The Battle of San Martino, 1482 AD

Extract from "The Birth of Western Warfare", ed. J. Coombes, Routledge, London, 2016

Such an example comes from the battle of San Martino, where the Venetian commander, Berterelli, elected to attack on a cold misty night. The Venetian flanking force over-ran the Florentine left wing before it could change its dispositions, hampered by the gloom from manoeuvering effectively. Although the Venetians were also hampered by the poor visibility, their superior training and organization enabled them to cope with the adverse conditions better. A contemporary Milanese officer wrote that 'these Florentine troops are so badly organized that it disgusts me; the men-at-arms are spread about in confusion, often with squadrons mixed up together in a way that seems to conform to no plan, and as much as half a mile apart'.


This was the eleventh battle fought in the campaign. Following the Venetian defeat in the previous year's struggle for the control of Este, the Florentine senate (played by Ion Dowman) were determined to go on the offensive. They recruited more men, and increased the frequency and length of drill sessions for their militia. They also started the construction of new war-galleys at Rimini to challenge the Venetians in the Adriatic, and sent agents to the Balkans to look for suitable native cavalry to counter the Venetians' Stradiots.

When news of these developments was carried to the Venetians by their agents, the Doge (played by Nicholas Grant) was alarmed. Determined that the Florentines must at all costs be prevented from enlarging their presence in the Adriatic, the senate authorized the hiring of replacements for the casualties suffered in the previous war, with sufficient funds for many more men. Berterelli (played by Mark Otley), now at last their captain-general, was dispatched south once more with instructions to seize the last remaining Florentine possessions in Italy bordering the Adriatic. Berterelli was given no doubt that success would carry great rewards; while failure would be too terrible to contemplate...

The Florentines, still unable to match the Venetian horse in the field, were forced once more to rely upon their infantry advantage. The best of the Florentine militia had been once again called up and marched north by Giovanni, their captain, joined en route by local militiamen, while others were commanded by Asti de Spumante (played by Brent Burnett-Jones). The Florentine strength was further augmented by various elmetti of Luigi Problematica (played by Martin Abel) that had deserted the Venetians when the Senate had refused to ransom him after being captured: he had thrown his lot in with his captors and some of his men likewise.

The Florentine force confronted the invaders at San Martino, an unwalled town on the route to Rimini. A mile to the east of the town ran a small stream, easily crossable for the most part, except to the north where the banks were exceptionally steep and slippery. Seeing this, Giovanni conferred with his fellow generals and issued instructions to the various contingents for the upcoming struggle.

The bulk of the Florentine forces were to be arrayed between the town and the stream. In the centre would go the heavy infantry: the Swiss to the left, the pavisiers and pikmen, both militia and mercenary, to the right. To the left, near the town, would be stationed the majority of the lancers, under Spumante and the Florentine Lieutenant, Troylo da Rossano. The Florentine heavy guns had already been dragged into position to their fore, while in the town itself, local militiamen were engaged in making barricades to protect the western side of the city from any flanking movement. A few militiamen had already been detailed to occupy the orchard to the front and west of the town.

To the east, near the stream, Problematica would hold the right flank. His few lancers, plus the mouted crossbowmen, were to form a reserve, while some infantry and the lighter artillery pieces would man the entrenchemnts and bastions that the Florenteen pioneers had built to protect the army's right flank. Several companies of crossbowmen and handgunners had been detailed to occupy the wood to the north on the eastern side of the stream.

When the Venetian scouts made contact with the Florentine positions, Berterelli rode up to reconnoitre their lines. As evening fell, so did the temperature, and with the lack of wind, there would be a good chance that come morning the field would be enshrouded in mist. Seeing the strength of Problematica's position near the stream, where even now, the light guns were being man-handled to their positions, Berterelli decided that an attack in that quarter would be suicidal. His own artillery was less numerous than that disposed of by his enemies in front of the town, and that seemed to rule out a frontal assault in that quarter; however, the barricades being erected around the west side of San Martino looked flimsy to his trained eye: here would his main attack be directed. With any luck, his attack would be carried out under the cover of darkness and/or mist, and the town be taken before the rest of the Florentines could react.

Accordingly, under the cover of night, Berterelli dispatched a large flanking force, amounting to over a third of his army, on a circuitous march to the west. The chilly night was cloudless, enabling the men to find their way by the light of the moon and make good time, reaching their positions well on schedule. Berterelli's remaining men in the meantime had deployed across the plains opposite the Florentine host. His force was split in two by a large rise, crowned by a wood in which his light infantry were deployed. To his left, towards the stream, were the Turkish mounted archers, plus many Italian mercenary lancers that he intended to keep as a reserve, awaiting developments. A few mounted crossbowmen were detailed off to watch the woods to the south. To the east of the hill were the rest of his forces: mounted crossbowmen to the fore, foot skirmishers to their rear, and finally, as a reserve, his own squadrons of elmetti lancers.

When the Florentines heard the Venetian trumpets sounding the call to arms, Giovanni had the Florentine trumpeters do likewise. The Florentines took up their positions in the dark according to the agreed plan of the previous day. The movement of men could be occasionally be seen across the plain whenever they were silhouetted in the fires of the Venetian camp, and the sounds made by the Venetian and Florentine forces as they stumbled in the dark could be heard by their opposite numbers through the still air.

Berterelli's plan was merely to confuse the Florentines until his flank-march turned up, and accordingly, issued instructions for his light horsemen to ride up to the Florentine lines, loose off a few rounds of missiles in the gloom, and gradually retire. Riding across the plain to the Florentines, they finally met the Florentine heavy-foot, and after exhanging some desultory fire with the Florentine crossbowmen, retired according to plan. The Florentines followed up as best they could in the dark, approaching the level of the wood to the east after nearly an hour, supported by the Swiss to their left, and to their left, the mercenary lancers under Spumate and da Rossano.

Deployment Map

It was at this stage, just as their was a hint of light in the east, but also the hint of a morning mist in the offing, that the Venetian flanking movement arrived upon the field. Unseen at first, the Venetian provisionati swept through the orchard to their front, scattering the few Florentine militia encamped within. To the north of the orchard rode the Stradiots, who cut off the few surviving militiamen, so that no verbal reports made it back to the Florentine leaders, just the sound of gun fire and the screams of dying men mixed with the ringing sounds of sword upon sword.

The Venetian elmetti, supported by some foot skirmishers, upon reaching the barricades halted momentarily, deciding what to do, since to charge them on horseback when they would be defended seemed suicidal. When it became obvious that they were manned by mere militiamen, they dismounted, and advanced on foot, leaving their pages with the horses to the rear. The Florentine militia put up a brave fight, but could not hope to overcome the heavily armoured Venetian men-at-arms, and soon fled through the streets, pursued by the Venetians. A series of desperate street-fights in the dark began, the militiamen having the advantage of home ground, but the greater numbers and heavier armour of the Venetians told against them.

As the faint light in the east grew stronger, so did the tendrils of mist curling about the battlefield, so that visibilty did not markedly improve as the Florentine foot struggled forwards, and Spumante's lancers tried to change their positions to react to the sounds of battle to their left. Berterelli's own lancers were better able to cope with the conditions however, making good progress forwards down the road towards Spumante's men, while ordering those on his left flank, nearer the river, to move eastwards nearer to his position. His artillery, dragged down the road, set up within range of the Florentine pieces, although the mist meant that they were firing effectively blind, and to no effect.

Dawn had now arrived, although the mist obscured the exact moment from mens' eyes as the two sides struggled to manoeuvre in the dank air. On the Florentine right flank, Problematica's mounted troops slowly probed forwards, failing to locate any enemy, but his men hidden in the wood, upon seeing some Venetian mounted crossbowmen emerge from the gloom, leapt out from their hiding places, surrounded them, and shot them down. Buoyed up by their success they continued advancing towards the wooded hill dimly seem through the gloom.

In the centre, the Florentine lancers were caught in the midst of redeployment by those of Berterelli. Rossano's men entered the fray to help Spumante's men, and soon the Venetian reserve elmetti, coming from the other flank, appeared in support of Berterelli's men, leading to a general melee. As wave after wave of lancer squadrons entered the affray, the sun's rays burnt away the thin morning mist, bathing the battlefield in bright sunshine.

In the east, Prblematica's shooters had reached the wooded hill where they were starting to exchange fire with their Venetian opposites, while Problematica's lancer's, seeing the cavalry fight to the west, started moving in towards them behind the Florentine heavy foot that were even now wheeling to their left, past the wooded hill to their front, towards the revealed Venetians. To their left, the Swiss, having pushed back the Venetian skirmishers to their front, found the cavalry melee had moved soutwards, exposing their flank, so they momentarily halted to dress their ranks. Da Rossano squadrons had been driven back in the mounted melee towards San Martino, and while Spumante's own casa was holding its ground, the rest of his men were likewise giving ground.

A few militiamen were fleeing from the town from the Venetian flanking force which was carrying all before it, and at that moment, Spumante was felled, his horse crushing him to the ground. Some Florentine artillery pieces, their crews working feverishly, were blasting away at yet more Venetian lancers trying to enter the affray, slowing the Venetian advance, but the Florentine left wing was in real trouble, and when Berterelli led his own personal squadron forwards to charge the guns, he succeeded in over-running them, and at this, with Spumante mortally injured, and the Stradiots about to sweep into the Florentine's flank, the reamining horsemen under da Rossano fled to the rear, hotly pursued by the Venetians.

All was not lost for the Florentines however, for their infantry were as yet untouched, and nearing the Venetian camp, urged on by Giovanni, they could still tip the battle in their favour. However, the Venetian crossbowmen put down a withering fire that stopped them in their tracks, and they refused to advance further. Knowing that his last chance for success was now closed, Giovanni sounded the retreat, doing his best to keep the infantry from dispersing in flight, for if they broke ranks, they were sure to be hunted down by the victorious Venetian horsemen who were even now busily engaged looting San Martino.

He succeeded admirably in this task, which at least kept him his head when the news of the battle reached Florence, for in the aftermath the Venetians took control of the province, pillaging it comprehensively, including burning the near-completed galleys on their stocks at Rimini.


This page last modified: January 11, 1999

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