Battling at the Bridge
Stick Fights and Boxing Spectacles
in Renaissance Venice

bridge1550.JPG (39829 bytes)About 1669 an anonymous Venetian essayist wrote a detailed history recounting the city’s many guerra di canne or “war with sticks”. The Chronicler of these great pugni (or fights) wrote the battles “are not lowly things of little importance, but of the highest consideration”. Beginning in the late 1300s and lasting until the early 1700s, these mock battles or battagliola, consisted of mobs of working men with shields and in helmets pummeling each other with wooden sticks in hours of chaotic melees. Men were routinely injured and maimed in the fighting and inevitably some killed. The first official note of these Venetian stick battles dates from 1369 but they apparently did not begin to occur on bridges until 1421. The events were of such pride that the Venetian government arranged them for honored guests. In 1493 one such event was held before the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara. A small stick war was displayed in 1582 for Turkish diplomats and another was even held in 1585 for Japanese ambassadors.  In 1574 a bridge battle conducted by 600 Venetian artisans was arranged for the French King Henry III. Although, Henry later reportedly complained that the event “was too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.”

During the 1500s and 1600s the spectacles grew in size and significance. Several times a year Venetian workers and tradesmen would gather on particular Sundays or holiday afternoons to fight for possession of a bridge. These ritual encounters were also called battagliole sui ponti or “little battles on the bridges”. Such pre-arranged battles were known as guerre ordinate. They would take several forms from individual duels and small-scale brawls for a few hundred or thousand onlookers to enormous ones prepared days in advance and held for hours in front of tens of thousands of spectators. They were waged by all types of citizens but for the most part the civili. In Medieval Pisa, we know of the so-called giucco del mazzeascudo or men fighting “with wooden weapons sometimes altogether, sometimes two at a time” with wooden helmets and a padded breastplates of iron. The massive Ponte di Mezzo overlooking the Arno River in Pisa was often used as a tournament field for similar factional battles. From at least the tenth century in many Italian communities rival bands of youth were known to battle in open fields using fists, stones, or wooden swords and shields. One professor of Renaissance Italian history tells us such pretend wars between fighters wielding sticks and rocks and protected by shields, helmets, and armour were a regular occurrence in Italian cities during the era. 

In Medieval Venice chivalric tournaments were far less common, were conducted mostly by professional soldiers rather than Venetians, and commonly were genuine mock battles.  This allowed the Venetians the opportunity to appraise the prowess of their own troops and reward the skillful fighters.  In 1458 the Venetian commander Bartolomeo Colleoni held a tournament battle between two squadrons of 70 men-at-arms fought with full weapons. The contest was for possession of a small wooden castle erected outside the Doge’s palace. This Venetian tradition of large-scale mock fighting and tournaments ended in 1480 when horses were barred from the streets and was replaced instead by mock naval encounters. 

Originally the Venetian bridge fights were waged with sharpened sticks or robust cane, known as canne d'India, from local lagoons.  The sticks were customarily hardened at the point by repeated soaking it in boiling oil.  Interestingly they were employed as much for thrusting as for striking.   It is no surprise the participants typically wore an iron helmet or celada.  Some also wore iron and leather cuirasses or zacco (mail under their shirt).  A leather or wooden shield (targa or rodella) was also a necessity.  Although some are known to have used a cloak wrapped around the left arm.  Interestingly, though the combatants are nearly all commoners, these arms closely resemble those customarily associated with gentlemen of the era.  One woodcut from 1550 though depicts the battles with little armor, few helms, several long staffs, and a even halberd in the background.

The battles themselves were staged and fought without any formal or written regulations. Though no details survive of the actual combats we can imagine that jumbled crowds of men with sharp sticks stabbing and striking even if without intent to injure would be a quite dangerous activity.  As to the injuries, we are told by another chronicler the participants carried on their persons “…the scratches, sprains, teeth knocked out, dislocate jaws, gouged eyes, and finally, smashed ribs and crippled legs”. The tension of the events ran high and the sight of a single dagger drawn in anger could instantly cause a hundred others to be pulled amidst the brawling factions.  Historian Robert Davis tells us “Although individual aggression and vendetta often played a role in these violent encounters, the real motive force behind the battagliole was the pursuit of group and personal honor, arising from an intense factional loyalty and rivalry that was strong enough to challenge even the absolutist powers of the Republic's central government.”

Renaissance historians trace the Venetian factional rivalries back to immigrants of the Rialtine Islands. Reports survive of pretend battles from as early as c. 810 between factions armed with sharp sticks or canne d'India.  In Venice the citizens formed various factions or teams each with its own unique name and sometimes costume. The fighting squads at the battles were typically composed of forty or fifty men from the same neighborhood or same occupation or guild.  The two main factions formalized in 1548 where the Castellani and the Nicolotti. One faction, the Paluani, was known for arriving at the bridges in military order, with their squads dressed in matching uniforms. Loyalty to one’s faction was highly prized. Faction members caught changing sides to help throw a fight could expect violent reprisal or assassination.

Weeks before the event detailed arrangements would be made to prepare the teams for the contest. The passion for this martial festival on these common bridges swept up the entire city.  Fascination for the event penetrated every corner of daily life as people of all classes were caught up. On the appointed day vendors and food hawkers would also swarm to the bridge sites. The fans of the events were as obsessive as any modern soccer or football fanatic. The crowd would watch the spectacles in excitement, cheering, whistling, and waving handkerchiefs. For one afternoon the bridge became an arrengo or arena. To make things safer, sawdust was sprinkled on the bridge stones to prevent slipping, straw padding was placed around the bridge abutments in case of falls, and the water below was cleared of rubbish or debris. Once the battle began the water below the bridge would be jam packed with barges and boats and gondolas until no water was visible.

The crowd was in effect the ultimate arbiter and determined by applause or condemning hisses which fighters and which side had acted honorably or cowardly. The battagliole were also celebrations of personal honor as men fighting in pairs or in large mobs on a public stage thought to gain name and recognition among their peers and spectators.   Factional leaders called padrini were chosen from the champions of each side. They were charged with not only leading and organizing the factions, but partitioning them safely and equally in the piazza before the fight as well as planning safe routes for each side to take to the bridge site beforehand. Each contingent of 50 factionaries from a neighborhood was itself headed by a capo or “boss”, responsible for recruitment and discipline.

The crowd too could become riotous. Pumped up by wine they sometimes might begin throwing roof tiles off of nearby balconies (stripping them almost entirely bare in the process!). More than one event was halted because of the trouble this caused. As well, gentlemen viewing from opposing “box seats” might loudly exchange words and insults which could lead to swords being drawn then and there or an arranged duel occurring afterwards. The militia often had to break up battles that got out of hand. Local aristocrats would step into the factions and attempt to lower passions. Often their intervention held more respect than either that of the municipal authorities or the factional leaders themselves.

The Venetians were always highly sensitive about  factional honor and many were ready to defend against perceived insults from other factions using the weapons that every artisan routinely carried about the city: the handy stiletto (stillo) or the broad pistolese (also known as the lengua de vaca, or cow's tongue) as well as spiked boat poles (spontoni) used in the city canals. Some also stuffed their work aprons (traverse) with handfuls of iron balls or stones (cogoli), to be thrown with lethal effect from a safe distance. Davis adds “Arguments between even two or three enthusiasts over the merits of their respective faction could thus easily result in bloodshed and massive brawls, the more so since—as one English observer noted—Venetian commoners were far more likely to join in a fight than to assist in breaking it up.”

As early as 1505 the Venetian Council of Ten in the name of public order began to punish those who assembled for the bridge wars. Supplies of sticks had to be secured and hidden between events. But like laws against dueling, their efforts largely went ignored and were often repeated. Gangs of armed youths would get caught up in the excitement and frequently rumble with their rivals or the police. Many of those involved in neighborhood contingents were street toughs or raffines. We know for example of one, Tonin, a Caporione tailor from San Luca who in the 1630s was described as “an assassin” who “lives by arms… gathering about him at his expense a large gang of miscreants [malviventi] with whom he has assaulted and killed many”. 

Due to the state’s opposition to the disorder caused by these popular pastimes, by 1600 the bridge fights in Venice ceased to use sticks and became unarmed brawls called guerre di pugni or “war of the fists”. As with the stick wars, these bare-handed sporting brawls could attract thousands of fighters and tens of thousands of spectators. The new mode of combat apparently caused great curiosity and wonder. A possibly apocryphal explanation for the transition from sticks to fists supposedly occurred in 1585 when one faction ran out of sticks but continued to fight on unarmed and the other faction matched them. Ironically, this was not out of honor, but because they could no longer “fence” with their opponents and were instead being punched in the face and chest. Because the injuries from fist blows were readily seen to be more significant, the other side cast away its weapons.  One historian adds: “At the same time, there are signs that the nature of the battles themselves began to change under the 'civilizing' influences of police and patricians. Whereas earlier in the century it had been customary to stage a few (but rarely more than half a dozen) individual boxing matches (known as mostre, or "showings") as a sort of warm up before beginning the actual mob attack on the bridge (the frotta) that was the main event, by the 1660s, there are indications of a shift of emphasis from group brawling to single combat.”

The Venetians became well-known for their pugilistic skills by the late 1600s. The Slavic soldiers, Dalmatia or Schiavoni, were regularly thrashed and thrown into the water by the jabbing skill of the Venetian boxers. One source says that although the Slavs were accustomed to “coming to the clinch with sharp steel,” in the unarmed bouts they swung their arms about ineffectively as if they still had blades.  This is an interesting anecdote about the application of military cut-and-thrust skills compared to the calculated jab of boxing–which interestingly resembles the classic foyning thrust of late Renaissance fencing.

Eventually, one-on-one boxing matches called mostre began to take place before the general bridge assaults. The term mostra means a display or exhibition; the actual fighting of the boxing match was called a cimento or steccado. These “duels” became more and more popular. The pugni or “boxers” would wear leather or even “paper” chest armour and prided themselves on their fine dress. Later they began to go bare-chested, wrapping their shirts around their waists to protect their kidneys from punches. The fighters would typically wear only one padded glove or guanti of soft or hardened leather on their right hand, but by the end of the 1600s wore two gloves. Sometimes their gloves were even secretly sewn with lute strings so as to rapidly bloody an opponent’s face. The object of the mostre was not to score a knock out or to deliver powerful punches, but to bloody the opponent by a hit to the nose, lip, or face.

The boxing fights or cimenti, were divided into rounds during which the combatants returned to their respective corners.  The rounds were known as assalti (assaults) or salti (jumps or dances).  The fighter or duelista fought for his personal honor and reputation. Display was important and each fighter was expected to “show himself well”. As one historian describes it, by their performance and the abuse they underwent, the fighters in effect laid claim to the public’s adoration and respect (much like the later 19th century German university student’s Mensuren ritual duel). In these “boxing” matches the crowds evidently were most pleased by contestants who stood their ground and took blows to their face unflinchingly, striking out cleanly without too much dancing or fencing around (“troppo gioco nella scherma”). Defensive skills were less admired than displays of courage.

We are also told how sometimes these events “would be upset by the fighters themselves, who might well explode in a factional frenzy under the numbing stimulus of ample draughts of free wine and the deafening cries and whistles of as many as 30,000 onlookers, ending up turning on each other with drawn daggers and machetes. Some of the more aggressive spectators might also decide to join in the action, punching those nearby, brandishing weapons, or lobbing paving stones into the thick of the scrum. In either case, the result was predictable and often deadly, as all boundaries between the factions, the fighters and the onlookers dissolved into a stone-throwing, knife-wielding melee, sending men and women from both factions scrambling panic-stricken away from the deadly battle field.”

The “cult” of the pugni was about the value of the individual and his prowess, aggressiveness, and proper conduct. These champions were treated as star athletes, being welcomed by wealthy patrons and nobles as heroes as important as any victorious soldier. Surprisingly, foreign mulattos were even occasionally brought in as ringers by wealthy faction supporters and several became popular champions (shades of today’s heavyweight prize fighters 300 years later!). Like star athletes, the best champions would gain fame and fortune all over the city. Their image would be lionized and depicted in paintings, a cartoons, and effigies.

It is worth noting that in the mostre, “Grappling and wrestling were condemned less as unfair fighting than as a coward’s way of avoiding his rival’s punches; when a duelist would not allow himself to be turned into a beast.” Fighters instead relied on solid exciting blows that factional honor required. In some cases apparently combatants even agreed before hand to pull punches. Despite all the ferocity and display, the fights were fairly benign affairs and ended with an embrace and fraternal kiss. A fighter who had been unfairly dishonored by a fellow pugni might also seek a vendetta with his compadre and the support of the sect of his faction. He might be backed in his quest by wealthy merchants and nobles so that steel would later settle the matter through blood.

stick1.jpg (13097 bytes)By the late 1600s weapons and armour were dropped from the bridge fights entirely. The Chronicler of the events suggests there was only room for one form of fighting, and once the stick fighting fell out of popular favor it could not exist alongside the very different fist fighting.  The story argues boxing “won out” over stick fighting.  As historian of the bridge wars Robert Davis suggests, “That an essentially naked man should triumph over a heavily armored adversary was itself–in an age dominated by professional soldiers, hierarchical armies, and not a few remnants of chivalric ideas–a seeming paradox charged with republican and egalitarian.” He adds, “The boxer’s victory was one of pragmatism… the results of an intrinsically plebeian decision as to what worked best at the bridges.”  We can imagine wooden weapons being easy enough in a crowded melee to use in banging on another’s shield, helmet or stick, but unarmed fighting, even if just straight jabs, required closing to shorter range and direct contact flesh on flesh.  The change from sticks to fists may also reflect the changing nature of war in the period, when individuals' skill in traditional arms was becoming less and less important than firepower and close order drill in formation.

While the bridge battles consisted mostly of working class artisans and laborers, the nobility did participate. Until at least the 1580s aristocrats were involved heavily in the battagliole and their chronicler tells us: “In these old-styles the more fiery and pugnacious nobles were accustomed to go to the bridges… armed with light helmets, heavy gloves, and cutlasses, to serve as auttorevoli padrini.” The change from armed to unarmed surely finished off the involvement of aristocrats in the actual combat. The late 1600s Venetian guidebook of Alexandre Saint Disdier described that the nobility delighted in seeing “these fights and battles, while for the common people it is an affair of reputation and of importance.”  Primarily, the nobility as spectators would watch from rented balconies or moored boats, but their role as fans and supporters did play an essential part in the promotion and success of the battles. 

The crowds of patricians would waive their handkerchiefs to show approval and enthusiasm of their side. Hundreds might waive in unison as a signal to the opposing noble spectators to challenge them to send forth a duelist or even to admit defeat. When shaken rapidly, handkerchiefs could be a sign of contempt that the opposing fights were weak or cowardly. By the mid-1600s nobles had almost entirely ceased participating and only took active roles as leaders before the clash. As spectators however, gambling on the battles was considerable (just as with modern day sporting events).  To organize these events and pull them off required considerable negotiation on behalf of the artisans and workers, the faction leaders, the wealthy merchants who backed them, and the nobility who supported (and gambled on) them as well as government officials concerned with public safety and order. Interestingly, as with modern sport teams, the neighborhood merchants would endorse and support their factions, including handling their uniforms.

Similar events to the Ventian battles were held in Florence on special occasions in the late 1500s and early 1600s, sometimes between guilds of dyers and weavers. The combat might last 30 minutes or more. Such fights were also very common in Pisa, where they were occurred on the city square and were used as a form of martial exercise as well as sport (such events continue into the present day). By the 1500s they began to be played on small bridges. A wooden weapon called a mazza-scudo and a small shield were originally used. Typically metal helms with padding of cotton or horsehair were worn, as was some degree of iron body armor. Other men wore less armor and participated as light fighters. A special tool called a targone, part shield, part weapon was also employed. Attacks were allowed with the blow and the point to the adversary’s head, arms, and chest.

The guerra di canne represent an interesting part of martial sports in European history, and shed insight on a rarely considered aspect of Western martial culture. While there are similar accounts of mock battle sporting events in Italian history, because of their distinct and almost entire  concentration on bridges, the Venetian events are unique. As a writer at the time expressed: “The purpose of our combat and contests is not to kill each other or tear each other apart, but only, in the presence of the city, to win and to take possession of the bridge, with competition and with the usual audacity.”

 

To read more about this, see “The Police and the Pugni: Sport and Social Control in Early-Modern Venice”. Robert Davis. Stanford Humanities Review, 6.2, 1998, The War of the Fists– Popular Culture and Public Violence in Late Renaissance Venice, Oxford University Press 1994, and Mercenaries and Their Masters - Warfare in Renaissance Italy. Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.

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