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The Condottieri System: The Role of Geography and Social Class in the Lives of Italian Condottieri

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Last Updated on 2023/10/13

The Social Status and Origins of Italian Condottieri and Captains.

Explore the intriguing world of Italian condottieri and captains from 1300 to 1550, as we delve into their social status, geographical origins, and the impact of these factors on their careers in the military profession.

ITALIAN: Il Sistema dei Condottieri

  1. It is useful, to begin with a brief description of the situation in Italy during the late Middle Ages and the early years of the Renaissance, in order to provide a historical context in which to better understand the evolution of the condottieri system.

Territorial limitations, political and economic constraints, cultural discord, and an irresistible tendency towards quarrelsomeness characterize the mosaic of states that make up the geographical expression that is Italy at the time.

There are six major regional states, each of which causes disorder and frequent conflicts in neighboring territories. They are, in order:

  • The Kingdom of Naples, ruled first by the Angevins and later by the House of Aragon;
  • The Papal State, where each pope carries their own general political vision;
  • The Republic and the Medici lordship of Florence;
  • The Duchy of Milan, ruled first by the Visconti and then by the Sforza;
  • The County and later Duchy of Savoy;
  • The Republic of Venice.
The Role of Geography and Social Class in the Lives of Italian Condottieri

Around them revolve other smaller states, theoretically independent and sovereign; in reality, forced to align their political stance with that of one or the other of their powerful neighbors, in order to safeguard territorial interests and survive the greed of neighboring states. These include the commune or lordship of Bologna, the dogate of Genoa, the lordships of Ferrara, Mantua, Forlì, Rimini, Urbino, Perugia (often led by a condottiero), the republics of Siena and Lucca, and the marquisates of Saluzzo and Montferrat.

Lastly, there are other territorial entities (consisting of communes and lesser lordships), also endowed with some autonomy and which, albeit with difficulty, sometimes manage to play a key role within the limited sphere of their influence for some time.

In city chronicles, endless successions of violent secular struggles, latent tensions always on the verge of exploding between various factions, judicial disputes with related legalized reprisals, raids into the countryside to destroy crops and plantations, and continuous skirmishes, ambushes, and less frequently, battles in the open field are recorded.

Protagonists of this saraband are representatives of all social groups. Moreover, the holders of power during this historical period always focus their attention on the short term, overturning their decisions without notice and without reason.

To this already complicated and turbulent panorama must be added the armed interventions of mercenary companies in search of bounty, as well as the external pressures of kings, emperors, local feudal lords, not to mention the episodic sudden fury of uncontrollable mobs.

The picture that emerges from the reconstruction of military history in these periods is one of a series of wars and campaigns involving various enemies and allies, with continuous reversals of alliances: moreover, the dynasties of Savoy, Gonzaga, Visconti, Este, and Malatesta have always tied their fortunes to the principle of political-military opportunism (which often materializes in the request for a condotta).

Of their counts, marquises, and dukes, it could be whispered – albeit with some exaggeration – that they did not conclude a war with the same ally with whom they had begun; and if they did, it was because they had changed sides twice.

Tab. 1 NUMBER OF CONFLICTS RELATING TO THE MAJOR ITALIAN STATES

Year/State1330 – 14001401 – 15001501 – 1530Total
Papal State16316772402
Florence1277628231
Milan13113912282
Naples8796183
Savoy53447104
Venice469217155
system of condottieri

The table attempts to quantify the number of conflicts concerning only the regional states. From its examination, it is clear that it follows a descending curve, accompanied by an ever-increasing territorial involvement and a rise in bloodshed. The wars of the fourteenth century are predominantly local or regional; the number of victims (with some exceptions such as the Battle of Montecatini and the Battle of Monteveglio) seems reduced, also because contemporary sources only record the deaths among knights and gentlemen, without dwelling on the mortality that occurs among infantrymen and venturers, the latter represented by heterogeneous militias, more or less armed, but always ready to take part in the loot.

In the fifteenth century, conflicts begin to decrease and become interregional; the number of combat fatalities increases due to the innovations brought about by military technology (the use of gunpowder in its various applications) not always offset by improvements in defensive systems. In the early sixteenth century, finally, the number of wars decreases even further, and the spatial horizon becomes almost national: with the development and impact of firearms, the number of battlefield deaths increases dramatically.

The internal causes and the impulses that animate those who rule the states are formulated by Lorenzo Valla in 1440: “frenzy for glory,” “hope for loot,” “fear of incurring a calamity later if others were allowed to increase their strength,” “revenge for a suffered wrong and defense of a friend.”

Even in the simple enunciation of these principles, Valla reveals how political and cultural motivations intertwine, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. What is certain, however, is the climate of suspicion, betrayal, and violence that follows: the pursuit of power and wealth demands a continuous commitment to monitoring and suppressing the maneuvers and countermeasures of adversaries.

Tab. 2 REGIONAL STATES: NUMBER OF YEARS WITHOUT ANY TYPE OF CONFLICT

Year/State1330 – 14001401 – 15001501 – 1530Total
Papal State224
Florence219324
Milan16411
Naples21012
Savoy6371861
Venice82616

From the examination of Table 2, it emerges that very few years are free from any type of struggle: in two centuries, among the regional states, only four years of peace are recorded for the Papal State, with peaks of sixty-one for the County/Duchy of Savoy (the most decentralized state compared to the others, for which we probably underestimated the war opportunities involving the Savoyard dynasty in lands controlled in France and Switzerland) and twenty-four for Florence.

Venice enjoys only sixteen years of peace: in this case, the justification is given by the imperialistic policy of the Serenissima, present in many potentially conflictual areas of the Adriatic Sea and the Aegean Sea, such as Dalmatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece with the appendix of its islands, Cyprus, the coasts of Anatolia, and the Black Sea.

Commonwealths, republics, and lordships are governed by ambitious men, often cunning and calculating; the zeal and continuity with which they throw themselves into the struggle are indicative of a mentality based on the vehemence of impulses and the fire of burning passions. Chronicles are full of tears, anger, and desires for revenge.

In this climate, resorting to conspiracy and arms is not experienced as a last resort, but rather as the exercise of one’s right, the logical and even desirable solution to any dispute. Moreover, the “market” is not lacking in tools to assert oneself.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when speaking of war, one cannot ignore the notion of mercenaries, i.e., professional soldiers whose behavior, according to Yves Garlan’s definition, “is not at all dictated… by belonging to a political community, but rather by the attraction of profit.” In military history, on the other hand, there are countless examples of organizational and managerial issues that seem to show extraordinary affinity, if not full coincidence, with themes we consider unique and exclusive to modern management. The medieval man’s tendency to associate and place himself under a protector also has specifically economic reasons: the individual knight, to lead a possible wandering life (which means having to support himself, his squire, his horse, and the replacement one) must face a very high amount of expenses: it is far easier and more profitable to find someone who will hire him and be able to provide for his salary with a certain regularity.

For the more restless spirits, for the younger sons without any sinecure, for the bastards of minor nobility, it is entirely natural to compare the slow and laborious profits of agriculture or the workshop, their meager and uncertain income, to the fortunate plunder and the possibilities of booty offered by the numerous ongoing conflicts: swarms of “bandits,” outcasts expelled from some community for various reasons, of adventurers eager to practice the profession of legalized robbery under the more honorable names of war and conquest, aspire to find in the profession of arms the possibility of a definitive settlement.

Even before the fourteenth century, it is possible to encounter small mercenary companies ante litteram on the peninsula: these become a basic element of Italian military life only around 1320-1330 when changes in the recruitment of mercenaries occur. In this period, in fact, from individual hiring (or groups of a few dozen men) shifts to the engagement of entire companies.

The new system fits perfectly with the organization of the client states, which thus feel exempted from facing the issues related to the existence of permanent militias within them: it is easier to enlist an “entrepreneur” who guarantees a certain service than hundreds of individual soldiers.

Moreover, from a military point of view, it seems reasonable to employ men who are already used to fighting together for short periods without being tied to the world of some corporation or work in the fields.

With Fra Moriale, the companies become complex and well-organized structures with their logistical and administrative services; the largest ones are, secondly, an amalgamation of smaller groups.

The most important decisions are made by common agreement between the general captain (elected by the companions) and the other minor leaders confederated with him (the corporals, the team leaders); the loot is divided among the company members in predetermined shares, taking into account both the role held within the company and the type of service provided (man, infantryman, saccomanno). The primary purpose of these associations during this period is to exploit and plunder the populations. Therefore, it is inevitable that the assessment of the mercenary companies, at least for those existing between 1365 and 1380, is extremely similar to the judgment expressed by Amedeo of Savoy and reported by Cognasso.

With a few exceptions, the Count of Verde deprecates that in the company of Anchino di Baumgarten there are only “trouans,” ragged people, a judgment extended to all mercenaries, defined without a doubt as “toutz guarzons, tous ribaus,” people of no account.

The condemnation has an impeccable aftertaste of social rather than moral snobbery because the companies bring together the displaced of the small nobility with those from the lower social classes. Social promiscuity remains, albeit with easily understandable limits, one of the peculiarities of the world of professional soldiers: within the company, the rigid caste divisions, far from disappearing, at least fade and justify the rise of men otherwise condemned to the underbelly of society.

After the War of the Eight Saints, another mutation occurs: the companies lose their temporary association characteristics to become semi-permanent military organizations that depend on the value and military genius of the commander who in some way almost personifies them (John Hawkwood and Alberico da Barbiano are the epitome of the new trend).

“In those same times,” writes Sismondi, “those who practiced the profession of a soldier were always at war: as soon as a prince dismissed them for having made peace, another hired them to start new wars.” “The soldiers, as P. Villari writes, obeyed the supreme will of the leader, without being bound to him by any loyalty or personal submission, ready to abandon him for a more famous captain or higher pay.” War became the work of a directing mind, the army was united by the name and value of the captain, the battle was like his military creation (…) in many ways his fate and character resembled those of the Italian tyrant.

At the head of a complicated and difficult administration, he had to think every day about gathering new soldiers to fill the gaps that the enemy’s iron did not make in his ranks as much as the continuous desertion and find the money every day to pay his men in peace and war. He was in constant relations with the Italian states, looking for contracts, getting money through threats or promises, and listening to those who, with greater offers, wanted to take him away from the enemy.

In this context, the figure of the condottiere can only gain greater prominence, becoming an economic and existential paradigm for his companions; he is often also a reformer of the art of war and a skilled tightrope walker in the politics of the time. This type of condottiere, when hired, is far from being entirely dependent on political power, also due to the brevity of the engagement contracts. If captured, in addition to losing his possessions, he must attend to the payment of his ransom, which weighs, first of all, on his personal fortune or that of his family members (if of noble family).

The alternative, in case he cannot bear such a burden, is to switch to the enemy’s payroll. The condottiere, therefore, finds the principle and purpose of his actions in his own self-interest: within this framework, everything that serves to achieve his goals is considered legitimate and is almost always tolerated by his employers.

Nevertheless, he carries out a fairly skillful military action, even if it appears to be oscillating and shaken by sudden reversals: these latter are often open to interpretation since they are not always the consequence of subjective impulses or frustrated personal ambitions, but may arise from contingent situations such as the expiration of the contract without it being promptly renewed by the client or a significant delay in payment for services.

There may also be other causes of a more strictly political nature, such as those provoked by the frequent change in the ruling class, where the new members of a state’s government no longer intend to respect the commitments made by their predecessors. The spirit of Humanism leads to the rediscovery of the value of the individual.

The importance and strength of the company are identified in the value and genius of the person who commands and somehow personifies it. De la Sizeranne, in his biography of Federico da Montefeltro, repeatedly emphasizes the aspect of autonomy, bringing the company closer to the modern concept of a business, understood as an economic activity designed for the provision of specialized services.

“The condottiere was… a military entrepreneur, or, if you will, one who led troops in the service of a state, republic, kingdom or papacy, and contracted for a specific time for himself and his men. He was not paid in relation to specific services, battles won or cities captured… but annually or monthly and according to the number of men and horses, machines and weapons he maintained. His troops, although he enlisted them… himself and was responsible for them, did not constitute his personal force. The only bond that held them together was their pay… apart from a small group of friends, relatives, gentlemen in his school or veterans who followed his fortune, the only strength he represented was in him: bravery, experience, technical knowledge, prestige of his name and successes achieved just as it happens for an architect, entrepreneur, engineer” to whom a turnkey job is entrusted.

From the point of view of an increased professionalization of the fighters, the statement is undoubtedly plausible. Among the Italian condottieri (Muzio Attendolo Sforza and Braccio di Montone) a true art of war develops for the first time since antiquity: war issues are re-examined with criteria that can be called scientific, taking into account the spirit, aspirations, and needs of the commanded militias.

These are solved through the improvement of the art of maneuver, which allows greater savings and enables battles to be fought with small units of heavy cavalry, economically distributed and with strong reserves intended to intervene only in decisive moments.

What has been exposed so far should not lead to the belief that the overlap between the figure of the condottiere and that of the modern manager is entirely lawful. While cultural affinities can be found regarding the organizational approach and learning, it must be borne in mind that the captain of fortune is a child of his time and participates in the particular climate that shapes the man of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

The professional soldier is a hybrid that, if reminiscent of a modern image of an industry expert in terms of sagacity and technical competence, is nevertheless crossed by typically medieval impulses: by nature, he is an irregular, comparable to the characters that emerge from the pages of Villon, closely reminiscent of the outcast Alain le Gentil described by Marcel Schwob in his Imaginary Lives. In the religious spirit, permeated with gestures and liturgical symbols, as well as in some beliefs such as astrology, we find motivations that have nothing to do with the operational indifference of the 19th- and 20th-century businessman.

Other more visceral urgencies are often placed before the rational interests of profit: quarrelsomeness, punctilious honor, ferocious revenge, the vocation to live a restless, wandering life, a nomadism shared, moreover, with other categories such as merchants, pilgrims, jesters, and clerics. Professional warriors are cold and calculating, assessing risk based on what comes into their purse; yet they are ready for sudden impulsive acts, revealing how some values derived from the chivalric world are still very much alive: the crests, the beauty of the mounts, the banners with personalized mottoes, the variety of heraldic emblems, the complicated rituals, the tournaments, the frequent duels, the ostentation of splendor in religious and secular ceremonies, are all signals of how the practice of war aims to have a distinctly individual character, even if it is often contradicted by facts. One last observation, finally, taken from Alexander Hall’s work “The Wicked Renaissance”: “Ruthless, cunning, and unscrupulous, the condottieri roamed the peninsula, riding, besieging, and plundering, always accompanied by a reproach mixed with respect and fear. As they grew in prestige and influence, they came to play an important role in the history of art, first as objects of civil admiration and commemoration, and then as patrons in their own right of writers, painters, sculptors, and architects.”

In summary, the captain of fortune (already in this definition, we notice a somewhat picaresque nuance) is born from the union of opposite polarities: the residual dregs of the chivalric ideal and the powerful driving force of economic and social promotion that leads Eustachio di Ribeaumont to say: “I am a poor man who desires my advancement.” The pedagogical principles directed at aspiring fighters of the sixteenth century, reported by Gauthiez in his biography of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (the latter, not coincidentally, later transformed into a popular Fascist hero, also due to a certain peculiar lifestyle), are therefore very indicative.

Chasse l’oisiveté, la mère de tout vice,/ et, grand seigneur, appren les mestiers d’un soldart;/ sauter, luiter, courir, est honneste exercise,/ bien manier chevaux et bien lancer le dart.”

For the period under consideration, an attempt has also been made to quantify the number of condottieri operating in Italy: for 1439, according to contemporary sources, there are 170 mercenary companies present in our country. In particular, the existence of 129 condottieri (with 64,650 horses under their command) is noted, distributed as follows: Papal States, 10 with 4,200 horses; Venice, 24 with 16,100 horses; Duchy of Milan, 53 with 19,750 horses; Siena, 3 with 1,000 horses; Florence, 4 with 3,000 horses; Kingdom of Naples (Alfonso of Aragon), 28 with 17,800 horses; claimant to the Kingdom of Naples (René of Anjou), 7 with 2,800 horses. Finally, 41 are the companies in the pay of the Duchy of Savoy, the Marquisate of Saluzzo, the Marquisate of Montferrat, Lucca, Genoa, and Perugia.

With the advance of the fifteenth century, there is a further perceptible modification of the concept of the condottiere, and it is a modification closely linked to the affirmation of humanistic aspirations. “Victories consist in the virtue of the leader and a few chosen ones, not in the multitude”: these are the words of Bartolomeo d’Alviano in a letter sent to the Venetian Senate in 1508 after the victorious day of Tai di Cadore.

They express his conception, in perfect coherence with the ideals of the Renaissance, of the condottiere as a superior man capable of providing for everything and of dragging the crowd of soldiers with his charisma. For him, as for many other captains, the battle is impetus, a set of acts of personal valor, a courageous pursuit of honor; honor also means raising the fortunes of the battle with a daring feat, leading by example and word the less prepared soldiers to victory, preventing the flight of the cowardly and discouraged.

Always on the discriminant of professionalism, the distinction between a good and bad condottiere is valid for de la Sizeranne, where the latter is the one who violates his commitments, pockets the money of the troops without distributing it, maintains only two hundred horsemen when his contract provides for six hundred, bites the hand that pays him: such is Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta.

The good condottiere is the one who respects promises, carries out all the clauses of the contract that binds him to the client, refuses to have lunch with the adversary, beats him sometimes, plunders only the cities of the opposing party, begins to massacre those he protected the day before only when the contract has expired and the right interval provided by the expired conduct has elapsed.

This is the case with the Count and Duke of Urbino. The very affirmation of humanistic ideals leads, finally, to a last mutation of the concept of a captain of fortune. The condottiere now becomes a cultured man: cultured, obviously, in a specialized culture that presupposes the practical teaching of a master (the school of Vittorino da Feltre in Mantua) and that includes various notions of the art of war, such as traumatic medicine, siegecraft, mathematics, military architecture applied to both the offense and defense of a location, the invention and manufacture of new weapons (the adaptation of cannon use from siege phases to open battle, the invention of fireworks, the first hand bombs), as well as information on the legal and feudal customs of the secular and ecclesiastical world.

Many are still ignorant, illiterate, but Federico da Montefeltro knows poetry and patristics, founds libraries like Domenico Malatesta; Pandolfo Malatesta, the lord of Bergamo, speaks three languages and writes in good Latin.

Among the Italian condottieri in action between the late 14th and 15th centuries, there are poets of high, good, and average quality such as Bruzio Visconti, Ludovico Gabriotto Cantelli, the first Astorre Manfredi, Antonio da Montefeltro, Andrea Malatesta, and Malatesta Malatesta (the latter not by chance called “dei Sonetti”); Costanzo Sforza also has some fame as a poet, and others like Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, Bartolomeo Colleoni, Federico da Montefeltro, Bartolomeo d’Alviano, or various captains of the Gonzaga and Este families cultivate the friendship of humanists, philosophers, painters, and architects.

The condottieri system is at its peak: but already at the end of the 15th century and in the early years of the 16th century, it enters a rapid crisis. The constitution by the Venetians and partly by the Milanese (with the Sforza) of the first permanent armies, the appearance on the national scene of the neighboring kingdoms of France and Spain, the strengthening of the empire, the evolution of firearms that helps to put the strong and the weak, the heavily armored knight and the infantryman, on the same level, deals a definitive blow to this world. War takes on new dimensions that always foresee the presence of the individual mercenary, but not that of companies with their own autonomy.

  1. In fact, very few condottieri of a certain name come from humble beginnings. “Mostly – observes Michael Mallett – they come from the upper classes, although it should be noted that such a social position in some cases may have been gained by a member of the family for warlike qualities in the 13th or 14th centuries.”

Table 3: SOCIAL STATUS OF CONDOTTIERI AND CAPTAINS BY WEAPON SPECIALIZATION

Years1300 – 14001401 – 1480
Social StatusHeavy CavalryInfantryHeavy CavalryInfantry
Exile, Bandit371153
Small and Medium Nobility157416712
Noble Family1621714
Military Clan1291
Other1118
Total357740020

A more detailed analysis was conducted (Table 3) on a sample of about 900 cases, focusing on the social status of condottieri, both for the heavy cavalry and infantry. Five categories were extrapolated based on what can be deduced from the chronicles of the time: the exile and/or outlaw from a certain community; the member of the small and medium nobility; the member of a noble family; the member of a purely military but not noble clan (at least initially); and a residual group made up of children of peasants, shepherds, shopkeepers, and small landowners. 40-45% of the surveyed condottieri belong to the small and medium nobility.

The role of money comes into play in this assessment: it is evident in the case of men-at-arms, whose expensive equipment wears out easily and requires constant replacements, especially concerning a good mount, which is essential in danger. A similar percentage of 40-45% is given by captains who come from or descend from a noble family (such as the Roman nobility of the Orsini, Colonna, Savelli, and Conti families): even in the profession of arms, birth assumes a winning meaning, and for some contemporary commentators, among the necessary qualities to make a good commander is having had a good birth. To succeed in the military field, it is necessary to establish a network of extensive relations.

It is essential to create a clientele, a group of friends and neighbors of various social levels, and it is also important to control as closely as possible a territorial area in which to recruit part of one’s men. The last two categories have less weight, for which more detailed information is lacking: pushing someone into the profession of arms is more often negative circumstances, such as the need to escape a condition of rural underdevelopment or social and urban flattening, when not to escape justice (a murder) or the grip of creditors. In any case, the chances of improvement offered by a company of fortune in the 14th and 15th centuries are always greater than in other occupations subject to the constraints of corporations.

Sismondi writes again: “The pay of any worker in the most lucrative professions did not equal that of the soldiers; and these also frequently received extraordinary rewards; their robberies were overlooked, and they were indulged for every transgression.” The assertion (albeit partially true in its second part) is valid in substance for the early 14th century and the first half of the 15th century: with the rediscovery of the role of infantry on the battlefield, the presence of a new specialization such as light cavalry, and technological evolution (the first firearms), the situation changes mainly to the detriment of the monthly wages of men-at-arms (lance), that is, those who have chosen to serve in the increasingly less important heavy cavalry on the battlefield and in guerrilla warfare; stable, on the other hand, is the pay of the infantryman and that of the light cavalryman, the stradiotto of Albanian, Greek, Dalmatian origin. Let’s examine the relative evolution of the monthly pay in the armies of the Serenissima.

Table 4: MONTHLY PAY OF LANCE, INFANTRYMAN, LIGHT CAVALRYMAN (Ducats/month)

YearLanceInfantrymanLight Cavalry
137318
140415
141213
142412
143712
144410-113
14641034
14771034
14951034
15001034
15101034

The outlined trend, combined with the contemporary decrease in the value of the reference currency, causes a progressive reduction in the purchasing power of the pay, counterbalanced with regard to the Serenissima, at least in part, by the extension of the duration of the contract and the subsequent establishment of permanent armies.

  1. According to Cornazzano, in his poem “De re militari,” Rome, Perugia, Parma, the Kingdom of Naples, and Forlì are the geographical areas that provide the largest number of captains.

Table 5: CONDOTTIERI AND CAPTAINS BY GEOGRAPHICAL AREA OF ORIGIN AND TYPE OF ARM (1300 – 1550)

Geographical AreaTotalHeavy CavalryLight CavalryInfantry
Lombardy56326656241
Emilia53935024165
Romagna35820220136
Tuscany45825921178
Umbria34219016136
Lazio2801921573
Marche268174688
Veneto26111029122

The evaluations made by Cornazzano at the end of the fifteenth century reveal at least an imperfect knowledge of the aspect of the geographical area of origin of the condottiere, which we have resumed in Table 5. In fact, despite the fact that the author served in Milan at the court of Francesco Sforza and in Malpaga, near Bergamo, at the court of Colleoni, his estimates clearly underestimate the weight of Lombardy (16% overall, 19% for the fifteenth century), Tuscany, and Veneto, areas that are not mentioned in his poem. The table also shows the importance of the historical reservoir materialized in Emilia, Romagna, Marche, Umbria, and Lazio, territories controlled entirely or partially by the Church State (the regional state involved in more conflicts during the period), which alone represents, out of 4000 names considered, 51% of the total Italian captains.

Pope Pius II notes in his Commentaries written in the second half of the fifteenth century, “The Italian militias of our time are very unfaithful. They consider their pay as a trade gain and, to prevent such gain from ending, they prolong the wars. Very rarely are there killings in battle, and those who are taken prisoner at most lose their horse and weapons. Even more rarely are all the forces used in a single battle.” Upon careful examination, the previous observations reveal a knowledge of war issues more of an impressionistic than factual nature. It is, in fact, the states with their providers and their commissioners (the cardinal legates for the Church State) that manage the moments of peace and war; the loss of the horse and weapons often equates to economic ruin for the condottiero who experiences such a mishap. The mention of not deploying all the forces in a confrontation contradicts all the good rules of prudence preached by the pontiff himself in other passages. We want to comment in particular on the phrase concerning killings in battle, the myth of “bloodless battles.”

Wars of the time are always bloody, even though for the entire fourteenth century and part of the fifteenth century, from a tactical point of view, it is more important to target the mount rather than the rider, because a dismounted man-at-arms, in addition to representing potential prey for a bounty to collect, loses all his operational efficiency as he is unable to fight on foot. The danger in any skirmish is as great in ancient times as it is today. The figures in contemporary accounts are sometimes exaggerated by defect or by excess, and, except for very rare cases, do not take into account the subsequent death of the wounded due to septicemia or other causes due to the poor knowledge of medicine of the time. Sanudo, in a page of his Diarii, concerning 1526, notes that in a single assault on the walls of Cremona, between deaths in action, wounded and deserters during the fighting, Venetian losses were 22.2% of the initial ranks. It has been calculated that in Greek-Roman wars, the number of deaths in a pitched battle in the victorious army is equal to 5% of the original force, while the defeated usually report a loss of 14% of their personnel. An incidence higher than this last figure, by at least two-three points, has been found by us in an ad hoc investigation relating to various clashes such as skirmishes, sorties, and pitched battles as recorded by sources of the period.

Secondly, let us examine the death rate in battle of the condottieri and captains present in the biographical dictionary: consistently with what has been previously exposed, it increases over time. For everyone, taking command does not mean a benefit without obligations; most of the time, in fact, it entails the risk of falling in service or, at least, of suffering from the tension that accumulates year after year in repeated combat experiences. Many of them die in the field due to illness (because of frequent plague epidemics caused by promiscuity and the lack of the most basic hygiene standards) or for reasons related, according to the medical knowledge of the time, to “exhaustion.” Far from rare, finally, are cases where condottieri remain disabled or disfigured following a fight or a disastrous fall from a horse. Commanders share the risks of the front line with their soldiers; after all, it is often necessary to set an example to instill courage in soldiers who would otherwise be reluctant to expose themselves excessively. From the profiles of the 2215 records present on the site, Table 6 has been derived: from their reading, it appears that only for 55% of the condottieri is the date of death known. Of these, 60% fall victim to violent deaths of various kinds.

Table 6 CAUSES OF DEATH OF CONDOTTIERI AND CAPTAINS (1330 – 1550)

Causes of Deathv.a.%
In battle or due to wounds33127.0
From diseases contracted during the campaign14311.7
Due to murder (family feuds, private and political vendettas, occasional brawls)1048.5
Capital punishment or in prison15312.4
Joust, tournament80.6
TOTAL73960.2
Other causes including hunting accidents or shipwrecks48839.8
GRAND TOTAL1227100.0

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