This historically evocative event, called Gioco del Ponte, consists of two distinct but both significant parts: the historical procession along the Arno river which is a huge military parade, and the battle, that takes place on the Ponte di Mezzo during which the two opposing teams give proof of their own physical strength in a strongly competitive atmosphere. Some sources try to date back this game to the classic antiquity. These hypotheses are not confirmed and it is more likely to be a local transformation of the Gioco del Mazzascudo, that from the XI to the XIII centuries was played as a simulated battle in the ancient Piazza degli Anziani, called today Piazza dei Cavalieri.
The game was played between single players, equipped with body armour, cudgels and shields. In the final day the individual battle was replaced by a general battle where the fighters where divided into two teams, respectively called of the “cockerel” and of the “magpie”. The first known edition of the Gioco del Ponte was held on the 22nd February 1568. The Old Bridge, now called Ponte di Mezzo, was the seat of the battle and the aim of the game was the conquest of a part or of the entire half of the bridge occupied by the opposing faction. The players of Tramontana and Mezzogiorno, were divided in a variable number of teams, of 50/60 players each. Each team had its own colours and banners. The participants taking part in the battle, characterised by a man to man fight, wore an armour, a helmet called "morione" and used the "targone" a large oblong and asymmetrical shield, with rounding extremities, made out of lime or poplar wood, over a meter long and weighing around two and half kilos which was also improperly used to attack.
The violence of the fight has always been one of the unchanged characteristic of this game. The desire for autonomy from Florentine domination and the growing competitive nature of the game caused Pietro Leopoldo to find the Gioco del Ponte obnoxious, so that after the 1785 game it was abolished and was interrupted until 1807, the only time when the game was played in the XIX century.
The Gioco del Ponte was interrupted again for 128 years. It was organised again in 1935 according to the ancient historical traditions and after the Second World War, in order to avoid physical contact, a cart on rails to be pushed by participants was introduced.
The event is traditionally held on the last Sunday of June and also includes the historical parade with 709 participants. The Mezzogiorno and Tramontana Sides march separately, creating thus two parades of 314 participants each, but at the same time anticlockwise along the four streets running along the Arno river close to the Ponte di Mezzo. There is also a third parade composed by the Judges, that is 81 more participants.
More than remarkable is the scenographic effect of the participants Spanish costumes of the late XVI century, created for the edition of 1935 on the sketches of the art critic Fortunato Belloni, who got his inspiration from some prints of the Medicean age. The intensity of the effort that the twenty heavily-built men of each team put into the challenge is impressive. As in ancient times, victory goes to the team that conquers the Bridge by pushing the cart and all the opponents to the opposite end of the sliding rail.
The different teams of both Tramontana (representing the districts of St. Maria, St. Francesco, St. Michele, Mattaccini, Calci and Satiri) and Mezzogiorno (representing the districts of St. Antonio, St. Martino, St. Marco, Leoni, Dragoni e Delfini) fight in turn. The winner of the game is the side that wins most of the matches. Until 1996 if the challenge ended in a draw (three victories for each side), a final match was held to decide the winner between the selected best fighters for both parties. Since 1997 only six matches were held so that the final result could end in a draw.