One day I was walking with the Zane family near Campo Santa Margherita, and while crossing a bridge, Nereo pointed out these peculiar footprints; then he and his daughter Martina explained that it was a "bridge for fighting".
Aside from the big topo parked next to it selling fruits and vegetables, it looked like most of the other small bridges in Venice. It certainly didn't look like people had been doing battle there. Then they explained that it was something that had happened hundreds of years ago but the name and reputation had stuck.
This isn't the only bridge in Venice with a fighting history. There are others, such as the Ponte della Guerra at Santa Fosca and San Zulian's Ponte della Guerra. But the Ponte dei Pugni is the most well-known of the bunch. The name literally means "Bridge of Fists". You might wonder why such a thing existed, when Venice seems so peaceful, and her political system has been recognized as the "longest running republic". Why would there be so much fighting? For the longest time Venice was a city defined not only by sestieri, but by the two "clans" which inhabited her; they were the Nicolotti and the Castellani. The Castellani took their name from the district of Castello, where they lived. Castellani also inhabited San Marco and part of Dorsoduro. The Nicolotti acquired their name because they originally came from the parish of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli. For the most part they lived in Cannaregio, San Polo and Santa Croce.
Before settling in Venice, these two groups came from different places, making up a large percentage of Venice's original inhabitants. As generations carried on their culture and traditions, so too did they continue this feud - one who's origins may never be fully understood.One traditional belief is that the two groups came from Heracleia and Jesolo - two towns on the mainland, and that this thing began as a rivalry between the towns. Much of the stories we have today about the Castellani and Nicolotti are widely believed as fact, but many of the details cannot be verified.
One fact remains, the two clans did battle - here and in other places.
Bridges were popular for many reasons:
- They often stretched between the two territories,
- The boundaries of the fighting area were clear,
- The winner was determined when one side had claimed and kept the bridge,
- The prospect of flinging an opponent into the water was both inviting to the winner, easier on the loser (than falling onto stone), and a great crowd pleaser to be sure.
These were not skirmishes or seiges though; they were pitched battles - agreed upon by both parties and well prepared for. There appears to have been a true discipline associated with how it was done.
Someone would first present a challenge, and then "godfathers" were selected to serve as judges of the match. Next, a bridge would be selected for the brawl. On the day of the guerra, much pomp and circumstance would precede the main event.
Usually the fight would begin as a one-on-one, or two-against-two match; in fact the bridge has a single footprint for each of those four contestants. As accompanying faction members got riled up, they would almost always join in the fight. These would go on for hours sometimes. Because the bridge had no railing, fighters would go over and into the water quite a lot, and if they could get back on to land, they would often charge back into the mele. Things got fierce, and fatalities were a regular result, especially during the brief period when combatants would wear armor and carry poles with steel tips.
This armored spear-fighting proved to be too deadly and was abandoned in favor of the bare-knuckle approach.
So where was the government in all of this?
On the surface they condemned it and issued decree after decree forbidding it, but the fighting continued.
Some say the two clans had such a presence that it would be futile to try to enforce such laws.
Some say the leaders of the republic secretly viewed the rivalry as a way to keep the men of Venice tough - a good thing to have in case Venice went to war.
Still others believe the leadership of La Serenissima allowed and/or encouraged the rivalry and fighting to continue as a way to ensure that the two groups wold never unite, possibly rising up against the government.
Finally, in 1705, the government put a stop to the violent matches; from then on, tests of strength and skill (similar to some we see in the circus today) were used to settle disagreements. Walking through Venice is like walking through history. Every building, every church, and yes - even every bridge - has a story, some more intriguing than others. Years ago I learned that every boat has a story, now I can honestly say that every bridge has a story too.
A special thanks goes out to Nereo Zane for not only introducing me to the famous bridge, but for assisting me by proofing this post to give it the Venetian stamp of approval.