The 1325 War of the Bucket traces its origins to 1075, when a power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman empire degenerated into warfare. Although the initial war between the papal (Guelph) and imperial (Ghibelline) factions was settled in 1122, conflict persisted over the next four centuries among the city-states of northern Italy.
By the outset of the 14th century the Guelphs were dominant, but their power soon dissipated through factionalism as they subdivided into “Black” and “White” Guelphs. That in turn enabled a resurgence in Ghibelline power. Rancor grew between the longtime rival Ghibellines of Modena and Guelphs of Bologna—punctuated by cross-border raids and the random beheading. According to one oft-repeated legend, hostilities peaked one night in 1325 when an enterprising band of Modenese crept into Bologna and made off with the oaken bucket from the municipal well. Adding insult to injury, Modenese officials then put the pilfered pail on display in their palazzo comunale (city hall).
Such an affront to Bolognese pride and Guelph prestige could not go unanswered. Officials demanded the bucket’s return, and when Modena refused, the Bolognese declared war. They invaded with an army of some 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry, including Guelph contingents from throughout northern Italy. Pope John XXII himself took a hand, declaring the chief magistrate of Modena a heretic. The pope is also said to have led one of the Guelph contingents against Modena—doubtless hoping to increase the Vatican’s coffers with a portion of the spoils.
Although able to assemble only 5,000 foot and 2,000 horse, the Modenese army largely comprised professional German troops, while their Bolognese opponents were untrained militia and assorted rabble. The latter’s incompetence factored large in the forthcoming clash.
On November 13 the Modenese confronted the Bolognese outside the town of Zappolino. The battle lasted two hours, each side inflicting about 1,000 casualties on the other before the Bolognese lost their nerve and broke off combat. Their retreat degenerated into a rout. It was said that after chasing the Bolognese back within their city walls, the Ghibellines taunted the Guelphs by staging a palio—a pocket decathlon of sorts—in plain view. In a variation on the bucket myth, the Modenese stole the pail from a nearby well after the palio.
Among the largest battles fought in medieval Europe, Zappolino involved more troops than were present at the 1066 Battle of Hastings. But while it did much to restore Ghibelline fortunes in northern Italy, it failed to resolve the Guelph/Ghibelline dispute, which dragged on another two centuries.
The War of the Bucket petered out when the Modenese could not take Bologna, whose inhabitants remained safe, if humiliated, inside the city walls. In the end the rivals signed an armistice, but one item remained in limbo. To this day the bucket remains on display in Modena’s palazzo comunale, much to the chagrin of the Bolognese.
- A handful of pros can prevail over many amateurs. The Ghibellines had German knights. Bologna’s dependence on a horde of local militia proved more liability than asset.
- It pays to contain the carnage. After routing the Bolognese, Modenese forces refrained from bloody reprisals, merely humiliating their foes. That paid off when the war ended and money changed hands.
- Fame and farce sometimes go hand in hand. In 1622 the War of the Bucket served as grist for a mock-Homeric poem by Alessandro Tassoni entitled “The Rape of the Bucket.” The comic epic in turn provided fodder for a 1772 opera, composed by no less a figure than maligned maestro Antonio Salieri.