1354: Fra Moriale, condottiero entrepreneur

1 comment August 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date 1354, the Provencal mercenary Montreal d’Albarno was beheaded in Rome by order of the tribune Cola di Rienzi.

Known locally as Fra Moriale (English Wikipedia entry | Italian), our man was a former Knight Hospitaller who turned his knack for violence into an entrepreneurial career — for he led one of the very first of those condottiero companies whose profitable ravaging the peninsula would pave the way for generations of unscrupulous mercenaries.

It was really Moriale’s predecessor, a Swabian knight named Werner von Urslingen, who first perceived that Italy’s wars had potential for such lucrative disruption. Reputed to have rode into battle with a breastplate blazoned with his Thielesque motto “The enemy of God, of pity and of mercy”, Urslingen had about 1342 founded a swords-for-hire business known as “The Great Company”.

While not literally the first gang of condottieri, it was the gang that changed the way Italians fought. By 1385 one pact between city-states cursed Werner in its preamble as the man who “first devised this plague of societies.”*

Fielding a massive army of some 3,000 cavalrymen at the outset — its fighting strength was north of 10,000 by Moriale’s day — the Great Company could put more muscle in the field than Italy’s little principalities could readily deal with, and Werner et al were soon realizing dividends hand over mailed fist by alternately hiring themselves out to this or that city, or squeezing them for tributary payoffs by the threat of pillage.

As the inability of the squabbling communes to suppress this racket became manifest, mercenaries fast multiplied into “a multitude of villains of various nations associated in arms by the greed to appropriate the fruits of labor of innocent and unarmed people, let loose to every cruelty, to extort money, methodically devastating the countryside.”** Condottieri would plague, and often dominate, Italy into the 16th century, with some of their more illustrious number ascending ducal palaces and others the scaffold.

By the time we reach events in this post, Werner von Urslingen is several years into comfortable retirement. But like any successful startup, the firm he launched still thrived.

Indeed, the Great Company had a stable, nigh-professional organization to match its bottom-line objectives. “Structurally, [the Great Company] resembled a corporation,” according to William Caferro. It had “a well-articulated hierarchy” which a governing board comprised “of Werner and a council made up of the leaders (corporals) of the various contingents.”

The booty derived from pillage and plunder was carefully divided by the leader and the council among the company’s rank and file. The company drew to its service lawyers and notaries to deal with legal issues and make contracts (condotte), treasurers and bankers to handle money, priests and prostitutes to cater respectively to spiritual and carnal needs.

In the early 1350s, Moriale delighted all these vendors by banking record profits in central Italy. And in the freebooting business, the balance sheets pleasingly compounding the success: “Because of the enormous booty which the company was taking, many soldiers, having completed their terms of service, without wanting further pay, went off to join Fra Moriale,” the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani wrote in 1354. “Sometimes they had themselves dismissed in order to join him.” Matteo also notes that the businesslike Moriale “guaranteed safety to the purchasers [of his pillage] and treated them correctly in order to facilitate his commercial dealings [and] set up councillors and secretaries through whom he directed everything.” (Via Michael Mallett’s Mercenaries and their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy)

A few books about the emergent mercenary business

In August of 1354, this captain of industry rode to Rome to collect on a debt: his brothers’ loan to Cola di Rienzi which had helped the latter re-establish his power in Rome after a spell in exile.

But Rienzi, who was short on cash himself (the exhausted treasury would in a few weeks’ time cost the tribune his life) resolved the debt and did a little opportunistic expropriation of his own by having his wealthy creditor seized and condemned to death. This strangely attracted the opprobrium of treachery among contemporaries, as if its victim were not a man who had founded his devastating career on infidelity. But the definitions of honor and knightly conduct at this juncture were flexible enough to admit the legitimacy of Moriale’s operation: indeed, Caferro even gives us the priceless scene of the buccaneering Hospitaller being dragged to his Roman executioner as he howls, “Don’t you see that I’m a knight? How can you be so despicable?”

After the beheading, a fighter named Konrad von Landau took leadership of the Great Company. The cutthroat business continued profitably shaking down city-states until 1363, when a burgeoning new rival startup, John Hawksood‘s White Company,† thrashed its predecessor into irrelevance at the Battle of Canturino.

* Cited in Caferro’s Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena; the book argues (pdf review) that its titular commune slipped into its spiral towards political irrelevance and eventual absorption due largely to the military and financial ravages imposed by the condottieri. From a historical perspective safely distant from the companies’ day-to-day predations, the condottieri arguably helped to drive the slow consolidation of Italy’s many micro-states into a handful of larger polities.

** The words are those of Pope Urban V in a 1364 bull, cited by Caferro’s “Italy and the Companies of Adventure in the Fourteenth Century” in The Historian, June 1996.

† The Englishman Hawkwood formed the core of his team out of veterans availing a pause in the Hundred Years’ War.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Mercenaries,Nobility,Soldiers,Wrongful Executions

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1354: Cola di Rienzi, last of the Roman Tribunes

1 comment October 8th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1354, Cola di Rienzi (or Rienzo) was slain by a miserly Roman mob — rather a lynching than an execution, but by any name the tragic end to one of history’s most amazing political careers.*

“Almost the only man,” in the estimation of his admiring biographer Edward Bulwer-Lytton,** “who ever rose from the rank of a citizen to a power equal to that of monarchs without a single act of violence or treachery.”

So magnetic was that era’s revival of classical learning that young Rienzi’s plebeian parents found a way on an innkeeper’s wages to immerse the boy in Cicero, Seneca, and the rest. As Gibbon put it, “the gift of a liberal education, which they painfully bestowed, was the cause of his glory and untimely end.” (Surely this is an object lesson for present-day families contemplating the daunting cost of university education.)

And the oratorical gifts he thereby developed found ready exercise lamenting Rome’s medieval degradation.


This View of the Campo Vaccino actually dates to 1636, but you get the idea. “Campo Vaccino”: that’s “cow pasture,” also known (to you, me, and Julius Caesar) as the Roman Forum.

Rome had bled away the grandeur of its imperial past without recovering the liberty of its populace. A haughty and dissolute aristocracy tyrannized the brackish city: a brawl between rival factions took Rienzi’s own brother’s life, with no prospect of justice.


Rienzi vows to obtain justice for his murdered brother, depicted in a pre-Raphaelite painting by the young William Holman Hunt.

Added to this civic humiliation (though only fortuitous for Rienzi’s political opportunity), the papacy itself had decamped for its captivity in Avignon.

What to do?

How about — overthrow the bastards?

Astonishingly, for Rienzi, to dare was to do: on Pentecost in 1347, he rallied a Roman mob and proclaimed the Republic re-established — taking for himself the ancient honorific of Tribune and the real power of an autocrat. The nobility routed in disarray, or else submitted to the sudden new authority.

For the balance of the year, Rienzi’s word was law in Rome, and as a messianic, popular dictator he cleared woods of bandits, imposed the death penalty for (all) murderers, and beat the aristocracy’s re-invasion with a citizen militia. He audaciously began to resume the primacy of the caput mundi: as “Tribune”, Rienzi summoned delegations from the other Italian cities, and presumed to arbitrate the disputes of neighboring kingdoms. Audacity veered into delirium as he pressed demands on the likes of the Holy Roman Emperor. He acquired a taste for fine wine and good clothes.

“Never perhaps has the energy and effect of a single mind been more remarkably felt than in the sudden, though transient, reformation of Rome by the tribune Rienzi,” Gibbon marveled. “A den of robbers was converted to the discipline of a camp or convent: patient to hear, swift to redress, inexorable to punish, his tribunal was always accessible to the poor and stranger; nor could birth, or dignity, or the immunities of the church, protect the offender or his accomplices.”

The great humanist Petrarch, Rienzi’s contemporary, was smitten by the unfolding revolution.

But almost as soon as Rienzi’s republic began, the man fell: another invasion found the Roman in the street deaf to the alarm bells, and Rienzi fled.

“He was a dreamer rather than a man of action,” is the charge of the Catholic encyclopedia; excitable, injudicious, spendthrift, and prey to the “Asiatic” emoluments of his station.

This career alone would merit a remembrance, but Rienzi had a second act.


Richard Wagner’s first hit opera — though hard to come by in the wild nowadays — was Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (synopsis), from a libretto based on Bulwer-Lytton’s homage.

After a long spell in exile, he was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor and transferred to the papacy, where he remained comfortably imprisoned for a couple of years. When the pontiff’s hat changed heads to Innocent VI, the latter freed the illustrious ex-Tribune and dispatched him back to Rome under the title of Senator — intending him a catspaw to re-assert the supremacy the papacy had abandoned by moving away.

Within weeks of arrival in 1354, Rienzi again made himself master of the city.

And within months thereafter, he had fallen again — to his death.

He is charged in this last term with severity (the execution of a high-born freebooter, Fra Monreale, in particular), with avarice and abuse of power and once more with political incompetence.

Gibbon claims that Rienzi “contracted the habits of intemperance and cruelty: adversity had chilled his enthusiasm, without fortifying his reason or virtue; and that youthful hope, that lively assurance, which is the pledge of success, was now succeeded by the cold impotence of distrust and despair.” We incline to prefer Bulwer-Lytton’s more generous estimation of a man who with no resource save his own brilliance twice recovered to his low-born person the tattered remnants of the purple and dared against a thousand mighty antagonists to lift it on the standard of the Gracchi. Flaws, and they fatal, he possessed in abundance: but greatness even more.

At any rate, all the scolds upon Rienzi’s imperfections were so much froth in 1354. He certainly did not succumb to the greater virtue of the polis, but merely to its shortsighted refusal to bear a levy:

it was from a gabelle on wine and salt that he fell. To preserve Rome from the tyrants it was necessary to maintain an armed force; to pay the force a tax was necessary; the tax was imposed — and the multitude joined with the tyrants, and their cry was, “Perish the traitor who has made the gabelle!” This was their only charge — this the only crime that their passions and their fury could cite against him.

Rienzi’s eloquence, so often his decisive weapon, failed to move the shortsighted mob that besieged him, and he was hauled to a platform in the Capitol where public executions had been performed at his behest. “A whole hour, without voice or motion, he stood amidst the multitude half naked and half dead: their rage was hushed into curiosity and wonder: the last feelings of reverence and compassion yet struggled in his favour; and they might have prevailed, if a bold assassin had not plunged a dagger in his breast.” (Gibbon)

If this amazing character’s contradictions seem difficult to reconcile and his actions sometimes perplexing, Bulwer-Lytton argues in Rienzi’s defense that we must view him as a complex man ultimately fired not by political ambition but by religious zealotry. One thinks of Savonarola, the prim monk who mastered Florence and perished in flames, save for the essential detail: Rienzi’s loss “was bitterly regretted … for centuries afterwards, whenever that wretched and degenerate populace dreamed of glory or sighed for justice, they recalled the bright vision of their own victim, and deplored the fate of Cola di Rienzi.”


Statue of Rienzi in Rome. (cc) image from ZeroOne.

* And surely in keeping with the time-honored way for Roman chiefs to fall.

** We’ve encountered Bulwer-Lytton glancingly in these pages; his novel Zanoni climaxes with the beheading of its fictional title character in one of the last carts of the French Revolution’s Terror, and he wrote a novel (savaged by Thackeray) about executed intellectual Eugene Aram. The “biography” in question for this piece is actually a work of historical fiction, Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes; the quoted sections are from Bulwer-Lytton’s (non-fiction) afterword.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Famous,Heads of State,History,Italy,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Papal States,Pelf,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Revolutionaries,Summary Executions

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