The History of Florence—Book V

Chapter VII

While these events were taking place in Tuscany, so little to the advantage of the duke, his affairs in Lombardy were in a still worse condition. The Count Francesco, as soon as the season would permit, took the field with his army, and the Venetians having again covered the lake with their galleys, he determined first of all to drive the duke from the water; judging, that this once effected, his remaining task would be easy. He, therefore, with the Venetian fleet, attacked that of the duke, and destroyed it. His land forces took the castles held for Filippo, and the ducal troops who were besieging Brescia, being informed of these transactions, withdrew; and thus, the city, after standing a three-years' siege, was at length relieved. The count then went in quest of the enemy, whose forces were encamped before Soncino, a fortress situated upon the River Oglio; these he dislodged and compelled to retreat to Cremona, where the duke again collected his forces, and prepared for his defence. But the count constantly pressing him more closely, he became apprehensive of losing either the whole, or the greater part, of his territories; and perceiving the unfortunate step he had taken, in sending Niccolo into Tuscany, in order to correct his error he wrote to acquaint him with what had transpired, desiring him, with all possible despatch, to leave Tuscany and return to Lombardy. In the meantime, the Florentines, under their commissaries, had drawn together their forces, and being joined by those of the Pope, halted at Anghiari, a castle placed at the foot of the mountains that divide the Val di Tavere from the Val di Chiane, distant four miles from the Borgo San Sepolcro, on a level road, and in a country suitable for the evolutions of cavalry or a battlefield. As the Signory had heard of the count's victory and the recall of Niccolo, they imagined that without again drawing a sword or disturbing the dust under their horses' feet, the victory was their own and the war at an end, they wrote to the commissaries, desiring them to avoid an engagement, as Niccolo could not remain much longer in Tuscany. These instructions coming to the knowledge of Piccinino, and perceiving the necessity of his speedy return, to leave nothing unattempted, he determined to engage the enemy, expecting to find them unprepared, and not disposed for battle. In this determination he was confirmed by Rinaldo, the Count di Poppi, and other Florentine exiles, who saw their inevitable ruin in the departure of Niccolo, and hoped, that if he engaged the enemy, they would either be victorious, or vanquished without dishonor. This resolution being adopted, Niccolo led his army, unperceived by the enemy, from Cittą di Castello to the Borgo, where he enlisted 2,000 men, who, trusting in the general's talents and promises, followed him in hope of plunder. Niccolo then led his forces in battle array toward Anghiari, and had arrived within two miles of the place when Micheletto Attendulo observed great clouds of dust, and conjecturing at once, that it must be occasioned by the enemy's approach, immediately called the troops to arms.

Great confusion prevailed in the Florentine camp, for the ordinary negligence and want of discipline were now increased by their presuming the enemy to be at a distance, and they were more disposed to flight than to battle; so that everyone was unarmed, and some wandering from the camp, either led by their desire to avoid the excessive heat, or in pursuit of amusement. So great was the diligence of the commissaries and of the captain, that before the enemy's arrival, the men were mounted and prepared to resist their attack; and as Micheletto was the first to observe their approach, he was also first armed and ready to meet them, and with his troops hastened to the bridge which crosses the river at a short distance from Anghiari. Pietro Giampagolo having, previously to the surprise, filled up the ditches on either side of the road, and levelled the ground hetween the bridge and Anghiari, and Micheletto having taken his position in front of the former, the legate and Simoncino, who led the troops of the Church, took post on the right, and the commissaries of the Florentines, with Pietro Giampagolo, their captain, on the left; the infantry being drawn up along the banks of the river. Thus, the only course the enemy could take, was the direct one over the bridge; nor had the Florentines any other field for their exertions, excepting that their infantry were ordered, in case their cavalry were attacked in flank by the hostile infantry, to assail them with their crossbows, and prevent them from wounding the flanks of the horses crossing the bridge. Micheletto bravely withstood the enemy's charge upon the bridge; but Astorre and Francesco Piccinino coming up with a picked body of men, attacked him so vigorously, that he was compelled to give way, and was pushed as far as the foot of the hill which rises toward the Borgo d' Anghiari; hut they were in turn repulsed and driven over the bridge, by the troops that took them in flank.

The battle continued two hours, during which each side had frequent possession of the bridge, and their attempts upon it were attended with equal success; but on both sides of the river, the disadvantage of Niccolo was manifest; for when his people crossed the bridge, they found the enemy unbroken, and the ground being levelled, they could manoeuvre without difficulty, and the weary be relieved by such as were fresh. But when the Florentines crossed, Niccolo could not relieve those that were harassed, on account of the hindrance interposed by thc ditches and embankments on each side of the road; thus whenever his troops got possession of the bridge, they were soon repulsed by the fresh forces of the Florentines; but when the bridge was taken by the Florentines, and they passed over and proceeded upon the road, Niccolo having no opportunity to reinforce his troops, being prevented by the impetuosity of the enemy and the inconvenience of the ground, the rear-guard became mingled with the van, and occasioned the utmost confusion and disorder; they were forced to flee, and hastened at full speed toward the Borgo. The Florentine troops fell upon the plunder, which was very valuable in horses, prisoners, and military stores, for not more than 1,000 of the enemy's cavalry reached the town. The people of the Borgo, who had followed Niccolo in the hope of plunder, became booty themselves, all of them being taken, and obliged to pay a ransom. The colors and carriages were also captured.

This victory was much more advantageous to the Florentines than injurious to the duke; for, had they been conquered, Tuscany would have been his own; but he, by his defeat, only lost the horses and accoutrements of his army, which could be replaced without any very serious expense. Nor was there ever an instance of wars being carried on in an enemy's country with less injury to the assailants than at this; for in so great a defeat, and in a battle which continued four hours, only one man died, and he, not from wounds inflicted by hostile weapons, or any honorable means, but, having fallen from his horse, was trampled to death. Combatants then engaged with little danger; being nearly all mounted, covered with armor, and preserved from death whenever they chose to surrender, there was no necessity for risking their lives; while fighting, their armor defended them, and when they could resist no longer, they yielded and were safe.

This battle, from the circumstances which attended and followed it, presents a striking example of the wretched state of military discipline in those times. The enemy's forces being defeated and driven into the Borgo, the commissaries desired to pursue them, in order to make the victory complete, but not a single condottiere or soldier would obey, alleging, as a sufficient reason for their refusal, that they must take care of the booty and attend to their wounded; and, what is still more surprising, the next day, without permission from the commissaries, or the least regard for their commanders, they went to Arezzo, and, having secured their plunder, returned to Anghiari; a thing so contrary to military order and all subordination, that the merest shadow of a regular army would easily and most justly have wrested from them the victory they had so undeservedly obtained. Added to this, the men-at-arms, or heavy-armed horse, who had been taken prisoners, whom the commissaries wished to be detained that they might not rejoin the enemy, were set at liberty, contrary to their orders. It is astonisbing that an army so constructed should have sufficient energy to obtain the victory, or that any should be found so imbecile as to allow such a disorderly rabble to vanquish them. The time occupied by the Florentine forces in going and returning from Arezzo, gave Niccolo opportunity of escaping from the Borgo, and proceeding toward Romagna. Along with him also fled the Florentine exiles, who, finding no hope of their return home, took up their abodes in various parts of Italy, each according to his own convenience. Rinaldo made choice of Ancona; and, to gain admission to the celestial country, having lost the terrestrial, he performed a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre; whence having returned, he died suddenly while at table at the celebration of the marriage of one of his daughters; all instance of fortune's favor, in removing him from the troubles of this world upon the least sorrowful day of his exile. Rinaldo d' Albizzi appeared respectable under every change of condition; and would have been more so had he lived in a united city, for many qualities were injurious to him in a factious community, which in a harmonious one would have done him honor.

When the forces returned from Arezzo, Niccolo being then gone, the commissaries presented themselves at the Borgo, the people of which were willing to submit to the Florentines; but their offer was declined, and while negotiations were pending, the Pope's legate imagined the commissaries designed to take it from the Church. Hard words were exchanged, and hostilities might have ensued between the Florentine and ecclesiastical forces if the misunderstanding had continued much longer; but as it was brought to the conclusion desired by the legate, peace was restored.

While the affair of the Borgo San Sepolcro was in progress, Niccolo Piccinino was supposed to have marched toward Rome; other accounts said La Marca, and hence the legate and the count's forces moved toward Perugia to relieve La Marca or Rome, as the case might be, and Bernardo de' Medici accompanied them. Neri led the Florentine forces to recover the Casentino, and pitched his camp before Rassina, which he took, together with Bibbiena, Prato Vecchio, and Romena. From thence he proceeded to Poppi and invested it on two sides with his forces, in one direction toward the plain of Certomondo, in the other upon the hill extending to Fronzole.

The count finding himself abandoned to his fate, had shut himself up in Poppi, not with any hope of assistance, but with a view to make the best terms he could. Neri pressing him, he offered to capitulate, and obtained reasonable conditions, namely, security for himself and family, with leave to take whatever he could carry away, on condition of ceding his territories and government to the Florentines. When he perceived the full extent of his misfortune, standing upon the bridge which crosses the Arno, close to Poppi, he turned to Neri in great distress, and said:

"Had I well considered my own position and the power of the Florentines, I should now have been a friend of the republic and congratulating you on your victory, not an enemy compelled to supplicate some alleviation of my woe. The recent events which to you bring glory and joy, to me are full of wretchedness and sorrow. Once I possessed horses, arms, subjects, grandeur, and wealth: can it be surprising that I part with them reluctantly? But as you possess both the power and the inclination to command the whole of Tuscany, we must of necessity obey you; and had I not committed this error, my misfortune would not have occurred, and your liberality could not have been exercised; so, that if you were to rescue me from entire ruin, you would give the world a lasting proof of your clemency. Therefore, let your pity pass by my fault, and allow me to retain this single house to leave to the descendants of those from whom your fathers have received innumerable benefits."

To this Neri replied: "That his having expected great results from men who were capable of doing only very little, had led him to commit so great a fault against the Republic of Florence; that, every circumstance considered, he must surrender all those places to the Florentines, as an enemy, which he was unwilling to hold as a friend: that he had set such an example, as it would be most highly impolitic to encourage; for, upon a change of fortune, it might injure the republic, and it was not himself they feared, but his power while lord of the Casentino. If, however, he could live as a prince in Germany, the citizens would be very much gratified; and out of love to those ancestors of whom he had spoken, they would be glad to assist him." To this, the count, in great anger, replied: "He wished the Florentines at a much greater distance." Attempting no longer to preserve the least urbanity of demeanor, he ceded the place and all his dependencies to the Florentines, and with his treasure, wife, and children, took his departure, mourning the loss of a territory which his forefathers had held during 400 years. When all these victories were known at Florence, the government and people were transported with joy. Benedetto de' Medici, finding the report of Niccolo having proceeded either to Rome or to La Marca, incorrect, returned with his forces to Neri, and they proceeded together to Florence, where the highest honors were decreed to them which it was customary with the city to bestow upon her victorious citizens, and they were received by the Signory, the Capitani di Parte, and the whole city, in triumphal pomp.