For generations of Venetians epic fist fights atop neighborhood bridges were a celebrated tradition. Beginning in about 1600, from September to Christmas each year rival clans would gather en masse on small bridges without rails and throw punches with the goal of knocking their opponents into the cold and sewage-strewn canal below.
These “Wars of the Fist” were frowned upon if not outright outlawed by the ruling Council of Ten, but tolerated as they marked a big improvement over the earlier tradition of fights with deadly sharpened and fire-hardened sticks. Legend has it that in a stick battle in 1585 the Castelanni clan, seeing that they had lost most of their sticks and were out-armed by the opposing Nicoletti clan, bravely threw off their protective clothing and offered to go mano-a-mano.
The fights were enormously popular spectacles, and drew huge crowds as shown in the La Guerra Dei Pugni painting by Antonio Stom, now hanging in Venice’s Pinacoteca Querini Stampalia. The fight would begin with champions placed on the four corners of the top of the bridge, with masses of fighters behind them. In 1670 the new Diedo bridge at San Marziale opened with marble footprints marking fighters’ starting points.
The Venetian pugilists honed their skills, and even traveled to teach the close-quarters fighting technique.
As the 1600s came to a close, the fights began to lose popularity, and aristocrats who had attended and sponsored fighters began to look to new sports. September 29, 1705 the last war of fists began in the usual manner, but punches elevated to general fighting, then a hail of rooftiles, and finally ended bloodily when knives were pulled.
The battles were officially outlawed, and this time it was enforced. For decades after the last battle, the fighters were celebrated in poetry, painting, and myth.
Although the fights took place on several bridges around the city, the most famous fighting bridge is the Ponte dei Pugni, located near Campo San Barnaba in Dorsoduro. Four white marble footprints mark the starting point for fighters (restored in 2005). Other notable fighting bridges were the Diedo bridge at San Marziale, Ponte della Guerra at Santa Fosca, and Ponte della Guerra at San Zulien.
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