In the early to mid-14th century the Scaligeri of Verona had either conquered or bought most of northeastern Italy during the internecine Italian conflicts fought between various city states, petty lords, ruling families and the Pope. In 1337, Venice, Florence, the Visconti of Milan and the German House of Este declared war on the expansionist Scaligeri. Fighting with Verona was Lodrisio Visconti, an exile from Milan for imprisoning his brother and uncle, who fled when they were freed. Lodrisio amassed quite a fortune in Verona’s service, assumed the title of Lord of Seprio, an old dilapidated roman fort outside Milan, and a formed his own company from mercenaries of the Holy Roman Empire and a loyal following in Verona’s army.
In 1339, Compagnia di San Giorgio, or the Company of St. George, was 6500 strong and consisted of 2500 German and Italian knights, a thousand Swiss halberdiers and the rest Scaligeri militia and infantry. Lodrisio’s army, centered on the Company of St. George, was a large (for the time), well organized, and professional force forged in two years of constant war for hegemony of northern Italy. The Company had such a reputation that some of the finest German mercenaries in the service of Venice, Duke Werner von Urslingen and Count Konrad von Landau, switched sides with their men to join the company. The Company of St. George was the first condottiere company with an Italian chief, and Lodrisio Visconti’s first condotta (contract) was the capture of his former home, Milan. Milan was co-ruled by Lodrisio’s former captives, his uncle Luchino Visconti and his brother Azzano with Lodrisio’s other uncle, Giovanni, the Bishop of Milan. (Get all that?)
On 20 February 1339, Luchino led the Milanese citizen militia, with 700 knights from Savoy under Ettore da Panigo, out to meet his wayward nephew, while Azzano remained in the city stricken with gout. In knee deep snow outside the village of Parabiago, Lodrisio caught one half Luchino’s army and routed it and capturing Luchino. Lodrisio’s pursuing army subsequently encountered the second leaderless wing and defeated it also.
However in the confusion of the battle, several companies of Milanese militia didn’t get the message that they were defeated. Their confused defense bought just enough time for Azzano, who rallied survivors from his uncle’s first defeated wing, to arrive with reinforcements from the city. At about the same time, da Panigo also rallied his knights and took command of some militia marching belatedly to the battle from the town of Rho. Da Panigo assaulted the 400 troops Lodrisio left behind to guard his captured uncle. Da Panigo freed Luchino and together charged directly into Lodrisio’s “victorious” army while it attempted to subdue Azonne’s remaining diehards. Popular legend has it that St. Ambrose, a 4th century Bishop of Milan, appeared out of a cloud on a white charger to lead the final assault. Whether divine intervention was necessary or not is a matter of debate, but the fact remains that the best German mercenaries in Italy broke under the onslaught, and Lodrisio himself captured.
Lodrisio was incarcerated in a cage in a small town southeast of Milan for ten years, and only released after both Luchino and Azzone were died in 1349. (Azzone died of gout and Luchino was poisoned by his wife in revenge for cruelly punishing her for infidelity.) And in celebration Giovanni had a church and abbey built and dedicated to St. Ambrose of the Victory.
Despite the condottiero’s inauspicious beginnings at the Battle of Parabiago, Lucino, Da Panigo, Urslingen and Landau all went on to form their own condottiere companies based on Lodrisio’s template, who also formed another company after he was released. Their examples inspired other adventurers and mercenaries, and condottieri formed up and down the Italian boot. For the next 150 years the condottieri had a monopoly on military power in Renaissance Italy.