- Italian term for the mercenary captains who during the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance provided most of the armed forces of the Italian states. The term is derived from the word condotta, the contract between an employing ruler and the commander. Nearly all European armies from the later Middle Ages down to the French Revolution were composed of professional soldiers who fought for hire. In Italy, these hired professionals were not citizens of the state that hired them. Their critics, such as the Florentine political theorist Niccolô Machiavelli, charged that such mercenaries were interested only in their pay and plunder, that they avoided serious combat and merely made a show of anything more dangerous than skirmishing, and that they would betray their employers if that seemed advantageous.Most of these charges are untrue. As long as their salaries were paid regularly, most mercenaries gave loyal service. The states made their contracts with established commanders (condottieri) who already had a private military force. In the late 13th and 14th centuries, many of the condottieri and their troops were foreigners from regions such as the Balkan peninsula, Germany, or France. Discharged English and French soldiers seeking work during the frequent truces in the Hundred Years' War were especially common in the later 14th century, and the most respected condottiere of that period was an Englishman, Sir John Hawkwood. By the 15th century, most of the troops and their commanders were Italians.Although these mercenary captains came from all ranks of society, most of them were nobles. A number of the most important were rulers of small Italian states who not only earned money but also safeguarded their independence by making themselves useful to larger neighbors: the rulers of Urbino, Ferrara, and Mantua were the most important of these. Small mercenary bands were most dangerous to society when they were unemployed and might turn into brigands. The one major mercenary force of Renaissance Italy not usually called condottieri were the Swiss soldiers who constituted the backbone of papal armies and also provided infantry to the kings of France. Although the Swiss fought on foot, most mercenary armies were predominantly cavalry.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.