The A.Caravia's mock-heroic poem[1] and the Venetian Stick Fighting


Because of some thousand-years-old brawls, a big war is held every year Between Gnatti, Canaruoli and Castellani on the bridges made of wood, sometime of stone a tremendous cadgelling can be seen.

Venice is a famous and well-know town: its history, its art as well as its charm attract many scholars, and not even the tourists.About Venice has been written everything and more, and it seems that remain to say almost nothing that is not already notorious. Yet just a few know the valiant “martial” past of Venice with its battagliole[4] or verre[5].The battagliole-even called guerre di canne, di pugni, battaglia universale, or simply verre[6]- were a sort of mock battles engaged in Venice among the two factions of Castellani and Nicolotti[7] for the control of a bridge at the border of the factional territory. Its origin is esteemed to be very old, even if the first record date back to the 1369[8]. The “game” lasts and develops for several centuries, abandoning the use of sticks , shields and protective clocks by the end of the XVI century. The less bloody bare-hand fighting, called pugni or pugilatus venetius, replaced then the stick fighting.

The battagliola’s cult belongs likely to the giochi d’arme[9] which were very popular in Italy since the XII century. The Pugna of Siena the battaglia dei sassi[10] of Perugia, the mazzascudo, the gioco del ponte of Pisa, are some of the war games waged by the people during the communal era. These games were staged regularly during the winter season in some pre-arranged days for the occasion of a religious or commemorating festivity. The reason of the birth and development of such war games, comes probably from the necessity to keep the townspeople always well trained, since the defence of the town walls was completely up to the urban militia- an aspect considered merely as an Italian anomaly[11]. In almost every town of Italy there are many records and proofs of this continuos effort in maintaining and improving the fighting skill between the urban force.

In the statuti del popolo of Cremona (1229) is written:

IX. Che ogni mese ciascun capitano in giorno di festa, sia obbligato doppo il disnare condur li huomini a lui assignati al luoco detto il Ceppo fuori di porta Mosa e là facci esercitare li huomini del suo quartiero o porta, nel manegiare l’armi et quelli si provino si all’offendere et diffendere et questo si facci per esecizio di questa socieà, acciò siino nell’armi vigilanti et esperti”[12].

The infantry of Pavia trained in the same way, and even here the general battle was preceded by individual duels:

“…quaedam spectacula faciunt, quae vulgo battagliolae, sed latine convenentius bellicula nuncupantur. Dividunt enim civitatem in partes duas, quarum Aquilonaris pars superior dicitur, Meridiana vero inferior;Pugnant autem ad invicem ligneis armis, aliquando simul omnes, aliquando duo seorsum, se per occursum a longe clypeis ferientes alterutri obviando”[13]

In Florence the youth waged these mock battles on the bridges too. Their pastime expressed the same factionalism rivality of the Venetian battagliole. Here the fations were the Guelfi and Ghibellini.

“A Dì XII d’Aprile si fe’ una battaglia di giovani fiorentini al ponte Santa Trinita, l’una parte del quartiere di Santa Maria Novella, l’altra del quartiere di Sancto Spirito della quale furono chapo e’ Chaponi, e de l’altra furono gli Strocci e gli Altoviti e più famiglieAnche durò infino alle tre ore di notte a lume di torchi, e nel fine si cominciò a far cho’ sasi e cho’ bastoni,…”[14]

The people began to appreciate these games very much, developing a sense of competition. Now even the low class citizens could display his own valour and aim to that honour and glory, which had always been a Nobles and Knights’ privilege in the tournaments and jousts. Rober C.Davis’s work, entitled The War of fists[15], analyses superbly the world of Battagliole. This study can be regarded as one of the deepest on the subject. However Davis does not linger over Caravia’s mock epic, “La Verra antiga dei Castellani, Canaruoli, e Gnatti”, exploring early modern Venetian society mainly thruogh the wars of fist.Thus he could not analyses the tecnique of the schermia di baston hidden in the octaves of Caravia’s poem. Indeed Davis is not interest in any description of the venetian fighting method. He even does not go deep into the technique of the art of fists, considering the amount of documents of his wide bibliography. Had Davis been more familiar with the great Masters’ renaissance teatrise printed in Venice and Bologna, he would not have missed the understanding importance of this little mock-heroic poem.Davis’s great work is the most complete analyse of the Battagliole employing different approaches: social geography of the factionalism, the general structure of the combat and the rule of the government and other venetian classes.


I can’t wait to be in this dance
In this scuffle ruffle a clot of Gnatti
Break teeth and cripple knees
Throw them in the canal like frogs

The wars of sticks were held regularly during the festivities-usually in the Sunday afternoon- and they were arranged very often in honour of kings, princes and foreign ambassadors, who visited the Republic of Venice. However the battagliole were improvised even with more attendance-because of the rising “itch of the hands” of the youth- on the bridges which come available almost every day of the year.

In the earliest times the battagliole were waged with the canna[16], baston, or even cornoler[17], canes of different shapes: At the beginning normal straight canes of round or square section of about 3cm, then the sticks began to have pointed ends hardened with boiled oil and sharpened asymmetrically obtaining a balance closer to the sword than the ordinary stright sticks[18]. Usually the stick were accompanied by targhe o rotelle, but more often the cloak, caffettano, or a heavy shirt, was used rolled around the other arm just before jumping on the bridge. The equipment included zacco (padded tunic of different types, sometimes cover with body mail) and helm of different shapes depending on the availability of a particular historical period (cellade,celade, celadine, mezze teste and morioni).

The battagliola of the 1574 held on the ponte del carmine, staged in honor of the French king Enrico III, was probably one of the last waged with sticks. In fact by the end of the XVI century the pugni replaced completely the sticks and canes.

Indeed there are no precise references which explain the reasons of this changing. The decisive factor was very likely the bloody violence and cruelty of this war game, beside all the social disorders which a guerra di canne employed. The problems of public order and the social and economic consequences-most of the figthers were artisan, workers and tradesmen-were two plausible explanations of this evolution.

Although banned several times since the early of the XV century, the battagliole were tolerated- sometime even pre-arranged by the Republic of Venice itself. Despite of the extreme violence of frotte, degenerating often in rock-throwing or steel weapon battle even with the public’s complicity, the players were not rough fighters without any elements of schermia.

Verra antiga is the certain proof of how the schermia di baston was a refined art. Even if the poem remains a literary chronicle of mock-heroic style, the employed terminology follows exactly the characters of the period Italian treatises. The very frotte followed the mostre, fought by the best factional players, sometimes as individual duels, sometimes even with two or three player at once. Right in this occasion where the author begin to linger over to further descriptions of the fencing actions, the reader can appreciate how much the schermia di baston was developed in those time, even in the lower classes, precluded by the chance of learning the art by a master of Scrimia.

[1]La verra antiga dei Castellani, Canaruoli, e Gnatti” di Alessandro Caravia- Venice, 1550

[4] Mock-Battles

[5] Wars

[6] “war of canes, of fists, universal battle or wars.

[7] (Caravia call them Gnatti and Canaruoli)

[8] From an edict of the Council of Ten, where the people were invited to stage an “universal battle”

[9] lett.: Game of arms

[10] rock-trowing battle

[11] “Italian Militiaman 1260-1392” Nicolle C. Hook Osprey Publishing 1999

[12] “Every Captain must take his men out of Porta Mosa every month during a feast day in the place called the Ceppo. There he must train the men of his district or Porta in the handling of arms, practising both offence and defence.

This is done as exercise of this society, as to be vigilant and skiful with arms”

[13] Liber de laudibus civitatis Ticinensis- Opicino de Canistris, Pavia 1330 . “…it is held some spectacles which are named vurgarly battagliola, but called bellicula in latin. They divided the town in two parts: the superior part is called Aquilonara, while the inferior is named Meridiana;…They fight alternatively with wooden weapons, sometime all together, sometime two apart, running up to each other from a distance and striking on the shields”

[14]“The twelve of April is held a battle between Florentine youths at the Santa Trinita bridge. One side from the quarters of Santa Maria Novella, the other from the quarter of Sancto Spirito formed by the Chaponi, the other by the Strocci e altoviti and other families,….Moreover it(battle) lasted until the three hours of the night at the torch light, an at the end they fought with staffs and rocks…”.

From the manuscript: Diario di un anonimo fiorentino (1382-1401)

[15] “La Guerra dei Pugni” -R.C.Davis, ed Jouvence 1997. The records about the venetian boxing are very reach in comparison with the replaced stick fighting. Davis focus mainly his research on these sources.

[16]“canne di Malacca” or “canna d’India”: the flexible Rotang

[17] Stick made in Corniolo wood ( bot.: Cornus mas), from latin corneolus: hard like a horn.

[18] One point is short tapered for 20 cm from the ends: it forms the handle and the “pommel”.

The hand grasp the stick just over this 20 cm in the cilindric part which continues for other 30 cm. Then in the middle the stick, supposed to be long 100 cm, start to be tapered obtaining a terrible 50 cm point.