Born into a warlike aristocratic family, and always proud of his emblem of coglioni (‘testicles’ – a play on his name), Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400–76) began his mercenary career at the age of nineteen in Naples. He first worked for Venice in 1432, and won victories against Milan in the Terra Firma under the condottiere Gattamelata. After a period of wavering between Milan and Venice, he decided to stick with the latter, but only when Milanese ambitions for north Italian domination were laid to rest (1454) was Colleoni appointed commander-in-chief of the Venetian forces.
He was one of the celebrity military commanders of his day, who well served Venice’s claims on the Terra Firma – both by leading the Republic’s mercenary army and by not taking up the many other offers he had to fight against Venice – Venice ensured his loyalty by making him incredibly wealthy. The lack of subsequent wars and enforced idleness made this an amazingly cushy job (he only had to fight one battle in his last 20 years); to kill time, he ran his castle at Malpaga as a mixed court of artists and army pals, even entertaining the King of Denmark. Yet along with the ducats he bequeathed to Venice for his unforgettable equestrian statue he also left a warning: never to give any other military commander as much power as it had given him.
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