The Large-Scale Fistfights Of Renaissance Venice

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, November 22, 2015
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“There will be struggle. There will be sacrifice. There will be tears, there will be the occasional fistfight. And in the end, there will be transformation.” —Geoffrey, “Slings and Arrows”

In A Nutshell

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Venice was a hotbed of violence between two rival factions, the Nicolotti and the Castellani. Tensions often came to a head in a series of bridge fights that became so popular among the city masses that they were often staged for the delight of visiting royalty and diplomats. Things got more and more out of control, though, and when Venice officials tried to take the people’s sharpened sticks away, fights weren’t just contained to bridges anymore. The bridge wars were first restricted to a weaponless, armor-free, bare-knuckled brawl. When people kept getting killed, they were outright forbidden in 1705.

The Whole Bushel

If you ever find yourself in Venice, take a detour to the Ponte dei Pugni bridge. And if you do that, you’ll find something odd: a set of white marble footprints set into the otherwise ordinary bridge. Those footprints are a reminder of a strange section of Venice’s history, when rival clans would meet on bridges and settle their differences with some serious fisticuffs.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the city was home to two rival factions. The Nicolotti generally ruled the west side of the city, while the Castellani ruled the right. The different sides were no arbitrary division. Venice was split soundly between two very different groups of people with different backgrounds who had come to the city from entirely different regions.

Because people are generally the same no matter where they’re from or what they decide to call themselves, there were some pretty heated times between the two factions. As early as 1369, groups of men would meet in the streets to throw down for the honor of their faction. Around 1421, those stick battles started happening on bridges—like the Ponte dei Pugni—across the city. Dozens or even hundreds of men would fight with sticks and shields or with bare hands, beating each other senseless, throwing others into the canals and rivers, and fighting for the honor of their faction and for the bridges themselves.

Given Venice’s unique layout and reliance on bridges, it’s not surprising that they would become a target for some fighting between city factions. More surprising was the response from authorities: They loved it.

In fact, they loved it so much that the fistfights and stick wars between the Nicolotti and the Castellani became the thing to do when foreign dignitaries came to visit. While the random, blood-and-guts fights were called battagliole sui ponti (“little battles on bridges”), others would be arranged especially for the entertainment of visitors. These were massive and could take days pf preparation, include countless fighters, and be held before tens of thousands of people. These pre-arranged faction fights were guerre ordinate, and they were held for everyone from Turkish diplomats to France’s King Henry III.

The fights were serious, with the weapon of choice being a heavy, sharpened stick that had been hardened with boiling oil. Shields were used, but one thing absent in the woodcuts and documentation depicting the fights is armor.

With the biggest fights came all the merchants and food vendors you’d expect to want to take advantage of the huge crowds, which even packed onto boats and gondolas that lined the canals within sight of the bridges. Crowds kept a running commentary on the actions of the men in the middle of the struggle, sometimes joining in by throwing objects at the fighters. There were even some reports of crowds relieving entire buildings of their roofing tiles, hurling them into the crowds, and starting other fights.

By 1505, the street violence wasn’t just contained to the bridge fights, and the council that ruled Venice tried to restrict the people’s right to carry the sharpened sticks. The attempted rules just made this worse, and instead of just fighting with each other, they were now fighting with the people who were trying to take their sticks away. During the 1600s, the bridge fights were ordered to become bare-knuckle brawls, with boxing matches taking the place of stick fighting and stabbing. Not surprisingly, people still got hurt and died in all sorts of ways, and the fights were finally outlawed in 1705.

Show Me The Proof

Time Out Venice
The War of the Fists, by Robert Charles Davis
Association for Renaissance Martial Arts: Battling at the Bridge