The History of Florence—Book V

Chapter V

When their demonstrations of gratitude had subsided, the Venetian Senate, by the aid of Neri di Gino, began to consider the route the count ought to take, and how to provide him with necessaries. There were four several roads; one by Ravenna, along the beach, which on account of its being in many places interrupted by the sea and by marshes, was not approved. The next was the most direct, but rendered inconvenient, by a tower called the Uccellino, which being held for the duke, it would be necessary to capture; and to do this, would occupy more time than could be spared with safety to Verona and Brescia. The third was by the brink of the lake; but as the Po had overflown its banks, to pass in this direction was impossible. The fourth was by the way of Bologna to Ponte Puledrano, Cento, and Pieve; then between the Bondeno and the Finale to Ferrara, and thence they might by land or water enter the Paduan territory, and join the Venetian forces. This route, though attended with many difficulties, and in some parts liable to be disputed by the enemy, was chosen as the least objectionable. The count having received his instructions, commenced his march, and by exerting the utmost celerity, reached the Paduan territory on June 20. The arrival of this distinguished commander in Lombardy filled Venice and all her dependencies with hope; for the Venetians, who only an instant before had been in fear for their very existence, began to contemplate new conquests.

The count, before he made any other attempt, hastened to the relief of Verona; and to counteract his design, Niccolo led his forces to Soave, a castle situated between the Vincentino and the Veronese, and entrenched himself by a ditch that extended from Soave to the marshes of the Adige. The count, finding his passage by the plain cut off, resolved to proceed by the mountains, and thus reach Verona, thinking Niccolo would imagine this way to be so rugged and elevated as to be impracticable; or if he thought otherwise, he would not be in time to prevent him; so, with provisions for eight days, he took the mountain path, and with his forces, arrived in the plain, below Soave. Niccolo had, even upon this route, erected some bastions for the purpose of preventing him, but they were insufficient for the purpose; and finding the enemy had, contrary to his expectations, effected a passage, to avoid a disadvantageous engagement he crossed to the opposite side of the Adige, and the count entered Verona without opposition.

Having happily succeeded in his first object, that of relieving Verona, the count now endeavored to render a similar service to Brescia. This city is situated so close to the Lake of Garda that, although besieged by land, provisions may always be sent into it by water. On this account the duke had assembled a large force in the immediate vicinity of the lake, and at the commencement of his victories occupied all the places which by its means might relieve Brescia. The Venetians also had galleys upon the lake, but they were unequal to a contest with those of the duke. The count therefore deemed it advisable to aid the Venetian fleet with his land forces, by which means he hoped to obtain without much difficulty those places which kept Brescia in blockade. He therefore encamped before Bardolino, a fortress situated upon the lake, trusting that after it was taken the others would surrender. But fortune opposed this design, for a great part of his troops fell sick; so giving up the enterprise, he went to Zevio, a Veronese castle, in a healthy and plentiful situation. Niccolo, upon the count's retreat, not to let slip an opportunity of making himself master of the lake, left his camp at Vegasio, and with a body of picked men took the way thither, attacked the Venetian fleet with the utmost impetuosity, and took nearly the whole of it. By this victory almost all the fortresses upon the lake fell into his hands.

The Venetians, alarmed at this loss, and fearing that in consequence of it Brescia would surrender, solicited the count, by letters and messengers, to go to its relief; and he, perceiving that all hope of rendering assistance from the lake was cut off, and that to attempt an approach by land, on account of the ditches, bastions, and other defences erected by Niccolo, was marching to certain destruction, determined that as the passage by the mountains had enabled him to relieve Verona, it should also contribute to the preservation of Brescia. Having taken this resolution, the count left Zevio, and by way of the Val d' Acri went to the Lake of St. Andrea, and thence to Torboli and Peneda, upon the Lake of Garda. He then proceeded to Tenna, and besieged the fortress, which it was necessary to occupy before he could reach Brescia.

Niccolo, on being acquainted with the count's design, led his army to Peschiera. He then, with the Marquis of Mantua and a chosen body of men, went to meet him, and coming to an engagement, was routed, his people dispersed, and many of them taken, while others fled to the fleet, and some to the main body of his army. It was now nightfall, and Niccolo had escaped to Tenna, but he knew that if he were to remain there till morning, he must inevitably fall into the enemy's hands; therefore, to avoid a catastrophe which might be regarded as almost fatal, he resolved to make a dangerous experiment. Of all his attendants he had only with him a single servant, a Dutchman, of great personal strength, and who had always been devotedly attached to him. Niccolo induced this man to take him upon his shoulders in a sack, as if he had been carrying property of his master's, and to bear him to a place of security. The enemy's lines surrounded Tenna, but on account of the previous day's victory, all was in disorder, and no guard was kept, so that the Dutchman disguised as a trooper, passed through them without any opposition, and brought his master in safety to his own troops.

Had this victory been as carefully improved as it was fortunately obtained, Brescia would have derived from it greater relief and the Venetians more permanent advantage; but they, having thoughtlessly let it slip, the rejoicings were soon over, and Brescia remained in her former difficulties. Niccolo, having returned his forces, resolved by some extraordinary exertion to cancel the impression of his defeat, and deprive the Venetians of the chance of relieving Brescia. He was acquainted with the topography of the citadel of Verona, and had learned from prisoners whom he had taken that it was badly guarded, and might be very easily recovered. He perceived at once that fortune presented him with an opportunity of regaining the laurels he had lately lost, and of changing the joy of the enemy for their recent victory into sorrow for a succeeding disaster.

The city of Verona is situated in Lombardy, at the foot of the mountains which divide Italy from Germany, so that it occupies part both of hill and plain. The river Adige rises in the valley of Trento, and entering Italy, does not immediately traverse the country, but winding to the left, along the base of the hills, enters Verona, and crosses the city, which it divides unequally, giving much the larger portion to the plain. On the mountain side of the river are two fortresses, formidable rather from their situation than from their actual strength, for being very elevated they command the whole place. One is called San Piero, the other San Felice. On the opposite side of the Adige, upon the plain, with their backs against the city walls, are two other fortresses, about a mile distant from each other, one called the Old, the other the New Citadel, and a wall extends between them that may be compared to a bow-string, of which the city wall is the arc. The space comprehended within this segment is very populous, and is called the Borgo of St. Zeno. Niccolo Piccinino designed to capture these fortresses and the Borgo, and he hoped to succeed without much difficulty, as well on account of the ordinary negligence of the guard, which their recent successes would probably increase, as because in war no enterprise is more likely to be successful than one which by the enemy is deemed impossible.

With a body of picked men, and accompanied by the Marquis of Mantua, Piccinino proceeded by night to Verona, silently scaled the walls, and took the New Citadel; then entering the place with his troops, he forced the gate of San Antonio, and introduced the whole of his cavalry. The Venetian garrison of the Old Citadel hearing an uproar, when the guards of the New were slaughtered, and again when the gate was forced, being now aware of the presence of enemies, raised an alarm, and called the people to arms. The citizens awaking in the utmost confusion, some of the boldest armed and hastened to the rector's piazza. In the meantime, Niccolo's forces had pillaged the Borgo of San Zeno; and proceeding onward were ascertained by the people to be the duke's forces, but being defenceless they advised the Venetian rectors to take refuge in the fortresses, and thus save themselves and the place; as it was more advisable to preserve their lives and so rich a city for better fortune, than, by endeavoring to repel the present evil, encounter certain death, and incur universal pillage. Upon this the rectors, and all the Venetian party, fled to the fortress of San Itelice. Some of the first citizens, anxious to avoid being plundered by the troops, presented themselves before Niccolo and the Marquis of Mantua, and begged they would rather take possession of a rich city, with honor to themselves, than of a poor one to their own disgrace; particularly as they had not induced either the favor of its former possessors, or the animosity of its present masters, by self-defence. The Marquis and Niccolo encouraged them, and protected their property to the utmost of their power during such a state of military license. As they felt sure the count would endeavor to recover the city, they made every possible exertion to gain possession of the fortresses, and those they could not seize they cut off from the rest of the place by ditches and barricades, so that the enemy might be shut out.

The Count Francesco was with his army at Tenna; and when the report was first brought to him he refused to credit it; but being assured of the fact by parties whom it would have been ridiculous to doubt, he resolved, by the exertion of uncommon celerity, to repair the evil negligence had occasioned; and though all his officers advised the abandonment of Verona and Brescia, and a march to Vicenza, lest he might be besieged by the enemy in his present situation, he refused but resolved to attempt the recovery of Verona. During the consultation, he turned to the Venetian commissaries and to Bernardo de' Medici, who was there as commissary for the Florentines, and promised them the recovery of the place if one of the fortresses should hold out. Having collected his forces, he proceeded with the utmost speed to Verona. Observing his approach, Niccolo thought he designed, according to the advice he had received, to go to Vicenza, but finding him continue to draw near, and taking the direction of San Felice, he prepared for its defence—though too late; for the barricades were not completed; his men were dispersed in quest of plunder, or extorting money from the inhabitants by way of ransom; and he could not collect them in time to prevent the count's troops from entering the fortress. They then descended into the city, which they happily recovered, to Niccolo's disgrace, and with the loss of great numbers of his men. He himself with the Marquis of Mantua, first took refuge in the citadel, and thence escaping into the country, fled to Mantua, where, having assembled the relics of their army, they hastened to join those who were at the siege of Brescia. Thus in four days Verona was lost and again recovered from the duke. The count, after this victory, it being now winter, and the weather very severe, having first with considerable difficulty thrown provisions into Brescia, went into quarters at Verona, and ordered, that during the cold season, galleys should be provided at Torboli that upon the return of spring, they might be in a condition to proceed vigorously to effect the permanent relief of Brescia.

The duke, finding the war suspended for a time, the hope he had entertained of occupying Brescia and Verona annihilated, and the money and counsels of the Florentines the cause of this, and seeing that neither the injuries they had received from the Venetians could alienate them, nor all the promises he had made attach them to himself, he determined, in order to make them feel more closely the effects of the course they had adopted, to attack Tuscany; to which he was strenuously advised by the Florentine exiles and Niccolo. The latter advocated this from his desire to recover the states of Braccio, and expel the count from La Marca; the former, from their wish to return home, and each by suitable arguments endeavored to induce the duke to follow the plan congenial to their own views. Niccolo argued that he might be sent into Tuscany, and continue the siege of Brescia; for he was master of the lake, the fortresses were well provided, and their officers were qualified to oppose the count should he undertake any fresh enterprise; which it was not likely he would do without first relieving Brescia, a thing impossible; and thus the duke might carry on the war in Tuscany, without giving up his attempts in Lombardy; intimating that the Florentines would be compelled, as soon as he entered Tuscany, to recall the count to avoid complete ruin; and whatever course they took, victory to the duke must be the result. The exiles affirmed, that if Niccolo with his army were to approach Florence, the people oppressed with taxes, and wearied out by the insolence of the great, would most assuredly not oppose him, and pointed out the facility of reaching Florence; for the way by the Casentino would be open to them, through the friendship of Rinaldo and the Count di Poppi; and thus the duke, who was previously inclined to the attempt, was induced by their joint persuasions to make it. The Venetians, on the other hand, though the winter was severe, incessantly urged the count to relieve Brescia, with all his forces. The count questioned the possibility of so doing, and advised him [them] to wait the return of spring, in the meantime strengthening their fleet as much as possible, and then assist it both by land and water. This rendered the Venetians dissatisfied; they were dilatory in furnishing provisions, and consequently many deserted from their army.

The Florentines, being informed of these transactions, became alarmed, perceiving the war threatening themselves, and the little progress made in Lombardy. Nor did the suspicion entertained by them of the troops of the Church give them less uneasiness; not that the Pope was their enemy, but because they saw those forces more under the sway of the patriarch, who was their greatest foe. Giovanni Vitelleschi of Corneto was at first apostolic notary, then Bishop of Recanati, and afterward Patriarch of Alexandria; but at last, becoming a cardinal, he was called Cardinal of Florence. He was bold and cunning; and, having obtained great influence, was appointed to command the forces of the Church, and conduct all the enterprises of the pontiff, whether in Tuscany, Romagna, the Kingdom of Naples, or in Rome. Hence he acquired so much power over the pontiff and the papal troops that the former was afraid of commanding him, and the latter obeyed no one else. The cardinal's presence at Rome, when the report came of Niccolo's design to march into Tuscany, redoubled the fear of the Florentines; for since Rinaldo was expelled, he had become an enemy of the republic, from finding that the arrangements made by his means were not only disregarded, but converted to his prejudice, and caused the laying down of arms, which had given his enemies an opportunity of banishing him. In consequence of this, the government thought it would be advisable to restore and indenmify Rinaldo, in case Niccolo came into Tuscany and were joined by him. Their apprehensions were increased by their being unable to account for Niccolo's departure from Lombardy, and his leaving one enterprise almost completed, to undertake another so entirely doubtful; which they could not reconcile with their ideas of consistency, except by supposing some new design had been adopted, or some hidden treachery intended. They communicated their fears to the Pope, who was now sensible of his error in having endowed the cardinal with too much authority.