The Church of San Trovaso (located just off the serene Fondamenta delle Zattere that I mentioned in my previous post) adds a spice of historical drama to a Venice visit as it was cleverly designed to allow two rival Venetian factions to worship together in the same church without brawling. The nearby Ponte dei Pugni was host to a series of increasingly violent clashes between these factions.
Fist Fights between Factions: Ponte dei Pugni
The Castellani and the Nicolotti were the two factions that divided the working population of Venice from the Medieval period. The Castellani, from the areas of Castello, San Marco and Dorsoduro, mainly worked in the Arsenale, while the Nicolotti, from San Polo, Santa Croce, Cannaregio and a few districts of the Dorsoduro, lived in the western part of the city and were fishermen. The frequent fights and scuffles between the two factions were not particularly discouraged by the shrewd Republic of La Serenissima (somewhat of a misnomer). Their brawling meant the population was seasoned and trained to fight, while at the same time a divided people meant less likelihood of uniting and uprising against the state. Furbo indeed.
As such, the clashing factions were permitted to face each other in a fist fight on the famous Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Punches) in San Barnaba. From September until Christmas the ‘war’ of punches took place on this narrow bridge, then devoid of railings along the sides. The aim of the fight was to send the opponents tumbling down into the murky water below. The winning side was that which succeeded in staying on dry land.
While there could be as many as 300 competitors in each team, the fight began with a ‘Display’ between the champions of each team who had to place their feet on two stone footprints still visible on the bridge. Unfortunately, however, in 1705 the fights were banned after knives were drawn in one bloody clash. Of course this did not end the challenges between rivals, and a new, slightly less violent, challenge was devised: the human pyramid. Called the Strength of Hercules, the winning side was simply that which created the highest pyramid.
Chiesa di San Trovaso
The most interesting characteristic of this seemingly unremarkable church is the presence of two facades. One side of the church is entered from Campo San Trovaso while the other leads from Rio di San Trovaso. These two entrances served to keep separate the two rival Venetian factions when they came to worship together on Saints’ days, with the aim of preventing further brawls.
The cavernous church is home to five Tintoretto paintings (a staple in every Venetian church), two of which are very early and notable for their attention to detail and busy activity compared to his later works. In the chapel to the left of the altar is Tintoretto’s Tentazioni di S. Antonio, a masterpiece of thrusting movement with the central figure of San Antonio on the verge of tumbling out into the viewer’s space. On the right hand wall of the chapel there is a 15th century painting by Giambono of a saint on horseback whose elegance, serenity and golden details are the perfect contrast to the Tintoretto. Finally, the columns of the main altar are rather intriguingly covered with a fine red and gold brocade, a decorative technique I can’t say I’ve come across before!
Luckily there are now railings installed on the Ponte dei Pugni. If there weren’t I’m sure I’d manage to fall off just walking over it let alone fist fighting.