QuickCheck: Did stealing a bucket spark a bloody war?

A mural in the Bologna City Museum depicting the triumphant Modenese toting the captured Bolognese water bucket home after the two-hour battle. Credit: https://www.historynet.com/what-we-learned-from-the-battle-of-zappolino-1325/

WAR. What is it good for? Human history is filled with senseless violence and usually, it is justified by "noble" notions like freedom or modernisation, or straight-up greed for oil, land or gold. But sometimes, humans resort to murdering one another over the most trivial of things, giving the term "senseless violence" a literal meaning.

A good example could be when two medieval city-states in northern Italy – Modena and Bologna – supposedly fought a war due to the theft of an ordinary unremarkable wooden bucket.

According to 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 city hall. War was declared when Modena refused Bologna's demand for the bucket's return.

Did the theft of a bucket really spark a bloody conflict in 1325, which later came to be known as the War of the Bucket?



Contrary to popular belief, the theft of the bucket was not what sparked the Battle of Zappolino, which was the only battle that took place during the War of the Bucket. The taking of the bucket was actually the final act by the victorious Modenese to rub the defeat into the faces of their enemy, the Bolognese. The War of the Bucket was actually just a chapter of a 300-year-long struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines.

The bucket in question in the War of the Bucket. – Wikimedia CommonsThe bucket in question in the War of the Bucket. – Wikimedia Commons

From the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance, northern Italy was divided between factions supporting the rival political claims of the Holy Roman Emperor (The Ghibellines) and the Pope (The Guelphs).

Without going deep into the complex history of the Guelph and Ghibelline Wars, it is enough to say that Modena was Ghibelline and Bologna was Guelph. Their political differences 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.

As for the War of the Bucket, military activity had intensified over the borders between Modena and Bologna in early 1325.

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. This merely angered the Bolognese further.

The Battle of Zappolino

In the afternoon of Nov 2, 1325, the Modenese and Bolognese armies faced each other in the small village of Zappolino, about halfway between the two cities. The Bolognese force was much larger, with over 30,000 infantrymen and 2,500 horsemen, while Modena only had roughly 5,000 infantrymen and 2,000 horsemen.

However, the Bolognese soldiers, though superior in number, were poorly trained and armed, with many carrying farm tools like hoes, shovels and pitchforks; while the Modenese troops consisted mostly of German mercenaries who were well-trained, disciplined and fully armed.

The bloody battle saw the death of 2,000 soldiers – mostly on the Bolognese side. The Modenese army then chased the retreating Bolognese soldiers all the way to Bologna, destroying several important castles along the way.

Once outside the city, the Modenese army sabotaged a sluice (a gate that controls a water channel) on the local river which supplied Bologna with water, before mocking their enemy and taking a bucket from a well just outside the city as a trophy. Why would the Bolognese need it, they reasoned, if they had no water?

The bucket was hung in the Ghirlandina bell tower in Modena as a symbol of Bologna's defeat and has even inspired some 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.

A replica of the bucket hanging from the ceiling in the Ghirlandina tower in Modena. – Wikimedia CommonsA replica of the bucket hanging from the ceiling in the Ghirlandina tower in Modena. – Wikimedia Commons

While hostilities have died down between Modena and Bologna over the years, this humble bucket is still a sore subject for some of the locals there. To this day, the citizens of Bologna make playful attempts to steal back their bucket.

A replica of the wooden pail still hangs from the ceiling of the Ghirlandina tower while the real one sits in a glass case in the City Hall of Modena, where it is kept safe from any Bolognese trying to steal back their beloved bucket.


1. https://historyofyesterday.com/when-a-stolen-bucket-started-a-war/

2. https://www.historynet.com/what-we-learned-from-the-battle-of-zappolino-1325/

3. https://militaryhistorynow.com/2020/10/18/beyond-the-pail-the-unbelievable-war-for-the-oaken-bucket-2/

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