11 March

The Battle of Castagnaro was fought on this day in 1387 at Castagnaro (today’s Veneto, northern Italy) between Verona and Padua. It is one of the most famous battles of the Italian condottieri* age.

The army of Verona was led by Giovanni Ordelaffi and Ostasio II da Polenta, while the victorious Paduans were commanded by John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto) and Francesco Novello da Carrara, the son of Francesco I, lord of Padua. John Hawkwood brought 1,100 of his own condottiere (600 cavalry and 500 archers, or vice versa depending on the source) to supplement the Paduan forces of 8,000 men (Giuseppe Marcotti places the number dismounted condottiere at 6,000 men, along with a reserve of 1,600 horse. He also goes on to say that there were 1,000 native footmen of Padua, and 600 crossbowman guarding a river bank.)

Castagnaro is hailed as Sir John Hawkwood’s greatest victory. Following a Fabian-like strategy, Hawkwood goaded the Veronese into attacking him on a field of his own choosing, by laying waste to the Veronese lands nearby.Drawing his forces up on the far side of a canal, and anchoring his right flank on a patch of woods, Hawkwood waited until the Veronese had committed to attacking across a ford of fascines piled up in the canal. Once so occupied, Hawkwood sprang his trap.

Hawkwood had left a copy of his standard behind his forces, then had led his cavalry into the woods to his right. At a given signal — supposedly, a flaming arrow — the copy of his standard dropped, and Hawkwood’s cavalry burst from the woods on the Veronese left, with his real standard in front. At the point of impact, Hawkwood is said to have cast his commander’s baton into the Veronese ranks and ordered his men to retrieve it for him.It is said that Hawkwood’s battle cry that day was a grim play on the Paduan war-cry of Carro! (“Cart!”, from the coat of arms of the House of Da Carrara) — in Hawkwood’s rendition, it became Carne! (“Flesh!”). Curiously though, the Florentine reserves under Ischia stood their ground against Hawkwood’s terrible onslaught. They could do nothing to turn the tide of battle since the Hawkwood’s men were all heavily armed, whilst the peasants were not.

Condottieri were the leaders of the professional military free companies (or mercenaries) contracted by the Italian city-states and the Papacy from the late Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance. In Renaissance Italian, condottiero meant “contractor”, and was synonymous with the modern English title Mercenary Captain. In contemporary Italian, “condottiero” acquired the broader meaning of “military leader”, not restricted to mercenaries. In Italian historiography, Renaissance mercenary captains are usually called capitani di ventura (literally “venture captains”).

These Italian words were standard usage in English writing of the Napoleonic times that remained current in written histories until the late 20th century; because formally employed, standing, professional armies were uncommon until late in the Napoleonic Wars (1800–1815) thus, the word Condottiere in the English language has come to denote, in the modern sense, any hired soldier.