Mixed media | Round ball, flat art

First is the early-17th-century panel, a nearly two-foot painting with gold leaf, depicting a 10th-century game of kemari, the juggling football variant for courtiers that emphasized aesthetic principles over competition. The painting attributed to Tosa Mitsuyoshi illustrates an episode from the epic Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, what some call history’s first novel. In chapter 34, “Wakana-jo” (rendered “Young Shoots” or “New Herbs”), the young Kashiwagi demonstrates his prowess at the imperial court, participating, in full court regalia, with three others in a “rough, noisy game” that “suddenly took on an unwonted gentleness and grace” (from Arthur Waley‘s translation, Houghton Mifflin, 1929).

[Kashiwagi] had not been in the game for more than a few moments when it became apparent, from the way in which he gave even the most casual kick to the ball, that there was no one to compare with him. Not only was he an extremely handsome man, but he took great pains about his appearance and always moved with a certain rather cautious dignity and deliberation. It was therefore very entertaining to see him leaping this way and that, regardless of all decorum. The cherry-tree was quite near the steps of the verandah from which Genji and Nyosan were watching the game, and it was strange to see how the players, their eye on the ball, did not seem to give a thought to those lovely flowers even when they were standing right under them.

Visible in the large online version are two cats who have scampered onto a balcony.

Another football precursor, pallone, appears in the background of a 17th-century Dutch engraving. An Italian game played at least as early as the 16th century, pallone involves two sides of players striking an inflatable leather ball with a wooden cylinder, a bracciale, worn over the forearm. In the foreground, two men work to inflate one of the balls; air-filled leather balls were a relatively recent innovation at the time, having been referenced in 16th-century English schoolbooks.

That football, at least the folk variety, had entered British public consciousness by the late 18th century is evident in use of the game as a motif in satirical period drawings. We display two examples, the first by caricaturist Matthew Darly. “The Game at Football” shows two stubble-faced British sailors giving a Spanish don a literal kicking, one saying to the other, “Damme Jack lets have a game of football.” The second sailor, arms folded, replies, “With all my heart, kick him up Tom.” An earlier curator at the British Museum surmised that the reference is to two naval victories by Admiral George Rodney to help relieve Gibraltar in January 1780.

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