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La sfortuna di Jacopo Piccinino: Storia dei bracceschi in Italia 1423-1465.

Serena Ferente. La sfortuna di Jacopo Piccinino: Storia dei bracceschi in Italia 1423-1465.

Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2005. vi + 234 pp. index. append. bibl. [euro]26. ISBN: 88-222-5492-9.

This book provides a fine example of the renewed interest in political history shown by Italian historiography. To begin, it actually fills in a gap: Jacopo Piccinino was one of the most important fifteenth-century condottieri, and a comprehensive study of his life and career was still needed, and has to be welcomed, by the specialists. The research is mainly based upon contemporary diplomatic sources, gathered in various Italian archives and in the Bibliotheque nationale de France, but literary sources also play an important role in completing the puzzle, and in limiting the side effects which could have been caused by the intensive use of diplomatic correspondence--particularly the strong bias produced by the Milanese propaganda.

Jacopo Piccinino was murdered in 1465 by order of the King of Naples, Ferrante of Aragon, in agreement with the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. Through the study of Piccinino's career, the author produces a fairly original interpretation of the fifteenth-century Italian political system. Around the mid-fifteenth century, the opposition between sforzeschi and bracceschi meant much more than a rivalry between two famous military schools, because each mercenary company, by that time, had developed a thick and extended web of alliances and political bonds which was widespread throughout the whole peninsula. Jacopo Piccinino succeeded his father Niccolo, who, in his turn, had taken over the company after the death of Braccio da Montone. This book tells the story of Jacopo's failure to exploit a vast political network (which was partly of his own building and partly inherited by his father) to gain a stable dominion, "acquistare el stato." As it is well known, all the major fifteenth-century condottieri aimed at this goal, which only Francesco Sforza was able to achieve in the end. What, then, makes Jacopo Piccinino something more than a Francesco Sforza manque? What makes him different from other great "condottieri senza stato," such as Bartolomeo Colleoni or Roberto Sanseverino?

According to the author, after Francesco Sforza's seizure of Milan in 1450, the old rivalry between sforzeschi and bracceschi underwent a decisive change: from this moment on, Jacopo Piccinino found himself fighting against the whole Italian political system, formalized with the signing of the Peace of Lodi and the Lega Italica, and the bracceschi became the most important node of a network made up of any political entity (states, factions, families, individuals) which opposed the Lega and their regimes. This interpretation, the author argues, is the best way to appreciate the consistency of some apparently disconnected events which, from 1454 on, disturbed the stability of the Italian system, even after Piccinino's death.

The central core of the book deals with the final victory which the sovereign state, between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern period, achieved over its non-territorial competitors--in our case, a mercenary company. This theme, which not long ago deserved the attention of political scientists such as Hendrik Spruyt, is closely connected with the problem of factions: in particular with the survival of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties, whose relevance to the Italian political system during the Renaissance has been pointed out in several recent studies. Ferente goes beyond here suggesting that it is possible to fill with ideological substance "empty containers" such as the Guelfs and Ghibellines, traditionally considered by the historians mere names meaning nothing from the fourteenth century on. Guelfism, at least, still provided a suitable ideological framework for some political actors: Jacopo Piccinino and the bracceschi ended up as Guelfs because they fought for particular liberties and supported the Angevin claim to the Kingdom of Naples against the Ghibelline entente between the Sforza and the Aragonese kings backed by the Medici and by popes such as Pius II. The bracceschi-guelfi were, according to Ferente, the shadow coalition which opposed the Italian political system, and for some years represented the dark side of the Lega Italica.

Ferente's undoubtely fascinating and thought-provoking vision might involve some risk: for instance, her classification of the political actors as belonging to the Guelf or the Ghibelline side does not always seem to work perfectly, and it could be argued that the interpretation of events such as the peasants' revolt in the diocese of Piacenza as the outcome of a vast plot against the Duke of Milan could be the result of the distortion in perspective caused by a view from above. But after all, to shift the focus from the local (and regional, in Renaissance Italy's case) dimension of politics to get a broader view of the system is a legitimate, sometimes desirable choice, and even necessary when beneath a clear and streamlined narrative the reader can feel ideas pulsating, as in the case of this book.


Universita degli Studi di Milano
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Author:Gentile, Marco
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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