The Castellani and Nicolotti were the two rival factions, into which the working class of Venice was divided. Like modern gangs, they could be identified by their “colours”: the Nicolotti wore black caps and scarves; whilst the Castellani wore red.
It is known from the time of Doge Sebastiano Ziani, (who ruled between 1172 and 1178), that these divisions of citizen rivalry, had started between Castellani (drawn from the districts of Castello, San Marco and Dorsoduro) and Cannaruoli (districts of San Polo, Santa Croce and Cannaregio).
In 1307, the Cannaruoli were also assigned five districts of Dorsoduro (San Nicolò dei Mendicoli , Angelo Raffaele , San Basegio , Santa Margherita and San Pantalon); when they were renamed Nicolotti.
The Castellani therefore, lived in the eastern districts and were mostly comprised of workers from the Arsenal. The Nicolotti, on the other hand, concentrated in western districts, where fishing was their main occupation and derived their name from their headquarters, the ancient church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli.
The had the right to elect their “Doge dei Nicolotti”, who would lead them in all their races, regattas, games and general punch-ups (battagliole); against the Castellani.
Their respective patches overlapped at the church of San Trovaso, which was considered neutral territory and was unusual as it had two identical facades and entrances; one for each side! They could come together to meet, marry, for baptism and to bury the dead; using their own entrances.
The origins of this conflict are uncertain, but several theories have been put forward. A first connects it with the ancient struggles between Equiliani and Heracliani (two ancient thriving communities in the lagoon), whose inhabitants would have moved to these areas, with the invasions of hostile barbarians.
BOTH ABOVE: “Ponte dei Pugni” (Bridge of Fists) San Barnaba. Upper: Joseph Heintz Lower: Unknown Venetian Artist
Another, recalls the tragic end of Ramperto Polo, Bishop of Castello, said to have been killed by the parishioners of San Pantalon; for having imposed a tax on the parish priest.
Certainly, medieval Italians seemed to have a predispostion for intense intra-community rivalries. For example, Florence was torn apart in Dante’s day, by the Guelph and Ghibbeline factions; that forced the poet into exile.
La Serenissima followed the ancient Roman notion of “Divide and Rule” and did not discourage these clashes; in order to have a fierce and trained people ready for conflict. It also divided inhabitants, who would thus have been unable to organise a general revolt or to let of steam at certain times and specific locations; without threatening basic law and order.
There are several bridges in Venice named “Ponte dei Pugni” (Bridge of Fists) or sometimes “Ponte de la Guera” (Bridge of War). The two factions were allowed to face each other, at first using rods and sticks, but later changed to fist fights; which took place on bridges.
The two best examples are the Ponte dei Pugni at San Barnaba, that leads out of the Campo Santa Margherita and the Ponte Santa Fosca in Southern Cannaregio. In those days the bridges had no side railings or walls, so that battered combatants often went into the water.
Set into the paving on the top sections of the above-mentioned bridges are Istrian stone footprints or “sampe”. These marked the spot were individual contestants would stand before fighting.
“Ponte dei Pugni” (Bridge of Fists) at San Barnaba with stone footprints or”sampe” on top section of bridge.
Two other fighting bridges are Ponte dei Carmini, near to Santa Margherita and the Ponte de la Guera at Zan Zulian, not far from San Lio.
The bridge fights were held according to certain rules and comprised, individual, group or even mass brawls; while spectators jammed into every available window, gondola or rooftop. In 1574, King Henri of France was treated to a battle of 600 stick fighters and was shocked by the violence, declaring: “This is too small to be war, but too cruel to be a game”!
With individual or group fights, each side appointed a referee. They then advanced in combat formation, to gain control of the top section using fists and feet; both above and below the belt. Those who raised their standards first, were declared winners.
These bridge fights were prohibited after a clash on the Ponte dei Pugni in September 1705, turned violent with stone throwing and stabbings; causing the Grand Council to end these events.
Since then, the Castellani and Nicolotti were only able to compete in less violent games; such as the “forces of Hercules”, in which each team had to create a sort of human pyramid and in the regattas.
On May 31, 1810 the forces of Hercules were organised along the Rio di San Gregorio, to celebrate the anniversary of the coronation of Napoleon as King of Italy; but sadly the game degenerated into a riot in which ten people died.
LEFT: Stick-fight at the “Ponte Santa Fosca” by Gabriele Bella in Southern Cannaregio.
LEFT: Church of San Trovaso and Boat yard, Dorsoduro. Neutral territory and featuring two identical fronts for the rivals.
In the Venice Carnival, one of the newer events held in St Mark’s Square, is the historical re-enactment of the fights between the Castellani and Nicolotti.
—The Castellani and Nicolotti—–The Castellani and Nicolotti—–The Castellani and Nicolotti—–