Monday, March 21, 2011

The War of the Fists

 After spending nearly three hours watching a certain display of hyper-masculinity, King Henry III complained to those who had organized the event for his entertainment that it "was too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game."

The year was 1574 and, no, he had not just watched a game of professional American football, nor the off-field hooliganism of soccer fans, but a battagliola for control of the Ponte dei Carmini waged by 600 Venetian workers armed with helmets, shields and sticks.

This would be one of the last armed battles of this kind. By the end of the 16th century, and all through the 17th, the two rival factions of Venice, the Nicolotti and Castellani, would express their hostilities in the organized mass mayhem known as la guerra dei pugni, or war of the fists.

Of course lovers of Venice already know of these battles from the famous Ponte dei Pugni and its four marble footprints, placed upon it in the late 17th C. to mark the starting points for the two combatants and two referees involved in the mostre, or series of one-on-one combats, that made up part of a fighting day's festivities. But for those interested in learning more not only about these battles but about the 17th-century Venice in which they occupied so important a role, I strongly recommend Robert C. Davis's The War of the Fists, originally published in 1994 by Oxford University Press.

Davis provides a very readable (& thoroughly documented) account of Venetian life beyond just the doges, aristocrats, artists, courtesans and illustrious foreign visitors who form the subjects of so much writing on the city. In fact, some of the most fervent adherents of these battles were found among the upper classes. Noblemen aligned themselves with one of the two factions and acted as patrons to the best fighters. Cardinals of the Church and visiting royalty demanded battles be waged during their stay, and one, a certain Princess Colonna, enjoyed her first experience of them so much that she coerced the heads of the two factions to stage another slate of them the following week just for her.

But Davis excels at suggesting the lives of the lower classes: the hierarchies, loyalties, and values that drove them to fight on the bridges, where serious injury and death were always very real possibilities. Fighters drowned in the canals, were suffocated in the crush of a frotta--the vast riotous scrum for control of the bridge waged en masse by the two factions that many participants valued more than the single combat mostre. Daggers might be drawn, or a deadly hail of roof tiles might come from impassioned fans stationed atop the buildings all around the bridge. 

In general, the most prominent members of the Nicolotti were fishermen from the western end of Venice, while the core of the Castellani consisted of shipbuilders from the Arsenale. But within these two large factions, there were subgroups, centered around their particular campi, united by their common trade (eg, mirror makers and sellers of San Canciano, the butchers of Cannaregio), and in the course of reading Davis one gets a real sense of the vital geography of Venice, the factions within factions, like hives within hives, of a city buzzing with life. 

Since reading this book the quiet, usually vacant little campo of Sant' Agnese, for example, has been re-peopled for me, in imagination, by its former inhabitants, infamous for their terrifying ferocity on behalf of the Castellani cause.

And the city's many bridges have been reinformed with the status they held for centuries, as no-man's lands, neither of this parish nor that, neither land nor water, marginal--the traditional hangout for those small-time illicit vendors (of matches or trinkets in centuries past; of knock-off purses, sunglasses, or cheap toys today) allowed no place among the established merchants on the mercerie or rughe.

1 comment:

  1. There are marble 'footprints' on Ponte Santa Fosca. There may be one or two other similar bridges (as well as the Ponte dei Pugni, of course), but I haven't seen one.