“A true son of Mars”: Ascanio della Corgna’s urban duels


Sixteenth century Italy was a place of constant conflict and shifting political and military balances. Men of status such as Prospero Colonna, Francesco Maria I della Rovere and Ferrante Gonzaga, often served as condottieri, hired military commanders, and became renowned for their martial exploits. This was also the case for Ascanio della Corgna, a noble from Perugia and nephew to Pope Julius III. Ascanio became famous serving as a condottiero in numerous battles, for his ingenuity as a tactician and military engineer, and for his competence with arms both in battle as well as in tournaments.[1] His military career earned him the title of the marquis of Castiglione del Lago. An anonymous poet, contemporary to Corgna, referred to him as “vero figluol di Mars”, a true son of Mars, which highlighted his martial prowess and fierceness as a warrior, as well as his recognition as such.[2] His temper also led to his involvement in several judicial duels of honour.[3] Two of them gave and boosted his reputations as a lethal fencer: the first against Ugo di Carpegna and the second against Giovanni Taddei.

Against the Count of Carpegna

Ascanio’s first famous duel was fought against Ugo, Count of Carpegna in the city centre of Bologna. The Count was the general of the military force that Ascanio had served in since 1535. A series of events caused offense to Ascanio, who then challenged his leader. The duel was conducted in the marble-laid yard above the step of the church of San Petronio. The choice of the location served as an elevated platform where the fighters would be visible to the large crowd of city dwellers and soldiers that had gathered at the base of the steps of San Petronio to watch the duel.  The two fighters brought seconds, and Pietro Strozzi, another wealthy commander, acted as a referee to the duel. Both Ascanio and the Count of Carpegna were already experienced, skilled fencers, with the first having the advantage of youth and the latter of further experience. Each duelist fought with a sidesword and a slightly shorter one handed sword. The duel was bloody and lasted several rounds. Strozzi stopped the duel several times, usually because the Count was injured and enquired if satisfaction had been achieved for della Corgna. The duelists exchanged insults, with the Count of Carpegna accusing Ascanio he challenged him to gain fame and that Ascanio’s requests for him to yield were impossible because they were beneath his status. Eventually with the intervention of the referee and their seconds, the two men reached a compromise and the Count apologised. Ascanio had just defeated his commander, a man of notable status and martial fame in front of the town of Bologna.

The “duel of the century”

Ascanio della Corgna’s second duel took place in Pitigliano, near Perugia, on 26 May 1546.[4] The fight was so ferocious and attracted so much attention that was popularized already by contemporary and early modern historians as “il duello del secolo”, the duel of the century. Ascanio challenged one of his military subordinates to a duel, a younger Florentine noble named Giovanni Taddei. The reason behind Ascanio’s challenge was an insult by Taddei, either for refusing to follow an order or for insulting him in front of other officers who afterwards reported it to their leader. Therefore, in many ways this encounter found Ascanio in a reversed role compared to his first famous duel: he had to fight a younger military subordinate of his who was already a skilled fighter and who would make a name for himself if he defeated the seasoned commander, much like in the case of him and the Count of Carpegna. The preparations of the duel lasted two months, during which time officials were appointed and weapons were chosen. This preparation time allowed the news of the duel to spread in the area and reach great publicity. The two combatants would once again fight with two swords each. The Count of Pitigliano that had allowed the duel appointed himself as the referee.

On the day of the duel the crowd of the city and soldiers gathered outside the city walls. Two elevated stages were erected for the more illustrious guests, invited either by the two men or by the city officials, demonstrating the importance of the event as a social spectacle. Weapons were provided for the combatants sealed, most likely in boxes or other wrapping, to ensure that each fought with the same weapon and had no unfair advantage against the other. The combat was ferocious, but in this case Ascanio emerged swiftly as a clear winner. Taddei first received two thrusts to his right arm, which would have hindered the effective use of his sword, and eventually was killed by a third thrust to his torso.

Niccolò Circignani, The duel of Ascanio della Corgna and Giovanni Taddei, fresco, Pallazo della Corgna.

A case of swords

One of the matters worth further discussion in both of Ascanio’s duels is the choice of weapons for each participant: a pair of single handed swords. This is not an instance of sword and dagger, but two similar swords, one longer and one slightly shorter. Considering the period of their use, it is safe to assume that the swords, or at least the longer one, used were what is commonly referred to today as sideswords.[5] In the fresco of the Palazzo della Corgna depicting this duel, the duelists are also seen wearing some type of glove on their left hand. The glove reaches all the way to the elbow, and it is safe to speculate that it would offer partial protection and was therefore made of leather or most likely mail.

In his Opera Nova, arguably the earliest European to record a nearly complete martial arts system and contemporary to the duels discussed here, Achille Marozzo wrote that the use of a case of sideswords is an excellent and strong choice of weapons that few know how to use, and they should not be used by those who do not know how to fence.[6] In his book, Marozzo treated the use of various weapons such as the two-handed sword, the partisan, the spiedo, the bill, and the sidesword alone or paired with the cloak and the dagger. However, nowhere in his exhaustive treatment of these weapons their use becomes abundantly clear as being something as advanced as in his initial statement regarding the use of the paired sideswords. This is a testament to the martial skills particularly of Ascanio, as well as of his opponents. It is safe to assume that besides his military experience and training, Ascanio was taught how to fence with a fencing master because of his status and chosen profession, most likely with a variety of weapons. Della Corgna’s connection to Achille Marozzo extends beyond the geographical and chronological frame and the use of weapons. Ascanio first served under the command of Guido Rangone as a standard bearer and then as a captain.[7] Rangone was mentioned by Marozzo as another student of his own fencing master, Guido Antonio de Lucca, for whose school Marozzo wrote in his dedication that “it produced more warriors than the belly of the Trojan horse”. Finally, it is worth mentioning that in the sketch and fresco depicting his duel with Taddei both combatants are also using a glove on their left hand, most likely with mail exterior.

His success and overwhelming victories in both duels reinforce the profile of a skilled and experienced fencer. This is especially the case considering that in of the duel against Taddei Ascanio was considerably older and that in the cases of both duels discussed here he was missing his right eye (lost in the battle of Casale Monferrato in 1536), a handicap that would normally weigh in in favour of Taddei because of the dexterity needed in the use of weapons and especially paired arms, his feat becomes even greater.    

Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova (Modena: Bergolae, 1536),
cap. 76.

Urban spaces and fame

A common denominator in both of Ascanio’s duels is the crowd that gathered to watch. The bloody, and in the case of the second duel lethal, fights were transformed into a spectacle for the residents of the cities that hosted them. The crowd in the rooftops and balconies around the church of San Petronio in Bologna hosted part of the spectating crowd, and the elevated landing outside the church served as a stage that allowed citizens to observe the violent spectacle.

In the case of the duel against Taddei the fight was conducted outside the city walls of Pitigliano. Crowds from the city was gathered to watch as well as several of Ascanio’s soldiers. Shopkeepers and homeowners with windows and roofs that overlooked the grounds of the duel rented them out.[8] Not many details regarding the space are given in any of the contemporary accounts. However, it is interesting to highlight some of the details in the fresco of the fight. The duelists are depicted fighting in some form of enclosure much like those used in foot combat tournaments. Additionally, a judge is present holding a staff, which also reflects the same tournament practice. These elements match the descriptions of the narratives of the duel but add some extra depth and detail aligned to the trends of the time of the event. The variety in the garments of the crowd present is fascinating, with colours and outfits that hint to people of different statuses and from various life stratas.

A comparison of the descriptions of the ‘duel of the century’ and the duel of Ascanio against the Count of Carpegna leaves the modern reader with the impression that the latter was a far more interesting spectacle, particularly because of the setting. This might be because of the lack of detail on the combat between of Ascanio and Taddei. However, it is worth considering that their duel was so memorable because of the two-month buildup that led to it. Both men were skilled fighters and had both won famous duels prior to their encounter, with Taddei even winning in one with Ascanio acting as his second. This created an intricate and appealing narrative that most likely excited the public in a period that judicial honour duels were not uncommon.[9]


Among other exploits of his illustrious military career, Ascanio fought against the Ottoman Empire in the Siege of Malta (1565), and acted as one of the commanders of the force that defeated the Ottoman navy in Lepanto (1571). Shortly after the Battle of Lepanto, Ascanio died of fever in Rome. Scenes of his life and his victories are celebrated in the frescoes of the Palazzo della Corgna in Castiglione del Lago, including his record as an undefeated swordsman. Ascanio embodied the finest martial qualities of Italian nobility in the sixteenth century, and his skill helped his reputation reach heroic heights during and after his lifetime. The two duels discussed here helped in the creation of his personal myth –perhaps partially justifying the accusations by the Count of Carpegna – and highlight a martial aspect of the civic life of a military man. 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Moreno dei Ricci, Jacopo Penso and ‘Opera Nova’ for their bibliographical assistance and help studying Ascanio. Grazie ragazzi.

[1] Guido Lana, Ascanio I della Corgna ed il suo tempo (Castiglione del Lago: Nuova Stampa, 1999), p. 13.

[2] Ettore Calzorale, ‘Ascanio della Corgna, I combattenti umbri e il gran “soccorso” di Malta nella canzone di un anonimo coevo’, Bolletino della Deputazione di storia, Patria per l’Umbria, 94 (1997), 173.

[3] For an overview of the types of duels in sixteenth century Italy as well as of the context that cultivated their practice see Fredrick Bryson, The Sixteenth-Century Italian Duel; a Study in Renaissance Social History (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1938).

[4] Ariodante Fabretti, Le biografie dei capitani venturieri dell’ Umbria (Montepulciano: Angiolo Fumi, 1842), pp. 603-604.

[5] Roberto Gotti, Daniel Jaquet and Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis, Roberto Gotti, Daniel Jaquet and Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis, European Martial Arts: From Vulcan’s Forge to the Arts of Mars (Botticino: Gairethinx, 2019), p.218

[6] Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova, ( Modena: Bergolae, 1536), cap. 76.

[7] Giovanni Tarcagnota, Delle historie del mondo, vol. 4 (Venice: Giunti, 1592), pp. 188-189.

[8] Bruce Ware Allen, The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle Between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John (Lebanon: ForeEdge, 2015), p. 221.

[9] Marco Cavina, Il sangue dell’onore: Storia del duello (Rome: Laterza, 2005).

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