Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was the epitome of a “Renaissance Man”. While best known as the painter of sublime works such as the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and Vitruvian Man, he excelled in numerous other fields. Indeed, he combined in a single person not only one of history’s greatest painters, but also an outstanding sculptor, architect, inventor, anatomist, paleontologist, draftsman, musician, mathematician, and military engineer.
He was born out of wedlock to a wealthy Florentine legal notary, and a peasant girl whom contemporaries described as possessing “easy virtue”. Other than getting together one day and conceiving Leonardo, the future artist’s parents do not seem to have had much of a relationship. Leonardo spent the first five years of his life in his mother’s hamlet, after which he went to live in his father’s household in the town of Vinci.
Leonardo’s parents did provide him with seventeen half brothers and sisters, who were not too fond of their illegitimate half brother. Indeed, they seem to have been embarrassed by him as a stain on the family honor. Particularly so with his paternal half-siblings, who conspired to deprive Leonardo of a share of their father’s estate after the latter’s death in 1503.
By then, however, Leonardo was the age’s greatest artist and a considerably wealthy man in his own right. Thus, getting screwed out of his father’s inheritance mattered little financially, although it must have stung emotionally. He did get back some measure of satisfaction after a wealthy uncle died a few years later, and left his entire estate to Leonardo, while disinheriting all his other nephews and nieces.
Renaissance Italy’s most successful condottiero, or soldier of fortune, was Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466), who led a fascinating life full of twists and turns, and capped it by rising to the heights of power. Sforza rose through the ranks to become a mercenary general, turning on his employers whenever opportune, and switched sides multiple times. In the end, he made himself duke of Milan, and founded the Sforza Dynasty which ruled that city and influenced Italian politics for a century.
Sforza was the illegitimate son of a mercenary commander, and he began accompanying his father on military campaigns at age 17. He quickly developed a reputation for toughness and strength, and became famous for his ability to bend metal bars with his bare hands. After his father drowned during a battle against a rival in 1424, Sforza took command of his father’s mercenaries. He proved himself a brilliant tactician and battlefield commander, and went on to win the battle, killing his father’s rival in the process.
Sforza then signed on to fight for multiple Italian rulers, including the Pope, the Neapolitans, and duke Visconti of Milan, whom Sforza fought alternately for and against during the next two decades. In 1433, during one of the intervals when Sforza got along well with the Duke of Milan, he got engaged to Visconti’s illegitimate daughter and only child.
The following year, however, Sforza switched sides and left the duke of Milan’s employ for that of his rival, Cosimo de Medici of Florence. In 1438, Sforza fought for Florence against his prospective father in law, and inflicted crushing defeats on Milan. In 1441, he patched things up with Milan’s duke, and finally married his daughter, but two years later, in 1443, he again switched sides and fought against his now-father-in-law.
When the duke of Milan died in 1447 without a male heir, the Milanese rebelled and proclaimed a republic, and hired Sforza as their military commander. A three-sided struggle then ensued between the Milanese republic, the rival city of Venice, and Sforza. When the Milanese signed peace with Venice in 1449 against Sforza’s wishes, he turned on his employers and switched sides, this time backing himself. He besieged Milan, starved it into submission, and entered the city in 1450 as its new duke.
Francesco Sforza’s shrewdness, opportunism, and successful deviousness made him the exemplar and model of Machiavelli’s Prince. He won his state by dint of his exceptional ability and skill rather than through luck or inheriting it by winning the lottery of birth. He then went on to consolidate his gains and secure them sufficiently to found a dynasty.
Ancient History’s Most Influential Turncoat Mercenary
One of history’s earliest influential bastards was Phanes of Halicarnassus (flourished 6th century BC), a Greek mercenary general of great renown, who served Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis II (570 – 524 BC). Phanes turned on his employers, and during a war between Egypt and Persia, he switched sides. Abandoning the Egyptians, Phanes joined the army of king Cambyses II of Persia, and played an instrumental role in helping the Persians defeat the Greek mercenary’s former employers and paymasters.
The conflict between Egypt and the rising Persian Empire supposedly started because of the intrigues of a disgruntled Egyptian physician in the Persian court. The physician was angry at Pharaoh Amasis for selecting him, out of all of Egypt’s physicians, to get dragged away from his family and sent to Persia when Cambyses wrote Amasis asking for an eye doctor. So the physician got his payback by advising the Persian king to ask for Amasis’ favorite daughter. He knew that the request would put Amasis in a bind: accept and grow wretched at the loss of his daughter, or refuse, and offend Cambyses.
Amasis did not want to send his beloved daughter to Persia, particularly because he knew that Cambyses intended her for a mere concubine. However, he was also intimidated by Persia’s power. So he fudged, and sent the daughter of a former Pharaoh, claiming that she was Amasis’ own. That backfired, because soon as she reached Persia, the former princess told Cambyses that Amasis had tried to fob him off with somebody else’s daughter. That greatly upset Cambyses – who was itching for an excuse to conquer Egypt, anyhow – so he declared war and prepared to invade Amasis’ kingdom.
As Amasis gathered his forces and prepared Egypt’s defenses, he managed to offend Phanes, and the disgruntled Greek general switched sides and set out to join the Persians and their king. Amasis sent assassins to kill or capture Phanes before he reached Cambyses, but after harrowing adventures, including an escape from captivity by getting his guards drunk, Phanes managed to reach the Persians.
Cambyses was trying to figure out the best invasion route into Egypt, and Phanes recommended a route through Arab tribal lands. He advised the Persian king to seek safe passage from their rulers, and to sweeten the request with generous gifts. Cambyses heeded Phanes’ advice, and the Arabs gladly granted him and his armies safe conduct through their territory.
By then, Amasis had died, and he was succeeded as pharaoh by his son, Psamtik III. Enraged at Phanes, Psamtik tricked the Greek general’s sons into meeting with him, took them captive, and had them executed. Then, as an object lesson to would-be traitors, he had their blood drained and mixed with wine, which he quaffed down and made his subordinates drink as well.
Phanes got his revenge by leading the Persian army into Egypt, acting as Cambyses’ guide and military advisor. With the Greek general’s assistance, the Persians defeated Psamtik’s forces, and forced him to retreat to his capital, where they besieged and eventually captured him. Phanes then engineered the execution of his sons’ murderer by uncovering and informing Cambyses of a plot by the captive pharaoh to stir up a revolt.
Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard (circa 1680 – 1718), is probably the best-known pirate of all time. His early life is shrouded in mystery, but he started his seafaring career as a privateer – private citizens issued letters of marque by their sovereigns, authorizing them to prey on enemy shipping. In 1716, he joined the crew of the pirate Benjamin Hornigold, who mentored Blackbeard and taught him the ropes of piracy. Blackbeard showed himself capable, and rose rapidly to become Hornigold’s first mate. Soon, he rose even further and became second in command, entrusted with his own sloop to operate in conjunction with Hornigold’s main ship.
Blackbeard went out of his way to ensure that his appearance was both noticeable and terrifying to his opponents. His greatest defining feature, and the source of the name by which he became famous or infamous, was a thick and long black beard. Blackbeard was in the habit of plaiting his beard into braids, and decorating each braid with colorful ribbons.
His already ferocious appearance was further enhanced by slinging six pistols across his chest, thrusting a variety of knives and daggers into his belt and boots, and carrying a wicked-looking cutlass. To top it off, he attached slow-burning matches to his beard, which sputtered and sent forth clouds of thick smoke, which made him appear even more demonic. It was a psychologically effective display, and many ships surrendered as soon as they caught sight of the ferocious, crazy-looking, and smoke-spewing pirate.
After his mentor Hornigold retired from piracy in 1717, Blackbeard continued his piratical career, now acting independently on his own hook. Soon thereafter, he seized a French ship, which he remodeled and equipped with 40 cannons, renamed her the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and made her his flagship. Blackbeard then formed a pirate alliance and used it to commit his most notorious act: a successful blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. He held the city hostage, wreaking havoc on the seaborne trade and commerce upon which its economy depended until he was paid a ransom.
Blackbeard accepted a royal pardon in 1718, but earning an honest living did not agree with him, so he changed his mind soon thereafter, reneged on the pardon, and went back to piracy. Virginia’s governor then ordered an expedition to hunt him down, led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy. Maynard tracked Blackbeard with two sloops, and found him on November 22nd, 1718, at anchor on the inner side of Ocracoke Island, off North Carolina. Most of Blackbeard’s men were ashore at the time, so he found himself severely outnumbered when Lieutenant Maynard’s expedition hove into view. Nonetheless, the notorious pirate refused to surrender and put up a ferocious fight before he finally went down on the deck of his ship, after taking five bullets and over twenty sword cuts.