Ambitions of Condottieri

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Braccio Andrea d’Oddo Fortebraccio

The Papal States, until well after the arrival of Martin V in Rome in 1420, remained the area in which the independence and ambitions of condottieri could be most easily asserted. Naples, after the death of Ladislas, became once more the scene of continuous civil war until the final victory of Alfonso V and the Aragonese in 1442. These were the conditions which encouraged the emergence of the two greatest condottieri figures of this period, Braccio da Montone and Musio Attendolo Sforza, whose distinctive styles of warfare were to be handed on to their successors and pupils and were to some extent to dominate Italian military history for the rest of the century.

Musio Attendolo, better known as Sforza, was born into the influential and warlike Romagnol family of the Attendoli in 1369. Although they were not noble, but in fact affluent rural middle class, the Attendoli were already competing with the noble Pasolini family for the domination of Cotignola, the town which was shortly to be given to Hawkwood by the pope. Musio, like many of his family, was destined to be a soldier, and at the age of thirteen he became a page to one of the men-at-arms of Boldrino da Panicale. In the early 1390’s he was with Alberigo da Barbiano, first as a squadron commander and then with his own condotta (contract) for 75 cavalry. By 1398 he was an independent condottiere employed in the defence of Perugia against the Visconti, and then in 1402 employed by Florence. He was in the Florentine army at Casalecchio where he was captured, and he remained with the Florentines as one of their leading commanders for the campaign against Pisa. By this time he had 180 lances and was well on his way to becoming one of Italy’s leading captains. After the fall of Pisa in 1406, he took service with Niccolò d’Este, the Lord of Ferrara, and became captain general of the Ferrarese army against Ottobuono Terzo, the Visconti captain who had seized Parma. By 1409 Ottobuono had been defeated and killed by Sforza, who received the castle of Montecchio in Emilia as a reward from Niccolò d’Este. Sforza then moved southwards and joined the army of the papal-Angevin-Florentine alliance against Ladislas of Naples and was the principal architect of the great victory of Roccasecca over the Neapolitans in 1411. As a reward for this success, Sforza was made Count of Cotignola by Pope John XXIII, thus recognising the predominance in that town which the Attendoli had by now established. However, he deserted the papal cause in the next year and joined Ladislas, receiving a condotta for 830 lances.

So by 1412, Musio Sforza had reached the top of his profession. He had not in fact risen from nothing as his eulogists claimed, since he had always had the advantage of a large and warlike family, many of whom served in his company, and a solid base in Cotignola from which to recruit. Nevertheless, his success had been spectacular and had depended to a considerable extent on his own military prowess. It also depended on some well-timed changes of side and on three marriages, each of which had brought him estates and added prestige. Sforza was described by one of the chroniclers as: ‘More than usually handsome with fierce features and an extremely powerful physique. He was intelligent and crafty, and a considerable orator who could inspire his troops with splendid speeches.’ He certainly seemed to be able to inspire his troops with an unusual degree of loyalty and discipline, and it was from this discipline that his reputation as a military innovator sprang. Because of this discipline and the amount of careful planning he put into each action, he was able to control his troops on the battlefield to an unusual degree. He was a believer in cautious tactics executed by large masses of well-disciplined troops, and this meant not only cavalry but also infantry on which he placed particular, and for his day unusual, emphasis.

Sforza was far less successful as a politician, and in Naples after the death of Ladislas he inevitably became involved in politics. During these years he was twice imprisoned and was only saved by the steadfastness of his family and his troops, who were able to exert military pressure to gain his release. On the field of battle he usually found himself opposed by Braccio da Montone against whose fire and brilliance he tended to be at a slight disadvantage. His role in these events was always that of commander of the troops of one or other political faction in Naples, and he never seemed to be interested in winning an independent state for himself. It was as Great Constable of Joanna II, the successor to Ladislas, that he marched northwards early in 1424, hoping to settle scores with Braccio who was besieging Aquila. It was mid-winter, and Sforza was forced to use the coast road up the east coast rather than striking directly across the mountains. At Pescara he was confronted by the river Pescara in spate and the Bracceschi holding the city. So he elected to ford the river at its mouth in an attempt to bypass the city. There was a gale blowing in from the Adriatic and this made the crossing extremely hazardous, but Sforza successfully led his advance guard across only to find that the main army had halted, deterred by the prospect of crossing behind him. There was no alternative for Sforza but to return and lead the rest of his troops across himself. This he proceeded to do; he re-crossed successfully, got his army moving again and set out to ford the swollen river for the third time. However, one of his pages got into difficulties and as Sforza turned to help him his horse lost its footing and Sforza was thrown in full armour into the river and drowned. His son, Francesco, held the Sforza companies together for the decisive campaign that was still to come, but briefly it was the figure of Braccio da Montone which predominated in Italy.

The Fortebraccio family of Perugia were nobles and amongst the most powerful families in the city. Their original rural base was the town of Montone, but they had lived in Perugia for at least two centuries. Andrea d’Oddo Fortebraccio was born in 1368, just a year before Sforza, and at some early stage began to call himself Braccio. From his first military engagement, at which he was captured because of his impetuosity, Braccio had a reputation for courage and audacity. But it was a surprisingly long time before he established himself as a commander of troops. Perhaps this was partly because his fiery methods were distrusted by the senior condottieri under whom he served. But the more likely cause was that from the early 1390’s the Fortebracci fell foul of the Michelotti family, who had gained control in Perugia, and had gone into exile, also losing their estates at Montone. So Braccio was unable to rely on his own recruiting ground and spent much of his life as an exile and a leader of exiles.

Braccio was severely wounded in the head in his second military encounter and was for a time half paralysed, and always walked with a limp. But he was a commanding figure, above average height and described by his contemporaries as a man who always stood out in a group. He served with a small following under Alberigo da Barbiano and with Florence in the 1390’s, and was back with Alberigo in 1405 but still with only 12 lances. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he rallied the Perugian exiles and tried to recover his position at Perugia, and the inconsistency towards his employers necessitated by this preoccupation with Perugia also contributed to the slow growth of his military reputation. So at the age of 37, when Sforza was already joint commander of the Florentine army, Braccio was still only a minor squadron commander.

However in 1406 the turning point in his career came. After some successful operations with Alberigo, which won him both the respect and the jealousy of his colleagues, he set out on his own, determined to make his own way. A series of blackmailing operations against small towns brought in cash, and he began to build up his own company always relying for the core of it on his fellow exiles from Perugia. In 1407 Roccacontrada in the Marches offered him the lordship of the town in exchange for protection against Ludovico Migliorati, and this at last gave Braccio a secure base. In the next years he steadily built up his strength as he moved from one side to the other in the balance between Ladislas and the papal-Angevin alliance. But it was always Perugia which was in the forefront of his mind, and he continued to lose opportunities for advancement as he concentrated on that. Braccio, unlike Sforza, was always the independent condottiere, but his restlessness was not just the search for a state for himself but the quest for a particular state, his native city, to which he felt he could only return as lord.

In 1414 Pope John XXIII made Braccio captain general of the Church and Count of Montone, and he had thus reached a position where rivalry with Sforza, now commander of the Neapolitan army, was inevitable. But it was two years later, in 1416, that the decisive moment for Braccio came. With his new strength and authority, and taking advantage of the lack of papal control during the Council of Constance, he launched his final assault on Perugia. The Perugians appealed to Carlo Malatesta to help them, and he marched to their relief with an army of some 5,000 men. The battle of S. Egidio which ensued was not a great battle in terms of numbers, but it was decisive for Perugia and was an interesting display of Braccio’s techniques.

The strength of Braccio’s methods lay, as did that of Sforza, in being able to control troops on the battlefield. However, there the similarity ends; Braccio believed in dividing his army into a number of small squadrons and committing them to battle piecemeal. In this way he found it not only easier to maintain personal control over the battle but was able to use his squadrons in rotation and thus rest them during the battle. The effect of this was that they fought fiercely for short spells and then fell back to be replaced by a refreshed squadron. It was this, together with the natural daring of Braccio himself, that produced the speed of manoeuvre and the bravura of Braccesco tactics. At the battle of S. Egidio, which was fought on a hot day in the height of summer, Braccio had had the foresight to provide large quantities of water in barrels immediately behind his lines. Thus, as the long day’s fighting wore on, Braccio’s troops remained fresher and more vigorous than the Malatesta forces drawn up in traditional mass divisions according to a prearranged plan. It was significant that Carlo Malatesta, having drawn up his army in a great half circle into which he hoped to draw the impetuous Bracceschi and then surround them, had retired behind the battle line to his tent believing that once the battle had started there was little more that he could do. Braccio avoided the obvious trap, kept up a constant pressure all along the line and finally, as the Malatesta troops tired and began to lose their cohesion, he threw in his reserves to break through. Carlo Malatesta was caught up in the flight of his army and captured; 300 dead were left on the field.

The Battle of S. Egidio made Braccio the master of Perugia and many of the surrounding towns. He had created a state for himself, and he devoted a part of each of his remaining years to governing it. He built extensively in Perugia and employed his army to dig a canal which drained part of the Umbrian plain into Lake Trasimene. But one of his main interests was inevitably defence; he reorganised the Perugian militia and held jousts and the traditional Perugian ‘battles of stones’ in the streets to arouse the military spirit of his new subjects. His company was increasingly made up of Umbrians and began to look almost like a national army. It certainly saw constant action, as Braccio continued to campaign each year either in self defence against growing pressure from Martin V, or in the Neapolitan wars against Sforza. He maintained his state intact, despite the activities of the pope, but in the end it was a combination of papal and Neapolitan forces which caught him outside Aquila in June 1424.

Braccio’s determined independence and self confidence was ultimately the cause of his downfall. Isolated in his attempts to gain control of the Arbuzzi and add it to his Umbrian state, he rejected opportunities to defeat the allied army piecemeal, as it assembled, in the belief that he could inflict a defeat on it which would settle the power balance in central Italy permanently. It was again a hot summer’s day when Braccio’s army faced a much larger combined army on the plain of Aquila. His opponents that day were not only the Sforza squadrons led by Francesco and his cousin Micheletto Attendolo, but also the new Neapolitan captain general, Jacopo Caldora. Caldora had served with Braccio in the past and learnt a lot from him, and he also had a company made up largely of troops from the Abruzzi who were personally loyal to him. The tactics of Caldora and Francesco Sforza were inevitably a combination of the two schools of warfare. The army was divided into large squadrons and Caldora employed the Braccesco method of constantly rotating the squadrons, so that he always had fresh troops in reserve. Braccio, with a much smaller army, planned to hold the disciplined impetus of the Sforzeschi in check on his right while he broke Caldora in the centre and on the left. But he had underestimated Caldora’s mastery of his own tactics and found that, although he gained an initial advantage against him, in the end it was Caldora who had the greater reserve strength and was able to counter attack with devastating effect. Meanwhile Braccio’s right was also unable to hold the Sforzeschi who began to break through. As a last resort Braccio’s chief lieutenant, Niccolò Piccinino, who had been detailed to guard the rear against an outbreak from the besieged city of Aquila, left his post in an attempt to restore the balance in the main battle. However, he not only failed to do this, but also left the rear exposed to a determined rush from the Aquilani, who began to sack the Braccesco camp. The day was totally lost for Braccio; his army was scattered and he himself wounded and taken prisoner. The chronicles record that when he was being treated for his head wounds by Caldora’s doctor, an unknown hand jogged the doctor’s arm and drove the scalpel into Braccio’s brain. From this wound and also from sheer despair he could not recover. Three days later Braccio died, having refused to eat or exchange a word with his captors.

The list of the commanders in the two armies at Aquila could almost be used as a roll call of the leading soldiers of the next generation. Among the Bracceschi were Niccolò Piccinino, another Perugian who was to lead the Milanese army for 20 years, Gattamelata, commander of the Venetian army from 1434 to 1441, and Niccolò Fortebraccio della Stella, commander of the Florentine army in the early 1430’s. In the allied army, in addition to Caldora and Francesco Sforza, were Micheletto Attendolo whose career will take up some of the following pages, Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venetian commander from 1455 to 1475, Niccolò Mauruzzi da Tolentino, leader of one of the most famous dynasties of condottieri in the fifteenth century, and Luigi da Sanseverino, whose family was also to become increasingly famous in Italian armies. The names of Sforza and Braccio were battle cries for almost the whole century, and even as late as the Pazzi War in 1478–9, many of the Florentine and Venetian troops still marched under the banner of the black ram (montone) on a yellow ground. At this time Braccio’s grandson, Bernardino, was a leading Venetian commander, and the Milanese army contained several members of the Sforza family; but the old rallying cries and the old traditions of the Bracceschi and Sforzeschi embraced a wider group of late fifteenth-century commanders than just the survivors of the two families.

But while these traditions lived on, the political conditions in Italy, which so vitally affected the type of warfare and the military institutions, were entering a new phase in 1424. Milan, Florence and Venice were about to embark on thirty-years of prolonged warfare from which permanent military institutions finally emerged. Martin V had clearly started the process of restoring order in the Papal States and building up a papal army. Alfonso of Aragon was already committed to his long campaign to capture the throne of Naples, a campaign which ended in success and a new and more powerful Neapolitan dynasty in 1442. From this moment onwards it is necessary to think more of armies, military institutions, and military administration rather than individual captains for whom the opportunities for independent action were rapidly declining. This is not to say that the leaders did not remain condottieri; but they were condottieri of the type of Jacopo dal Verme rather than that of Braccio da Montone.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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