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Fist Fights on Venetian Bridges

battagliole sui ponti

Throughout the Middle Ages and the early Modern Period, Venice was divided into many administrative districts and rival factions, who displayed incredible unrestrain when it came to getting at each other’s throat. Armed raids on another’s territory were common, and as if these violent interludes were not enough, these gangs mutually decided that it would be nice to meet once in a while in a public place and sort out their differences with fists and sticks.

Two of the largest and most famous geographic factions were the Castellani and the Nicolotti. The Castellani lived in the eastern part of the city and were mostly workers employed by the shipyards and workshops. The Nicolotti lived on the west and were fishermen. For centuries, the rivalry and competitions between these two groups became the source of endless gossip and entertainment for the Venetians. During civic festivities, members of the Castellani and the Nicolotti would challenge each other in games such as Moresca, bull running and bear baiting. But their greatest clashes were the prearranged fights upon the city’s numerous bridges. These ritual encounters were known as battagliole sui ponti.

Every Sunday, or on a holiday, bridges across Venice would be transformed into battlegrounds. In those days, bridges in Venice had no guard rails so the goal was to throw the opponent into the water below. The restricted surface of the bridge made the duel more challenging. On open land a duel can quickly turn into an unorganized melee. But on a bridge, with only two entrances and a central fighting arena, fights tended to be more organized but they were not necessarily more humane. Many Venetian bridge fights were waged with sharpened sticks and grievous injuries were common. Sometimes the crowd and supporters got into the act too throwing roof tiles from the surrounding balconies into rival parties. Every year, there were at least a few fatalities, either from drowning or from being trampled under a panicking crowd.

battagliole sui ponti

“Competition at the bridge of fists in Venice” by Joseph Heintz the Younger, dated 1673.

By the early 17th century, bridge fights became more civilized and organized. The use of sticks and any other weapons were prohibited and fights became largely unarmed brawls. The Venetians became well-known for their pugilistic skills, and by the late 17th century, many wrestlers from surrounding states started coming to Venice to take part in the duels. Often one-to-one boxing matches called mostre were held before the general bridge assault, and these boxing matches achieved their own popularity.

The last war of the fist took place in September 29, 1705. It began as usual, but soon degenerated into arguments and riot, then a hail of roof tiles and finally knives and daggers were pulled out. The crowd was so worked up that nobody noticed that the church of San Girolamo had caught fire. The firemen were busy throwing punches. By the time one of the priests came running to the bridge waving a crucifix, the church was completely gutted. The Council of Ten realized that the fist fights had gone too far and had it outlawed. Few voiced their protests.

With fist fights gone, Venetians found other ways to channel their hunger for personal honor and factional loyalty. Regatta, or rowing completion, was one of them. Forze d'Ercole or human tower building, was another. In forze d'Ercole, as many as twenty costumed participants on each side would attempt to build the tallest human tower. But the seething rivalry and tribalism underneath these seemingly innocuous displays sometimes ended in trouble. After a particularly violent riot in 1810, even those competitions gradually declined.

Today, there are no more Castellanis and Nicolottis in Venice, but many of these bridges where fights took place still stand. One of the most famous of these is Ponte dei Pugni, which means “bridge of fists”.

Ponte dei Pugni

Ponte dei Pugni. Photo credit: Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons

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