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The War of The Bucket

In a way, all wars are stupid—but none was stupider than the Battle of Zappolino that was waged over a silly wooden bucket.

The War of the Oaken Bucket, as it is popularly known, was fought in 1325 between the rival city-states of Bologna and Modena in Italy. It started when a group of Modenese soldiers sneaked into Bologna and stole an oak bucket used to draw water from a well located in the center of the city. While the bucket itself held no historic or sentimental value, the affront hurt Bologna’s pride, and the humiliated Bolognese demanded the bucket be returned. The Modenese refused which outraged the Bolognese and war was declared upon them.

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Bologna mustered a huge army of 30,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 cavaliers, and marched them towards the battlefield located near what is now the commune of Zappolino. Facing them was a puny army consisting of only 5,000 men and 2,000 cavalier that Modena managed to assemble. The Modenese also found themselves awkwardly scattered in the plains with their enemy, the Bolognese, holding the high grounds in the surrounding hills.

Despite being outnumbered nearly six-to-one and practically surrounded by the enemy, Modena’s army fought bravely and in just a matter of hours the battle was over—with the Bolognese taking to their heels and the Modenese chasing behind. The Modenese army not only chased the humiliated Bolognese all the way to Bologna, they actually managed to break through the city gates and destroyed several castles and a sluice lock on the Reno river thus depriving the city of water. At this point, Modena’s army could well have sieged the city but they chose not to. Instead, they decided to humiliate their enemy. So right outside the city gates, Modena’s men taunted their vanquished foes by organizing a mock palio—a sort of mediaeval athletic event—commemorating “those sent out on the expedition and the eternal shame of Bologna.” As if the Bolognese weren’t shamed enough, before returning to Modena, the men stole a second bucket taking it from a well outside one of the city’s gates.

Approximately 2,000 men lost their lives in this ridiculous and totally avoidable skirmish.

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But what happened that day was the culmination of a long-standing feud between two warring factions in northern Italy—the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, which were on the opposing sides of an even larger power struggle between the Vatican and the Holy Roman Empire for political control of medieval Europe. The two sides frequently clashed with each other in many of the northern Italian cities, and the rivalry between the two factions went beyond politics. Perhaps the most famous Guelph-Ghibelline conflict of all is the feud between the fictional families of Montague and Capulet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Following the war, the two parties agreed to peace and Modena returned a couple of properties it had previously captured from Bologna, as a gesture of good will. But the bucket? That was never returned.

To this day the city of Modena holds it in the basement of Torre della Ghirlandina. Now a replica of the original pail is visible in Modena's Town Hall.

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