Ponte dei Pugni – Where The Ancient Tradition of Fistfights Took Place:
There are hundreds of bridges criss-crossing the back canals of Venice, but one that is quite well-known is the Ponte dei Pugni. Located near Campo St Barnaba in Dorsoduro, Ponte dei Pugni is a famous Venice bridge that tells of an ancient tradition of fistfights on Venice bridges. Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) takes its name from the vicious fistfights that used to take place between the Castellani and the Nicolotti clans.
It seems that the division between the Castellani of San Pietro di Castello and Nicolotti of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli occurred as early as the days when Venetians were forced to seek shelter in the lagoon by invading forces. To distinguish themselves from the other clan, the Castellanis settled in the districts of Castello, San Marco and Dorsoduro whilst the Nicolottis occupied San Polo, Santa Croce and Canareggio.
Bridge of Fists
Members of the two clans would frequently challenge each other to fights on a bridge which in the early days included the use of weapons such as sticks and canes. The fight usually starts with one clan member against one opponent. Others then join in and before long the entire bridge is packed. The idea is to try and throw your opponent off the bridge which was devoid of railings at that time. Once off the bridge, the fighters can clamber back on again and so the fight goes on for hours. At stake was the possession of the bridge on which the winning side could place their insignia. Due to the ferocious battles and the number of casualties, weapons were eventually banned in 1574 and only fistfights were allowed.
The banning of weapons didn’t stop the fights and neither were the authorities able to limit the number of fights. Even the nobles got into the act and would build temporary bridges so that their visitors could be entertained with the battles. The fights became so frequent that after a bloody clash in 1705 the government intervened and banned any further gathering at bridges. Jail sentences of five years or more awaited those who broke the law.
When walking across Ponte dei Pugni, remember to look at the stone footprints which marked the starting posts for these fights. The first time we crossed this bridge we were so focused on the canal views that we missed the footprints.
Of the many other bridges that had been used as a battleground in the war of fists, there is one other bridge with footprints in stone in Campo Santa Fosca in Cannaregio.