Monday, January 26, 2015

In the Shadows of History: The Once Ferocious Campo Sant' Agnese

A group of women chats in Campo San't Agnese on a recent Sunday afternoon 
Campo Sant' Agnese is a quiet, picturesque campo in the shadow of the church of the I Gesuati, at the Zattere end of the long filled-in canal that forms the direct route between the Giudecca and the Grand canals. It seems only lightly populated by Venetians these days: sometimes a few kids will be playing in it, sometimes (as above) a group of young local mothers will come together to catch up at the end of a weekend afternoon.

I can never pass by or through it, though, without being reminded of a time when the campo and its parish was infamous for its ferociousness and hostility to outsiders.

This was during the late Renaissance, from the end of the 16th until the end of the 17th century, when the riotous and sometimes deadly Wars of the Fists (battagliole degli pugni) were staged between the city's two rival factions, the Nicolotti and the Castellani, on the various "fighting bridges" around Venice. An entertaining and well-documented (refreshingly so, after those many books on Venice that ask us to accept their claims on faith) account of these battles and their central place in Venetian culture is offered by historian Robert C. Davis in The War of the Fists: Popular Culture and Public Violence in Late Renaissance Venice, Oxford Univ Pr, 1994). I posted a brief review of this book three years ago, and it's a book I find myself returning to often (

Though officially illegal, these great battles were hugely popular both with the working class and the city's patricians (who often sponsored their favorite champions), and more than once were staged at the special request of visiting princes, lords or bishops. Consisting, first, of a series of individual brawls between a representative of each faction in which the goal was to knock one's rival from the rail-less bridge by any means possible, the culmination of each day's combat was always a violent no-holds-barred scrum for control of the bridge between as many Castellani and Nicolotti as could get within harm's range of one another. Often enough some combatants were maimed, crushed to death, or drowned. This was part of the fun.

Two of the favorite fighting bridges of the era, near Campo Santa Fosca and Campo San Barnaba, have retained the fours pairs of marble footprints--a pair in each corner of the bridge's crown--designating the place from which each combatant began the one-on-one fights, as well as the place for one representative from each faction (in lieu of an actual disinterested referee).

But another good fighting bridge, with ample space all around it for the tens of thousands of participants and viewers that attended the battles, lay steps away from Campo Sant' Agnese, on the Zattere, a short distance from where the church of I Gesuati now stands. The bridge was torn down when the canal it spanned was filled in in the 19th century.

There was, however, one serious problem with this bridge as a battleground: it required most members of the Nicolotti faction coming on foot to pass through the parish of Sant' Agnese, where they were prone to be battered before the battles even began. For, according to Davis, "the residents [of Sant' Agnese]--known as Gnesotti--were such hostile and volatile partisans for their faction that they were quite likely to throw stones and chairs or dump boiling water on any opposition squads that dared to cross their territory on the way to the battle site."

Indeed, through the long decades of violent animosity between the two factions, the Gnesotti distinguished themselves again and again, not only with some of the fighters they produced, but with their furious displays of partisanship--becoming, for example, so abusive of the effigy they created of one of the Nicolotti champions in 1667 as to earn the censure even of those within their own Castellani faction.

It's such fiery past residents of Sant' Agnese I'm sometimes reminded of by, paradoxically, the very openness and placidity and emptiness of the campo now. As tourists straggle past it, following a path that was once water; as a certain violinist scrapes away near the small church of Sant' Agnese, as if practicing daily in the open air (but without showing any signs of improvement); one would never suspect the savage passion that once filled the space long ago, making it (in)famous and feared throughout the city.


  1. Venice is now thought of as a genteel and elegant place. This is a great post reminding us of its very lowly origins. Working folk using violence as entertainment. Although I'm pretty much a pacifist, I'd love to have glimpsed the excitement of those times.

    1. It seems that pretty much everything is now somehow pitched as "upscale," Andrew, which leaves out not only the reality of life in the past, but most of it in the present. It made for a rousing spectacle, by all accounts: so exciting that patricians were willing to pay great sums to secure window views from enterprising folks who happened to live near the battle sites.