Robert C. Davis
Volume 6.2
Casper / Reed
Costa Lima
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The Police and the Pugni:
Sport and Social Control in Early-Modern Venice

Steven Hughes, in his essay, "Fear and Loathing in Bologna and Rome, the Papal Police in Perspective," has perceptively noted that the resurgent patriciate of early-modern Italy had a vested interest in ensuring that policing forces remained debased, corrupt, and inefficient. Only in this way, Hughes points out, could independent elites protect themselves and their power bases from the encroachment of the absolutist state.1   But was a self-serving aristocracy all that stood in the way of effective law enforcement in the early-modern state? Here the Republic of Venice provides an interesting test case, for Venetian elites were in general well integrated and supportive of state authority, tending to identify their interests as a class with the maintenance of public order. Furthermore, it is Venice's fame, if not her notoriety, to have shown little toleration for either aristocratic swagger or plebeian rowdiness—a state policy of even-handedness backed by one of the most ruthlessly efficient police corps in all of early-modern Italy.2  Yet even in Republican Venice there were real and substantial limitations to the state's policing powers, situations where absolutism had to give way and even the most assiduous police could find their powers blocked—not before the manipulations of a subversive aristocracy, but rather in the face of popular traditions.

Perhaps nowhere are these limitations better revealed than when the principles of Venetian order were challenged by the excesses of popular sport, specifically by the mock warfare known locally as the battagliole sui ponti, or "little battles of the bridges."3  These were essentially enormous scrums that erupted every fall during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the working-class members of the city's two great factions, the Castellani and the Nicolotti, met to battle with their fists over the possession of an otherwise seemingly nondescript canal bridge. Although individual aggression and vendetta often played a role in these violent encounters, the real motive force behind the battagliole was the pursuit of group and personal honor, arising from an intense factional loyalty and rivalry that was strong enough to challenge even the absolutist powers of the Republic's central government.4

From at least the thirteenth century—some claimed even from the founding of the Republic—Venice had been factionally polarized.5   The border between the two factions was not, as might be expected, the Grand Canal, which does split Venice roughly in half, but rather a more obscure demarcation that had grown up over the centuries and that, winding between parishes and along minor canals, effectively divided the city along an east-west axis. To an extent the factions were identified with a few especially coherent worker communities in the city: fishermen for the Nicolotti and shipbuilders at the state Arsenal for the Castellani.6   Yet factional loyalties ruled just as strongly among parish where occupations were mixed, just as they also held sway outside the actual geographic boundaries of Venice, among the inhabitants of the lesser islands of the Lagoon and even as far afield as the city of Padua, forty kilometers distant.7  These loyalties and the rivalries they generated were as important to the average Venetian's sense of self-definition as were his or her family, parish, or guild membership, and, although their principal forms of expression were ludic and agonistic rather than political, they still represented one of the greatest and most stubborn social forces against which Venice's aristocratic government had to contend.

Although the season for factional battles in early-modern Venice was the fall (generally speaking, between mid-August and the Epiphany), factional passions were never far under the surface throughout the year. Ordinary Venetians were always highly sensitive about their factional honor, and many had the means to defend it against perceived insults from the other side, using the weapons that every artisan routinely carried about the city: from the handy stiletto (stillo), to the broad pistolese (also known as the lengua de vaca, or cow's tongue) and the spiked boat poles (spontoni) so useful in a city of canals.8   Those who went out anticipating trouble—and clearly there were many—could also stuff their roomy work aprons (traverse) with handfuls of iron balls or stones (cogoli), that could be thrown with lethal effect from a safe distance. Arguments between even two or three enthusiasts over the merits of their respective faction could thus easily result in bloodshed and massive brawls, the more so since—as one English observer noted—Venetian commoners were far more likely to join in a fight than to assist in breaking it up.9  When disputes erupted in factional no-man's-land, such as the public fish markets, where large numbers of Nicolotti and Castellani were brought into regular contact by the requirements of their work, the results could be disruptive indeed, with

    planks, chests, and baskets flying through the air, in such a number as to cause even the most distant people to come running… [and] even the Senators, who were in session, came to the big [Palace] windows to see what was causing so much noise.10

For levels of riot and disorder, however, these were mere brawls in comparison to full-scale battagliole. These gigantic, usually annual encounters—part sporting events, part ritualized warfare, and part just plain chaos—were the focus and outlet for all the factional tensions and rivalries that had festered throughout the year. Although many were just spontaneous affairs that erupted on a Sunday afternoon, others were planned out weeks in advance, with the result that often a thousand or more fighters might be mustered from each faction, organized into squads of fifty or so, each with its own leader, battle standard, and costumes. The rules were so simple as to be almost non-existent: at a given signal (or perhaps completely on their own) the two sides would charge at each other across the bridge, meeting in the center in an enormous, writhing mass of humanity (a "mountain of flesh"), pushing, punching, kicking and biting at whatever enemies they could reach, until one side or the other gave way—sometimes falling back onto the quayside or sometimes tumbling off into the water in a great clump. Yet despite all appearances, the battagliole were not pure chaos: in fact, the encounters gained a certain ludic structure from the special conditions in which they were staged. The relatively small size of the bridges (generally around fifteen by fifty feet), their arched form, the limited access afforded from the adjoining quays, the dividing presence of the canal running beneath—all meant that only a limited number of fighters could gain access to one another at a time. The result was a controlled contest, in which fresh squads of combatants could be funneled onto the "battle field" at appropriate times, replacing those who had been rendered hors de combat in a continuous flow that could produce a contest capable not only of lasting an entire Sunday afternoon, but also of turning out to be surprisingly complex and balanced in sporting terms.

Not that the battagliole always managed to achieve this ludic potential. Rather, more often than not, their desired but delicate balance of staged violence would be upset. Sometimes it would be upset by the fighters themselves, who might well explode in a factional frenzy under the numbing stimulus of ample droughts of free wine and the deafening cries and whistles of as many as 30,000 onlookers, ending up turning on each other with drawn daggers and machetes. Some of the more aggressive spectators might also decide to join in the action, punching those nearby, brandishing weapons, or lobbing paving stones into the thick of the scrum.11  In either case, the result was predictable and often deadly, as all boundaries between the factions, the fighters and the onlookers dissolved into a stone-throwing, knife-wielding melee, sending men and women from both factions scrambling panic-stricken away from the deadly battle field. The next day, wounded participants and onlookers could be seen by the dozens creeping about the city, bruised and scratched, with their broken limbs swathed in bandages. Several battered corpses would also typically turn up afterwards, drowned in the canal, suffocated in the mud, or trampled under the feet of the panicking crowds.12

Faced with the job of controlling the battagliole, the rulers of Venice prevaricated, as they were well aware that "such popular commotions and hatreds were highly contrary to good government and to the quiet of states and kingdoms."13  Venetians, it was commonly known, could get so swept up in their enthusiasm for these battles that large-scale encounters could bring normal life in the city to a virtual standstill. Young nobles would abandon the Great Council in such numbers that its weekly meetings might have to be cancelled for lack of a quorum. Merchants deserted their shops with the doors left open, racing to the battle site still in their caps and aprons. Workers could become so involved in preparing for and celebrating the pugni that "all abandoned their own affairs . . . such that on the days of Friday and Saturday the fish markets of Rialto and San Marco were empty not only of fishermen, but also of any sort of fish."14

Given the battagliole's potential for such disruption, the most sensible reaction for any early-modern prince would have been vigorous repression. Indeed, the first time that the Roman prince Giovanni Battista Borghese witnessed one of these Venetian encounters, he was said to have commented, "In my country, we would have hanged a couple of [these rioters] by the neck."15  Yet Venice's ruling elites dealt with the disorders of the battagliole in a rather more circumspect fashion. In earlier days, the state had gone so far as to actively encourage factional clashes: in 1369 the Great Council had positively ordered the Castellani and Nicolotti to stage la battagliola universale on the first day of every new year.16  Certainly many of the city's elite believed that such mock warfare was good for the Republic, worth what it cost in terms of disorder for the combat training it gave Venetian working men, as well as for the impressive display it provided for foreign ambassadors who might otherwise doubt Venice's aggressive spirit. Others took a more calculated stance, maintaining that it was only shrewd policy to allow an activity that keeps the common folk divided and distracted from the actual affairs of governing and the economy, for:

    if the Princes or other Republics would have plebs, vassals, and citizens so loyal [to] and so divided by their own brawls, duels, and pretensions, certainly they would live quiet and secure that Civil War would never have the force to awaken ambitions to take over,…for if one faction…would advance itself, the other would oppose it and destroy its every attempt.17

Yet there is no denying that, beyond all calculation or cunning, the elites of Venice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries simply loved the battagliole sui ponti. The city's leading citizens spent lavishly on what they considered "the greatest marvel in this most marvelous city in all the world" and turned out in hundreds every time a major battle was scheduled, paying exorbitant sums to secure a spot on a nearby balcony or terrace, gambling for high stakes at the outcome of the contests, and arguing enthusiastically over the finer points of the combat, often at sword point.18  Moreover, the battagliole provided a magnet for all the well-to-do foreigners who were increasingly flocking to Venice in these years, making the city the first true international tourist center of the modern, Western world. In this, as in all other means of selling their unique home town for foreign consumption, Venetians were more that willing to oblige these Grand Tourists when they requested a chance to witness a battagliola: many were staged specifically for the amusement of visiting princes and ambassadors, along with the free-spending nobles who made up their retinues.19

Nevertheless, there was always a goodly portion of the Venetian patriciate that would have preferred to see these often-chaotic expressions of rampant factionalism brought under the control of the state, and at the very least to transform the more wild, spontaneous battagliole into contained and safe affairs. Such had been the result of the efforts of the Medici grand dukes, who by the 1570s had successfully transformed the factional street wars that had once convulsed medieval Pisa into the staged and stylized giuoco del ponte, staged with all due pomp and aristocratic display on that city's broad Ponte di Mezo, over the Arno.20  Those among the Venetian Signoria who hoped to do something similar with their city's battagliole sui ponti were no doubt well aware of more than a few precedents in which the rulers of the Serenissima had converted other popular festivities and diversions into tame amusements appropriate for patrician tastes.21

Of course, it would necessarily require a considerable force to bring a plebeian disturbance on the order of the battagliole sui ponti under control. For the Tuscan grand dukes, this had presented no great challenge: the city of Pisa was well patrolled by Medici soldiers, and in any case the spirit of factionalism in the city had over the years been so repressed by the ruling regime that it was necessary to recruit the combatants who did the actual fighting in the Pisan giuoco from the peasants of the surrounding countryside.22  Venice, by contrast, had from time immemorial been without any formal garrison, and to tame the battagliole the city's elites had to turn to the local police. Not that the Venetian rulers had to make do with the sort of corrupt and ill-disciplined forces that Hughes found in Rome and Bologna. On the contrary, law and order were maintained in Venice by the agents and the authority of one of the era's most absolutist of institutions—The Council of Ten.23   Established in the early fourteenth century to protect Venice's newly defined nobility from attack or subversion, the Ten had quickly expanded its competence to broadly include the control of all threats to the public order. Closed to all but the inner circle of first-rank patrician families, the Ten existed largely outside of Venice's formal, republican structure. Its decisions were reached behind closed doors, often based on highly secret information. As the magistracy responsible for state security, the Ten was freed from observing the niceties of normal legal procedure. Allowing none of the "lively debate" that characterized other Venetian courts, the tribunal conducted its hearings in strict secrecy, giving those who fell afoul of its justice neither benefit of counsel nor the possibility of appeal. 24

The Ten began its war to reign in the battagliole as early as 1505, when it issued the first of a long series of proclamations against "any person of any condition who would dare to assemble or make war at the bridges."25  Initially, a punishment was set that would have been fairly typical for anyone who flouted the public peace: three hoists (strappi) on the strappado (that is, to be lifted up from behind by a rope attached to the wrists and then released with a sudden jerk). Soon, however, the Ten realized that enthusiasts "continued to carry on the battagliole…for the light penalties [involved]," and so its punishments were enhanced over succeeding decades: from a whipping across town (for boys under 18), to two months in prison, to a year as a galley slave. This process of tightening down on those who persisted in "getting up on the bridges" without express permission continued into the mid-seventeenth century, by which time the Ten was treating such offenders as if they were serious felons, to be given up to fifteen years banishment, seven years in a darkened prison, or five years chained in the galleys.26

To enforce its succession of edicts against those who would stage unauthorized battagliole, the Ten had at its disposal one of the most efficient and ruthless police forces in Venice, or indeed anywhere else in early-modern Europe. From its earliest days, the Ten had imposed its will at street level through six noble Capi di Sestiere, each of whom led twelve armed guards. 27  Although by 1600, the patrician Capi, like many other aristocratic office holders, had retreated to more administrative tasks, the actual duties of patrolling the city had passed into the still very capable hands of the so-called capitani delle barche longhe.28  These six (later eight) non-noble captains, placed under the overall command of a Capitanio Grande, each headed a policing force of around fifteen sbirri.29  Dressed in red and wrapped in the mantels of their office, the captains made impressive figures—the highly visible and effective embodiment of the Ten's power as they patrolled the city's canals in the barche longhe, special cutters that flew the banner of the Republic and fairly bristled with pikes and muskets. The captains led their sbirri personally in breaking up brawls and illegal assemblies, sometimes by brute force but more often simply by threats—calling out the names of those they recognized and biting a finger as a warning gesture to desist and return home quietly.30  Empowered to burst at night into private houses and haul off suspects without warning or warrant, they went about their business all the more assiduously knowing that the Ten guaranteed them a percentage of the goods of those they helped convict.31

Interestingly, however, even with their own sense of institutional pride and the immense authority of the Ten that lay behind them, the captains and their sbirri never found it easy when they were ordered to control or suppress the battagliole. Their system of policing, with concentrated, mobile and heavily armed forces backed up by spy networks and a draconian judicial system, was effective enough to protect the city's peace from run-of-mill miscreants—drunks, brawlers, and those carrying concealed weapons. The battagliole and the mass factionalism that lay behind them presented problems of law enforcement on an altogether different scale, however.

The first of these problems lay in Venice's unique topography. When thousands of onlookers mobbed to a single bridge, the well-armed barche longhe of the Ten could never hope to bring the force of the state directly to the battle site itself, for the canal running underneath would be impenetrable, choked from one bank to the other, "as if it were land, not water," by the scores of gondolas belonging to spectators.32  So the captains usually had to leave the relative security of their armed vessels and try to make their way by brute force through the packed, narrow streets leading them to the bridge. But here again they were often frustrated, this time by the masses of onlookers and fighters, who, while feigning obedience to their authority, would still pretend to be blocked by those just ahead. In the face of such sly, passive resistence, the captains soon found "that rage and protests served them little."33  Sometimes, men just out of sight would call out that the day's encounter had been moved to a new bridge, setting the captains and their squads charging off to another part of the city, only to find upon arrival that the battle site had shifted once again.34

Those captains who actually did make it to the chosen bridge with all their sbirri could still find it hard to carry out their duties, however. The ludic setting of the battagliole gave these encounters a fundamentally different nature from normal crowd events of the era: thousands or even tens of thousands of participants might gather, but not to threaten (through riot or protest) the state or the property and hierarchy that the state served to protect.35   Rather, Venetian bridge crowds sought amusement, honor, and a venting of personal or group antagonisms; the Castellani and the Nicolotti had no social agenda, no political grievances, no opponents except each other. For many of these weekend warriors, the power of the state must have seemed far away, and the authority of these otherwise formidable captains fairly negligible, in a highly emotional situation where spectators and fighters might outnumber the forces of order by one hundred to one. A captain's vested authority, which served him so effectively in the normal course of his rounds that merely his showing up would have persuaded even large crowds to simply melt away, was rendered far less effective by the size and the special focus of the battagliole. Fighters who had worked themselves into a factional frenzy might well punch him in the face or trample him underfoot; trying to break up a scrum by brute force, an overly aggressive captain could easily find himself bodily lifted up and thrown off the bridge into the canal below.36

Captains seem to have enjoyed even less respect from aristocratic fans of the battagliole than they did from the popular crowd. Commoners themselves, they never had an altogether clear rapport with their noble betters in the strictly hierarchical Republic, but in the excitement of a bridge battle, this uneasy relationship could break down completely.37  Conniving young aristocrats, often the sons of the very elders who ran the state, would go beyond merely obstructing police in the streets, to sometimes lure a captain away from the bridge where he was trying to prevent a battle and lock him up in a nearby storeroom.38  If he refused to be enticed, the more pugnacious among these young bloods might well step up to him and simply rip off his mustache in the middle of the argument.39  In the defense of "the amusement they so dearly loved," Venetian elites would actually compete with one another for the honor of exerting influence on behalf of favorite squads or individual fighters. 40  When a champion or factional leader was arrested by the Ten, influential protectors were soon hard at work to get him released, bribing those in authority or arranging to find money for bail or fines.41  When fighters were condemned to the strappado, aristocratic intervention could still lessen their torment, which could easily cripple or even kill the victim—a timely bribe to the jailers might get a sentence waived; if not, at least the cord could be shortened.42

Not that it was even all that easy for the captains to arrest such factional miscreants in the first place. Patrician supporters of the battagliole had enough friends and relations within the highest circles of the Venetian state that there was little that happened, even within the supposedly highly secret chambers of the Ten, that was not soon known among the devotees of the bridges. Raids ordered by the Ten to round up and punish the disobedient factional leaders were rarely successful, for when the captains swooped down in their accustomed way, "to break down the doors [and arrest] the ringleaders of so many . . . disorders," they found that their intended victims had already been tipped off and had slipped away in time to hide, "some in the Courts of the Ambassadors, others in convents, and this one or that one in the houses of the [noble] Protectors of the Factions."43  Even when this early warning information system of the battagliole's patrician fans occasionally broke down, factional leaders could still be protected by the intense loyalties that they enjoyed among their plebeian followers. Captains hoping to snap up unsuspecting leaders when they were at home, beyond the protection of the crowd on the bridge, often found themselves having to venture into the most remote, plebeian quarters of the city—into San Pietro or San Nicolò parishes, or over onto the Giudecca, where popular solidarity ran high and police were considered outside invaders. Rousting a fugitive factional hero in such areas at night always ran the risk that his heavily armed relatives and allies would retaliate with embarrassing and often violent results:

    When Menego Cavallotto [a Castellani boss] came out, the sbiraglia were immediately upon him, but being armed, he bravely defended himself, and at such noise and uproar there came out others armed with spontoni, knives, and stones, chasing away the captains …[while] other [sbirri] fell in the water or fled in their boats, unable to resist the furor of stones and the blow of arms, since everyone rushed out of their houses with the greatest racket, shouting, "kill them! kill them!" so that these officers were finally forced to shoot off two muskets in the air to intimidate…such furious people. 44

The difficulties that the Ten's police encountered at the battagliole were further complicated by their own place in the factionalized world of Venetian city life. Tradition held that each citizen was a Castellano or Nicolotto not by choice but by the simple logic of where in the city he or she was born; even immigrants assumed the factional loyalties of the neighborhood where they had first settled.45  It was a factional logic that affected the police of the Ten as much as any ordinary Venetian, and not only the ordinary sbiraglie but also the captains themselves belonged to one or the other faction; many had close family ties to principal fighters as well. The patricians who served the Ten were clearly well aware of the ways in which factionism invaded their police—after all, they had their own factional affiliations to take into account as well46 —and made sure that Castellani and Nicolotti captains and sbirri were assigned to oversee their respective sides at the bridges.47   Yet, while such tactics helped insure that police would enjoy a certain amount of influence over their co-factionalists, they also posed other risks. In the heat of a battle, when passions were running high, the sbirri especially could easily be tempted to give up the arduous task of keeping their side under control and simply join in the fight themselves, casting aside their cloaks of office and wading into the fray at the side of their factional neighbors and kin.48

Caught between mobs of enraged plebeians, arrogant young aristocrats, and their own factional loyalties, many captains were not all that enthusiastic about taking on the task of suppressing illicit battagliole. At the same time, they were under intense pressure to keep such spontaneous battles from taking place, with the Ten threatening them with prison or the strappado, should they fail to carry out their orders; some had to be threatened with the loss of their position to make them go to the bridges at all.49  Not surprisingly, many captains responded to this untenable situation by prevaricating: some tried to confuse their masters at the Ten by filing false or incomplete reports, others refused to give out the names of factional leaders, while a few might baldly deny after the fact that any battle had taken place at all.50

Reluctant to try breaking a full-fledged battagliola once it was already under way, many captains apparently tried to insure that such affairs never got started in the first place. To do so, they relied on their widespread networks of spies and informers to denounce those who were making plans for an encounter, although the large, pre-planned battles would have been such public events that it would have been impossible to keep them secret beforehand in any case.51   Anyone could see that a battle was coming for days in advance, as enthusiasts fought to squeeze their boats as close as possible to the designated bridge and entrepreneurs began building grandstands (palchi) on the adjoining quays for paying spectators. On such occasions, it was a simple matter for the captains and their sbirri to come to the battle site early on the assigned day and merely knock down the stands and tow away the boats moored nearby.52

Yet not all battagliole were staged with such elaborate preparations, and when factional enthusiasms were running strong in the city, large crowds could spring up in an instant, stripped down and eager for a fight—a continuing reminder of the fragile state of Venice's public peace.53  Even if in ordinary questions of civic order the captains could expect to assert an absolute authority, the battagliole, as a massive and well-entrenched manifestation of plebeian culture, were—at least throughout the 1600s—beyond even their powers to suppress outright. Rather, as the seventeenth century wore on and popular passions for these battles reached cult-like proportions, the captains began instead to seek ways to at least channel these energies and antagonisms into the most acceptable and least disruptive expressions possible.

In this, they apparently had the acquiescence of the Ten and, perhaps more importantly, the increasing support of those same young aristocratic bloods who earlier in the century had so impetuously stood up to any attempts to break up the battagliole. By the mid-1600s, their mutual cooperation had succeeding in keeping the encounters restricted to just two or three bridges—primarily at San Barnaba (still known today as the Ponte dei Pugni), Santa Fosca, and San Marziale—instead of spontaneously erupting all over the city, as had been the case earlier in the century. Both the captains and the top aristocratic supporters of the event began meeting with their side's principal leaders before a battagliola, partly to establish beforehand which bridge would be chosen, but primarily to make sure that each faction's leaders knew that the Ten would hold them personally responsible for any excesses or destruction carried out by the fighters of their faction.54

At the same time, there are signs that the nature of the battles themselves began to change under the "civilizing" influences of police and patricians.55  Whereas earlier in the century it had been customary to stage a few (but rarely more than half a dozen) individual boxing matches (known as mostre, or "showings") as a sort of warm up before beginning the actual mob attack on the bridge (the frotta) that was the main event, by the 1660s, there are indications of a shift of emphasis from group brawling to single combat. Well aware of how much more potential the chaotic frotte had for degenerating into knife fights and mass panic, the captains would cajole and threaten factional leaders until they agreed to halt their troops short of the actual melee. Poised and "pregnant for war" on either side of the bridge, the two factions were then encouraged to keep on sending forth champion fighters, who would then stage a succession of individual mostre as the best representatives their side had to offer, until either both factions' ardors had cooled somewhat or the confrontation itself had to be abandoned with the coming of darkness.56

These champion fighters significantly shifted the nature of the battagliole by the late 1600s. Increasingly serving their co-factionalists as proxies in the arengo (the "ring" at the center of the bridge, as it came to be known), these practiced toughs would enjoy near cult-figure status in the Venice of the late baroque. They were regularly courted and consulted by the city's leading aristocrats, respected and feared by their neighbors, and constantly trailed by swarms of small boys and admiring youths as they made their way about the city. They were the object of laudatory verse and were pictured on factional placards and even in full-length oil paintings.57

Glorying in their totemic status, they, with the encouragement of both state and nobility, set about adapting the structures of the battagliole in ways that could further promote and enhance their own personal renown. These structural shifts can be seen in the increasingly elaborate ways that champions would outfit themselves before proceeding into the arengo. Before a fighter considered himself ready for battle, it became customary to go through an entire series of rituals, primarily involved with undressing and preparing for combat. First of all, men took off the heavy black or dark-blue overcloaks they normally wore during the brisk fall days of the battle season; then they removed their shirts and wound them into rolls which they then wrapped around their waists, to protect their kidneys from blows. Considerable time might also be required for a fighter to tie up his long hair (zazzara) and get it secured in place under his rimless fighting cap. Still more consideration (with appropriate comments from the crowd) went into selecting the appropriate boxing glove: generally only one was worn, on the side favored by a left- or right-hander, but many champions in the later 1600s had taken to contriving their own, sometimes of hard or decorated leather, or sometimes reaching clear up to the elbow. Finally, fighters would don special felt shoes against the slipperiness of the muddy bridge surface and then take off their rings, so their punches might not cut unfairly.58  The result, when one of these larger-than-life figures swaggered forth to answer or issue a challenge in the name of factional honor, was indeed an impressive sight:

    spurring everyone to admire him, [with] his naked chest, [waist] girdled with a red sash, with his right hand at his side, armed with a glove to the elbow and with single-soled shoes, he made himself known as a true Warrior.59

Incarnating the spirit and the honor of their factions, champions had no wish to see their moment of glory on the arengo stolen from them by rooftop louts throwing tiles or knife-wielding drunks on the quays. In this, both they and their factional leaders increasingly saw eye-to-eye with the captains of the police. Even the aristocratic youth who had once so eagerly provoked mayhem and abused the captains learned to appreciate the finer points of boxing, finding in the more sedate one-on-one combat a better focus both for their connoisseurship and for their increasingly wild wagering.60  To encourage the gathered factions to cool their passions to the point where mostre could successfully be staged, some high-status individuals were willing to personally work their way to the center of the bridge itself, speaking conciliatory words and waving their handkerchiefs as a sign of peace. They made sure, however, to keep their cloaks wrapped about their forearm, as protection against the flying stones and rooftiles that could still materialize from any direction.61

Over the latter half of the seventeenth century, the battagliole were thus slowly "civilized" from the bloody brawl of earlier years to a more controlled sporting event. Rules began to arise to govern conduct at the mostre, and even though these were never formally written down, they still allowed almost all factional enthusiasts a more profitable venue for the pursuit of their favorite sporting activity. Although the frotte were never completely abandoned and indeed remained central to many battagliole, it was increasingly possible to keep the great majority of partisans safely on the sidelines—off the actual bridge, out of contact with their opponents, and in effect displacing their aggressive urges and sense of factional honor onto the proxies and local heroes who fought in their name.62

The battagliole sui ponti represented one form of civil disorder whose control remained for several centuries beyond even the absolutist powers of the Ten. Outright suppression of the encounters remained impossible when the battle season was at hand and the cult of the bridges continued to enjoy universal appeal in the city, cutting across lines of caste and wealth, occupation and gender. Although the Ten's edicts against the battagliole were reissued almost annually and repeatedly posted at all the major bridges, the state essentially lacked not only the policing power, but also the will sufficient to stop a populace that, caught up in the heat of factional passions, "thought more highly of the simple conquest of a bridge than the scourge of justice or almost of life itself."63   Not even the more intimidating forms of absolutist justice that in Venice and elsewhere generally held the plebs in check were successful here. Neither anonymous denunciations, networks of police spies, nor midnight arrests of ringleaders could have much impact on such wide-spread and deeply rooted disorders. Instead the captains of the Ten were reduced to stage managing the battagliole in the hope—not always realized—of keeping its attendant violence within reasonable limits. Resigned to seeing that these factional encounters were regulated and progressed within defined standards of conduct, the captains might well be said to have functioned as referees over a sporting event rather than state police enforcing crowd control. 64

 In one of the most closely policed states of the ancien regime, the battagliole survived for centuries in the teeth of the law. For all its virtually unlimited judicial powers and profound distaste for public disorder, the Ten allowed the cult of these disturbances to continue, finding a social place for the popular passions that it was unable to eliminate entirely.65   Indeed, it would appear that throughout the later seventeenth century the cult actually increased in intensity, and where earlier there had been just one encounter during the autumn season, by the 1660s there were often five or six, with over a thousand combattants on a side showing up to watch the mostre and occasionally unleash a full-scale frotta. The battagliole were not finally suppressed once and for all until around 1705, and seemingly not as the result of any new or more vigorous campaign on the part of the Ten and its captains. Rather, as the Venetian patriciate began to lose interest in such violent entertainments and took up the more genteel amusements of the new century, the long-standing but generally ignored edicts outlawing bridge battles became increasingly enforceable.66  Without the financial support and political protection of the city's aristocracy, factional antagonisms could no longer find their extravagant expression in the cult of the bridges. The traditional rivalries of the Nicolotti and the Castellani would continue, but in new and more harmless forms—as amusements allotted to the public, and carried out under the watchful eye of the Ten.67

Robert C. Davis



MCCC=Museo Correr, Codici Cicogna

(1) Steven Hughes, "Fear and Loathing in Bologna and Rome, The Papal Police in Perspective," Journal of Social History 21 (1987): 97–116.

(2) Stanley Chojnacki, "Crime, Punishment, and the Trecento Venetian State," Violence and Civil Disorder in Italian Cities, 1200–1500, ed. Lauro Martines (Berkeley: U of California P, 1972) 184–98.

(3) The following essay draws heavily on a single manuscript from Venice's Museo Correr known as Codici Cicogna 3161 (hereafter cited as MCCC 3161) and titled Battagliola o guerra tra Nicolotti e Castellani, 1632–1673. This anonymous work of over 500 pages recounts the various bridge fights waged during these years, clearly by an eye witness of many of the encounters. The manuscript is highly idiosyncratic, concerning itself almost exclusively with a popular world of values and events that have otherwise left only faint or indirect traces in state archival sources. Direct verification of the events described in MCCC 3161 is therefore rarely possible, although a number of its protagonists—fighters, patrician supporters, and Captains of the Ten—are also mentioned by name in such sources as the proclami of the Council of Ten. Likewise, the manuscript's general treatment of the encounters fits well with contemporary chronicles and mock-heroic poetry on the battagliole: see Museo Correr, Miscellanea Mss. P.D. 303/C, filza 33; MCCC, 3257–3258 (avvisi); Alexandre Toussaint Limojon de Saint Disdier, La ville et la république de Venise (Paris: G. de Luyne,1680) 438–52; "Quattro canti in ottava rima delle Battaglie e Battagliole fatte sopra li ponti di Venezia in San Zulian, San Barnaba, Crocicchieri e San Marcuola" (Venice: 1546); Alessandro Caravia, "La verra antiga dei Castellani, Canaruoli, e Gnatti, con la morte de Giurco e Gnagni, in lengua brava" of 1550 (Venice: 1603); Sorsi Basnatio, "Descrittione piacevole della guerra de' Pugni tra Nicolotti e Castellani" (Venice: 1663); also MCCC 2936/10 and 3231/32 (25 Feb 1687).

(4) For a more thorough-going exploration of the Venetian battagliole than is possible here, see Robert C. Davis, The War of the Fists: Popular Culture and Public Violence in Late Renaissance Venice (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994).

(5) On the origins of the antagonisms between Nicolotti and Castellani, along with a bibliography, see Giambattista Gallicciolli, Delle memorie venete antiche profane ed ecclesiastiche (Venice: Fracasso, 1795) I, 122, and II, 265; and Bianca Tamassia Mazzarotto, Le Feste Veneziane (Florence: Sansoni, 1961) 40–41.

(6)  On the Arsenal workers of Venice, the arsenalotti, and their role in city-wide festivities and disturbances, see Robert C. Davis, Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal: Workers and Workplace in the Preindustrial City (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991) 129–69; also Annalisa Conterio and F. Da Villa, The Arsenale of the Venetian Republic (forthcoming); on the fishing community of San Niccolò parish, see Roberto Zago, I Nicolotti (Padua: Francisci, 1982).

(7)  MCCC 3161, 1632/3, 5, 7; 1640/5; 1668/4.

(8) Among many examples to be found in such sources as the Avvisi di Venezia: "20 September 1662: at Santa Sofia there came to words and then to deeds [i.e., blows] Anzola Nicolotta and Betta of Burano, because of the...Battagliola [of 17 Sept 1662]" (MCCC 3257). When a leader of the Nicolotti was seen observing a victory crown hung by the Castellani at San Vio, he was accosted by a local resident with the following results: "Moro Fante Castellano said to him, 'Signore, maybe you have come to enjoy our victory and see your own wretchedness?' [The Nicolotto] hotly responded, 'Victories are Victories [only] when they are acquired...honorably,' [and] Moro, without [even] replying, punched him in the face and at the same time put a hand to his dagger...." (MCCC 3161, 1665/11).

(9)  Thomas Coryat, Coryat's Crudities, vol. I (Glasgow: J. MacLehose and Sons, 1905) 413–14.

(10)  MCCC 3161, 1643/1.

(11) As when:
"Partisans, running from both sides towards the bridge with daggers, rapiers, and shields, [sought] like rabid wolves to avenge themselves, [their] rage immediately a tempest of stones...and by voices shouting 'Go on, kill them, kill them!' although these [in turn] were mortified by a downpour of rooftiles coming from the houses near the bridge." (MCCC 3161, 1649/4; also 1639/20.)

(12) See, for example, ASV: Necrologie, bu. 842 and bu. 843, 5 Sept 1611 and 1 Oct 1611, for the 26 participants and onlookers who died soffegato alla guerra al fronte de Carmini; also bu. 865, 29 Oct 1634.

(13) MCCC 3161, 1642/3.

(14)  MCCC 3161, 1632/13, 1667/30, 1668/2.

(15) MCCC 3161, 1642/3, 1669/18. On the Venetian state's weakness in enforcing its laws on the terraferma in the face of popular and noble resistence: A. D. Wright, "Venetian Law and Order: A Myth?" University of London Institute of Historical Research Bulletin 53 (1980): 192–202.

(16) MCCC 3161, 1670/36.

(17)  MCCC 3161, 1638/4. This interpretation, emphasizing a patriciate's manipulative skills at crafting the balanced state, would find considerable favor in the age of Burckhardt: William D. Howells, Venetian Life, vol. II (Boston: Osgood, 1876) 84 n.; also Giuseppe Tassini, Curiosità veneziane (Venice: Filippi, 1970) 532; Luigi Roffarè, La Repubblica di Venezia e lo sport (Venice: Scarabellin, 1931) 149.

(18) Besides spending freely on gambling and securing a place to watch, many elites also paid to keep their local fighting squads supplied with wine, food, and sometimes matching uniforms: MCCC 3161, 1649/2; also 1639/20, 1640/3, 1643/8, 1667/23.

(19) Including noblewomen, such as the Princess Colonna in 1668, and even several cardinals, in 1637, 1662, and 1673; on Venice's growing self-awareness as a tourist center in these years: Peter Burke, The Historical Anthropology of Early-Modern Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987) 188–90.

(20)  Marco Alderigi and Maria Ines Aliverti, Il gioco del ponte di Pisa: memoria e ricordo in una città (Pisa: Vallechi, 1981) 15–17, 21, 24–25. On the medieval (and more truly popular) precursor to the Medici gioco, see Archivio di Stato, Pisa: Il gioco del ponte: origini e attuale ripristino (Pisa: Vallechi, 1935) 5–13.

(21)  As had been the fate of many of Venice's other popular medieval festivals, eventually suppressed or coopted into formal state ceremonials, due to their disorderly nature: Edward Muir, Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981) 135–81.

(22) In good part because the bulk of the 600 or so fighters on each side (the Tramontini and Mezzogiorni) were not drawn from Pisan workers, with attendant geographic and social loyalties, but from among peasants of the surrounding countryside: Alderigi and Aliverti 20 and 25. For another example of the republicanism inherent in faction and its interplay with absolutism: Sydel Silverman, "The Palio of Siena: Game, Ritual, or Politics?" Urban Life in the Renaissance, eds. S. Zimmerman and R. Weissman (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1989) 224–39.

(23)  Oversight of the Venetian Carnival also fell to the Ten: Muir 156–81; Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early-Modern Europe (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 182–204.

(24) On the genesis and establishment of the Ten: Chojnacki 218–28; and Robert Finlay, Politics in Renaissance Venice (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1980). On the Ten's activities as a court: Gaetano Cozzi, "Authority and the Law in Renaissance Venice," Renaissance Venice, ed. John R. Hale (London: Faber, 1973) 303–09.

(25)  ASV: Consiglio dei Dieci, proclami (CDP), filza 1, 12 Sept 1505.

(26)  ASV: CDP, filze 2, 15 Nov 1522, and filza 3, 21 Nov 1536, and 26 Jan 1537 m.v.; ASV: Compilazione leggi, bu. 85: Baccanali, 23 Oct 1609; bu. 321: Pugni, 5 Jan 1546 m.v., 15 Nov 1547, 28 Nov 1644.

(27) The police of the Ten were complemented (and sometimes inhibited) by those of several other magistrates, especially the Signori della notte and the Cinque alla pace, but also policing forces of various customs agencies and the Arsenal: Guido Ruggiero, Violence in Early Renaissance Venice (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1980) 10–15, 33–39; Davis, Shipbuilders 156–69.

(28) On counterparts who enforced the rule of absolutist regimes elsewhere: Alan Williams, The Police of Paris, 1718–1789 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979) 42–52, 189–237 and passim; Michael Weisser, "Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Spain," Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe since 1500, eds. V.A.C. Gatrell, et al. (London: Europa Publications, 1980); John K. Brackett, Criminal Justice and Crime in Late Renaissance Florence, 1537–1609 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992); and Hughes 101–03.

(29) Originally the Captains, like the noble Capi were each assigned to one of Venice's sestieri, but on 20 Nov 1618, during the Spanish troubles, their number was increased by two more, with the duty of "policing the Piazza [San Marco], the Courtyard of the [Ducal] Palace, the Mint, and all the city." At the same time the number of sbirri under each Captain was increased from ten to fifteen: ASV: Consiglio dei Dieci, suppliche, bu. 3, 21 Apr 1625; Frederic C. Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973) 99, 256.

(30) MCCC 3161, 1633/17, 1637/3, 1638/4, 1641/4, 1667/14, 1667/47, 1668/6.

(31) Enrico Basaglia, "Giustizia criminale e organizzazione dell'autorità centrale. La Repubblica di Venezia e la questione delle taglie in denaro (secoli XVI-XVII)," Stato, Società, e Giustizia nella Repubblica veneta (secoli XV–XVIII), ed. Gaetano Cozzi (Rome: Jouvance, 1985) 193–220. Also: Robert C. Davis, "Arsenal and Arsenalotti: Workplace and Community in Seventeenth-Century Venice," The Workplace before the Factory, eds. Thomas Safely and Leonard Rosenband (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993) 180–203.

(32) Only in the nineteenth century did the myth begin to spread that the battagliola "stopped immediately, as though by a magic spell, at the appearance of a gondola of the Ten, from whose prow waved the banner of San Marco": MC: Miscellanea Mss, Provinenza diversa, 303/C, filza 33; Lina Padoan Urban, "Feste ufficiali e trattenimenti privati," Storia della cultura veneta 4/1 (Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 1983) 591.

(33) MCCC 3161, 1638/8: "The Captains...also at a hurried pace [tried] to get themselves to the bridge, but by the skill of the popolo pretending to not be able to pass ahead they were held back...." Also 1641/1-2.

(34) "The Captains...could not so easily arrive at the bridges, [since] the people ran from one bridge to another and the Captains anxiously followed was said that this was done by the Factions to make the...Captains run here and there": MCCC 3161, 1641/1 and 1637/2; also 1633/7, 1635/3, 1642/4.

(35) George Rudé, The Crowd in History (New York: Wiley, 1964), remain fundamental in this respect, even if the crowds with which Rudé concerns himself almost inevitably rose out of motives of social protest. See also Richard Cobb, The Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789–1820 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1972); and Natalie Z. Davis, "The Rites of Violence," Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1975) 152–87.

(36) Often as a result of his inexperience: "Captain Colombina, as a beginner in the position, seeing himself obeyed and in some esteem for having stopped the earlier furor of knives and stones, persuaded himself also to be completely stop all the violence, but...receiving his own share of punches [and] not knowing which way to flee...he was bodily...thrown down from the bridge into the water": MCCC 3161, 1633/8; also, 1632/12, 1637/4.

(37) ASV: CDP, filza 20, 23 July 1631; Consiglio dei Dieci, parti criminali, reg. 57, 20 Mar 1640; also Chojnacki 189–202; Ruggiero 140–42.

(38)  MCCC 3161, 1640/1, for some "Castellani gentlemen" who feigned anger that the police, in racing to the bridge, "would inconvenience the nobility in the public streets, stopping them [that is, the police] with other protests, so that the people could further amass at the [bridge]." Also, 1635/2: "And because this Captain persisted in impeding the common satisfaction [of a frotta] some Partiggiani auttorevoli...called said Pollesina [to come over] and they locked him in a storeroom, keeping the key to themselves;" also 1637/3 and ASV: CDP, filza 20, 7 Jan 1631 mv.

(39)  "These Castellani nobles...were much more angered by the impudence of [Captain] Sordo [i.e., "Deaf"], who indeed seemed that he did not hear them...and therefore, one angry gentleman pulled off of him half [his] moustache....": MCCC 3161, 1638/7; also ASV: CDP, filza 20, 7 Jan 1631 mv.

(40) Davis, Shipbuilders 70–71; Davis "Arsenal and Arsenalotti."

(41) As happened with Samuel the Jew, given a year in prison for punching a captain in the face during the heat of battle. It was apparently the members of Venice's Jewish community who raised the rather hefty 1000 ducats needed to get Samuel freed: MCCC 3161, 1637/4.

(42)  "It was decided to give him [an arrested Nicolotti leader] the strappado...and the rope was put out at San Marco, but because in similar occasions the powerful protectors [protettori auttorevoli] of the factions, especially of the leaders and tough fighters [huomeni bravi] of the bridges, work hard on their account, they were mostly freed from the danger of the rope": MCCC 3161, 1634/2; also 1632/13, 1633/10; on protectors arranging to have the cord shortened: 1633/5; on the dangers of the strappado: 1638/6.

(43)  MCCC 3161, 1649/5; also 1633/9-10, 1637/4 and 13.

(44)  MCCC 3161, 1633/5; for similar outbreaks in San Pietro di Castello: ASV: CDP, filza 25, 15 Dec 1649; filza 26, 24 July and 5 Sept 1651; ASV: Consiglio dei Dieci, parti criminali, reg. 55, 22 Feb 1638 mv.

(45)  Changing factions could be dangerous or even fatal; evidently it could be accomplished by means of a kind of mock "baptism," but if such turncoats showed up at the bridge as fighters, they might well be viciously set upon by their old companions: Casoni, Venezia e le sue Lagune, vol. I (Venice: Antonelli, 1847) 189; MCCC 3161, 1668/35.

(46)  Which may further explain why it was so difficult for the Ten to keep their pending raids on factional leaders secret. Even the Patriarch of Venice, head of the church in the city, had his own factional affiliations and interests and was not above trying to do his part to arrange a battle to amuse a visiting cardinal: MCCC 3161, 1673/8.

(47)  Usually two Captains per faction: MCCC 3161, 1632/5, 1638/4. Once, when the squads from San Nicolò were attempting to cross the Grand Canal for a proposed battle at the bridge of Santa Fosca, many were dissuaded from disembarking by Captain Tiraferro, who "soothing this indomitable and esteemed people with friendly words, since he too was a Nicolotto, promising them every favor at the [appropriate] time and place": 1636/17.

(48)  Especially if their Captain had been lured away: "The sbirri, seeing themselves without their leader, who was Nicolotto by birth, profited from this loss themselves, [by] joining up with the Nicolotti squads, some of them following [the squads] into the frotta": MCCC 3161, 1635/2-3.

(49) "It was expressly and rigorously ordered to the Capitanio Grande...that he should stop this War, with the threat to deprive him of his office and his mantel": MCCC 3161, 1641/4; also 1633/5. In 1632, one Captain was jailed for three months for failing to stop the battagliola, while another went into hiding; in 1638 two Captains were imprisoned for two months: MCCC 3161, 1632/17, 1638/10; also 1640/2. In a society where offices such a captain of the Ten were sold to the highest bidder, such positions became in effect the private possession of their owners. In this context, depriving a captain of his title was even a more severe punishment than sending him to the strappado: see also, Roland Mousnier, "Le trafic des offices à Venise," Revue Historique de Droit Français et Ètranger 4.30 (1952): 552–65

(50)  "Everyone reasoned that [the captain] should the next morning relate to the Eccelentissimi Capi [of the Ten] everything that had happened...but it was not so, maybe because making [such] a report there could have resulted [still] greater evil and misfortune to himself": MCCC 3161, 1634/12; also 1641/11, 1667/49.

(51) On the Captains' use of spies: MCCC 3161, 1633/5, 1637/13, 1649/5; also ASV: Avogaria di Comun, penale, bu. 141/8, f. 1r. and 333.10.

(52)  "Such [news of the impending encounter] being spread...about all the neighboring parishes, it gave occasion to everyone to provide himself with a place: in the balconies, on the rooftiles, and the sun decks [altane]; others providing themselves with benches and awnings made at night, others with boats, skiffs, and gondolas in the canal, so that one could not call it canal, but land": MCCC 3161, 1632/3; also 1635/4, 1673/14.

(53)  As when the Nicolotti discovered that a mass of Castellani had unexpectedly arrived at San Barnaba, looking for battle: "Everyone came to their balconies, others over the doors, some half undressed, some half clothed, running along the quays and alleys, with their padded vests and doublets in their hands": 1667/26; also 1632/13. On Captains trying to divert crowds from bridges: MCCC 3161, 1636/16, 1667/47.

(54)  MCCC 3161, 1668/30.

(55)  The evolving nature of sports such as the battagliole in early-modern society is explored in some detail in Norbert Elias, "An Essay on Sports and Violence," The Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process, eds. N. Elias and E. Dunning (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) 120–74; and Eric Dunning, "Social Bonding and Violence in Sport," Quest for Excitement 224–44.

(56) In 1669 fully 100 mostre were staged: MCCC 3161, 1669/4; also 1637/2, 1667/15. On calling off the battagliole at the sounding of the Ave Maria: 1635/10, 1637/11, 1667/48 " 61.

(57) MCCC 3161, 1668/19, 1670/40.

(58) MCCC 3161, 1649/8, 1666/12-13 " 23, 1667/11, 1670/2 " 25; also St. Disdier, La Ville et la République de Venise (Paris: G. de Luyne, 1680) 444.

(59) MCCC 3161, 1667/11.

(60)  On gambling over the outcome of the mostre: MCCC 3161, 1649/2; on patricians promoting favorite fighters, to the extent of supplying them with personal livery: 1642/4, 1649/2-3.

(61) " which time [some] nobles left the houses...mingling with not ordinary courage among the army of the Castellani, grabbing [them] with their voice and their authority, and with daggers in hand, not fearing the rain of stones, halting the ardor of these enraged souls...stopping this one and that one; carrying themselves onto the bridge with [their] coats wrapped about the arm, to protect [themselves] from the fury of stones and rooftiles, there they put themselves in the middle of an enraged people and waved their handkerchiefs in the air to call for peace.": MCCC 3161, 1649/5; also 1638/5.

(62) Interestingly, both Nicolotti and Castellani were perfectly able to show intense factional loyalty to black champions, essentially "ringers" brought in from outside of the city: MCCC, 1640/9, 1641/1-3, 1649/2-4, 1665/14.

(63) MCCC 3161, 1634/11, also 1633/13, and 1649/5. The edict of 15 Nov 1522 was reissued every year from 1522 to 1528, and again in 1536–38 and 1541–42, with slightly stiffer sentences; the edict of 23 Sept 1611 was also reissued in 1625, 1633, 1634, 1638, and 1639.

(64) The actual task of refereeing the mostre supposedly fell to senior fighters known as padrini, or godfathers. Since these partisans often fell to fighting among themselves over disputed decisions, there was a need for the Captains to referee as well: MCCC, 1634/4, 1635/6.

(65)  On the possible role of pre-modern judicial system in social integration: Marvin B. Becker, "Changing Patterns of Violence and Justice in Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century Florence," Comparative Studies in Society and History 18 (1976): 281–96; and Iain A. Cameron, "The Police of Eighteenth-Century France," European Studies Revues 7 (1977): 47–75.

(66)  The actual end of the battagliole in Venice still remains obscure: Tamassia Mazzarotto 44, 50; Codice Marciano, cl. VII, 481, no. 7786, 98.

(67)  In particular in vying to make the highest and most elaborate human pyramids, the so-called forze d'ercole: Padoan Urban 59.


© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.