The Cascine is a Bois also in having a race-course in it—a small course with everything about it on a little scale, grandstand, betting boxes, and all. And why not?—for after all Florence is quite small in size, however remarkable in character. Here funny little race-meetings are held, beginning on Easter Monday and continuing at intervals until the weather gets too hot. The Florentines pour out in their hundreds and lie about in the long grass among the wild flowers, and in their fives and tens back their fancies. The system is the pari-mutuel, and here one seems to be more at its mercy even than in France. The odds keep distressingly low; but no one seems to be either elated or depressed, whatever happens. To be at the races is the thing—to walk about and watch the people and enjoy the air. It is the most orderly frugal scene, and the baleful and mysterious power of the racehorse to poison life and landscape, as in England, does not exist here.
To the Cascine also in the spring and autumn several hundred Florentine men come every afternoon to see the game of pallone and risk a few lire on their favourite players. Mr. Ruskin, whose “Mornings in Florence” is still the textbook of the devout, is severe enough upon those visitors who even find it in their hearts to shop and gossip in the city of Giotto. What then would he have said of one who has spent not a few afternoon hours, between five and six, in watching the game of pallone? I would not call pallone a good game. Compared with tennis, it is nothing; compared with lawn tennis, it is poor; compared with football, it is anaemic; yet in an Italian city, after the galleries have closed, on a warm afternoon, it will do, and it will more than do as affording an opportunity of seeing muscular Italian athletes in the pink of condition. The game is played by six, three each side: a battitore, who smites the ball, which is served to him very much as in rounders; the spalla, who plays back; and the terzino, who plays forward. The court is sixty or more yards long, on one side being a very high wall and on the other and at each end netting. The implements are the ball, which is hollow and of leather, about half the size of a football, and a cylinder studded with spikes, rather like a huge fir-cone or pine-apple, which is placed over the wrist and forearm to hit the ball with; and the game is much as in tennis, only there is no central net: merely a line. Each man’s ambition, however, is less to defeat the returning power of the foe than to paralyse it by hitting the ball out of reach. It is as though a batsman were out if he failed to hit three wides.
A good battitore, for instance, can smite the ball right down the sixty yards into the net, above the head of the opposing spalla who stands awaiting it at the far end. Such a stroke is to the English mind a blot, and it is no uncommon thing, after each side has had a good rally, to see the battitore put every ball into the net in this way and so win the game without his opponents having one return; which is the very negation of sport. Each innings lasts until one side has gained eight points, the points going to whichever player makes the successful stroke. This means that the betting—and of course there is betting—is upon individuals and not upon sides.