Bridges over troubled waters

On an intriguing walking tour through Venice, Ute Junker crosses over to La Serenissima's darker side.

A floating greengrocer is moored at the Ponte dei Pugni, or Bridge of Punches - a small, apparently insignificant, bridge across one of Venice's many narrow canals. Locals stop to pick up a bunch or two of fresh asparagus before continuing on their way. There's no indication that, for decades, this tranquil spot was the scene of bloody clashes between two of Venice's powerful clans.

The Montagues and the Capulets had nothing on the Castellani and Nicolotti, influential Venetian clans whose mutual loathing became a spectator sport for the rest of the city's populace. Each year, from September to December, the rival clans would battle it out on the city's bridges. The procedure was simple: supporters of both sides would rush onto the bridge at a designated time and try to knock their opponents into the water below.

The Ponte dei Pugni was the favoured venue. Over the years, weapons - originally pointed sticks hardened by repeatedly being soaked in boiling oil - were replaced by fists, but the fights remained brutal and casualties were common.

Brawling season in Venice was similar to football season in Melbourne, with hundreds of spectators attending each clash. Hawkers would sell meals while the crowd cheered on the fighters, waving handkerchiefs in encouragement.

Fights were also staged for visiting dignitaries, such as King Henry III of France and a group of Japanese ambassadors. The fights were outlawed in 1705 after a particularly riotous battle in which roof tiles were torn off nearby buildings and used as missiles.

Today, the only reminders of the melees are two sets of footprints on the bridge, which mark the traditional starting point of the fights.

Bloody brawls are not the type of activity usually associated with Venice. However, the city's history is more complex, and darker, than most people realise.

Our walking tour is supposedly dedicated to Casanova's Venice in its extravagant 18th-century heyday. However, in a city as densely populated as Venice, earlier histories intrude constantly, offering a different perspective of the city you thought you knew.

Take the city's many campos, or squares. Our guide tells us that in Venice's early days, the squares were literally campos (the Italian word means field), where cows grazed, and the city had no bridges. The rich used their own boats to move about the city. The poor stayed put, never venturing beyond the area in which they had been born.

Venice, like most cities, was shaped by its wealthier citizens. Yet, with limited land at their disposal, even the rich had to be inventive. By the 1500s, all the available land had been taken. With no opportunities to build grand new houses, the best way the rich could show off their wealth was to put new facades on their homes. Look inside the city's gorgeous 18th- and 19th-century palazzos and you'll discover the buildings are, in fact, centuries older than they appear from outside.

Churches provided another opportunity for the city's elite to flash their cash: they commissioned magnificent artworks and facades for their favoured houses of worship. Near the Ponte dei Pugni, for example, sits the church of Santa Maria del Giglio, its riotous baroque facade standing out amid the area's more restrained buildings. The marble facade was commissioned by nobleman and admiral Antonio Barbaro and features relief maps of places where he served, including Zadar, Rome, Corfu and Spalato.

Nobles wielded all the power in the Venetian government. If your family wasn't mentioned in the 13th-century list of nobles, you didn't get a look-in. A noble birth did not, however, guarantee riches; far from it. Under the Venetian system, all the family's property went to the oldest son, leaving the other children to fend for themselves.

This system created numerous problems. With only one son per family able to marry, most of Venice's noble daughters were destined to remain single. Most were packed off to convents, which became some of the city's key cultural centres.

Venice's younger sons had to eke out their own existence. Many of them lived in the area around Campo San Barnaba, near the Ponte dei Pugni, and were referred to as Barnabotti. While their noble status gave them political influence in the form of seats on the Great Council of Venice, it also barred them from engaging in commercial trade, ruling out one profitable source of income. Eventually, the state recognised the problem and issued the Barnabotti a small allowance and established a school for their children.

Not that there were many of those: with no money to support a family, many of the nobility never married. By the 18th century, the figure was as high as 60 per cent.

A large population of unmarried men created a flourishing trade in prostitution, which was encouraged by the government as a way to avoid what was seen as the more sinful alternative: homosexuality. In fact, another Venetian bridge, the Ponte delle Tette (Bridge of the Tits) is so named because prostitutes were encouraged to stand upon it topless to entice and convert suspected homosexuals.

The Republic of Venice had another reason for tolerating prostitution: they made a lot of money out of the business. Taxes paid by the city's prostitutes, who at one time numbered more than 11,000, helped finance major public works, such as the building of the Arsenale.

Hearing stories is one way to learn history; another is to look at pictures. Our tour winds up at the Querini Stampalia, a gorgeous palazzo with a fascinating collection of paintings showing daily life in Venice. We see depictions of the fist fights on the bridges, and other gruesome pastimes, such as the bull baitings that used to take place at the Campo Santo Stefano, where bulls were tied to a stake and attacked by dogs.

In fact, the paintings suggest animal torture in any form was regarded by the Venetians as jolly good fun. There are images of Venetian-style hunts - in boats, naturally, with hunters using slingshots to bring down small birds. Most distressing are the images of another favourite game, in which a cat was tied to a wall. Blindfolded participants had to headbutt the cat until it was dead.

Fortunately, not all of the images are so gruesome. The records of grand events, such as gondola regattas or the elevation of new doges, are fascinating for the tiny details they reveal, such as the fact that women's flowing skirts were traditionally shorter in front than behind, so they didn't trip when walking up and down the city's bridges.

The writer was a guest of Context Travel.

Trip notes

Getting there Emirates has three services daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai, with daily connections to Venice, which is one of three Italian destinations serviced by the airline. Return economy-class airfares start from $1812 from Melbourne and $1828 from Sydney. 1300 303 777,

Touring there Context Travel offers walking tours of Venice, including "Casanova's Venice". Group tours cost €65 ($82) a person. Private tours are also available.