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Biographical notes on War Captains and Mercenary Leaders operating in Italy between 1330 and 1550

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Michael Gaismair: The Rebel Commander’s Quest Against Feudal Powers

According to Martin Luther, he was the only true military talent among all the leaders in the peasants' struggle against the nobility. A follower of the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli, he fought in Austria and South Tyrol for the Reformation against the troops of the German barons. Forced to flee to Italy, he served with the Venetians. He was ultimately killed in Padua by his political enemies.

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Last Updated on 2024/02/18

From Venetian Ally to Habsburg Foe: Gaismair’s Turbulent Life.

Michael Gaismair (1490-1532) was a Tyrolean peasant leader and revolutionary during the German Peasants’ War. As a scribe and later a captain, he gained a deep understanding of socio-political issues, leading him to challenge the church’s secular power and advocate for egalitarian reforms. After leading a series of peasant revolts, Gaismair fled to Switzerland, continuing his efforts to reform Tyrol and Salzburg. Despite his attempts, he was ultimately murdered by robbers in Padua in 1532. Gaismair’s legacy, once marginalized, is now recognized for his early contributions to social and democratic ideals.

Michail Gaissmayr, also known as Michail Gaismayr (Michele Gaissmayer, Gaissmair, Caymar, Caxamarta, Gaspar, Zasmer, Gasmerda, Gaissmeyer), hailed from Ceves near Vipiteno. He came from a middle-class family, initially owners of a mine and subsequently contractors of roads.

Born: 1490 ca.
Death: 1532, April

Year, monthState, Comp. venturaOpponentConductActivity AreaActions taken and other salient facts
………AustriaHe likely studied in Vienna, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree.
1512AustriaHe worked at the mining center of Schwarz, a salt mine.
1514AustriaHe obtained the right to mine at the Sant’Osvaldo mine in Tschaunfeld.
1518-1524Alto AdigeDue to competition from foreign companies (the Fuggers), he took a position with the lieutenant governorship of the Adige. Initially, he carried out administrative functions, later taking on military duties as well. He resided at Castel Presule and participated in the meetings of the aulic court held in Bolzano. He was appointed captain with the task of recruiting mercenaries for the regional army. Eventually, he moved to the secretariat of the Prince-Bishop of Bressanone, Sebastian Sprenz.
………Alto AdigeHe became the secretary of the Bishop of Bressanone. In the same year, the Peasants’ Revolt (in German, “Der Deutsche Bauernkrieg”) broke out, so named because the peasants adopted a boot as their flag.
1525
Jan.Alto AdigeHe participated in the meetings of the Aulic Council of Bressanone.
May – JuneRebel peasantsEmpireAlto AdigeIn mid-month, the peasants rebelled against a decision by the Prince-Bishop of Bressanone to revoke the “episcopal fisherman” title from the Passler family of the Anterselva Valley, near Brunico. This sparked a series of riots fomented by the Passlers against both the new “fisherman” and the episcopal authorities. In May, Peter Passler was captured and sentenced to death in Bressanone for leading the peasant uprising in the Puster Valley the previous year. On the day of the execution, Michael Gaismair participated in the action that ended with Passler’s liberation. The Novacella Abbey was stormed by 5,000 peasants because the monks refused to abolish taxes. Gaissmayr was elected supreme commander of the revolt, with 10 bourgeois delegates and 10 peasants by his side. The looting of the Augustinian monastery yielded a booty of 25,000 florins. All records and account books were burned. The revolt continued with the plundering of the parish of Falzes, the houses of prelates and nobles, and grain stores. Gaissmayr worked to normalize the situation in Bressanone; he managed to direct the insurrectionary movement towards specific economic and political demands, avoiding rebellion for its own sake. He convened an assembly in Merano; he presented a series of proposals such as the abolition of serfdom and feudal services, as well as the exclusion of speculators. He quickly made use of pro-Zwinglian preachers to replace priests deemed unworthy and those who had fled at the start of the revolt.
JulyAlto Adige, GermanyMichael Gaismair rallied 5,000 men from the Puster Valley at San Lorenzo di Sebato and Sonnenberg; he repeatedly defeated the troops of the German nobility. Georg Frundsberg advanced from Bolzano to Chiusa on his way to Bressanone; similarly, other companies enlisted by Archduke Ferdinand of Austria did the same. Gaissmayr handed over the Bressanone castle to Georg Firmian on the promise that no one would be punished for joining the revolt. He then retreated to Vipiteno with his family.
Aug. – Sept.Austria, Alto AdigeHe is invited to go to Innsbruck and is summoned to the Aulic Council of Tyrol. He is imprisoned in the Innsbruck castle on charges of being responsible for the plundering of the Novacella Abbey. Georg von Frundsberg takes advantage of the situation and surprises the rebels near Vipiteno (Sterszinger Moos). Michael Gaismair manages to escape from prison after seven weeks. He begins guerrilla warfare against his opponents.
Oct.SwitzerlandHe crosses into the territory of the Grisons; arriving by night at Sluderno (Schlunderns), he risks drowning in the marshes of the valley floor; he reaches Taufers in the Monastery Valley and the Engadine. He negotiates in Zurich with Zwingli and adheres to the Protestant Reformation.
Nov. – Dec.SwitzerlandHe is spotted near Bad Fideris. He stays in Zurich, in Lucerne. He takes refuge in Klosters where he is joined by his wife and daughter.
1526
Jan. – Feb.Switzerland, AustriaHe involves the Swiss peasant movements in his struggles, from Prattigau in the Grisons to Appenzell, and the Austrian ones from Allgäu to Vorarlberg in Tyrol.
Mar.AustriaA bounty is placed on his head for him to be delivered alive or dead. Count Gerardo d’Arco offers to search in Italy, at his own expense, for assassins to kill him. Michael Gaismair moves into the territory of Salzburg and from there directs the rebels against the nobles and Duke Ferdinand of Austria.
Apr.Austria, SwitzerlandAn ambush planned against him fails in Trogen. His brother Hans is arrested in Vipiteno; Michael Gaismair once again takes refuge in Klosters to escape the snares of the Habsburg spies.
MaySwitzerland, Alto Adige, AustriaThe Grisons prevent him from staying in their territory. Meanwhile, he is given command of the rebels. Michael Gaismair crosses the Val Venosta at Strassberg; through the valley and the Vizze pass, he descends with his men through the Zillertal into Pinzgau. He moves into the Salzburg area. He commands 10,000 men: in separate encounters, he defeats the Bavarians, other militias of the Swabian League, the troops of the Archduke, and the Landsknechts of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Matthias Lang. In retaliation, his brother is beheaded in the market square of Innsbruck; his possessions are confiscated, and the bounty on his head is raised to 1,000 florins for whoever captures him alive (500 in case of his death).
JuneAustriaHe attempts to conquer Radstadt with the aim of besieging Salzburg. The commander of the Swabian League, Philipp Stumpf, introduces four companies into the city. Michael Gaismair is defeated by Georg Frundsberg. He then heads with 4,000 rebels (including men, women, and children) towards Enberg and Presendorf; he crosses the High Tauern mountains.
JulyVeniceEmpire1160 infantrymenAlto Adige,  Veneto, LombardyHe passes through Brunico and San Candido, where only the goods belonging to the canons are plundered; he crosses the Val Badia, touches Livinallongo del Col di Lana, and reaches Agordo where he requests to be put on the Venetian payroll. He is blocked in Belluno; the Council of Ten grants him passage and protects him from the Swabian League troops that are always on his heels. He is sent to the Duchy of Milan: under his command are 1,160 infantry (170 harquebusiers, 840 halberdiers, and other men assigned to various duties). Via the Passo di Santa Croce, he arrives at San Zenone degli Ezzelini and Vicenza: here, his men appear poorly armed, having had to pawn their own weapons in Belluno to survive. They are given money, and their weapons are redeemed; Michael Gaismair is gifted 100 ducats. He is directed to the siege of Cremona on the recommendation of Francesco Maria della Rovere.
Aug.1100 infantrymenLombardyA review of his company reveals a total of 1,020 infantrymen: twelve are discharged for being too young; with the Landsknechts who have deserted from the imperial camp, the leader altogether has 1,100 infantrymen at his disposal. At the head of 1,000 infantrymen, he participates in the assault on the walls of Cremona towards Porta Mosa, integrated into the battery of Camillo Orsini.
Sept.1400 infantrymenHe repeatedly requests from the Venetians 2,000 arquebusiers and harquebusiers to penetrate Trentino and Tyrol, left unguarded by Georg Frundsberg and his Landsknechts. Falling ill, his men mutiny due to delayed pay; for this reason, he prefers to stay at the camp rather than go to Brescia for treatment. His work is praised by the General Proveditore Piero Pesaro. 230 Landsknechts desert from the imperial camp; he accepts only 80, those who have already served with him in the Peasants’ War. Ultimately, still ill, he is taken to Brescia where he is hosted by a Martinengo.
Oct.Lombardy, VenetoHaving partially recovered, he reaches the Verona area with 1,000 Landsknechts with the aim of hindering Georg Frundsberg’s advance in that area.
Nov.LombardyOnce again, he offers to carry out a diversionary action in Tyrol with 1,500 harquebusiers and a certain number of horses; he is held back at the camp by della Rovere, who fears being left without militias for a potential attack from Milan. Michael Gaismair sends one of his men to the Collegio; this individual meets with Doge Andrea Gritti; many arquebuses are handed over to him; he heads towards Lake Iseo and clashes with the Landsknechts serving the Imperials. The Collegio dei Pregadi grants his wife a residence in Brescia. Gaismair has to overcome the resistance posed by the city’s rectors, who, among other things, do not want to intervene in the baptism of a son. In Venice, however, the leader is praised in the Collegio by General Proveditore Piero Pesaro, who expresses regret for the tertian fever weakening his strength.
Dec.LombardyHe has a priest who was part of his company hanged for attempting to make 12 Landsknechts desert, who wished to return to Germany.
1527
Jan.LombardyAt Casalmaggiore; he crosses the Po River with his infantry.
Feb.Veneto
Mar.LombardyHe is stationary at Casalmaggiore. He goes to Venice despite della Rovere’s opposition; in the Collegio, for this act, he is made to stand next to the Doge instead of sitting according to current practice. His request, the need for thermal treatment at Abano Terme, is accepted. He complains about della Rovere, who keeps him in the dark about decisions made in war councils. He is convinced to return to the camp.
Aug.800 infantrymenUmbriaA captain of the Grisons infantry is killed in a brawl at the camp of Ponte San Giovanni: Michael Gaismair shows much reluctance in punishing the culprits; the Swiss then (3,000 men) move to take revenge. Della Rovere blocks them, visits Gaismair, and makes him understand that not only the Swiss but also the Italian and French infantry would have attacked his men if justice had not been done. The German captain reports that the culprits have fled except for one who is held prisoner; he is asked for five hostages, and he offers himself in their place. The Swiss are not satisfied; della Rovere orders 3,100 Italian infantry to move against them. The culprit is beheaded in the presence of the Swiss, and things calm down.
………VenetoHe falls ill again. He returns to Abano Terme for treatment.
1528
Jan.VenetoHe leaves Padua (where he lives in the house of Ludovico Dalle Valli, in the district of Santa Sofia) and goes to Venice to request the fulfillment of promises made to him: he is granted an annual provision of 300 ducats for eight salaries and some tax exemptions.
Feb.SwitzerlandIn the Monastery Valley and at Bad Fideris. He enlists Grisons on behalf of the Serenissima. He arrives in Prattigau and reestablishes connections with
Apr.VenetoIn Venice.
MayVenetoHe gathers 200 Landsknechts and moves to the Vicenza area to confront the German infantry of the Duke of Brunswick.
1529
Dec.VenetoIn Venice with Collinus to urge an alliance between the reformed Swiss cantons and the Venetians. He meets with Doge Andrea Gritti.
1530
SpringSwitzerlandHe meets with Zwingli in Zurich; he does not cease weaving plans against the Habsburgs.
Aug.VenetoHe returns to Padua; he dedicates himself to the reorganization of some estates purchased for 918 ducats in the Euganean Hills. In the Senate, there is a debate about whether to confirm or not, due to his religious faith, the annual provision of 300 ducats. He is defended by some senators; he is knighted by the Strozzis; he moves with his family to their small palace, of which the Florentine bankers are owners in Padua at Prato della Valle.
1532VenetoMid-month, during Holy Week, he is killed in Padua, in the residence where he lives, by a Paduan and a Neapolitan with the complicity of one of his servants: all desiring to collect the bounty placed on his head by Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. He is killed with 42 dagger and sword blows. The official investigations end in nothing. Dramas about his figure with a patriotic background were written in 1899 by Franz J. Kranewitter and, more recently (2001), by Felix Mitterer.

Sources

-“Huomo insolente e temerario.. pratico nel maneggiar l’armi.” PINCIO

-“L’unico (capo) dotato di un vero talento militare.” ZORZI

-“Alto di statura, quasi spilungone, magro.. ha una barba nera tendente al marrone, non folta e anzi rada, viso piuttosto piccolo e di bell’aspetto, la testa rasata; quando cammina pende in avanti, a causa del busto leggermente curvo.” Hollaeder. Riportato da A. STELLA

-“Maligno, cattivo e ribelle, ma scaltro.” VON KARAJAN

-“(Un eroe) perché non ha pensato solo a se stesso: ha combattuto per i più deboli e per i più piccoli, ha sempre mirato alla riforma sociale, a rendere migliore la società.” MACEK

-“Forse il personaggio più importante di tutta la guerra contadina, l’unico vero rivoluzionario e capo.” FRANZ

-“Michael Gaismair fu personaggio di notevole rilievo non solo per gli orizzonti europei che prospettò e perseguì nella lotta di liberazione dei suoi compatrioti tirolesi, ma anche per avere continuato coerentemente a proporre un originale (storicamente precorritore) repubblicanesimo popolare, che superasse nella giustizia distributiva e nelle provvidenze sociali ogni altro (pur ammirato) repubblicanesimo allora vigente, da quello più o meno aristocratico veneziano e fiorentino a quello borghese zurighese. Non deve, quindi, stupire che la sua fama sia rimasta a lungo viva e rimpianta nella coscienza popolare non solo tirolese, come se il Bauernfuhrer fosse ancora “in Lande” nell’attesa quasi messianica di una società evangelicamente nuova..Colto, esperto uomo politico e anche buon oratore.” A. STELLA

-“Ha una statura normale e capelli neri misti a grigi; ed è rosso acceso in volto.” Vasella. Riportato da A. STELLA

-“Michael Gaismair era un comandante,/ non poteva presentarsi come un uomo d’onore,/ è un birbante per quanti sono abituati a credere alla gente onesta;/ egli ha fatto insorgere il territorio dell’Adige/ e anche i contadini del Pinzgau.” Da un canto popolare sulle gesta dei contadini a Rastadt, riportato da A. STELLA

“L’unico vero talento militare fra tutti i capi dei contadini.” Lutero. Riportato da A. STELLA

-“Esule di Vipiteno, seguace zwingliano ( che si rifà a Huldrych Zwingli, teologo svizzero, uno dei fondatori delle Chiese riformate) già comandante dei ribelli tirolesi.” JORI

SPECIFIC BIOGRAPHIES

-A. Stella. Il Baernfuhrer Michael Gaismayr e l’utopia di un repubblicanesimo popolare.

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Roberto Damiani
Roberto Damiani
Roberto Damiani è l'autore del sito Condottieri di ventura.