An ancient tradition gives its name to a famous Venetian bridge: the War of the Fists, in which the residents of the city’s sestieri faced each other to increasingly violent challenges
Once upon a time in Venice it was all about Castellani and Nicolotti. The former were the residents of the San Marco and Castello districts, the latter lived in San Polo, Dorsoduro and Canareggio. The heated rivalry between the two factions, which often resulted in acts of violence and retaliation throughout the thirteenth century, led to the establishment of what became a real tradition, a safe outlet for the passions of the city’s hot-blooded youth: the war of the fists. The fight took place on the bridge of Dorsoduro, close to San Barnaba in Campo Margherita, soon renamed “Ponte dei Pugni”. The bridge, like many at the time, was not equipped with balustrades – the ones we see today are a later addition – and it features a peculiar decorative feature, the marble footprint of a foot on each of the pavement’s four corners.The rivalry between the two factions, the result of years of financial competition and familial disputes, came to be channelled into an annual season of enthusiastic fisticuffs in the year 1292, a strategy employed by the city government to maintain order. These sanctioned and regulated fights were effective in reducing the likelihood of random and dangerous scuffles. The fight consisted of three challenges, the Mostra (the exhibition), the Frota and the Ordered War. The first was an individual challenge between the champions of the two teams, each of them would begin by placing his feet on the aforementioned footprints of the pavement of Ponte dei Pugni.
At a certain point, other team-players would also join in, to compete in conquering the opposing field and placing the team’s insignia on the bridge. The Frota, on the other hand, was a no holds barred combat, which allowed the use of knives and sticks and usually resulted in much bloodshed.
Onlookers often joined in and the ensuing brawl lasted until the gendarmerie broke it off at nightfall. Thus, the council introduced the much tamer Ordained War, in which each faction would try to conquer the bridge by pushing the other into the water. The fighting on Ponte dei Pugni was abolished in 1705 after over 400 years: influenced by the ideals of the age of Enlightenment, public opinion increasingly frowned upon such extreme displays of violence and the Council of the Ten decided to replace it with something called Moresca, a style of fencing fought with iron bars, and with the “Forces of Hercules”, a competition to erect the highest human pyramid judged by the Doge himself. Let us join in as well, with a toast to the fierce champions of the Castellani and the Nicolotti, to commemorate their daring and feisty spirit with a chilled glass of Le Rive di Ogliano Extra Dry.