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

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The Opinion of the Humanists

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Last Updated on 2023/10/13

The Duality of the Condottieri: Warriors and Patrons.

Anna Maria Covini writes, “For humanists, the military commander was an ideal subject to repeat genres and forms of writing from the classical period, particularly biographies, lives of illustrious men, and comparisons between the great generals of antiquity.”

ITALIAN: L’opinione degli umanisti

At the same time, reductive, if not entirely negative, judgments are reported from contemporary sources about the militias under their command. Riccardo di Wassembourg is the son of a soldier who accompanied Duke René of Lorraine, the Venetians’ general captain in the War of Ferrara against the Estensi (1482/1483) and their allies.

In Antiquitez de la Gaule Belgicque, he reports his father’s impressions of the behavior of the Lorraine soldiers in that conflict and the reactions it provoked:

And he had, speaking of the duke, several encounters against those of Ferrara. Of whom he defeated many without taking them to mercy, which made him wonderfully feared by his enemies and the said Venetians. For I heard my father, who was in the company of the said Duke of Lorraine, say that before his arrival the Venetians and Italians used more of a war they called guerroyale. Taking prisoners from each other to have ransom rather than killing enemies. But the said Duke and the Lorrains did the opposite, which made the said Venetians begin to murmur and say among themselves, these Lorrains “amassadors” and did not find it pleasant for fear that the enemies would do the same (1).

Along the same lines are the opinions of other contemporaries, as evidenced by the mid-fifteenth-century observations of Pope Pius II in his Commentarii:

The Italian militias of our time are very treacherous. They consider their salary as a trading profit and, to avoid such profit coming to an end, they prolong wars. Killings in battle very rarely occur, and those who are taken prisoner at most lose their horse and weapons. Even more rarely are all forces used in a single battle. If by chance the opposing ranks meet and engage in battle, the fighters invite each other not to engage in such a way as to put an end to any further reason for war. They publicly show hatred for the enemy but secretly love them (2).

Equally well known are the reprimands made by Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who, with equally heavy words, condemn the activities of the companies commanded by captains and condottieri.

Today, we can argue that these are largely ungenerous interpretations of the phenomenon: these authors, in fact, precisely because they are passionate defenders of their theses, end up not understanding the positive aspects of some interventions taking place in their time and exhaust themselves in protests and reprimands, respectable as manifestations of their troubled state of mind, but not equally valid as contributions to a correct interpretation of the facts.

The shortsightedness of many writers of the time has its roots in the vast distance between the elaboration of ideal models and the grim reality of events: in their statements, in fact, we find not only severe considerations on the dubious morality of the captains but also more technical reflections on the conduct of war itself. The typically Renaissance claim to translate the ideal model into practice clashes with the pragmatism, not without dark nuances, of those who derive their livelihood from the exercise of violence.

Machiavelli states in The Prince that “the ruin of Italy is caused by nothing more than having relied for many years on mercenary arms”(3), but his idea, “beautiful and most noble”, of an “ordinance of the battalions of the militia” immediately clashes with a reality far more complex and treacherous than the abstractions of the Florentine secretary. Military organization is independent of regenerative dreams, and its success and purpose are rooted in the social and political fabric: in states that are constantly riddled with old and new discord, quarrels, envy, and misunderstandings, where today’s ally is likely to be tomorrow’s enemy, it seems wise to entrust the handling of military tasks to the condottiere, who, for all his untrustworthiness, still has the certainty of his profession on his side.

Piero Pieri writes in Il Rinascimento e la crisi militare italiana (The Renaissance and the Italian Military Crisis), regarding Florence and Machiavelli’s projects:

An oligarchy of merchants and landowners, suspicious of their fellow citizens, distrustful of the subjects of the countryside, should have had to rely on an army made up solely of the latter, framed by heterogeneous elements, whether Tuscan or not, that is, trained and led by people they clearly showed they did not trust. And this was supposed to be the touchstone for the untrustworthiness of mercenary militias! (4)

And again, quite mercilessly:

Machiavelli’s militia did not seem extraordinary to his contemporaries, and its memory is linked mainly to the literary and political fame of the author; the same praised prophetic boldness, even if out of the contingent reality, of replacing foreign mercenary troops with an army of citizens, driven by a very different spirit in the defense of their homeland, can only refer to what the militia could have been in its further development, not to the historical reality of it (5).

In the Duchy of Milan, moreover, already from 1472/1474, there was a solid core of permanent militia, linked to the territory, consisting of the ducal family, the broken lances, the provisioned, and the men-at-arms of some condottiere invested with a fief. The additional forces were, on the one hand, the contingents offered by other Lombard fiefs and the salaried troops of some neighboring states such as the Marquisate of Monferrato, that of Mantua, and the ranks of some Romagnol lords; on the other hand, the enlistment of new provisioned and “cerne” peasants gathered and armed as best as possible.

Venice, on the other hand, in the same context, preferred to recruit mainly condottieri outside its borders, not only in the Marche, Romagna, and Umbria but also in the Levant among the Slavs, Greeks, and Albanians. Piero Pieri observes in this regard in The Companies of Adventure and the Beginning of Permanent Mercenary Armies:

In addition to the cernite, Venice could rely on “venturieri” and “partigiani”, that is, true voluntary elements, attracted by love for the state, adventurous spirit, desire for loot: they represented light infantry, sharpshooters, which especially if used in their own territory, with knowledge of the terrain, could represent a useful element (6).

It is in Florence, in the Papal States, and in the Kingdom of Naples (the latter torn apart by factional struggles) that there are no permanent armies because in such states it is easy to resort to the market and fish for mercenaries of good value.

Italian wars, notes J.R. Hale in his essay War and Public Opinion in Renaissance Italy, are struggles for survival that develop into inglorious defensive campaigns and inconclusive battles. Italian heavy cavalry is solely focused on the pursuit of glory and is eager to shine in the eyes of a prince who is most likely used to changing sides and satisfying his own convenience; in this sense, it is a less effective instrument than its French counterpart. Insisting on the negative aspects that characterize the Italian armies of the time means showing that they are unprepared to face a war with neighboring national states rather than inherently unable to counter adversaries, as Machiavelli’s complaints would have it, based primarily on the loss of ancient Italian military virtues and the longing for a mythical moral restoration.

The handicap, in any case, turns out to be temporary precisely because of the pressure of some innovative captains, such as Renzo di Ceri, who “was the first to form a corps of exclusively Italian infantry, so solid as to be able to withstand the formidable battalions of the Swiss and the Spaniards” (7). The work of Vitellozzo Vitelli is also of a similar nature, whose infantrymen are represented in their essence by P. Giovio in the following passage:

These men had simple, peasant-like hairstyles and a mocking appearance, but with such determination of mind, toughness of body, and very steadfast faith; and because of the great love they bore for their captains and their desire to obey them, they were worthy of the name of excellent soldiers, and they had armed them with swords and pikes, according to the custom of the German militia. Then they had taught them to follow the order, adapt well to certain drumbeats, turn and direct the battle, run like a snail; and finally, with great skill, strike the enemy; and diligently maintain the order. And what was always of the greatest utility in all their squads, they had mixed in experienced men of war who had fought in past battles and were very talented in mind, who led the multitude (8).

The wars of the time are always bloody, even if throughout the 14th and 15th centuries it is more important to strike the horse, because a dismounted man-at-arms, in addition to representing the possibility of a significant bounty to be collected, loses much of his efficiency.

The danger in battle is as great in ancient times as it is today: the figures of the killings in contemporary accounts are sometimes exaggerated, either understated or overstated, especially if released by the winner, but in any case represent a parameter to be carefully evaluated. We cannot forget that many men die in these clashes and that, on several occasions, when the defensive line breaks and soldiers give in to a disorganized flight, rationally organized battles degenerate into massacres of incredible ferocity. Sanudo, for example, estimates that in a single assault on the walls of Cremona in 1526, between dead in action, wounded and sick, Venetian losses amounted to 22.2% of their ranks.

It is well known that there have been significant battles that ended in a substantially bloodless manner: clashes of this type are those of Maclodio in October 1427 and Caravaggio in September 1448. It is claimed that battles in Italy are not very bloody and that on both sides the main objective is to make as many prisoners as possible to enrich themselves with the subsequent collection of bounties and ransoms. If the struggles of the time had been reduced simply to this, they would have taken on a farcical aspect that, unfortunately, they did not have at all, based on the available documents.

It has been calculated that in Greek and Roman wars, the number of dead in the victorious army is on average equal to 5% of the original strength, while the defeated usually lose 14% of their personnel. An incidence higher than this by at least two or three points is found in our investigation for the battles of the period under consideration.

Excluding the most anomalous peaks, the incidence of mortality is 8% for the winners, 16% for the losers, for an average total of 11%; with the early years of the 16th century, the averages rise sharply, reaching even higher levels.

Other signals in this direction are given by the examination of the reviews that captains conduct on their own militias approximately every quarter: these checks showed how easily the ranks of the troops could thin out within a single season. There are various reasons for these sudden thinning: the delay in pay, death in action, brawls, capital convictions for crimes, desertions, and endemic diseases such as plague all play different but equally important roles in reducing the effective numbers.

If to these indirect elements is also added the number of wounded (when provided), we are close to the figures provided by Hale in one of his studies, according to which, at least for the international conflicts of the second half of the 16th century,

of those who stood with the war, marched among its episodes, were transported to it on frightfully uncomfortable ships and with few provisions, slept in the siege trenches and served as targets on the battlefields, half died, most due to germs rather than bullets (9).

3.4

The death rate of commanders and captains in battle increases over time and is consistent with the previous information: for all of them, taking command does not mean a benefit without obligations, but rather, most of the time, it involves the risk of falling in service or, at least, of being severely affected by the tension that accumulates year after year in their repeated combat experiences. Many of them die in the field due to illness or causes related, according to the medical knowledge of the time, to exhaustion. Cases of captains becoming disabled or disfigured following an unfortunate combat are far from rare: it is certain, however, that commanders in most cases share with their soldiers the risks of the front line, and indeed, their strong example is often necessary to instill the necessary courage in a troop otherwise reluctant to expose itself excessively.

From the profiles of the 2500 commanders examined, it emerges that only for 60% of them is the date of death known; for these, in table 6 of the file “il sistema dei condottieri,” the main causes of death have been reconstructed, which can be summarized as follows:

- Death in battle or from wounds sustained in combat,
- Death from illness contracted during the campaign, ranging from plague (the most probable) to physical and mental exhaustion;
- Assassination motivated by family feuds, private and political revenge, and occasional brawls;
- Capital punishment or death in prison for real or presumed betrayals;
- Accidental death in jousts or tournaments;
- Other causes, including hunting accidents or shipwrecks.

Two observations are necessary when interpreting the reported data:

The ratio of “deaths in combat and due to illness” to the total increases over time as a result of technological development: it is 29.7% in the 14th century and stabilizes at 41% in the next two centuries. Such high figures testify to the progressive intensification of fighting. The most exposed weapons are represented by light cavalry and infantry (46.9% in the 16th century) due to the transformation of conflict types, which increasingly rely on continuous siege operations (and thus on patrols, skirmishes, and night assaults) compared to the charge of the pitched battle in which the function of heavy cavalry was exhausted in its golden years.

Finally, it is worth noting one last aspect related to the theme of war and its main characters: the multitude of sonnets, odes, and praises with continuous mythological references to the demonstrated value of which many examples are taken up in numerous entries of the present dictionary. Also, the lyrical evocations of battles by many intellectuals of the time should not be overlooked, as happens in Clément Jannequin’s poem “La guerre,” evoking the so-called “battle of the giants,” that of Marignano (1515), which “sanctions the entry of the young Francis I into the Parnassus of men-at-arms. (10)”.

Ecoutez tous gentils gallois,
La victoire du roi François
Du noble roi François:
Et ores si bien écoutez,
Des coups ruez de tous costez,
Fifres soufflez, frappez tambours,
Faites vos tours!
Aventuriers, bon compagnons
Ensemble croisez vos tromblons:
Gardez soutien gentils Gascons,
Nobles, sutez dans les arçons,
Frappez dedans, la lance au poing,
Donnez dedans, frappes dedans
Soyez arm’e!
Chacun s’assaisonne:
Alarme! Alarme!
La fleur de lys, fleur de haut priz,
Le roi François
y est en personne.
Sonnez, trompettes, et clarions,
Pour rejouir les compagnions.
Fa fa li la li la lan fan
Ta ri ra ri ri ra
Boute-selle!
Gens d’armes à cheval,
Tor à l’étendart.
Fa la li la li la lan fan
Bruyez, tournez,
Sonnez, trompettes et clarions,
Gros couteaux et faucons,
Pour rejouir les compagnons.
Vom, pati, patoc, vom vom.
Ta ri ra ri ra ri ra,
La la la
France!
Courage!
Donnez les horizons,
.Chipe chope pa ta pan
A mort! Avant!
Courage prenez.
Trique traque
Zin zin zin.
Ils sont perdus, il sont confus
Victoire!
France! France!
Tout é ferlore, By Gotte!
Descampir!
Victoire au noble roi Françpois”

Notes

(1) Riccardo di Wassebourg. Antiquitez de la Gaule Belgicque, royaulme de France, Austrasie et Lorraine. Parigi. 1549
(2) Enea Silvio Piccolomini. I Commentarii. A cura di L.Totaro. Milano. 1984. Pag.691.
(3) Niccolò Machiavelli. Il Principe. I discorsi. San Casciano val di Pesa. 1926
(4) Piero Pieri. Il Rinascimento e la crisi militare italiana. Torino. 1952. Pag.441
(5) Piero Pieri. Op. cit. Pag.442.
(6) Piero Pieri. Le compagnie di ventura e l’avviamento degli eserciti mercenari permanenti. Bologna. Pag. 196
(7)Gustavo Brigante Colonna. Gli Orsini. Milano. 1955. Pag. 97
(8) Paolo Giovio. Dell’istorie del suo tempo. Venezia. 1564. Pag. 195
(9) John R. Hale. Guerra e società nell’Europa del Rinascimento. Bari Roma. 1973. Pag.128
(10) José Enrique Ruiz.-Domènec. Il gran capitano. Ritratto di un’epoca. Einaudi. Torino. Pag. 368

3.5

One last observation concerns many humanists and literati of the time who often found a “protector” in the “warlords”. Franco Cardini wrote, “We love poets like Francesco Petrarca or painters like Paolo Uccello, but they were sometimes at the service of famous cutthroats, those assassins that we are, however, used to venerating because often their generosity as patrons (through which they reinvested the proceeds of their mercenary activities and their plunder) left us heirs to splendid works of art.” (From “Guerra e assoldati in Toscana. 1260-1364). If one carefully examines the following biographical dictionary, it is found that many geniuses of poetry and painting, such as Dante Alighieri, Ludovico Ariosto, Matteo Boiardo, Piero della Francesca, and even Leonardo da Vinci, had no qualms about cultivating friendships with such men-at-arms. Secondly, if one reads the biographies of some commanders carefully, it is found that some of them turned out to be poets or playwrights appreciated by the people of their time: this is the case, for example, of Bruzio Visconti, Malatesta Malatesta dei Sonetti, and Niccolò da Correggio.

Featured image source: wikimedia

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