What is bocce?

Bocce is the Italian plural of boccia, meaning a ball. A ball sport, closely related to bowls and pétanque, bocce descended from similar games played throughout the Middle East and Asia. Dating from as early as 5200 BC, an Egyptian tomb painting appears to show two boys playing a game similar to bocce. Around 600 BC, bocce arrived in Greece. The first accounts of bocce in Italy tell about Roman soldiers playing the game during the Punic Wars in about 264 BC. As the Roman Empire grew, bocce spread along with it.

Bocce was played by the nobility and the peasants both, a classless sport. During the Middle Ages, it was criticized for taking men away from archery practice and other military exercises. Because of this, it was banned in the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain and England. In 1576, the Republic of Venice declared that players would be punished with fines as well as imprisonment. The Catholic Church condemned bocce as a form of gambling, discouraging playing by laymen and prohibiting clergy from participating.

The game was popular with the nobles of Great Britain. Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Drake were great bocce fans. Legend says that Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins were playing bocce when news came of the impending arrival of the Spanish Armada. Sir Frances Drake reputably refused to set out to defend England until he had finished the game, proclaiming, "First we finish the game; then we’ll deal with the Invincible Armada!"

In the nineteenth century, General Giuseppe Garibaldi, a key figure in the unification of Italy, popularized the sport and developed it in its present form. Bocce is currently played in many European countries and also in areas that have received Italian migrants, including Australia, North America, and South America. The sport has become very popular in the United States where, on a typical day, you can see people of various ethnic backgrounds enjoying themselves with a game or two.

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