ODD TRUTHS: BONA LONGOBARDA, COMMANDRESS OF IMPERIAL VENICE
“As an expert in military discipline…This valorous woman, with sword in hand, commanded troops of soldiers like a captain…”
-from Gynevera de le clare donne by Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, eds. C. Ricci and A. Bacchi della Lega (1888).
“From her earliest years she hunted wild beasts in the woods, and almost like another Diana, she led many companions along the way, coursing through the countryside…”
-from Della officina historica libri quattro: nella quale si spiegano essempi antichi e moderni by Giovanni Felice Astolfi (1622).
The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmed II sent shockwaves across Western Europe. While Christendom struggled to come to terms with the Ottoman victory, scores of Byzantine intellectuals scrambled and fled south to the courts of Italian elites, such as the Medici. Meanwhile, forces loyal to the Church expected the Venetians (then the custodians of one of the oldest regimes on the Italian peninsula) to defend their interests in the Aegean and check the expansion of the Ottoman navy. For commercial reasons, the Ottomans and Venetians managed to enjoy a short-lived peace. However, war eventually broke out in the 1460s.
During this period, The Venetian Republic commissioned a married couple to defend Negropont (modern-day Chalkis) a Greek city of considerable strategic importance. One of these officers was Captain Pier-Brunero Sanvitale, a seasoned soldier and scion of the Sanvitali, a noble family from Parma. The other was a battle-hardened woman named Bona Longobarda (or Bona de Vultulina). Each was a decorated warlord, but Bona, unlike her highborn husband, had none of the advantages of a formal education.
Born in Valtellina (then part of the Duchy of Milan) to a peasant family, Bona was entirely self-made, an autodidact when it came to the art of war. Like Joan of Arc and countless other commandresses, she became something of a living legend in her own lifetime, and her accomplishments did not go unnoticed. Thus, when Venetian senators charged her with the protection of one of the republic’s most important maritime cities, they were making a decision based on Bona’s undisputed track record of military prowess. At the time, she had all the necessary skills down pat: castle-sieging experience, horsemanship, diplomacy, and hand-to-hand armoured combat. These she had acquired after spending a number of years in the company of condottieri, the for-hire martial enforcers or men-at-arms employed by Italian lordlings and despots.
Bona was first discovered by her future husband Pier-Brunero while he was stationed near her home in Morbegno in the 1430s. According to Jacobus Bergomensis and Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, Bona originally worked as a herdswoman who routinely walked around the woods and countryside with her mules and hunting dogs. At some point during Brunero’s tour of duty, so the story goes, Brunero and Bona struck up a relationship of some kind and became paramours. Brunero, attracted to Bona’s masculinity, vivacity, and confidence, took her under his wing and she, disguised as a soldier, accompanied him on his other military campaigns for Francesco Sforza.
Brunero’s peers were rapscallions and freebooters, true adventurers in the original sense of the word (i.e. men who hazard all in the pursuit of some risky enterprise). From these armed picaroons who possessed both the guile of Mercury and the bellicosity of Mars, Bona learned the business and politics of conflict in the Italian city-states. Mercenary artifice differed greatly from the stratagems openly espoused by imperial rulers. Bribery, intimidation, sabotage; these were the kind of strong-arm tactics that Bona likely picked up from her fellow soldiers and employed in battle.
Bona put her skills of persuasion to use in 1443, when Alfonso I, King of Naples jailed her partner in Valencia for intrigue. In actuality, Brunero’s former employer Francesco Sforza had orchestrated Brunero’s imprisonment by sending letters that questioned his allegiances. Bona spent the following years soliciting letters from European potentates to persuade Alfonso to secure Brunero’s release. Finally, in 1453, Alfonso pardoned his prisoner and Bona arrived in Valencia to meet him. In his Commentaria rerum gestarum a Jacobo Picinino, Porcellio de’ Pandoni, one of Alfonso’s court humanists praised her as an “incredible woman” who had “traversed the ocean many times to secure her lover’s freedom”. Like some kind of earthbound Diana, Bona appeared in full Amazonian dress, equipped with a helmet, bow, arrows, and calf-length boots.
After the prison reunion, Brunero and Bona made their relationship official by getting married, and Bona helped her husband to gain a lucrative contract (20,000 ducats to be exact) with the Venetian Republic. Under the command of their new patron, Brunero and Bona laid siege to a Sforza fortress in Brescia. Bona swiftly became the rallying spirit of the Venetian troops and attacked the walls with matchless bravura. Apparently her ferocity and courage impressed the Venetian doge Pasquale Malipiero, who then sent Bona and her husband east to fight the Turks.
At Negropont, Bona and Brunoro fought in what would be the most important conflict of their shared military career. Tragically but not unexpectedly (as both warriors were over the age of fifty) Brunero was slain in battle and Bona fell victim to disease. She died in Modon (modern-day Methoni) in 1468 while en route to see her children in Venice. Negropont was eventually captured by the Ottomans in 1470. The defeat signalled the beginning of Venice’s waning influence as the dominant sea power in the Greek isles.
Like all folk heroes, Bona’s demise failed to tarnish her larger-than-life reputation. Renaissance moralists gushed about her virtues and ethics, and historians—hundreds of years after her death—continued to extol her exceptional valour and intrepidity. But her life was not the typical rags-to-riches moral tale. Given the nature of her profession as a woman-at-arms , Bona encountered adversity at every turn. She excelled because she was an adventurer at heart, one who could dominate fortune and adapt to the rolling tides of fate. Uprooted from the peasantry, Bona ascended to the world of geopolitics and became one of the many military leaders chosen to engage the seemingly indomitable Ottoman navy. In every way she exemplified the old Latin adage: “Fortune favours the bold.”