A few years ago, I picked up The War of the Fists by Robert C. Davis. I forgot about it until recently, and, on rereading it, realized it contained a lot of D&D-adjacent material. You can read a decent summary essay here. Instead of repeating that essay, I thought I'd quote some of the more interesting sections. It's stitched together from several separate
essays or papers, so later chapters can be a bit repetitive. It's still a
very interesting book. I couldn't find an ebook of the text, so all
transcription is by hand (with the associated spelling and grammar
Like the (surprisingly modern) La Tomatina, Calcio Storico (see video below) in Florence, and Gioco del Ponte in Pisa, Venetian Bridge Wars were a factional semi-ritualized sport. Unlike events that survived into the modern day, they were massive brawls with no formal rules.
|Ponte dei Pugni, Pietro Liberi 1605–1687)|
A few years ago, shortly after I had discovered the pleasures and challenges of the Chronicle of the pugni in Venice's Museo Correr, I mentioned to a more experienced colleague how much I would enjoy the chance to write my own history of the city's battagliole. His immediate response was, in so many words: Why?
If you're judging a book by its introduction, sentences like this usually mean the book is worth reading. If a thing doesn't exist, and you want it to exist, sometimes the only option is to make it exist.
The "Chronicle of the pugni" mentioned above is a similarly ambitious passion project. An anonymous 17th century author decided to record the legendary origin, notable fights, famous combatants, tactics, terms, and ethos of the pugni, in order to fully explain the famous battle put on for the French king Henry III in 1574.
Spilling so much ink over a worker's brawl that had taken place on a Monday afternoon ninety-six years earlier may seem a quixotic task, even for the often eccentric literary world of late Republican Venice."
Stone bridges formed an ideal battleground. They separated feuding parishes, allowed for crowds of spectators, focused the action onto a narrow and easily contested point, allowed for clear victories and defeats, counterattacks and feints, and an easy escape from the press of combatants. Diving into the water (especially when the canal was full of boats and spectators) might not be appealing, but it (usually) prevented accidental deaths by crushing. Deaths by drowning, especially in the early days of stick-fights when armour was worn, were still common. The bridge also elevated the participants, both psychologically and literally. While providing a clear view for spectators, it also helped the combatants spot the approach of the sbirri, the secret police.
[The bridge] of San Marziale, in particular, was considered "privileged beyond all the others to host those especially celebrated and notable wars [that are] put on for [visiting] Princes, Cardinals, and Great Lords of Italy, due to its location, beauty, convenience, and size" (it measured a good seventeen by fifty feet, according to de Ville).Other famous bridges were just thirteen feet wide. The next time you look at a 10' D&D battle grid, keep the pugni in mind.
Bridge-battles could be organized affairs, scheduled well ahead of time, or spontaneous riots started by combative youths. They were sometimes preceded by a program of one-on-one boxing matches (the mostra), but rarely got through all the matches before someone took a swing at a bystander and the whole affair turned into a general battle. There were no official rules. Actions were creditable or discreditable, honourable or shameful. A bit of cheating (especially by spying on the rival faction) or bribery was acceptable.
FactionalismHumans love factions.
Legends that were already well established by the sixteenth century held that the city had always been polarized, by virtue of its being settled by peoples of two different and contrasting backgrounds. The Rialtine islands that would eventually become Venice were, according to these myths, first peopled by the gente da terra, refugees from the mainland, and especially from the Byzantine city of Heraclea, where they were known as the Eracleani; and by the gente da mar, immigrants who had come to the islands around the Venetian Lagoon and who were therefore sometimes called the Isolani. By around the year 800 these two somewhat antagonistic groups had supposedly established themselves on those parts of Venice closest to their origins; with the Eracleani on the landward area, and the Isolani on the islands facing the sea. Soon thereafter, there were reports of stick battles raging between them.Occupation, as much as location, determined factional loyalty. The shipbuilders of the Arsenal formed the core of the Castellani; the deep-sea fishermen formed the core of the Nicolotti. Other trades were divided between the two camps. They frequently wore uniforms associated with their trade.
There is no way of knowing whether the Venetian authorities who divided the city into sixths [in the 12th century] were taking account these factional loyalties when they set up the sestieri [administrative districts]. It is worth noting, however, that although the state had assigned three sestieri to each side of the Grand Canal, this most obvious dividing line was not in the end the polarizing axis for factionalism in the city. Instead, the factional boundary ran more or less at right angles to the Grand Canal, for the most part along a series of minor canals, bridges, and alleyways.
Endowed with neither political power nor social prestige, the working class of Venice - the popolani - nevertheless created through the battagliole a cultural world particularly their own in the midst of one of the most tightly controlled states in early modern Europe. They did not choose to express this vision of themselves within the primary ritual landscape of the city - on the Grand Canal or along the ceremonial axes that defined the state's heart around San Marco and the Rialto. These were the preserves of the ducal government, realm of the autocratic, hierarchical, processional, and predictable. Some (but certainly not all) Venetian workers and artisans would take part in the manifestations of official culture that flowed along the prescribed route: their appearance as loyal guildsmen in ducal processions and banquets provided some popular presence in an otherwise strictly patrician occasion. Yet there can be little doubt that such elaborately staged state ceremonials, although they certainly could draw an audience, took a definite second place in the popular mind to the battagliola, which was, after all, "the most famous and sought-after recreation of the Venetian people."
[...]"What's your fighter's backstory?" "Well..."
That factional adherence was taken so seriously in a city as cosmopolitan as early modern Venice might at first seem surprising. Indeed, even some contemporary observers assumed that such strong allegiances could only be explained by some ancient political origin - the continuing influence of half-forgotten animosities between Guelph and Ghibelline was suggested - but there is little to imply that the two factions ever stood for any position beyond simple opposition to one another.
A somewhat more ambiguous zone of the city, in factional terms, was its Jewish quarter, the three Ghettos known as Vecchio, Nuovo, and Nuvoissimo. Certainly the Jewish merchants who were required to live and keep shop in the area had no love of brawls of any kind in their midst, and on the occasion when a running factional street fight spilled into the campo of the Ghetto Nuovo, they were quite as ready as their Christian counterparts in the Mercerie to rush to the scene "with swords, bars, and clubs" in hand to separate the brawlers. Yet, by virtue of their place of residence deep in the sestiere of Cannareggio, at least some of the Jews also appear to have considered themselves loyal Nicolotti. [...] One of them, called Samuel the Jew, got himself into serious trouble at a battagliola in 1637 when he got carried away by the excitement of the moment and punched a police captain in the face.
Guests in the city usually ended up taking the side of their host, although some important visitors could find themselves actively courted by the nobility of one side or another. Long-term visitors to the city might develop multiple attachments to their adoption faction, much in the manner of the marquis di Fluentes, ambassador of Spain, who "favored the Nicolotti faction from personal inclination, and also because... his royal palace is located among the most esteemed Nicolotti of Cannareggio, and then because he had [rowing] in his gondola the [renowned Nicolotti fighters] Moro at the helm and Piero Palladin at the center."That's a sensible party composition.
Servants were also often to be found at the battagliole: hardly surprising in an era when even minor nobles maintained small armies of retainers for status reasons. [...] The place of servants in the battagliole was clearly more complex than that of other workers, for many fought at the bridges with the awareness that their master was watching from a nearby balcony and perhaps wagering on their success. The drive to excel before the eyes of one's paron must have been strong, and indeed sometimes whole contingents of servants - perhaps belonging to a single master - would battle against other groups of domestics, carrying on what may have amounted to surrogate wars between the elites themselves. At the same time, however, servants could be shrewd enough to see in the pugni a means of staking out a certain amount of personal independence relative to their master: Saint Disdier observed that many Venetian gondoliers would only enter into service if their contracts allowed them to take time off on Sunday afternoons to go to the bridges to make a name for themselves.
Other devotees of the pugni were to be found still further down the social scale. The names of not a few fighters and capi turn up in the police records as violent men who were just as likely to be arrested for theft as for attacking or brawling with their neighbors. [...] Perhaps because they were skilled at thrashing others, some of these toughs who had no other trade could evidently hope to attach themselves to the retinue of an obliging noble, in the capacity of a professional thug (bravo) or assassin. Tonin, a caporione from San Luca parish in the 1630s, was an inhabitant of this rather shadowy world. Speaking of him in the context of the battagliole, the Chronicler hailed Tonin as a soldato famoso, "one of the strongest and most glorious of warriors." Yet from the testimonies of his various victims there emerges a picture of another Tonin, one who seemingly acquired the skills that served him so well at the pugni through his life as a local bully and sometimes killer-for-hire: "an assassin who only gets his bread by breaking the law and [who] lives by arms (although for appearances he keeps a tailor's shop), gathering about him at his expense a large gang of miscreants [malviventi] with whom he has assaulted and killed many."
In the opposite corner sat a red thing called Rifleman G. Motts. He was five-foot-six, covered in muscles, hair, scars, and tattoos of snakes disappearing into every orifice. Under neolithic brows, two evil black eyes stared out from hair which grew on his forehead. There was no neck, the head seemingly joined to the shoulders by the lobes of his ears. At the first sight of this creature Lofty tried to scramble out of the ring. “I’m not fightin’ that until I ‘ear it tork,” said Lofty.
-Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, Spike Milligan
Prowess and Practice
Enthusiasts of the pugni believed that these skills were particularly Venetian, developed and perfected by the popolani of the city. Although the wide diffusion of boxing in subsequent centuries may lead many modern readers to assume that throwing a straight punch is a perfectly natural act, there is every indication that in the days when men were primarily accustomed to express their aggressions by means of implements - swords for patricians, and knives or a staff (legno) for commoners - such skills were by no means universal. Newcomers to the battagliole, such as the soldiers from Dalmatia (Schiavoni) who regularly passed through the city, soon gave away their ignorance of the art of the pugni by swinging with their arms about wildly as if they still had sabers in their hands. The Nicolotti who fought against them knew how to make short work of such novices, for:
[A]lthough these [Slavs] were accustomed to sorties and raids, to musket and harquebus fire, and to coming to the clinch with sharp steel, nevertheless battling with fists above a narrow bridge was much different from their training and courage, and therefore most of them were thrown down from the bridge into the water by the Nicolotto skill.
The fame of the Venetian pugilists was such that by the end of the seventeenth century they were in demand to give demonstrations of their skills in other cities - as in 1670, when the Bolognese decided to stage a battagliola on San Bartolomeo's Day. A number of Venetian exiles (banditi) and merchants who were in Bologna and nearby Ferrara were requested by the festival organizers to fight against a squad of local men. Although the Bolognese were provided with some Venetian leaders, they were completely overwhelmed by their opponents,
who with hostility were only waiting to give pitiless punches to the Bolognese, who did not even know how to throw a punch trained, I would say, for the Venetian battagliola, but rather [they fought] in the manner of the Dalmatians, who never lead with the point of the fist, but only as if they were chopping wood with an axe. The Bolognese for the most part threw themselves voluntarily into the water, since they could not tolerate the violence of the Venetian Fist.
"They could not tolerate the violence of the Venetian Fist" is such a good line!
...those who intended to take part in the fighting went through the ritual of undressing. It could be a time-consuming process, as men took off their shirts or their gabbani and wound them into rolls which they then wrapped around their waists in a fascia, to protect the kidneys from blows. Fighters also needed to take some time to get their long hair (zazzara) secured in place under their rimless fighting caps, known as capelli alla schiavona. They would then don felt shoes (scalfarotti di feltrone) to protect against the slipperiness of the muddy bridge surface, and take off their rings, so that their punches might not cut unfairly.
It was evidently customary to fight bare-chested in the one-on-one boxing matches (the mostre) that often preceded the general assault on the bridge (the frotte): fighters who availed themselves of the protection of a leather or cardboard chest cover [...] The consciousness of cutting a fine figure was if anything more evident during individual combat than in the melee of the frotte. The fisherman from San Nicolo - known after all as the gente delle camisole - certainly kept on their red overshirts while fighting at the mostra, as did certain factional leaders, who might sport embroidered caps. Some individual fighters might also come to the bridge wearing the livery of an aristocratic patron or master-decked out in satins, for example, with specially coloured hose or braghese - although apparently not as many as might be expected, considering the extensive patronage ties that existed between patricians and pugilists during these years.
There seems to have been a sense of limits to this sort of personal embellishment going into combat, evidently reflecting a feeling that the fighting arena of a bridge was a serious place, one of comparative simplicity, where frivolous or strange costumes were inappropriate or disturbing. Thus, when it was rumoured that the Castello fighter Stramatel (meaning "Completely Crazy") would be appearing dressed in the apricot-coloured silk hose supplied to him by an admiring patron, he was jeered by the Nicolotti crowd: "Stramatel, where are you? Show us your silken socks!" When the Nicolotto goldsmith Bonhomo insisted on presenting himself at the mostra not only fully dressed but outfitted in a mourning cape with a bizarre hat, the Castellani were at first to afraid to send a champion against him, considering it unlucky that someone should come to the bridge "in lugubrious clothes that one only wears to a funeral cortege."
Fighters also equipped themselves with gloves, or guanti. These were not the padded sort - the protective "mufflers" that would be first introduced in British boxing circles during the eighteenth century - but made of simple leather, closely fitted and designed to protect the fighters' hand while also "giving them a firmer punch." Customarily, each participant would just wear a single clove, on his right hand - unless he was zanco, or left-handed. Indeed, the recruiting parties sent to outlying communities before a guerra ordinata routinely loaded their boats with cassi, corsaletti, and guanti to give to all the new fighters they managed to enroll. By the later seventeenth century, however, the more renown duelists managed to sport two gloves, often with a more distinctive and personalized look: sometimes made out of hard leather, sometimes extending halfway up the forearm and even to the elbow (in which case they were called manopoli). As with dress in general at the bridges, however, simplicity with gloves was considered by many a virtue, especially after one fighter tried to get away with wearing a glove especially sewn with extra stitchings of lute strings, designed to rapidly bloody his opponent's face.
For available colours, see this website.
|Ponte dei Pugni in Venice, Joseph Heintz the Younger (1673)|
The mustering of squads was the responsibility of local fighters of repute, whom the Chronicler of the pugni referred to as capi, capi di companie, or sometimes caporioni. These men, as the latter term makes explicit, were neighborhood leaders: they not only rounded up the fighters of their district when a battagliola seemed imminent, but they also formed them up into disciplined columns (that is, rolar le fille) when it was time to attack the bridge itself. At any one time, there appear to have been a dozen or so active capi on each side, ordinary artisans who sere sufficiently devoted to the values and antagonisms of factional competition that they would work ceaselessly to promote the cult of the pugni in their own neighborhood. [...] The fifty or so fighters in each local squad probably represented about the maximum number of men that any one capo could be expected to control, whether at the neighborhood tavern or in the thick of the battagliole; they were likewise the limit he could expect to round up by "beating on the doors of friends or relatives.""About 50" seems to be a common size for all sorts of organization. Dunbar's Number, but of family/fighting units. 50 people also seems like a critical inflection point for communities, charities, movements, and conspiracies. Forget calculated hireling limits; the party total is 50.
It was essential that each combatant who came to the fighting should "show himself well" (mostrarsi bene), for display was a vital element in the art of the pugni. If, thanks to his past notoriety or swaggering conduct, a duelist issued a challenge and no opponent came forward to face him, he effectively won a default victory that was no less honorable than one achieved by hard boxing. Not surprisingly, the best fighters made an art of coming onto the bridge scowling, shouting threats, and flexing their muscles before the enemy crowd; "using every skill and effort to be acclaimed."Fights were to the first blood. Knocking an opponent into the canal, knocking them out, or forcing a rival to leave were less common but equally accepted victory conditions. Fights often ended in an honourable draw if no special animosity existed between the combatants. Wrestling or grappling was permitted, but was considered dishonourable and could easily lead to both combatants tumbling off the bridge, in which case they had to swim around, clamber out of the water, and resume the fight.
Often the padrini from both sides would agree before hand to stage a bout of three rounds each, although on occasion the fighters themselves would ask for extra rounds, either as a precondition to the match or after concluding three salti without a clear winner. It remains unclear just how long a salto lasted, but considering that sometimes dozens or as many as a hundred mostre might be staged in a single afternoon, each round could not have taken more than a minute or two. Certainly, fighters and spectators alike considered a willingness to endure five, seven, or ten salti as a sign of genuine manhood; conversely, any duelist who settled too readily for only three might be condemned as rather timid.
Boxing in mostre was mainly a one-handed affair: using their left forearm to cover the face, fighters punched at each other with repeated rights. Since it was easiest to draw blood by punching an opponent in the face, fighters mostly aimed at the nose and mouth, the cheeks or above the eye. This tactic found its place in the jargon of the bridges, in which "to bust the mustache" (romper il mustaccio) meant to bloody, and thus defeat, and opponent.
Despite all their accompanying display and ferocity, mostre thus turn out to have been fairly benign affairs - clearly involving nothing like the lengthy and merciless poundings that would later be so characteristic of British prizefighting. Indeed, in Venice many cimenti were over almost before they had begun, on the occasions where one fighter tumbled his adversary off the bridge and into the water on the first charge or managed to draw blood with an early punch. Since each duelist's padrino was watching his rival closely for bleeding and was ready at the slightest signs of red to claim a victory, fights could be quickly halted, sometimes even when both participants were still eager to continue. Perhaps the difference between the British and the Venetian forms of boxing lay partly in the economics of the ring: Venetians did not battle for a purse, but instead in a quest for honor.
Since mostre were generally put on "with both armies facing each other and in close vicinity, [and] desirous of starting the frotta and of coming to blows," it did not take much to disrupt the fragile truce between the factions that made the boxing matches possible. The slightest evidence of misconduct in the arengo - a duelist who punched a rival who was down, for example - was often enough to trigger a massive attack by both sides.
The frotte that followed could last anywhere from twenty minutes to two or three hours - until either one side had given up or it became too dark to continue. During this time the apparent control of the bridge might change hands a dozen times or more. Unlike the mostre, which was dominated by the figures of the padrino and the champion fighter, the real contestants in the frotte were the capi and their fighting squads, or compagnie. Capi were especially necessary for lining up the squads of fifty or more into a tight formation that would come at the bridge from the fondamente on its right, left, and - if there was one - center. The intent was to continuously recharge the piazza di mezzo with a steady flow of new fighters who could replace those who were knocked off into the water or otherwise eliminated; as gaps developed in the mob on the bridge, these squads would be thrown into the battle, and their places at the back on the fondamenta would be taken by reserve units stationed behind them.
The padrini, by contrast, usually quickly made for the sidelines once the frotte broke out, to safe positions from which they could serve as the generals of the battle, offering overall coordination of the movements of their followers. They were the ones who decided when, or if, new squads should be called for, or whether an attack should primarily focus on the right or left flank. Those who were clever in the "military arts" might also use the stratagem of keeping still other squads in hiding in a nearby warehouse until the proper moment: closely watching the enemy at the center of the bridge for signs of fatigue, they could hope to win by sending fresh troops in a surprise assault against opposing companies that were already exhausted by long fighting.
The constant pressure of the squads streaming onto the bridge from either side tended to jam the entire span with fighters - with perhaps as many as four or five hundred men on the relatively small Ponte dei Pugni at San Barnaba - and the force of those pressing from behind packed them together so tightly that usually it was impossible even to take a swing (vibrar un pugno) at an enemy. Those on the bridge were quickly clogged into a dense throng known as the groppo, one of the central features of most frotte: for perhaps ten for fifteen minutes hundreds of men would be stuck together, pushing, shoving, or butting with their heads, rather in the manner of a modern rugby scrum. The groppo was never stable for long, however. In their enthusiasm, those behind would often leap on top of their trapped companions in an attempt to get at opponents on the other side. The result was that the gridlocked "mountain of flesh" (montagna di carne) would finally resolve itself in a sudden - and generally disastrous - collapse (scioglimento) as fifty, a hundred, even two hundred or more men all fell in a punching, kicking, biting knot into the canal below.
The Chronicler sometimes seems to express a certain grudging admiration for "this Venetian popolo, that at the bridges behaved as though completely devoid of reason or thought except to triumph, the one over the other." In the course of the melee men were punched and butted in the face until their teeth flew out; some had their ears chewed off, while an unlucky few had their testicles squeezed or bitten so hard that they fainted on the spot.
Caravia, in describing the battagliola at the Servi in 1521, provides several examples of these aggressive exchanges, such as the one between Giagia of the Castellani and Tota for the Gnatti (that is, Nicolotti).Here on the Bridges of the Brothers of the Servi,
The first to jump up were Tota and Giagia,
Men, one could say, with nerves of steel.
Giagia, the Gnatto, to provoke his rival,
Said to him, "You're leaping around like a deer,
What's with you, is your stomach feeling queer?"
Tota, who hard more heart than a dragon spitting,
Called back, "Lick my ass while I'm shitting."
Responded the Nicolotto, "I'll lick your rear
With a six-foot pole, two-penny rascal of a pitch-eater."
Giagia replied, "Keep on prattling and you'll get beaten
Or maybe a black eye, no-account crab catcher."
"Come on up here, wretch," said Tota,
"And we'll have a little fighting, just us two."
Giagia answered, "Let's go! I'm all ready,
What are we waiting for? That someone plays us a tune?"
Ah, traditional sports taunts. As the cult of the pugni progressed, and warfare moved from sticks to fists, the need for taunts between professional fighters diminished. Youths would still insult each other to provoke fights, but for skilled fighters, the honour of victory and or shame of defeat was enough.
Hugely popular and openly staged throughout the early modern era, the battagliole were nevertheless in theory completely illegal and only to be put on with the special permission of the state. The Venetian government had taken this stance at least as early as 1505, when the Council of Ten issued a proclama threatening anyone "who dared gather or make war at the bridges" with three hoists of the strappado and - at the Ten's discretion - a possible whipping as well. [...] The punishments for those who sought to amuse themselves at the bridges without permission were steadily increased. The state's escalating battle against the pugni culminated with the edict of 29 November 1644, which proclaimed:
That no one should dare make this said war under the irremissible penalty of assuredly being condemned to serve as a shackled oarsman in a prison galley for five years, or... being unfit for such service, to be confined in one of the... Ten's prisons barred to the light for a space of seven years. Should he flee [arrest], let him be banished from this City of Venice and its territories for fifteen years.
Following its customary practice, the Ten also tried to encourage private citizens to become informers, offering as much as three hundred lire di piccioli to those who would denounce or help the police hunt down those neighbors who persisted in flaunting these edicts.
Despite all their apparent ferocity, these attempts by the state to suppress the pugni as a popular, spontaneous entertainment hardly enjoyed any unqualified success. There is, if anything, every indication that in the two centuries following the ban of 1505 bridge encounters grew steadily larger and occurred more frequently, as the maturing and eventual decadence of the Venetian economy and social geography made involvement with the pugni more attractive to the city's workers. Whereas in the sixteenth century important battagliole were apparently mounted only two or three times a decade, by the 1660s and 1670s bridge wars involving over a thousand fighters had become virtually monthly events during the fall battle season. Despite the continuing efforts of the Ten to subject the pugni to some sort of state control, the popular cult became persistently more localist and plebeian, drawing ever more inspiration from that energetic corner of worker culture that survived outside the government's manipulative reach.
In large part, these efforts by the Venetian state to regulate the battagliole failed to have much effect because the workers of the city proved largely oblivious to even the most draconian threats. When the battle season was at its height, and the Nicolotti and Castellani "armies" seethed with the passion to contest a fighting bridge, "it was impossible to hold back a Venetian populace so crazy and so resolved in [having its] wars."
Venetian bridge battles were particularly threatening to civic order and public safety because participants were so willing to intensify their violence. The mobs at the fighting bridge could escalate their encounter from "the punches and the mostre that should be done, as was determined and agreed" to knives and rocks with dazzling suddenness. Perhaps because they were strictly forbidden from carrying any sort of firearm, it was quite normal for Venetians of all classes to go about armed with a wide variety of knives and cutting weapons. Even fighters stripped down in arnese and ready for the mostre appear to have kept a dagger about them just in case; most participants indeed needed little provocation to draw their weapon, for a sudden thrust against and opponent or even someone in the audience. Onlookers in their turn were always ready to charge onto the bridge, prompt to dispute an unpopular decision or act, "with knives and daggers in hand and mantles or cloaks wrapped around the arm." It was just such crazed aggression by the Nicolotto Pasqualin Gritti and three companions "armed with great, naked knives" that caused the entire audience to panic at the Ponte dei Carmini in September 1611, with the result that twenty-six died, "drowned, trampled, and suffocated in the mud."
That twenty-six deaths was considered a notable and highly memorable tragedy shows the pugni wasn't as bloodthirsty as one might expect.
Policing efforts were hampered by noble sabotage (including kidnappings, stealing boats, disrupting traffic, spreadking false rumours about venues and times), the sensible unwillingness of some police chiefs to wade into a thousand-man riot with a squad of four, and the general Machiavellian sense that a people amused and divided are unlikely to rise up to topple the elite. Republican Venice was a very state-like state, if that makes sense. Lots of top-down power, desire for legibility and authority, hard-coded structures. But unlike many states, it had a sense of its own limits, and was willing to play the long game for internal control.
The pugni faded into obscurity during the late 18th century, along with the factionalism that supported it. Official crackdowns after a few particularly violent bouts could be blamed (though, checking the records, the last few battles were hardly as violent as some of the earlier ones) but the waning interest of noble patrons, who had discovered other more refined pursuits, is more likely. People just got tired of it, I suppose. It became slightly disreputable and shabby; without the draw of honour and glory, why fight?
All that remains are paintings, a few place names, and some footprints on a bridge.