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tanding 89 meters (about 292 ft) tall, the Ghirlandina bell tower is the symbol of the city of Modena, a town nestled at the foot of lush hills in Central Northern Italy. Since the 14th century, the ringing of its bells marked the time for life in the city, announced the opening of the gates in the city walls, and warned the Modenese of impending attacks from the perfidious people of neighboring Bologna.

The Ghirlandina also houses a remarkable war trophy — an ancient oaken bucket stolen in 1325 from a town well in Bologna, during the bloody battle of Zappolino. Legend has it that war broke out as a result of the outrageous theft.

Of course, that’s not exactly what happened, but the wooden pail is still a sore point between the two cities, almost 700 years later — and with good reason.

Modenese soldier stealing the bucket of contention – Wikimedia Commons

Two Poems And An Opera

But what is so special about an old bucket that neighboring cities still squabble about it centuries later? Well, for one, the humble object inspired some pretty well-known literary works.

In 1622 Alessandro Tassoni, an Italian poet and writer, published a mock-heroic epic poem named La Secchia Rapita (The Stolen Bucket, or The Rape of The Pail). His work heavily influenced a much more famous one – Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.

A comic opera by Antonio Salieri, loosely based on Tassoni’s poem, became popular in 1772 and was performed in Vienna, Mannheim, Dresda, and – of course – Modena. Various artists, including Giovanni Paolo Bedini in the 19th century, painted their interpretations of the incident.

The success of these pieces, and the constant display of the infamous bucket in Modena, makes sure the good people of Bolognese people will never be able to live the whole thing down.

Illustration for Tassoni’s “The Rape of the Pail” – Wikimedia Commons

La Secchia Rapita

In his Rape of the Pail, Tassoni took some — erm — small artistic liberties in telling the story.

In the poem, the Bolognese army, after a raid into territories belonging to the city of Modena, was swiftly beaten back to Bologna by the Modenese army.
After chasing the Bolognese back into their own city, the Modenese soldiers stopped at the main well in the city center to quench their thirst. Then, after drinking to their heart’s content, they decided to take the oaken bucket as a war trophy, just to rub it into the enemy’s face.

Outraged, the Bolognese people requested the bucket to be returned at once and, when the Modenese troops refused, a full-blown war was declared.

In Tassoni’s version of events, the theft of the bucket resulted in the outbreak of an extremely complicated (and laughable) war. Even the Olympian gods intervened in the unlikely conflict, each of them favoring one city or the other.

The Real Battle of Zappolino

The battle really happened, but it wasn’t much fun for the people involved, and no Greek God took part in it (that we know of, at least. Never underestimate  the Greek gods.)

And no, the theft of the bucket was not the triggering event: it was the final act.

A bit of background. During the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries Medieval Italy saw an on-and-off series of wars, known as the Guelph and Ghibelline Wars.

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa believed that he was the one the divine providence chose to embody God on earth – not the Pope. Unsurprisingly, Pope Alexander III was not happy about it. And so they fought for years, each trying to seize control over the other’s territories. Factions formed to endorse one or the other: Guelphs supported the political claims of the Pope and Ghibellines were loyal to the Emperor.

That is, of course, a gross simplification – but you get the point.

The neighboring city-states of Modena and Bologna represented opposing sides, and this exacerbated the natural conflicts over border territories: for over 300 years the Guelph Bolognesi and the Ghibelline Modenesi faced each other in never-ending clashes and skirmishes, both trying to gain control over the surrounding territories. Even today, “Ghelfi”, “Guelfo”, “Gibellini”, “Ghibellini” and other versions of the terms are very common surnames in the area.

In the early months of 1325, military activity intensified over the borders between Modena and Bologna; in July the Bolognese sacked and pillaged the territory of Modena, but at the end of September the Modenese army retaliated by conquering the strategic fortress of Monteveglio, the last stronghold of the city of Bologna.

The Bolognese people were pissed.

Bloody Battle

In the afternoon of November 2, 1325, the Modenese and Bolognese armies faced each other in the small village of Zappolino, about halfway between the two cities: the Bolognese troops were huge, counting more than 30,000 infantrymen and 2,500 horsemen, while Modena could only rely on roughly 5,000 infantrymen and 2,000 horsemen.

But the Bolognese soldiers, though superior in number, were poorly trained and haphazardly armed (many carried hoes, shovels, and pitchforks instead of spears and swords). The Modenese troops, on the other hand, consisted mostly of German mercenaries — extremely disciplined, fully armed, and ready to kick ass.

Giovanni Paolo Bedini, The Rape of the Bucket – Wikimedia Commons

The swift, coordinated Modenese attacks created panic among the Bolognese. Their soldiers fled as fast as they could, stumbling over each other in a perfect example of the every-man-for-himself retreat technique.

The battle was a bloody affair. It lasted less than two hours, but more than 2,000 soldiers – mostly on the Bolognese side – were left dead on the battlefield.

The victorious Modenese army chased the retreating Bolognese soldiers, destroying the castles of Crespellano, Zola, Samoggia, Anzola, Castelfranco, and Piumazzo on their way. They stopped under the barred gates of Bologna, where the surviving enemy troops had found shelter.

The Modenese troops did not attempt a siege of the city. Instead, they sabotaged a sluice on the local river which supplied Bologna with water. Then they made sure the people of Bologna were truly humiliated, scornfully organizing a palio (a form of medieval joust) outside the very gates of the city. Before returning to Modena, they took a bucket from a well just outside the city.

Why would the Bolognese need it, they reasoned, if they had no water?

An Ongoing Rivalry

The replica hanging from the ceiling in the Ghirlandina tower – Wikimedia Commons

Today, the battle of Zappolino is nothing but a footnote in history. But the stolen bucket is still remembered after centuries: to this day, the citizens of Bologna make playful attempts to steal back their bucket . But the wooden pail hanging from the ceiling of the Ghirlandina is a replica: the real one sits in a glass case in the City Hall of Modena, where it is kept safe from the evil Bolognese.

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