"Ad Honore del Signore Vostro Patre et Satisfactione Nostra": Ferrante d'Este Condottiero di Venezia
Ferrante d'Este is one of history's losers, a man remembered (if at all) as a failed conspirator against his elder brother Alfonso who lived the bulk of his adult life in prison. It was a sad come-down for the handsome youth who had once evoked comparisons with St George when he entered Florence in the train of Charles VIII of France.
In 1498, however, Ferrante appeared to be set fair for a
military career, employed at the head of a company of 100 men at arms and 50
in the Venetian service as part of the army supporting Pisa in its struggle
to maintain its newly recovered independence from Florence. Professor
Mantovani's richly detailed study examines both the negotiations which
led to his hire and the deeply disillusioning campaigning which followed.
Ferrante's engagement owed much to politics and the desire of his father Ercole I to re-establish relations with the Venetian Republic after recent disastrous conflicts. Perhaps it was inevitable that his service would prove problematic despite the hopes expressed by his employers in the quotation which gives the work its title. As Mantovani wryly notes, there was precious little honour or satisfaction to be had for any of the parties involved. Ferrante, barely into his twenties and with no previous military experience, was largely excluded from the management of the campaign- at least until the situation had deteriorated so badly that the senior Venetian commanders had either quit the front or were looking for ways of spreading responsibility (and blame?). It did not help that his experienced second in command Albertino Boschetti had two sons serving in the enemy army and was eventually recalled because of doubts about his loyalty. His heavy cavalry unit was ill suited to an attritional campaign of raids, skirmishes and small scale sieges and therefore saw little action. It soon came to be more notable for its indiscipline than its military utility. Pay was short and commanders squabbled. The shortcomings of Venice's rather bureaucratic and fragmented command structures became all too apparent while the Pisan authorities only appear in the story to complain about the behaviour of Ferrante's unit. Ferrante in turn wrote repeatedly to his father complaining about his treatment. Even the short lived possibility that he might just possibly be given overall command of the theatre or even manage to get himself installed as lord of Pisa came to nothing. Nor did he have the satisfaction of playing a minor role in a triumphant campaign; the war went very badly for the Pisans and their Venetian allies and they were only saved when Venice opened a second front elsewhere in Tuscany which drew Florentine forces away. This diversion did at least allow Ferrante a moment of minor triumph when his men took and sacked Montopoli. The war in Tuscany was however always a secondary theatre for the Venetians, who dropped their support of Pisa like a hot brick when the possibility of a French intervention against Milan arose- hiding behind an arbitration judgement issued by none other than Ferrante's father. Ferrante's company was pulled out of Tuscany and his contract was not renewed.
Mantovani documents this sad tale with great thoroughness, even if the very limited role Ferrante's unit played means that he often disappears from the story of the campaign for lengthy periods. It was a brutal little war between two armies both desperately short of funding and obliged to live off the land in a campaign waged though the depths of winter. The weather was bad. Plague and hunger stalked the land. The main Florentine commander Paolo Vitelli sought to hasten victory by a policy of calculated viciousness, cutting off the right arms of hand gunners and artillerymen after the capture of Buti to discourage future resistance (clearly dislike of firearms was not the sole prerogative of backward looking noblemen from beyond the Alps). Ferrante's misadventures may in part have derived from his ambiguous situation as the son of a ruling prince in the paid service of another state; it was all too easy for his employers to suspect he was ultimately acting to advance Este interests. It would have been interesting to have comparative material on the experience of others in a similar position to judge whether Ferrante was unusually inept in handling these issues.
This comment points to the only shortcoming of this thoroughly researched and lavishly produced book- its rather narrow focus on Ferrante and the campaign he participated in. While this is perhaps understandable for a volume published under the joint auspices of local learned societies, some broader comparisons would have been useful. For instance, how far did Vitelli’s brutal treatment of prisoners conform to broader Italian norms? Was Ferrante’s unit uniquely ill disciplined (Mantovani suggests it may have been but it would have been nice to have a more extended examination of the issue)? One hopes that Professor Mantovani will explore the comparative dimension further in future work.
It would also have been interesting to know more about the men who served in Ferrante's company. Judging by the list of members Mantovani publishes in his annexes, this was drawn mainly from the Modenese part of the Este state and from the territories recently taken by Venice from the Este. There appear to be family links between some members while certain small towns (including Bagnacavallo, with its historic links to Sir John Hawkwood) seem surprising well represented in the ranks. If the sources allow, perhaps one can also hope that Professor Mantovani might at some future date explore the background and careers of those who followed Ferrante d'Este on the road from the high hopes of spring 1498 to the bitter disillusionment of a year later.