War of the Oaken Bucket: The most pointless massacre of the Middle Ages

Kyrylo Danylchenko

From the 21st century, the centuries-long war between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in Italy seems to be even less reasonable than the quarrel over the way of breaking eggs in Gulliver's Travels. The absurdity of the conflict is well reflected in the bloody and ineffective Battle of Zappolino.

In 1215, a rich Florentine man Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti stabbed a member of the Amidei family in a fight at a banquet. To atone and avoid revenge, he promised to marry the victim’s niece, but broke his vow and became engaged to another woman. On the day of the wedding, when Buondelmonti, dressed in white, was riding to his bride on a white horse, he was stabbed to death in the street by the Amidei and their allies.


Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has some indications that the Montague family belongs to the Ghibellines and the Capulets to the Guelphs.

According to the chronicler Dino Compagni, the citizens of Florence, and then of the whole Italy, divided into two parties, Guelphs and Ghibellines, depending on the side of this story they sympathized with. The confrontation between the groups lasted for four centuries and largely shaped the country’s history. Of course, actual reasons for the conflict weren’t similar to a melodrama plot.

Who’s the most important after God?

The Holy Roman Empire emerged 500 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Unlike the centralized state created by Julius Caesar, it was a flexible union of hundreds of feudal lands, centered in Germany. It was joined by Bohemia, Burgundy, and several regions of France and Italy.

Emperors dreamed of ruling the entire Christian world. So did the Roman popes. A clash was inevitable. In 1155, Frederick I Barbarossa wore the imperial crown. Along with the Crusades, the German monarch’s main plans were to conquer the whole Italy, bringing vassals to their knees, conquering independent cities, and subduing the Holy See.

The anti-imperial opposition in Rome was led by the chancellor of the papal court, Orlando Bandinelli. In 1159, by the votes of 25 of the 29 cardinals present, he was elected the new pope under the name of Alexander III. According to the protocol, Bandinelli had to put on the papal mantle. At that moment, Cardinal Ottaviano di Monticelli, a supporter of the emperor, snatched the mantle and tried to put it on himself. After the brawl, Alexander and his supporters left the meeting, and the three remaining cardinals elected Monticelli Pope Victor IV.

In the struggle between the empire, popes, and antipopes, city-states, trade and craft guilds, and family clans chose their side, either forever or until the right opportunity to change it. Guelphs supported the Holy See, and Ghibellines supported the Emperor. Independent cities like Venice ignited the war to weaken their rivals.

The last bridges between the Pope and the Emperor, thus between Guelphs and Ghibellines, were burned in 1227. Emperor Frederick II returned prematurely and arbitrarily from the Crusade that he had been forced to take part in, to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher. Pope Gregory IX was furious. He accused Frederick of breaking his sacred vows, excommunicated him, and called him the Antichrist.

When Calcio Fiorentino appeared in the 16th century, teams from the Guelph and Ghibelline areas of the city played against each other. Photo: Lorenzo Noccioli / Wikipedia

War of the Bucket participants:

Modena — Ghibellines, for the Emperor

Bologna — Guelphs, for the Pope

Prelude to the bucket

The enmity of the Italian city-states was escalated by the short distances between them. For instance, there were only thirty miles between Imperial Modena and Papal Bologna. Therefore, territorial disputes did not end, and the fighting could be conducted regardless of the logistics.

In 1296, the Bolognese attacked the lands of Modena, captured two castles, and moved the border posts. The new domain of the Guelphs was immediately consecrated by the Pope. The war turned cold until Rinaldo Bonacolsi from the family of the Mantua rulers bought the power over Modena from the Emperor for 20 thousand florins. The talented military commander was physically tiny and bore the nickname Sparrow.

Border clashes became more violent from that time on, and in 1323 the Pope declared Bonacolsi an enemy of the Catholic Church. Every Christian who would manage to kill Signor of Modena or damage his property was promised absolution. In other words, the war with the Sparrow was equated with a crusade.

In June 1325, Bolognese militiamen plundered several farms in the vicinity of Modena, burned fields, and jokingly fired crossbows at the city. As a revenge, Modena citizens, having bribed the commandant, captured the important Bolognese fort of Monteveglio. This was a common occurrence in medieval Italy and was not even considered a war.

Legend says that the war started because of an oaken bucket.

One night, the Ghibellines sneaked into Bologna to show their bravery and robbed it a little. The loot was put into a bucket used to draw water from the city well, and taken to Modena. Everything stolen was private property, except for the public bucket. Bologna demanded its return, but Modena refused.

Such a trifle led to one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages and the deaths of 2,000 people.

Depiction of a battle between Guelphs and Ghibellines in the chronicle of Giovanni Sercambi, 14th century. Source: Le Croniche di Giovanni Sercambi lucchese / Wikipedia

Infantry on the alert

The quarrel over the bucket was seen by both Guelphs and Ghibellines as a long-awaited excuse for a major battle. Both sides hoped to turn the tide of the exhausting conflict with a decisive victory.

Detachments from Florence and Romagna arrived to help Bologna. The lord of Rimini, Malatestino Malatesta, took command of the Papist forces. Under his leadership were 2,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry, mostly poorly armed militias.

Modena was supported by Mantua and Ferrara. The lord of Milan, Azzone Visconti, provided a detachment of German mercenaries. The lord of Verona and the leader of the imperial faction in Northern Italy, Cangrande della Scala, known as the Big Dog, also brought his soldiers. The Ghibellines had only 5,000 infantry, but they were all strong professionals. Part of the 2,000 cavalry under Sparrow’s command consisted of German knights, the military elite of the time.

In the afternoon of November 15, 1325, the Ghibellines began a battle near the castle of Zappolino, the last fortification on the road to Bologna. Historians consider the chroniclers’ data on the number of participants in most battles of the time to be exaggerated. But there is no doubt that one of the largest European battles of the Middle Ages took place at Zappolino.

Restored painting by Luigi Manzini based on the comic poem 'The Stolen Bucket' by Alessandro Tassoni. Source: comune.modena.it

Following Sparrow’s orders, infantry mercenaries struck at the center of the Guelphs, and Gangalando Bertucci, a defector from Bologna, led the cavalry in a flanking attack. Within two hours, the ranks of the Bolognese soldiers staggered. Those who retreated interfered with the crossbowmen’s shooting, and panic gripped the fresh troops approaching.

By nightfall, the papists’ retreat turned into a general flight all the way to Bologna. Two thousand people were left dead on the battlefield. The pursuers captured six small castles along the way and took three dozen noble Guelphs prisoner. Bertucci’s cavalry was prevented from breaking into the city only by a delay for looting the suburbs. The Modenese did not storm the city, but mockingly held a jousting tournament under the walls ‘in honor of the participants in the operation and the eternal shame of Bologna.’

As a valuable trophy, the Modenese displayed the oaken bucket in the city’s main bell tower. Now a copy is kept there, and the original bucket was moved to the city hall.

The original bucket from Bologna. Source: Reddit
A replica of the bucket in the bell tower of the Modena Cathedral. Source: Alien life form / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia

What happened next

  • In January 1326, a truce was signed. The Bolognese bribed Sparrow Bonacolsi and received back all the castles and lands captured by the Modenese. The battle with 2,000 dead proved itself futile. In fact, the only acquisition of the Ghibellines was that oaken bucket.
  • In 1328, the Gonzaga clan with the help of the lord of Verona, Cangrande della Scala, organized a coup in Mantua. Sparrow was murdered. His mummified body was kept in the Gonzaga palace as a souvenir for another three hundred years.
  • The war between Guelphs and Ghibellines lasted with varying success until 1529. When Charles I, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, invaded Italy, the patriotic Ghibellines did not support the Emperor but joined forces with the Pope and the Guelphs.