The Stolen Bucket – Modena’s Prized Pail
When I stepped out of the train station in Modena for the first time, I was greeted by graffiti six feet tall sprayed along an entire brick wall declaring: GRAZIE A DIO NON SONO BOLOGNESE! (Thank God I'm not from Bologna!). Obviously, Modena had some problems with its neighbor.
I assumed, as with many issues in Italy, that this rivalry came down to cooking. My neighbor across the alley, Franco, told me, "The Bolognesi were lucky to have the good people from Modena next to them to teach them how to cook properly. If it weren't for us, they'd still be wearing animal skins and beating on drums."
I pointed out to Franco that in English, baloney—often spelled "bologna"—is synonymous with "nonsense." "See? Even your language recognizes how ridiculous these Bolognesi are!"
Town pride runs deep in Italy and even has a name: campanilismo, or loyalty to your campanile, or church bell tower. Long ago, the steeple would always ring out the time for everyone working in the fields. Today, when I would ask for directions, whether my destination was north, south, east, or west, many Italians had to rely on the campanile, the highest structure in town, to indicate the way.
Mostly, this allegiance to your campanile means boosting your own town at the expense of your neighbors. Since medieval times, Modena and Bologna (Emilia-Romagna region) have had a rivalry, as depicted in a mock-heroic poem written back in the 1600s by a Modenese writer about "La secchia rapita" or the stolen bucket. The poem tells of how Modenesi stole the bucket from a well in Bologna in 1325 after a "glorious victory" (words of my present-day friends from Modena).
During the Middle Ages, Modena was the home of the Este dukes. It was located in the northern part of the region called "Emilia," after the Roman road Via Emilia. Bologna, however, was controlled (and looted) by the popes in Rome, who controlled the southern part of the whole region, hence its name "Romagna."
The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, had set the border between the two cities, so Modena laid its loyalties in the Emperor while Bologna pledged allegiance to the decadent popes in Rome. These were the same rivalries between the Guelphs (who supported the Pope), and the Ghibellines (who supported the Holy Roman Emperor) that rocked northern Italy for centuries. In other words, both sides felt they had divine right to ransack each other.
Bologna's militias, supported by Florence and the other Guelph cities in the Papal States, didn't respect the border and continually attacked and often occupied castles and outposts in Modem's territory. As Modena started to retaliate, Bologna raised an army of 32,000 soldiers and knights to put the Ghibellines in their place. Modena, together with the cities of Mantua and Ferrara, put together a much smaller army of just 7,000 cavalieri and other well-trained fighters, and had the Bolognesi on the run by nightfall.
The Ghibellines from Modena and their allies pushed the Guelphs all the way to the gates of Bologna. Rather than lay siege to the city, which could have been disastrous since the other papal armies would surely have come to the rescue, the army from Modena and Ferrara staged a horse race outside Bologna's walls to thumb their collective noses. Horse races in Ferrara were already an annual tradition dating back to 1259 and predate the famous Palio di Siena by nearly four hundred years.
While the Modenesi forces occupied the smaller towns outside of Bologna, soldiers snatched an oak pail used at one of the town wells. The secchia rapita, or stolen bucket, became symbolic of Modena's famous victory over its much larger rival. My Modenese friend, Marina, explained to me that they make fun of people from Bologna for being "papi" or little popes, because they were under the Pope's rule for so long whereas Modena was allowed to flourish.
She took it upon herself to prove Modena's superiority over Bologna and pointed to Modena's campanile, nicknamed the Ghirlandina. The 290-foot tower stands next to a statue of Modena's most famous poet, Alessandro Tassoni, who wrote the mock-heroic story of the town's battle with Bologna and the secchia rapita.
Marina's husband, Enrico, works at Modena's comune, or city hall, and was entrusted with a key to the Ghirlandina. Enrico opened the creaky old wooden door to the medieval bell tower, which has a healthy lean and seemed like it could crumble at any time. No building in Modena can be built higher than this eight-story marble campanile since its height serves as a beacon to the locals to navigate Modena's tangly streets where old canals used to run. But mostly, the Ghirlandina rings out the time and is a call to gather to anyone not already in the piazza.
We entered the musty stairwell and Enrico pointed out the stolen bucket, la secchia rapita, dangling from a chain far out of reach. I stood in awe, but then he confided that this is a clever decoy placed on display in case any pranksters from Bologna want to steal it. The real bucket stands proudly in the Modena city hall under a plexiglass protector.
Marina told me that a few years ago, some university students from Bologna played a prank by sneaking into the city hall and stealing back the bucket. In its place, they left an enormous mortadella (baloney), one of the symbols of Bologna. Even though the bucket was eventually returned, people in Modena admonished me for chuckling. "It's just not funny," they said. "This is a very serious crime."
Others, however, were able to see the humor in substituting the secchia rapita bucket with a mortadella. Nevertheless, the Modenesi never balked at the chance to heckle their neighbors in Bologna, "Obviously they don't respect their food. We couldn't imagine leaving a leg of prosciutto for the Bolognesi!"
By Eric Dregni
from Italian America, Winter 2017