Rucking In Renaissance Venice - Football's First Hooligans

Forget the Headhunters, the Bushwackers and the Inter City Firm, 16th-century Venetians were the first to take up arms and challenge other mobs to pitched battles over a pig's bladder...
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Zuzzateste would be up with the sun, the boys were meeting at the localtaverna to swallow some vino then catch the early gondola. The capi - think top boy - would be in fine voice leading the chants – to the vendetta, to the slaughter, everyone follow me! The lads would be decked out in the team colours. Local denizens would be cowering at the site of the mob or getting ready to go watch another week’s match up in the War of the Fists – la guerra dei pugni – Renaissance Venice’s hooligan extravaganza.

Blokes like Zuzzateste, translate as the sucker of heads, and his fighting mates with names like Tre Riose du Cul (Three Arsehole Roses or Three Farts to his friends) would be coming off long days of work in the Venetian trades – builders, bakers, candlestick makers - all ramped up for a weekend of ultraviolence against other Venetian outfits.

The battagliolas took place on the scores of bridges that stitched Venice together like a laced boot. An appropriately named bridge, Ponte de Pugni, was the arc for many of the big stomps; the warring factions wading in on each other, many of the fighters tossed over the side into the crummy shite-filled canal below. Thirty thousand supporters cheered them on, decked out in colours and flags, chanting the Venetian version of Come and Have a Go If You Think You’re Hard Enough. It was pure late-Renaissance madness. The authorities tried banning orders, arrests, but the Abramovichs of the times built stands, sponsored teams, celebrated champions and sold stuff to the spectators – donuts were hot. A whizz of fame spat out local heroes, many of the toughest hard nuts had no problem getting a free glass of Chianti for life down at the local taverna. Painters celebrated the chaos on canvas. Writers drew their pens. They even had their own Renaissance version of Danny Dyer – a scribe known as the Chronicler of the Pugni. He saw it all with his own pork pies. The trouble lasted for over a hundred years.

In 1705, a battle degenerated from fists to chucking roof slates and the knives came out. Riot ensued, buildings burned. The shite-filled canal turned red.

The Castellani and the Nicolotti factions ruled the manors. They splintered into sub-groups with fierce loyalty to their local parishes. In the late sixteenth century, they were warring with sticks and knives but around 1585, the Castellani tired of taking the stitches out, and abandoned being tooled up. From now on it would be strictly mano a mano. The Nicolotti, not shy of bother but afraid of being seen as unmanly, agreed. The mass punch up arrived. Anyone caught bringing weapons was castigated and likely thrown into some shite-filled canal away from the fists and thrills.

Naturally, honour was involved. The bridges offered neutrality in a city segregated by water, land and blood. To lose to another mob on your own patch was a deep and wounding shame. The bridges represented a no man’s land, of sorts. Defeat was less traumatizing there. But the idea of taking the end was too much of a temptation, even back then. Victorious mobs standing atop their conquered bridges would be bouncing on the buzz and soon charge into enemy turf to take their squares and piazzas, to root them out of home and hearth. Hatred flourished. Revenge was served up cold.

Then around 1700, someone likely imported a ball from the Orient, and soon blokes with ball skills had gorgeous WAGs and fancy haircuts figuring out that broken noses and the smell of sewage under the armpits after a canal swim was not doing much for the chances of a shag on a Saturday night. The fans too began to get bored of the spectacle, same old stuff, like watching England play. In 1705, a battle degenerated from fists to chucking roof slates and the knives came out. Riot ensued, buildings burned. The shite-filled canal turned red. This time the authorities stamped on the mobs repeatedly, finally breaking the knuckle on the War of the Fists. Venice, the city that exported art, philosophy and culture to the world, now added hooliganism to its load where it washed up on the shores of modern football.

For more on Renaissance Venetian hooliganism, read The War of the Fists by Robert C. Davis (Oxford University Press).

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