A new book offers a fascinating history of the different images of sport through the ages. By Andrew Graham-Dixon
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The Independent Online
A few years ago, the powers that be decided to redecorate the home and away dressing-rooms at Wembley Stadium. The designer responsible had what he thought was a marvellous idea, which was to paint a large mural in each based on the early 20th- century, Cubist-influenced painting of the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni, The Dynamism of a Footballer. This interestingly abstract image may still be seen in the away changing-room, but in the home dressing- room it was immediately whitewashed over and replaced with three red lions. Umberto Boccioni? Italian Futurism? Did Graham Taylor not like that.

The British sportsman is not traditionally noted for his art appreciation, but Peter Kuhnst's new book, Sport: A Cultural History in the Mirror of Art, aims to change all that. This is that rarity, an art book aimed at people interested in sport, and it deserves to succeed if only on the grounds of the publisher's bravery. This fascinating anthology of sport- related paintings, prints and photographs turns out to be particularly rich on the subject of football. The Boccioni painting Taylor so disliked is naturally present but so are much less familiar images, one of the most remarkable being a late 17th-century Florentine engraving which proves (among other things) that Italy always was the most advanced European footballing nation.

Alessandro Cecchini's A Game of Calcio on the Piazza Santa Croce, 1689, shows two teams lined up against one another at the start of a football match - "calcio" being an Italian forerunner of football - in one of Florence's most picturesque city squares. The players, quaintly, are holding hands, rather as modern international footballers sometimes do while their national anthem is being played. Both teams appear to be playing the same tactical formation, and a fiendishly, impenetrably defensive one it is too: 15 men up front, 11 in midfield, with a back line made up (as the rules of calcio allowed) of no fewer than 12 goalkeepers. The result of the game in question remains unknown but it seems safe to assume that it was a typically Italian, low-scoring affair. At a time when football in most other countries was liable to be played by a motley rabble, entirely without rules or referees, generally using some improvised object such as the severed head of an executed criminal for a ball, Cecchini's Game of Calcio looks like a comparatively ordered event. The effect, however, may be deceptive, because once the match got going it was still a very much rougher business than the game played now.

According to the erudite Mr Kuhnst it was Antonio Scaino, a Ferrarese courtier, huntsman, author and footballer (a true Renaissance man) who was the first person to describe the appeal of a sport yet to be known as the Beautiful Game: "Football may not be regulated with as much art as other sports," wrote Scaino, "but it provides the spectators with such pleasure because the game is superior to all others in imitating a real battle with all its sudden shifts of fate. The players tumble over one another, now here, now there, and it is a game that more than any other shows the mettle of the runners and the clever and powerful wrestlers..." Fatalities were not uncommon - a total of eight players dying, for instance, during the course of a game in Siena in the mid-16th century; and on the evidence of this book it seems fairly safe to say that the current television advertisement for Adidas, based on a 15th-century fresco cycle by Bernardino Betti (surely a first in sports advertising) is indeed a pure fantasy. Those who have seen the ad will recall Alessandro del Piero, of Juventus, skipping through a crowd of bamboozled Renaissance men in tights to score a brilliant virtuoso goal - but of course during the Renaissance itself his legs probably would have been broken before he ever received the ball. The likes of Del Piero would never have lasted the pace of 12-goalie calcio. Back in the days when manslaughter was no more than a bookable offence, even someone like Vinnie Jones would probably have been regarded as a luxury player.

It can be difficult for those of us living in the late 20th century to grasp just how much more violent most sporting activity once was. Sports: A Cultural History does much to remedy that. The often vivid illustrations to early instruction manuals for wrestlers, boxers or fencers (a particularly gruesome example here being an anonymous early seventeenth-century woodcut called, with graphic accuracy, On Guard Position: Stab Through the Eye) remind us that sport was not, originally, a health-enhancing leisure activity but a preparation for war. The English longbowman of the 15th century owed their proficiency to a royal statute which insisted that every fit and able yeoman should practise archery on the village green at least three times a week. The statute was enforced extremely rigorously using the stocks, among other things, as a powerful incentive to comply. But Henry V's chief concern was not (it need hardly be said) the physical well-being of the nation. Compulsory archery practice was sport perhaps, but sport in deadly earnest - as the French who died in their thousands under the terrible rain of English arrows at Agincourt were to discover.

Equestrianism, likewise, was a fundamentally martial skill, horses being the armoured vehicles of yore. Military training was one obvious and explicit function of the elaborate royal tournaments staged from the Middle Ages until the early Renaissance, and depicted with varying degrees of competence (most brilliantly perhaps in the etchings of Lucas Cranach the Elder) by a large number of artists, but even the becalmed equestrian paintings of Stubbs, painted late in the 18th century, still carried vestiges of military symbolism. The steeliness of milord's gaze and the hauteur of his bearing, unmistakably if understatedly conveyed by the painter, have their own significance. The British gentleman's passion for bloodstock, for hunting and for horseracing, was not as trivial, not as merely diverting, as some now assume it to have been. Every time the aristocrat rode out at hounds, he was rehearsing his role in the cavalry of the British Empire. This strand of associations has not yet been cut: modern commentators on the Grand National, whether intentionally or not, also invoke the military roots of equestrian sport when they refer to the race (as they do every year) as a "cavalry charge."

Art reminds us too that even acrobatics and gymnastics, among the most graceful of modern sports, were originally conceived of as ways of hardening the body, of making it more flexible and agile, in readiness for combat. There was always an element of exuberant, carnivalesque showmanship involved too, because gymnastics owes its origins as much to the fairground as to military necessity - plain to see in a wonderful late 16th-century woodcut of that daring young man, Arcangelo Tuccaro, gymnast extraordinaire and tutor in acrobatics to the King of France, jumping the death-defying salto mortale through no fewer than 10 hoops.

As weaponry became more sophisticated and the fitness of the human body became consequently less essential to victory in warfare, many of the most ancient and aggressive sporting activities changed in character, becoming softer, more sophisticated, more stylised. Peter Kuhnst believes that gradually "combat became choreography, while strength and speed became pose and posture" and the images of sport in art bear him out to some extent. The rough-and-tumble of the joust or tournament ceased to interest the courtiers of later times and they mastered other and more elegant tests of horsemanship. Dressage, which seems even to the layman like something of a museum piece among modern equestrian sports, is indeed that. Its roots lie in the courtly ideals of the Baroque era, when the consummate display of control, over self and horse, was held to signal the consummate polish and civilisation of the rider - yet it is only by contemplating the images of art (whether they be Van Dyck's prancing portraits of Charles I demonstrating his equestrian prowess or the wonderfully effete images in old manuals of horsemanship) that the true history of this sport can be understood. Combat has indeed become choreography.

Ken Jones has often made the point, in the pages of this newspaper, that boxing is not really a sport at all - and he is quite right, at least in the sense that it is the only modern sport to have preserved intact so much of the violence, intensity and threat of warfare. Of course, boxing too is somewhat less brutal than it once was, as Thomas Rowlandson's early 19th-century print, Boxing Match for 200 Guineas between Dutch Sam and Medley demonstrates: in a ring made purely of spectators squatting on the bare ground (this is the origin of the term "ring," which has become puzzlingly square since the legalisation of boxing) we see two men with bare knuckles squaring up to one another. The inscription attached to it reads thus: "At one o'clock the two champions entered the ring and Sam had for his second Harry Lee while Joe Ward officiated for Medley. After a severe and bloody contest of 40 rounds victory was decided in favour of Sam." But although nobody was fighting 40 rounds by the end of the 19th century, and although the contestants had been equipped with gloves by then, the great American painter Thomas Eakins still saw boxing for the primitive spectacle that it remained. His Between Rounds, 1899, is one of the masterpieces of sporting art. A scrawny boxer tended by his seconds slumps back into his corner; he is a meagre hero and his body gives off a pallid, slightly other-worldly light. The centre of the spectacle, he is like a glow-worm and also (perhaps the painter wanted us to think this) a little like a latterday Christ. He is a sacrificial victim certainly. Boxing tends to bring out more in painters than many other sports, perhaps because it is such a primal spectacle, both unpleasant and also moving in the starkness with which it shows the darker side of man to man. Bullfighting, which inspired both Goya and Picasso to create remarkable works of art, (sadly omitted by Kuhnst) is a similar case - a sport almost too troubling to be thought of simply as such.

But in the 20th century, when the vast majority of athletes have ridden and run and jumped and played ball for a less savage sense of achievement than that of the boxer or the bullfighter, the shadow of true, life-endangering violence has mostly disappeared from sporting view - although it has, occasionally, reared its head, notably in totalitarian circumstances. Both Stalin and Hitler consciously revived an ancient and essentially warlike cult of sport in Russia and Germany in the 1930s, a fact mirrored by the fondness both dictators shared for chilly Neoclassical paintings and sculptures of the male and female athlete.

In Germany, the Aryan master ace was to demonstrate its fitness to rule the world partly through the achievement of daunting physical fitness: and the paintings of athletes produced in such quantities under Nazism, by the likes of now-forgotten artists like Gerhard Keil or Jurgen Wegener, were designed to make modern Germans look as much as possible like ancient Greeks - as well-muscled as the nudes of Phidias, they were to resemble Homeric heroes, ready for the epic adventures of the 10,000-year Reich. The most terrifying of all the images to record Hitler's programme of "national physical rearmament" through the pursuit of sport is not a painting. It is Leni Riefenstahl's unforgettable propaganda photograph, Mass Exercises in the Olympic Stadium, Berlin, 1936. Viewed from far above the ground, we see endless relays of men, bare-chested, performing press-ups in the shadow of the Olympic flag - line after line after line of them, dwarfed to the size of ants by the lofty perspective, a never-ending army of white athletes stretching as far as the eye can see. Only a picture can take you back to the past with such instant immediacy. Looking at Riefenstahl's extraordinary, brilliant, vile image, you can perhaps, albeit more than half a century later, begin to sense how sweet the victories of the great black sprinter Jesse Owens, gained in that same stadium, in that same year, must have tasted.