1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Condottiere

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CONDOTTIERE (plural, condottieri), an Italian term, derived ultimately from Latin conducere, meaning either “to conduct” or “to hire,” for the leader of the mercenary military companies, often several thousand strong, which used to be hired out to carry on the wars of the Italian states. The word is often extended so as to include the soldiers as well as the leader of a company. The condottieri played a very important part in Italian history from the middle of the 13th to the middle of the 15th century. The special political and military circumstances of medieval Italy, and in particular the wars of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, brought it about that the condottieri and their leaders played a more conspicuous and important part in history than the “Free Companies” elsewhere. Amongst these circumstances the absence of a numerous feudal cavalry, the relative luxury of city life, and the incapacity of city militia for wars of aggression were the most prominent. From this it resulted that war was not merely the trade of the condottiere, but also his monopoly, and he was thus able to obtain whatever terms he asked, whether money payments or political concessions. These companies were recruited from wandering mercenary bands and individuals of all nations, and from the ranks of the many armies of middle Europe which from time to time overran Italy.

Montreal d’Albarno, a gentleman of Provence, was the first to give them a definite form. A severe discipline and an elaborate organization were introduced within the company itself, while in their relations to the people the most barbaric licence was permitted. Montreal himself was put to death at Rome by Rienzi, and Conrad Lando succeeded to the command. The Grand Company, as it was called, soon numbered about 7000 cavalry and 1500 select infantry, and was for some years the terror of Italy. They seem to have been Germans chiefly. On the conclusion (1360) of the peace of Bretigny between England and France, Sir John Hawkwood (q.v.) led an army of English mercenaries, called the White Company, into Italy, which took a prominent part in the confused wars of the next thirty years. Towards the end of the century the Italians began to organize armies of the same description. This ended the reign of the purely mercenary company, and began that of the semi-national mercenary army which endured in Europe till replaced by the national standing army system. The first company of importance raised on the new basis was that of St George, originated by Alberigo, count of Barbiano, many of whose subordinates and pupils conquered principalities for themselves. Shortly after, the organization of these mercenary armies was carried to the highest perfection by Sforza Attendolo, condottiere in the service of Naples, who had been a peasant of the Romagna, and by his rival Brancaccio di Montone in the service of Florence. The army and the renown of Sforza were inherited by his son Francesco Sforza, who eventually became duke of Milan (1450). Less fortunate was another great condottiere, Carmagnola, who first served one of the Visconti, and then conducted the wars of Venice against his former masters, but at last awoke the suspicion of the Venetian oligarchy, and was put to death before the palace of St Mark (1432). Towards the end of the 15th century, when the large cities had gradually swallowed up the small states, and Italy itself was drawn into the general current of European politics, and became the battlefield of powerful armies—French, Spanish and German—the condottieri, who in the end proved quite unequal to the gendarmerie of France and the improved troops of the Italian states, disappeared.

The soldiers of the condottieri were almost entirely heavy armoured cavalry (men-at-arms). They had, at any rate before 1400, nothing in common with the people among whom they fought, and their disorderly conduct and rapacity seem often to have exceeded that of other medieval armies. They were always ready to change sides at the prospect of higher pay. They were connected with each other by the interest of a common profession, and by the possibility that the enemy of to-day might be the friend and fellow-soldier of to-morrow. Further, a prisoner was always more valuable than a dead enemy. In consequence of all this their battles were often as bloodless as they were theatrical. Splendidly equipped armies were known to fight for hours with hardly the loss of a man (Zagonara, 1423; Molinella, 1467).