courts were set up in Thomas Jefferson Park, Manhattan.
In 1947, the first Italian League was formed, and it comprised 15 teams based in and around the town of Torino.
In the same year, the first world bocce championships took place.
In 1958, the New York City Parks Department held its first bocce tournament. The tournament attracted thousands of players and spectators alike coming from all over the boroughs.
As bocce spread to mainstream America, the United States Bocce Federation was founded in 1976.
Bocce is not an Olympic sport just yet. However, the game has been featured in the Special Olympics since the 1984 summer Olympics.
Presently, the biggest bocce tournaments in the world are Gara Alassio which takes place in Italy and Penteconte Tournament Bellecour based in France.
Each of the two tournaments usually has about 4,000 participants by the quadruples singles elimination stage which is quite impressive.
Bocce goes by many names, and there are many variants of the game around the world.
All these show the rich history of the ancient sport which has deep roots in ancient civilization spanning over 5000 years.
The game is as basic as it gets and anyone can play it: old and young, rich and poor, men and women alike. So, what’s stopping you from grabbing a bocce ball set and seeing what the hype is all about?