Castruccio Castracani: The Art Of War In The 14th Century

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The life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca by Niccolo Machiavelli
The life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca by Niccolo Machiavelli

Castruccio Castracani - Rise and Fall

Castruccio Castracani - Municipal Library of Trento, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Castruccio Castracani – Municipal Library of Trento, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Enigmatic Figure of Castruccio Castracani

Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, despite being a highly influential figure in medieval Italian history, is paradoxically one of the least researched individuals from that era.

Castruccio served as a condottiero, effectively governing Lucca for nearly 12 years. His life story is a testament to his remarkable ascent, defying the odds and showcasing that individuals have the power to shape their destinies, rather than being mere subjects of fate.

This blog delves into numerous facets of Castruccio’s life, and it’s essential to acknowledge that some details may be met with scepticism by readers. This scepticism arises from the enigmatic nature of Castruccio’s reputation, with some even suggesting that he might be a mythical character who never existed. However, this blog draws from a diverse range of sources, combining historically accurate accounts with fictional works like Niccolò Machiavelli’s “Life of Castruccio Castracani” and Mary Shelley’s “Valperga.”

Castruccio Antelminelli, Duke of Lucca, (Biblioteca Statale di Lucca, Ms. 1661, f.82r)

Castruccio Antelminelli, Duke of Lucca, (Biblioteca Statale di Lucca, Ms. 1661, f.82r)

From Humble Beginnings to Lucca’s Leader

Castruccio’s humble beginnings are a recurring theme among those who achieved remarkable success. Many of these individuals emerged from obscurity or faced significant early-life challenges, shaping their paths to greatness. Some even resorted to creating fictitious noble backgrounds to conceal their modest origins. While numerous instances of such individuals exist, I won’t list them here, as they are widely acknowledged, and further discussion would be redundant.

This phenomenon can be attributed to the role of fortune, which often overshadows the influence of prudence and personal choices in determining greatness. Fortune tends to exert its influence in situations where prudence alone cannot significantly alter one’s circumstances, consequently claiming credit for their achievements.

Castruccio Castracani’s life embodies this pattern, given the historical context and his upbringing in Lucca, rendering his accomplishments all the more extraordinary. His journey parallels those of many others who ascended from unremarkable beginnings, a narrative I’ll delve into more deeply as I recount his life.

An Intriguing Origin Story

Castruccio’s origin story is nothing short of intriguing. Born into the Antelminelli family (some people claim that this was fabricated by him only to legitimize his rule over Lucca), he faced an uncertain fate when he was abandoned on the doorstep of a priest, Messer Antonio. What makes this tale even more remarkable is that Messer Antonio, a member of the prominent Castracani family in Lucca, happened to be the canon of the church of San Michele.

Messer Antonio’s only close relative was his sister, Madonna Dianora, whom he later married off to Buonaccorso Cennami. Tragically, Buonaccorso met an untimely demise, and Dianora, choosing not to remarry, returned to live with her brother.

Messer Antonio owned a vineyard adjacent to his residence, and one day, while Dianora was collecting herbs in the vineyard, she heard a cry coming from beneath the leaves. Investigating the source of the sound, she discovered a baby boy, seemingly abandoned. Filled with compassion, she rescued the child and presented him to Messer Antonio. They decided to raise the child as their own, naming him Castruccio in honor of their father. Both of these families, the Antelminellis and the Castracanis, had strong Ghibelline affiliations and were staunch supporters of the Ghibelline cause.

From a young age, Castruccio displayed remarkable intelligence and prudence. Initially, Messer Antonio had aspirations for Castruccio to follow a clerical path, with plans to pass on his benefices and canonry to the young boy. However, Castruccio’s strong inclination toward martial pursuits became evident as he excelled in horsemanship, combat, and physical exercises, quickly surpassing his peers.

Castruccio’s Ascendancy and Allies

Castruccio’s humility, respect for others, and courteous demeanour endeared him to the people of Lucca, and his growing reputation caught the attention of Messer Francesco Guinigi, a nobleman and staunch Ghibelline. Recognizing Castruccio’s potential, Messer Francesco took him under his wing. Castruccio’s prowess in physical activities, jousts, and tournaments continued to elevate his status.

Upon Messer Francesco’s passing, Castruccio’s role expanded as he assumed the role of guardian and tutor for Francesco’s son, Pagolo. However, this newfound influence also drew the envy and slander of those who perceived Castruccio as a threat. Among his detractors was Messer Giorgio degli Opizi, a prominent Guelph leader in Lucca, who sought to undermine Castruccio’s reputation and consolidate his own power.

To counter these threats, Castruccio skillfully cultivated friendships and alliances while his reputation continued to soar. Nevertheless, the animosity of his adversaries, particularly Messer Giorgio, grew increasingly intense. In response, Castruccio devised a strategic plan to restore exiled Ghibellines to power in Lucca, further solidifying his position. His ascent in Lucca ignited accusations of tyranny, particularly from Messer Giorgio, but Castruccio remained resolute in his pursuit of his goals.

In the year 1300, the Guelfs came to power in Lucca, leading to the exile of Castruccio’s family from their hometown. The loss of his parents left him orphaned for a second time at the tender age of nineteen, setting the stage for his extraordinary journey from such humble beginnings.

A portrait of Uguccione della Faggiuola - Francesco Allegrini da Gubbio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A portrait of Uguccione della Faggiuola – Francesco Allegrini da Gubbio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Montecatini and Imprisonment

Castruccio’s path as a condottiero, a leader of mercenaries, took root with his service under Philip IV of France in Flanders. He further honed his skills by aligning himself with the influential Visconti family in Lombardy, amassing valuable military experience. In 1313, he found a key ally in Uguccione della Faggiuola, a prominent Ghibelline leader. At this time, Uguccione della Faggiuola ruled over Pisa, with exiled Luccans as part of his support base. Castruccio’s exceptional military acumen quickly became apparent as he made significant contributions to various campaigns during this period.

Castruccio collaborated with these fellow exiles to execute a plan aimed at restoring them to power. He also took measures to strengthen the Onesti tower by stockpiling supplies and munitions, ensuring his readiness for any potential conflicts. On the agreed night, Castruccio signalled Uguccione, who had gathered a substantial force in the vicinity. Their collaboration set in motion a series of events that would significantly shape Castruccio’s future.

In the year 1314, he and Uguccione achieved a momentous feat by successfully capturing Lucca, marking a pivotal turning point in their endeavors. The crucial Battle of Montecatini in 1315 further cemented his reputation, as he played a central role in securing a momentous victory against the Guelph League, led by the formidable Florentines.

As his prominence continued to rise, it ignited jealousy within Uguccione, ultimately leading to Castruccio’s imprisonment and a looming death sentence. However, fate intervened unexpectedly when an uprising in Lucca resulted in the expulsion of Uguccione and his faction. This pivotal event granted Castruccio a second chance, enabling him to regain his freedom and reset the course of his destiny.

From Exile to Lifelong Consul

In June 1316, Castruccio’s fortunes experienced a significant upswing when he was elected as the lifelong consul of Lucca. This prestigious position bestowed upon him immense influence and authority, laying the foundation for his extraordinary journey. This marked the commencement of an unwavering and enduring conflict with the Florentines, a struggle that would ultimately define his legacy. What is even more remarkable is that amidst the ceaseless turmoil of continuous warfare, Castruccio displayed his commitment not only to military conquest but also to civic improvement. He oversaw the meticulous renovation of the Ponte della Maddalena, a bridge spanning the Serchio River, underscoring his dedication to both the martial and civil aspects of his rule.

Shifting Allegiances and Imperial Vicar

Castruccio’s initial allegiance firmly lay with Frederick I of Austria, who astutely recognized his talents and entrusted him with the role of imperial vicar over Lucca, Lunigiana, and Val di Nievole in 1320. However, after the Battle of Mühldorf, Castruccio made a pivotal switch in his allegiance to Emperor Louis the Bavarian, serving him loyally for several years. As Emperor Louis IV embarked on his journey to be crowned in Rome, Castruccio became one of his most influential advisors.

View of Lucca (2022)

View of Lucca (2022)

The Pinnacle of Castruccio’s Career

The zenith of Castruccio’s career arrived in 1325 when he achieved a resounding victory against the Florentines at the Battle of Altopascio. This triumph served as a watershed moment, leading to his appointment as the Duke of Lucca, Pistoia, Volterra, and Luni by Emperor Louis. In the same year he further solidified his power and influence by capturing Pisa, a city of great strategic significance. In 1326, Louis appointed him as the Count of Latran, the Duke of Lucca, with rights of succession for his heirs, and the Senator, or governor, of Rome.

Castruccio Castracani’s life stands as a remarkable saga of ascent, descent, and resurgence, a testament to his unwavering determination and political acumen in a complex and perpetually evolving world.

Excommunication and Decline

However, his prolonged conflict against the papal-aligned Guelfs brought him into direct confrontation with the papacy, accompanied with his deteriorating relation with Louis led to his excommunication by Pope John XXII in 1327. Sadly, Castruccio’s sudden demise in 1328 left his dominion in disarray, rendering it an easy target for the Florentines, who swiftly reclaimed most of his territories.

Castruccio’s Legacy: Shaping One’s Destiny

Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli’s life serves as a powerful testament to the capacity of individuals to transcend humble beginnings and shape their own destinies. His journey from obscurity to prominence showcases the remarkable resilience and determination that can propel one to greatness. Castruccio’s story illustrates that success is not confined to the privileged; it can be achieved through intellect, physical prowess, and the respect of those around us.

Furthermore, his ability to navigate challenges and form strategic alliances in a ever-shifting political landscape exemplifies the value of perseverance and adaptability. While his life had its share of ups and downs, marked by a resounding victory at the Battle of Altopascio and subsequent appointments, it also highlights the unpredictability of life’s journey.

In summary, Castruccio’s legacy inspires us to embrace our own potential to shape our destinies, reaffirming that history is not solely dictated by fate but is equally co-authored by our choices and actions. His story reminds us that we possess the agency to define our place in history, even in the face of uncertainty and ever-changing circumstances.

Documentary (In Italian)

Source: (LVD (Liceo Vallisneri Documentari, 2017)

Featured Image

Castruccio Castracani with a leopard, Florence, San Marco to Palazzo Medici Riccardi

Castruccio Castracani with a leopard, Florence, San Marco to Palazzo Medici Riccardi

“Muro Ovest, Castruccio Castracani con un leopardo, il simbolo della sua casata” is a captivating fresco located within the Cappella dei Magi (Chapel of the Magi) in Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence. Created in 1459 by the renowned artist Benozzo Gozzoli (Benozzo di Lese di Sandro, 1411-1488), this artwork is a visual masterpiece.

The fresco portrays the prominent figure of Castruccio Castracani, a medieval Italian leader, alongside a leopard, the symbol of his noble family. The depiction is a testament to Gozzoli’s exceptional talent in capturing the essence of the era and its powerful personalities.

Located in the heart of Florence, within the magnificent Palazzo Medici Riccardi, this fresco not only showcases Gozzoli’s artistic brilliance but also offers a window into the historical and cultural richness of Renaissance Florence. The image of Castruccio Castracani and his family’s emblem, the leopard, provides a glimpse into the political and aristocratic intricacies of the time.

Visitors to the Cappella dei Magi are transported back in time to an era of political intrigue and artistic grandeur. Gozzoli’s fresco, with its intricate details and vivid colors, is a true masterpiece that captivates both art enthusiasts and history aficionados, offering a visual narrative of Castruccio Castracani’s legacy and the grandeur of the Medici era.

Sources

  • THE LIFE OF CASTRUCCIO CASTRACANI: MACHIAVELLI AS LITERARY ARTIST, HISTORIAN, TEACHER AND PHILOSOPHER on JSTOR. (2023). Jstor.org. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26224130

  • Sweet, Donald Ray. “Castruccio Castracani: A Study on the Origins and Character of a Fourteenth-Century Despotism.” Harvard University Press, 1961.

  • Stace, Christopher. “Castruccio Castracani: Hero or Tyrant?” Barnes & Noble, 1986.

  • Waley, Daniel, and Trevor Dean. “Italian City Republics.” Longman, 1992.

  • Runciman, Steven. “The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century.” Cambridge University Press, 1958.

  • Machiavelli, Niccolò. “The Prince.” 1532.

  • Machiavelli, Niccolò. “The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca.” 1620.

  • Shelley, Mary. “Valperga: Or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca.” G. and W.B. Whittaker, 1823.

  • LVD (Liceo Vallisneri Documentari. (2017). Castruccio Castracani [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFZhORPwdJk

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