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Condottieri and the

Great Equestrian Statues and Paintings

of the Italian Renaissance (and a Roman Emperor)



"A condottiere (plural condottieri) was the holder of a military condotta (plural condotte), or contract, for the raising and leadership of troops.  While condotte were being issued by Italian cities and states as early as the second half of the twelve hundreds as a means of recruiting a part of their armies, it was only in the later years of the thirteen hundreds that  ........  read more



Venetian Doge Foscari (1373 - 1423 - 1457), one of the more belligerent Venetian Doges, employed three larger than life Condottieri to help him achieve his military ambitions - particularly against Milan.  The end result was that Venice was bankrupted but left with two magnificent equestrian statues.  In fact the statues were another technical triumph of Renaissance technology as they were the first full sized equestrian statues to be made in Europe since the end of the Western Roman Empire, 1000 years earlier.  Why not three?  Well, F B da Carmagnola was executed for treason and got no statue.



Erasmo da Narni, called Gattamelata ("the honeyed cat")



c1370 - 1443 (73)


Statue by Donatello in Padova, completed 1450 below and Padova pages


Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola



c1380 - 1432 (52)


No Statue - Executed for treason


Bartolomeo Colleoni



1400 - 1475 (75)


Statue by Andrea del Verrocchio in Venice, completed 1488 (below).  Note also the Capella Colleoni in Bergamo.




in Venice - Andrea de Verrocchio - Equestrian Statue of Condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni



Colleoni Equestrian Statue by Verrocchio, Venice


Photo: Carolyn Fletcher, June 2007



Colleoni Equestrian Statue by Verrocchio, Venice

Photo: Carolyn Fletcher



Colleoni Equestrian Statue by Verrocchio, Venice


Antipodean connection - 500 years later, in 1940, the Italian battle cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni was engaged and sunk by the Australian battle cruiser HMAS Sydney in the Mediterranean.  Later in WW II, the Sydney herself disappeared with the loss of her entire crew of 645 men, after an engagement in the seas to the west of Australia.  Her wreck was located on the sea bed in March 2007.



IN VENICE:  The equestrian statue of Condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400 - 1475 (75)) who was a native of Bergamo, where the Capella Colleoni - "the jewel of Lombard Renaissance architecture" - is to be found.  He fought for Venice against Milan, and vice-versa, several times, ending up with Venice and a lot of money, which are two reasons why this statue by Andrea del Verrocchio (1435 - 1488) is there.  Colleoni paid for the statue in his will, on the condition that it was erected in front of San Marco. 


Why then is it in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo?  Well, that's where the Scuola Grande di San Marco is ......  probably not the "San Marco" the man had thought he was paying for!  The mechanics of the statue are more advanced than in Donatello's work below, as the horse is balanced on three legs and more clearly in movement, but the bare head of Gattamelata is regarded as a more skilled piece of human sculpturing (and makes him look a more sensitive creature as well).



Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio (1435 - 1488 (53),  teacher of Leonardo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino and manager one of the biggest and best organized Florence workshops) worked in Venice on the statue from 1480.  Giorgio Vasari recounts in "Lives of the Artists" that Verrocchio had already finished modelling the horse when the Venetian Signoria decided to hand over the figure of Colleoni himself to another artist. 


"On hearing this, Andrea smashed the legs and head of his model and returned in a rage to Florence without saying a word.  And when the Signoria heard what had happened they gave him to understand that he had better not return to Venice or they would cut off his head.  To this Andrea wrote in reply that he would take good care not to, since once they had cut off a man's head they had no way of replacing it, certainly not one like his, whereas he would have been able to replace the head of the horse, and with something more beautiful at that."


Venice, ever the pragmatic city, took the point and reversed its decision, bringing Verrocchio back at twice his previous salary.  He finished the models, but sadly died of a chill in 1488, leaving Alessandro Leopardi to handle the casting of the statue and design of the pedestal.



Venice - The Horses of St Marks


On the left, the other, much older, Venice horses - the horses of Saint Mark's, which were looted from Constantinople c1204 by the Venetian diverted Fourth Crusade, are now badly displayed in the Duomo Museum.  Theories of their "date of birth" stretch from 500BC to 500AD, with recent scholars mostly headed in the direction of the earlier end of the scale. 


The collars were added by the Venetians to hide the scars left because the animals had to be decapitated to fit them on to the boats bringing them back from Constantinople.










and in Padova - Donatello's Equestrian Statue of Condottiere Erasmo da Narni, called Gattamelata


More from Donatello






More from Donatello



Padova - Basilica San Antonio


Padova: The Basilica of Franciscan Sant'Antonio (lived c1195 - 1231 (36)) - the Patron Saint of the Lost (hence the huge number of pilgrims)






IN PADOVA:  The equestrian statue of Venetian Condottiere Erasmo da Narni, called Gattamelata ("the honeyed cat") (c.1370 - 1443 (73)), which is to be found alongside St Anthony's enormous basilica Donatello (1396 - 1466) took ten years to complete (in around 1450) this magnificent work,  which is not surprising when you realize that it was the first major equestrian statue to be made in Europe since before the end of the Roman Empire one thousand years earlier (and he was working on stuff in the basilica at the same time).


NOWHERE:  There is no equestrian statue of Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola (c1380 - 1432 (52)), the third of Doge Foscari's great Venetian Condottieri.  He too fought for the Sforzas of Milan then changed sides to Venice and was put in charge of the Venetian army fighting Milan.  What seemed to be a lack of an appropriate sense of urgency was interpreted by Doge Foscari as treason, and he had Carmagnola executed at the age of 52 (his two contemporaries lived affluently into their 70s).



Gattamelata Equestrian Statue - Donatello - Padua

Federico, Duke of Urbino




NO HORSE:   Federico da Montefeltro (Duke of Urbino) 1422 - 82 (60)  was one of the most skilled and ruthlessly focussed of the Condottieri of the 14 hundreds, but his preferred image was that of Renaissance Scholar  rather than horseman and slaughterer.







Magi Balthazar by Gozzoli in the Chapel of the Magi, Medici Palace, Florence



The Magi Balthazar in Benozzo Gozzoli's "Procession of the Magi", frescoed between 1459 and 1462 in the Chapel of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici in Florence.   The face of Balthazar was probably modelled on Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus.  The head of the horse is thought to have been modelled on a bronze horse's head from late antiquity, which was owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent (and is now in the Florence Archaeological Museum).






Simone Martini, Condottiere Guidoriccio da Fogliano, Siena Town Hall



IN SIENA (Above and Right):  Simone Martini's (1284 - 1344) famous fresco of Condottiere Guidoriccio da Fogliano, panoramared across the whole of the end of the medievally huge Sala di Mappomondo - the main hall of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.  The otherwise historically obscure Sienese warlord immortalized by Martini, is seen pictured in 1328 on his way to make a forceful point to the governor of the castle of Montemassi after putting down some local revolts around there.    Whatever it was he was doing, the painting leaves the viewer in no doubt as to his determination! 


This was probably the first major Italian secular (i.e. non religious) and landscape paintings of the Middle Ages, and Martini was paid to go to the scene so he could get the landscape right.  There is also some good stuff for military historians including tents and a monster catapult in the right hand castle (which itself was built specially for the siege).  


A recent mystery has been the discovery underneath this work of another fresco that has been dated by some to after Martini's death ...... Scope for a good medieval detective yarn there!


Simone Martini, Condottiere Guidoriccio da Fogliano, Siena Town Hall




Medieval Banking in Siena

A Sienese illustration of 1468 showing on the right  mercenaries being paid, and on the left some other people being paid!  The bank queue has a long tradition behind it !


Andrea del Castagno - Condottiere Niccolo da Tolintino, Florence Duomo


Paolo Uccello - Condottiere Sir John Hawkwood, Florence Duomo


BACK IN FLORENCE - Beside the North door of the Duomo is this huge frescoed monument to the 1400s Condottiere Niccolo da Tolentino (Nicoḷ Mauruzi, aka "il Tolentino"), by Andrea del Castagno (1419 - 1457 (38)).  Tolentino is a picturesque town in Le Marche with a nearby, fairly ordinary by Cistercian standards, Cistercian Abbey - Chiaravalle di Fiastra.  Castagno also painted unmounted Condottieri as part of his Nine Famous Men and Women cycle.


On the other side of the Duomo door is the  monument to the English soldier Sir John Hawkwood (1320 - 1394 (74)) (aka Condottiere Giovanni Acuto - the Italians could not pronounce "(H)awkwood"), the most famous of the foreign Condottieri, who had arrived in Italy to pillage and loot along with several hundred other English adventurers who had been declared redundant by Edward III courtesy of a lull in the Hundred Years' War, and who spent the final 17 years of his life in the service of Florence.   The huge fresco - 8.2M high and 5.15M wide (see pic below left to get an idea of just how big this is!)  was painted in 1436, 42 years after Hawkwood's death, by Paolo Uccello (1397 - 1475 (78)).


Paolo Uccello - Condottiere Sir John Hawkwood, Florence Duomo


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Condottiere Muzio Attendolo Sforza (1369 - 1424 (55)) (right) was a farmer from Romagna who became a sought after condottiere through service to the Angevin Kings of Naples, took the name "Sforza" (the (en)forcer), but did not live to see his son Francesco finish the "rise from nowhere" by becoming Duke of Milan.


Leonardo's Equestrian Statue that never was


Condottiere Sforza's illegitimate son Francesco I became Duke of Milan by marrying the daughter of the last male Visconti Duke.  Francesco's son and grandson, Gian Galleazzo and Ludovico, commissioned Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519 (67)) to produce an equestrian statue of him early in Leonardo's long stay in Milan (from 1482 to 1499).  The project reached the clay model stage, but before casting could be organized, it was tragically blown to pieces by enemy cannon shots, and only some concept sketches remain.  These have been used to illustrate what might have been ....




Condottiere Sforza


A few of the other names you may come across:


The Baglione Family (Perugia / Umbria)

The Visconti Family (Dukes of Milan - see above)

The d'Este Family (Dukes of Ferrara from 1240 to 1597)

The Malatesta Family (Rimini) (Especially Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta 1417 - 68)

The Gonzaga Family (latterly Dukes of Mantua)








San Giorgio and his nag c1546 in the Scuola di San Nicolo dei Greci next door to the Venetian church of San Giorgio dei Greci, which in the renaissance years was the largest Greek church outside Greece. 






The Knights Templar were formed in 1118 in the wake of the First Crusade The Templar seal shows two armoured knights riding on one horse - illustrating their vow of poverty and complete lack of consideration for horse welfare.  The knights also ate in pairs - using one bowl between two.  By the time they were closed down in 1312 by King Philippe le Bon and Pope Clement V they were richer, better fed, unchaste, and had more horses.



Matthew Paris (c1200 - 1259 (59)), Benedictine monk illustrator, sketches the Templar seal and piebald pennant.

Illustration from "Illustrated History of the Knights Templar" by James Wasserman

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Equestrian Statue of Emperor Charlemagne, Louvre, Paris


The Emperor Charlemagne (c745 - 768 - 814 (69)) who all too briefly "got Europe together" before the wheels fell off again.  This little statuette, only 27 cm high, is dwarfed by its display case and surroundings (above) in the Louvre in Paris.  There is a school of thought that the king is in fact Charlemagne's grandson, but whoever it is it's the only contemporary lifelike image of anyone (or horse) from the early Middle Ages still in existence.


It also seems to be about the only equestrian thing of any note to have survived in Europe from the period from the height of the Roman Empire (Marcus Aurelius, below) to the Renaissance (Donatello's Gattamelata, above). 


If you think that Charlemagne (if it is he) looks a bit big for the horse, he was certainly a relative giant for his times (around six foot three tall, and with an unusually high pitched voice they said), and the horses were smaller in those days!  Interesting also that there are no stirrups, though they had been quite widespread in Europe for a hundred years or so.



Equestrian Statue of Emperor Charlemagne, Louvre, Paris



Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 - 161 - 180 (59)) 



More powerful than all of the above combined, the Philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius was the last of the five so called "Good Emperors" of the Roman Empire at the height of its power and prosperity.   They were Nerva (30 - 96 - 98 (68)), Trajan (53 - 98 - 117 (64)), Hadrian (76 - 117 - 138 (62)), Antoninus Pius (86 - 138 - 161 (75)), and Marcus Aurelius (121 - 161 - 180 (59)), and were the first emperors who each had no blood tie with his predecessor.  All but one ruled for around 20 years.


By the standards of his day, Marcus Aurelius was a lenient and humanitarian ruler, except with Christians, whom he regarded as enemies of the state.  His is the only cast equestrian statue to survive from classical times,  only because the good (by then Christian) citizens of Rome mistakenly thought it was of Constantine (288 - 337), the founder of Constantinople and latterly the first Christian Emperor. 


The larger than life statue stood for centuries outside the Pope's Seat and Major Roman Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano.   Michelangelo took a great interest in it and was instrumental its restoration and removal in the 1500s to the central piazza of the Capitoline Hill Museums which he had designed.   More recently the statue has finally been given shelter in the museum proper, and replaced by an unconvincing replica in the piazza.  in 2005 it could only be seen from the outside and through a sheet of reflective plate glass, which gave the viewer an unattractive mix of Marcus A and reflected buildings, but at least this pic gives an idea of how big it is.


Marcus Aurelius Equestrian Statue, Capitoline Hill Museum, Rome


Another visitor (this time to Paradoxplace as well) kindly tells us that as of early 2008 our man and his nag have been moved "inside a beautiful dedicated atrium with a glass roof - and you can walk around him at your leisure". 



Marcus Aurelius Equestrian Statue, Capitoline Hill Museum, Rome


After the end of the Western Roman Empire just before the year 500, it would be almost a thousand years before anyone in Europe would make anything comparable again. 




This marble bust of Marcus Aurelius is in the museum at Ephesus in Turkey.


Marcus Aurelius bust - Ephesus

Whilst on campaign against the barbarians, Marcus Aurelius, a trained stoic philosopher, jotted down some thoughts about life and death, which have come down to us in the form of a book called "Meditations" - a most interesting read


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...... (continued from top) ... such contracts became the main method of raising armies in Italy.  The companies, often made up largely of foreigners (many of whom had been left "unemployed" by the temporary cessation of the Hundred Years War around the time of the Black Death in 1348), which dominated Italian warfare for much of the thirteen hundreds, were normally employed under contract, but they were surprisingly democratic in their organization, and the contracts with employing states were signed by representative groups of leaders.  By about 1370 individual military commanders had largely gained control of the companies and had become the sole contractors for their services.  From this moment onwards the vast majority of condottieri were Italians and they dominated the military scene in Italy throughout the fourteen hundreds.


The nuclei of the companies which condottieri contracted to provide were normally kept permanently in being and augmented for specific contracts and campaigns by recruitment of additional rank and file. The condottiere, therefore, was invariably a man of substance possessing estates and permanent income which enabled him to maintain his principal followers between contracts and recruit rapidly from amongst his own tenants and dependants. These socio-economic conditions were of more importance than military reputation in dictating the size of the contract which a condottiere could obtain, and hence his prestige and reputation. Many of the leading condottieri were either independent princes like the Gonzaga lords of Mantua or the Este lords of Ferrara, or were members of extensive landowning families like the Orsini or Dal Verme.


The main strength of the condottiere company lay in its 'lances', a term which describes not only the main weapon of heavily armed cavalrymen but also the group of attendants who supported them.  However, during the fourteen hundreds, condottieri began to take an increasing interest in infantry as an essential support to their cavalry, and a number of leading captains also possessed some artillery.  While it would be wrong to see a willingness to experiment and innovate as an outstanding characteristic of the condottieri, there were among them some major military personalities.  Men like Francesco Sforza, Bartolomeo Colleoni and Federico da Montefeltro had European reputations in the mid-fourteen hundreds, and in the Wars of Italy many of the most successful leaders of the French and Spanish armies in Italy were Italian condottieri.


Undoubtedly the contract system of service tended to breed a sort of military individualism which weakened the cohesion of a large army, but in fact by the fourteen hundreds the system did not mean that condottieri changed their employment with every contract.  The Italian states were among the first in Europe to develop permanent armies, and most Italian condottieri settled into a pattern of routine renewals of increasingly long-term contracts with one or other of the states.  There remained the exceptional figures whose reputations, and whose control of what amounted to large private armies, prompted political ambitions and made them targets of increasingly tempting offers from potential employers.  But at this level the condotta took on some of the characteristics of a diplomatic alliance, and a switch of allegiance has to be seen in terms of international politics rather than individual infidelity.  In formal terms the condotta system and the role of the condottiere as a leader of cavalry survived throughout the fifteen hundreds.  But the declining importance of cavalry in war and the growing political domination of France and Spain in Italy meant an end to their political role and a decline in social prestige."


Source:  The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance


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