When I traveled to Bologna I was exploring the city when I met some students from the University. After bragging a bit about how the University was the oldest of the Wold they told me a fascinating story. Apparently in the Ghirlandina, a tower in Modena, a city that is just 40 kilometers from Bologna, there is an old wooden bucket. But this is a special bucket, as t is a recurring theme (although jokingly) to go there to steal it and take it to Bologna. Why? Well, apparently a 700 years old grudge.
To understand this we have to go back to 1325. In Italy, the northern state cities, probably the most developed area of the continent at that point, are in constant competition with each other. Although the strong rivalry of these cities boosted the arts and sciences during the Renaissance, it also had its problems, with events borderline ridiculous. This is the case of the Wooden Bucket War, fought between Bologna and Modena. The reason? A wooden bucket of course!
To be honest, the war didn’t just start with the infamous bucket. These two cities already had occasional skirmishes before the war. Their mutual hatred came from far back, as they both supported different factions. Northern Italy was in a very particular situation. It was a rich area, with a very urban population, much more than in the rest of Europe, with a literacy rate unprecedented since Roman times. This made the region also a target for ambitious leaders all over Europe. There were two of them who had a claim for these territories: the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. Those who supported the Pope were known as Ghibellines, while those who followed the Emperor were called Guelphs. These names come from even older conflicts. So, knowing all this the problem becomes obvious: Bologna was Guelph and Modena, Ghibelline.
After several years of skirmishes and constant tension, a group of Modenese decided that they had to prove they were better than their rivals in Bologna. One night they infiltrated the city without anyone noticing and stole a wooden bucket from a well, which they took as a trophy. This, apparently unimportant, did not please the people from Bologna. Of course, Modena exhibiting the cube as a sign of their superiority didn’t help. Showing off their ability to sneak into enemy territory.
Bologna demanded the return of the cube, a request that Modena refused. And the city of Bologna reacted in the only possible way to such an affront: declaring war. After recruiting an army 32,000 soldiers strong the Bolognese decided to march to the rival city, defended by 7,000 soldiers. The battle was not very long, and after 2,000 casualties between both sides, the Bolognese army broke. Despite the numerical inferiority the Modenese managed to force them to flee back to Bologna. Once there, and according to some reports, a Modenese soldier stole yet another wooden bucket from a well near one of the city gates.
The conflict was so ridiculous that the writer Alessandro Tassoni wrote a mock-heroic epic, La secchia rapita (The Stolen Bucket), published in 1622. Later, in 1772, the composer Antonio Salieri, known rival of Mozart, composed a comic opera with the same name.
Today, almost 700 years later, in the Ghirlandina Tower of Modena there is a wooden bucket. That bucket is, according to the legend, one of the two buckets stolen from the city of Bologna. Although there is no strong evidence proving this, students are still joking with the idea that they should take it back to restore the city’s honor.