There are many equestrian statues, from the time of Classical Greece and Rome onwards, but this one is in a class of its own; it stands head and shoulders above the rest. For the sheer arrogance of power, it is unbeatable. Like most equestrian statues it was set up out of doors, and it has a patina of dark green verdigris, as the air has attacked the copper in the bronze alloy from which it was cast. It is placed in an open situation, in the Campo SS Giovanni e Paulo (Saints John and Paul Square) alongside the large Church of Saints John and Paul, whose facade is clearly visible as the background in the picture above.
This Campo is in the north-east of the city of Venice (2), somewhat off the usual tourist routes, quite close to the large dock basin (3) of the Arsenale (ar sen arl ay) which was a manufactory for producing ships, guns and other weaponry. The name of the Venice Arsenale was adopted into other languages, including English, to describe a centre of weapons manufacture. The English football team “Arsenal”, came originally from the district of Woolwich, which had the large Woolwich Arsenal and dockside on the banks of the lower Thames Estuary.
This position is altogether appropriate for the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, who was one of the famous condottieri (con dot ee air ee), usually translated as “soldiers of fortune” or “mercenaries”. They were trained professional soldiers, who were paid by their employers, but sold their skills to the highest bidder, and owed allegiance to no one. This independence and aggression is amply conveyed, as Colleoni glowers over the pauldron (shoulder guard) of his full-plate armour (4).
Even more menacing is the treatment of the eyes (5) of Colleoni, but whether this is a realistic likeness is very doubtful, as he died in 1475, but the sculptor, Andrea del Verrocchio, only began work in 1481, six years after Colleoni’s death. He worked on the statue for seven years, modelling it in clay, but it was still unfinished when Verrocchio himself died in 1488. It was Verrocchio’s last major work and was finished and cast by Alessandro Leopardi.
It seems likely, then, that the statue is more symbolic than representational. In his will, Bartolomeo Colleoni left a large sum of money to the Republic of Venice for the war against the Muslim Ottoman Turks. He also asked Venice to erect an equestrian statue as a memorial to himself in the great Piazza San Marco. However, there was a wise law against monuments in the Piazza and the square remains uncluttered to the present day (6). As a reasonable alternative, it was placed in its present location, beside the Scuola Grande di San Marco, (St Mark’s Upper School) and the large Church of SS Giovanni e Paulo.
It needs to be said that Bartolomeo Colleoni (7) was rather more than a plain mercenary soldier and adventurer, because he ultimately became Captain-General of the Republic of Venice. He was born in the village of Salza, in the province of Bergamo (8) in northern Italy, in about 1400, to a well-to-do or “noble” family. At that time, in the early fifteenth century, Italy, as a nation did not exist, and the Italian Peninsula was divided up into a number of small kingdoms, principalities, and duchies. This made for political instability and the various states were frequently at war with each other. It was within this situation that the condottieri were able to flourish
Bergamo, when Bartolomeo was born, was part of the Duchy of Milan (8). There had been a great dynastic and political struggle between two factions, (the Guelfs and the Ghibellines), which ended with the Guelfs being banished from the lands of the Ghibellines. Bartolomeo Colleoni’s father, Paolo and his family had been banished from the Duchy of Milan, for this reason. Paolo had captured the castle (9) of Trezzo (tret so) in 1404, but was assassinated by his cousins, probably on the orders of Filippo Visconti (10), the Duke of Milan.
Young Bartolomeo began his military career with Filippo d’Arcello, master of Piacenza (8, 11), moving from one condottieri group to another, until in 1432, he began to work for the Venetian Republic. He was very successful in recapturing towns and territory from the Duchy of Milan. He won a series of battles at Brescia, Verona and Lake Garda (8).
After a complex series of political and military manoeuvres, in which Colleoni changed his allegiances several times, in 1455 he was appointed Captain-General for life, of the forces of the Republic of Venice, and he remained in this post for twenty years until he died in 1475.
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
I have made use of various reference works for maps, and to check the accuracy of information.
(A) “Venice, Queen of the Sea” (no editor or author specified) by Edizioni Sorti, 1981-86
(B) “Venice” by Michelangelo Muraro and André Grabar, Portland House, 1986
(C) “Venice” Berlitz Travel Guide, Macmillan
1. Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni Campo SS Giovanni e Paulo, Venezia (Venice), Italy
2. The islands of the Venice Lagoon and the site of the Campo SS Giovanni e Paulo (Berlitz, op. cit)
3. Detailed location of equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (Sorti, op. cit)
4. The face of Colleoni (Corbis, google image)
5. The eyes of Colleoni (google image)
6. The Piazza San Marco (Sorti, op. cit)
7. Bartolomeo Colleoni by Cristofano dell’ Altissimo (google image)
8. Northern Italy and the Plain of Lombardy, showing places in the life of Bartolomeo Colleoni (Author)
9. The Visconti Palazzo at Trezzo, with the old castle higher up the hill (google image)
10. Filippo Visconti, Duke of Milan, a painting by Cristofano dell’ Altissimo (google image)
11. Corano, Piacenza (google image)