It is right for us to celebrate great deeds of valor of ages past. By doing so we are inspired to achievement in our own affairs, and become connected to that electric current of masculine virtue that winds through the entire landscape of civilized, productive effort on this earth. It is good for us to be reminded of the feats of our predecessors; for if they fought, struggled, and overcame, then we know we have the ability to do the same. Let us now turn our attention to Italy during the waning days of the Renaissance.
The following account is described in Pietro Bembo’s History of Venice (I.3). For some it is a long-dead tome; but for me, it is something very different. The year is 1487, and the Republic of Venice has a commercial domain that stretches across the Adriatic Sea, even pushing into the eastern Mediterranean. The shadow of war, however, appears from the north, in the Tyrol region of the Alps. As sometimes happens, conflict began for petty and trivial reasons. Sigismund, the cousin of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick, was a local potentate there. As the historian Pietro Bembo describes him with subtle mockery, “He was not a bad man, but was the kind who readily listened to bad men” (Homo non malus, sed qui facile malis hominibus crederet). Venetian interests stretched into the Alps, and the republic’s traders and businessmen conducted a brisk and profitable business there.
For reasons that had much to do with greed, Sigismund decided to pick a fight with the Venetians. He seized a group of Venetian traders on a flimsy pretext and confiscated their merchandise; he also took steps to seize Venetian mines and quarries in the region. The Germans then sent a military force under the leadership of Gaudenz von Matsch to occupy the territory of Verona. They assembled on the east bank of the Adige River and marched for about fifteen miles to the town of Rovereto, and promptly attacked the town. The Germans made use of a particularly novel incendiary weapon during this siege, a projectile machine that hurled iron canisters of flammable pitch (i.e., what would today be called “Greek fire” or napalm). It struck terror among the defenders and could only be resisted with great effort.
When news of these provocations reached the Venetian senate, a military force was raised in response. The local Italian commander in Rovereto was relieved, having been found insufficiently aggressive in his duties. He was replaced by a career soldier of proven worth named Roberto da Sanseverino, who accepted the command with enthusiasm. He headed for the Tyrol, accompanied by his sons, who were also military commanders. When Sanseverino arrived in the Alps, he found morale to be low and the forces there in disarray. Meanwhile, the Germans forces attacked the areas near Vicenza and Feltre and approached the borders of Friuli. These marauders, however, were beaten back with great loss of life on their part by a Venetian commander named Girolamo Savorgnam.
There then occurred an incredible incident that is the subject of this writing. Bembo tells the story with relish, and I will re-tell it with the same enthusiasm. Among the Germans engaged in this Alpine war was a brave young man named Georg Sonnenberg. He led a cavalry squad and was never known to shy away from a fight. Sonnenberg had heard that the Venetian commander’s son, Antonio da Sanseverino, had boasted that he could defeat any German present in armed, man-to-man combat. We must remember that this was 1487, and individual combats were not unheard of during war. Antonio Sanseverino said he was willing to fight it out with any German present, and would show the world how how much the Italians exceeded the Germans in martial ability (Se cum illo decertaturum proque sua parte ostensurum quantum belli gloria Itali Germanos antecellant).
Thus the stage was set for a showdown between the heroes of two opposing armies. Sonnenberg sent a messenger (a military trumpeteer called a tubicen in Latin) to the Venetians stating that he would take Sanseverino up on his offer to fight. The latter readily obliged, and made the necessary arrangements. On the agreed day, the two mounted duelists met on a patch of ground that was situated precisely between both sides. On a given signal, they both charged towards each other, lances extended, ready to put their courage to the ultimate test. Besides lances, each man was armed with a sword and dagger.
The two mounted combatants collided in a furious crash that sent gasps of awe through the ranks of the observers on each side. Antonio’s lance smashed against Sonnenberg’s breastplate and splintered; his horse, confused and disoriented, crashed against a wooden fence enclosing the field, stumbled, and then collapsed to the ground. Antonio quickly leaped off, drew his sword and dagger, and prepared himself for the charge which he knew would now be coming. A knight was expected to know how to fight both mounted and on foot. A wooden post sunk into the ground he used as cover as he awaited Sonnenberg’s attack. It had been agreed beforehand that the horses could not be stabbed or attacked; this was to be a man-to-man fight alone.
Sonnenberg hammered away at Antonio with ferocity, his swinging sword forming a glittering cage of steel around Antonio Sanseverino. But Antonio, skilled swordsman that he was, ably deflected the blows using both his own sword and the wooden post. And since both of their bodies were protected by helmets, breastplates, and leg armor, neither one of them could get in a killing blow. Finally, Antonio rushed at Georg Sonnenberg and was able to knock his sword out of his hand. But the German then seized a club he had in his saddlebag, hoping to bludgeon the Italian to death. At this point, the Italian taunted his mounted opponent, telling him in a loud voice:
Why do you force me to fight alone against two: one protected by the rules of combat, another by foreign weapons? If you are a man, fight me fairly as an equal (Si vir es, aequo Marte manum consere!).
This was what Antonio said to Sonnenberg. Not wanting to look badly in front of his comrades, Georg Sonnenberg leaped down from his horse and lunged at the Italian, weapons drawn. Both of them were large men, tall and lean, and of about equal weight. It was not long before they were both rolling around on the ground, as the surrounding spectators remained transfixed by the spectacle. In time, however, the German was able to get the better of Sanseverino; a piece of the Italian’s clothing had become snagged in Sonnenberg’s armor, and this restricted his movement. Sonnenberg was able to stab his opponent repeatedly in the buttocks, the one place in his body that was not covered with armor.
Bleeding profusely and unable to stand, Sanseverino now realized he had been beaten. There was nothing he could do at this point. At this point, Bembo tells us, he said to Sonnenberg:
You win, since Fortune wishes it to be so. But you win through circumstance, not through martial virtue.
He was wrong, of course. In battle, and in life, circumstance counts just as much as ability, and comprises an essential ingredient in the outcome of human events. Yet we may forgive this comment as the face-saving retort of a proud and noble combatant. Which of us, in similar circumstances, would behave any differently? To his credit, the German spared his life. Coming from a culture that prized bravery, he saw no point in killing the Italian, and believed that doing so would have violated the warrior’s code. In fact, Sonnenberg brought the Italian back to his camp, accorded him honors, and saw to it that his wounds were attended to. This showed a greatness of soul–a magnitudo animi–that proved Sonnenberg to be a noble spirit as well as a fearsome warrior.
Bembo later tells us that Antonio Sanseverino made a complete recovery from his wounds. In fact, he re-entered the thick of the fighting soon after, even saving his father Roberto when he was surrounded by a group of Germans. Antonio threw himself into the thick of the fighting and fought off his father’s attackers, giving the elder Sanseverino time to make his escape.
This is the story of the combat between Sanseverino and Sonnenberg, two men of superlative masculine virtue. It was an age and an ethic different from our own. And they were, both of them, worthy of that ethic.
Read more in Cicero’s timeless On Duties, and in Sallust’s stirring military histories, in my new and innovative translations: