Assault on the church

The passage commented on this article is taken from a chronicle written in the last years of the fifteenth century by the notary Iacopo Malga from Brescia. This interesting passage demonstrates the bellicosity of the inhabitants of Brescia’s valleys, in particular that of Val del Garza and Val Trompia. In the last years of the twelfth century the hermit Costanzo founded a church and a monastery on the mountain (Conche mountain) that separates these two valleys. He was later sanctified after his death[1]. In 1443, following the transfer of the religious complex to the nuns of Santa Caterina in Brescia, the Dominican fathers set out in search of the remains of the holy founder, hidden inside the church. The remains were found only in 1481 and then brought to Brescia in the same year. This transfer was at risk of degenerating into a proper carnage, as Iacopo Malga reports:

Fig.1: The complex of Conche, Photo credit: Mik2001.

“[…] Men from neighbouring villages were involved in the transfer of the saint’s body from the church of Conche. The inhabitants of the villages of Nave, Caino, Lumezzane and certain other villages had heard of the discovery, and many went to Conche, armed with partesane (partizans), giaverine, and even sticks. They had the support of some citizens of Brescia, such as the late Count Luigi Avogadro and others who had an interest in those lands. Their intention was to force the local friars to give up the relics. One of them, the Venetian Tommaso Donato — prior priest of the convent of San Domenico, a talented theologian, good preacher and currently patriarch of Venice — decided to hide the body inside the church tower, to ensure that the villagers would not find it. It was a useless attempt because the villagers — furious — climbed the bell tower, damaged it and took the body from the friars by force. They carried it, kept inside a chest, down the mountain into the land of Nave. Some of these villagers animatedly discussed friar Tommaso inside the church, and also tried to kill him with the ronche (bills), but he managed to escape. The villagers acted like this out of devotion to the saint: they said that few would know him as long as his body remained in Conche. Some of them were imprisoned, but they came out of prison cursing the saint and swearing they never knew him[2].

On the one hand, the passage quoted above shows all the bellicosity of the inhabitants of the valleys, driven into homicidal fury for several reasons. In addition, we should consider, at least in part, the religious devotion towards the saint and the willingness — reported also by the notary — to give his remains a more prestigious allocation. On the other hand, some noblemen supported the expedition. The counts of Avogadro, mentioned in the chronicle, had kept Lumezzane as a fiefdom since 1427 and had every interest in the glorification of a saint who had worked in the vicinity of their territories. The expedition was not that of a feudal army, but these noblemen probably manipulated the commoners and created a kind of “popular militia”. The local rulers appropriately exploited the ferocity of the inhabitants of the two valleys, on more than one occasion. In 1512, the people of Nave, under the leadership of the condottiero Valerio Paitone, heroically resisted the French assaults, at least until the sacking of the 26th July[3]. The Venetians integrated the inhabitants of the valleys into the cernide, the military corps recruited in the mainland of the Serenissima[4]. The militiamen of the valleys were harquebusiers, unlike those of the Brescia plain, who formed regiments of pikemen[5]. The governors of Brescia in their reports to the Consiglio dei X repeatedly celebrated the value of these highlanders and their attachment to Venetian rule[6].

Fig.2: Saint Costanzo and Beato Innocenzo, Saint Maurizio Church of Niardo (Brescia),
Photo credit: Luca Giarelli.

The reference to the arms used by the inhabitants is also quite interesting Partisans, chiaverine, bills and even sticks[7] are mentioned in the passage cited above. Except for the bills, we do not know and cannot exactly establish the type of the first two arms described. There is no exact correspondence between the current terms and those used at the time in the territories of Brescia. They were certainly hafted arms, hardly distinguishable improvised agricultural tools — in particular in the case of the bills[8].

Fig.3: Italian bill from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1500 c., inv. 14.25.159. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Curiously, all three villages mentioned in the testimony, namely Nave, Caino and Lumezzane, were all known for arms manufacturing. In 1609-1610, swords pommel were produced in Lumezzane and at the beginning of the nineteenth century flintlock mechanisms and bayonets[9]. Swords were produced in Caino from the end of the sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century[10]. In Nave, the same production has been recorded starting from the fourth decade of the sixteenth century, despite two forges that were already active from the end of the fifteenth century[11]. It is not known what exactly was produced in those forges in those earlier years but we can speculate that it was either arms or agricultural tools.

In conclusion, the passage reported covers two important aspects of Brescian history relevant to modern research on martial culture: first, the (successful) attempt by Brescia noblemen to create a “paramilitary” force, exploiting the bellicosity of the inhabitants of the valleys; second, the mention of the arms used by the villagers. It is indeed a peculiar fact, although not directly connected with the story, that the origins of the armed men could be traced to three cities known for their arm production. Nonetheless, as the Brescian illuminist Carlo Maggi wrote in 1781, the manufacture and use of arms were closely linked in the Brescia territories, and it contributed in making their inhabitants particularly warlike[12].

[1] San Costanzo was born in the second half of the twelfth century, perhaps in Niardo in Val Camonica. He was from a noble family and served in the comune of Brescia as an official and general, until he decided to walk away from his wealth and become a hermit. He retired and went to live in Conche, a locality between the villages of Nave (Val del Garza) and Lumezzane (Valtrompia). There, he devoted himself to the study of the sacred scriptures [Carlo Doneda, Notizie di San Costanzo Eremita bresciano e Memorie istoriche del monastero di S. Caterina di Brescia (Brescia: Giammaria Rizzardi, 1755)].

[2] Cronaca del notaio Iacopo Malga, Le cronache inedite bresciane, Vol. I, ed. by Paolo Guerrini (Brescia: Moretto, 1922), 4-135 (pp. 35-36).

The remains of San Costanzo were brought to the church of Santa Caterina di Brescia, apart the bones of one of its arms, and then splitbetween the church of San Domenico and the Duomo. The relics are currently kept inside the parish church of Nave. The saint is the patron of Nave and Niardo, and he is celebrated on the twelfth of February.

[3] Carlo Pasero, Francia, Spagna, Impero a Brescia (1509-1516) (Brescia: Tipo-Lito Fratelli Geroldi, 1957). Sanuto claims that on 25 April 1512: “[…] the French had gone to loot the valley of Nave: they returned to Brescia wounded and humiliated, many of them having died. San Marco wanted to show him that he was the defender and the protector of the Venetians” [I diari di Sanuto, Vol. XIV (Venice: F. Visentini, 1886), p. 293].

[4] Carlo Pasero, “Aspetti dell’ordinamento militare del territorio bresciano durante il dominio veneto”, Commentari dell’Ateneo di Brescia, 1937, 9-39; Francesco Rossi, “Le armature da munizione e l’organizzazione delle cernide nel bresciano”, Archivio Storico Lombardo, 1971, 169-186; John Halle, “Brescia and the Venetian Military System in the Cinquecento”, in Armi e Cultura nel Bresciano 1420-1870 (Brescia: Tipo-Lito Fratelli Geroldi, 1981), 97-119 (italian traduction: 121-139).

[5] An interesting document found by the author in Nave’s archive reports about a military drill, which took place in the village on 24 October 1563. Captain Hieronimo Negro arrived that day in the village, along with his faithful sergeant Tamburino, to conduct the drill of the territorial ordinance. We know that the men who participated in the drill were harquebusiers from a specific reference in the document: “[…] so (the captain) distributed or had distributed to those equally powder for the harquebuses” (Nave Archive, Sezione Antico Regime [1509-post 1785], busta 1, fasc. 4, n. 65).

[6] Report by the Captain of Brescia Marino Cavalli, 1554: “This second valley is the Val Trompia, crossed by the Mella. It has many good lands and about 18,000 souls, and they are men who are estimated to be more ferocious and more belligerent than all the others […] They are very loyal to the Serenissima”.

Report by the Captain of Brescia Antonio Lando, 1611: “I have visited the three valleys – Valcamonica, Val Trompia and Val Sabbia: they are worthy of all esteem. In these valleys there are 900 service soldiers, good and very well disciplined by Captain Giacomo Negroboni […]” [Relazioni dei rettori veneti in terraferma. Vol. XI: Podestaria e capitanato di Brescia, ed. by Amelio Tagliaferri (Varese: Dott. A. Giuffrè for the Istituto di Storia Economica, 1978), pp. 49 e 211].

[7] According to current terminology: Chiaverina: A kind of spear with a wide blade and two wings in the haft.

[…] Partizan: Dagona-shaped blade with two wings at the bottom. It derived from the spiedo alla bolognese towards the end of the fifteenth century or in the first decades of the following century. It remained in use as a representative arm for most of the eighteenth century” [Carlo De Vita, Armi Bianche dal Medioevo all’Età Moderna (Firenze: Centro Di, 1983), p. 30].

[8] Mario Troso, Le armi in asta delle fanterie europee dal 1000 al 1500 (Novara: Istituto Geografico De Agostini, 1988), pp. 137-253.

[9] Il Catastico Bresciano di Giovanni De Lezze (1609-1610), Vol. I, ed. by Carlo Pasero (Brescia: F. Apollonio, 1969), p. 190; Giovanni Battista Brocchi, Trattato mineralogico e chimico sulle miniere di ferro del dipartimento del Mella con l’esposizione della costituzione fisica delle montagne metallifere della Val Trompia, Vol. I (Brescia: Nicolò Bettoni, 1808), p. 95. Lumezzane is also home to the Erede Gnutti company, famous throughout the world for the quality of its foils.

[10] Sandro Rossetti, Le fucine della Valle del Garza (Brescia: Grafo, 1996), pp. 52-59; Caino, ed. by Roberto Gotti (Brescia: Punto Marte, 2011).

[11] Rossetti cit., pp. 39-47.

[12] Carlo Maggi, Del genio armigero del popolo bresciano. Saggio politico (Brescia: Daniel Berlendis, 1781), pp. 23-24.

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