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The Carroccio of Milan on an ancient miniature

A Carroccio (Italian: [karˈrɔttʃo]; Lombard: carrocc) was a large four-wheeled wagon bearing the city signs around which the militia of the medieval communes gathered and fought. It was particularly common among the Lombard, Tuscan and, more generally, northern Italian municipalities. Later its use spread even outside Italy. It was the symbol of municipal autonomy[1]. Priests celebrated Mass at the altar before the battle, and the trumpeters beside them encouraged the fighters to the fray.

Defended by selected troops, paved with the colors of the municipality[2], it was generally pulled by oxen and carried an altar, a bell (called "martinella"), an antenna on which a Christian cross and the city signs. In peace time it was kept in the main church of the city to which it belonged.

In battle the Carroccio was surrounded by the bravest warriors in the army as the Carroccio guard, and it served both as a rallying-point and as the palladium of the city's honour; its capture by the enemy was regarded as an irretrievable defeat and humiliation.



The Carroccio of Legnano, a history painting by Amos Cassioli (1832–1891).

The Carroccio, which has Lombard origins, was initially used by Arimannia as a war chariot[3]. Its function became purely symbolic[4], with the addition of the cross, of the city signs, of the altar and with its preservation in the main church of the city[5] in a detectable moment between 1037 and 1039 thanks to the Archbishop of Milan Aribert, who imposed his use in one of the sieges that Conrad II, Holy Roman Emperor did on several occasions in Milan[6][7]. In other words, the Carroccio, from a military means, became a purely political instrument[5]. From Milan its use spread in many municipalities of northern Italy, in Tuscany and outside Italy, until the decline in the 14th century. On medieval documents the Carroccio is called carochium, carozulum, carrocerum or carrocelum, while in the Milanese dialect of the time it was probably called caròcc or caròz[8].

Its diffusion extended to other Lombard cities, but this cannot be explained as a pure reproduction of the Milanese Carroccio[4]. Moreover, the descendants of the Arimannia, still at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries, had maintained, in the medieval society of northern Italy, a certain autonomy and were recognizable for various specific prerogatives, although the Lombard domination had ended by a few centuries[5].

12th century[edit]

The battle of Legnano in a painting by Massimo d'Azeglio. In the background, one can see the cross and the city signs positioned on the Carroccio

Documents of 1158 and 1201 confirm the presence of the Milanese Carroccio, in peacetime, in the church of San Giorgio al Palazzo[5], while others still inside the Palazzo della Ragione[9]. The first document cited contains information on the need to make an iron shield to be placed in the choir of the mentioned church, which was located near the Carroccio, with the lighting of a votive fire fed by a pound of oil[5]. The 1201 document contains similar information: the archbishop and the religious of the San Giorgio al Palazzo church in Milan should have lighted votive lamps around the Carroccio[5].

In 1159 the municipal troops of Brescia conquered the Carroccio of the Cremona area during a battle. The cart was then carried in triumph between the streets of Brescia and was placed in the church of reference of the community, with the "martinella" which was positioned on the civic tower of the city[10].

The Carroccio was the protagonist in the battle of Legnano (29 May 1176), during which he was defended, according to legend, by the Company of Death, led, according to popular tradition, by Alberto da Giussano, a fictional character who actually appeared only in literary works of the following century. According to the legend, during the fight, three doves out of the burials of the saints Sisinnio, Martirio and Alessandro at the basilica of San Simpliciano in Milan[11] rested on the Carroccio causing the flight of Frederick Barbarossa[12].

Instead, according to the real historical facts, the municipal infantry arranged a decisive resistance around the Carroccio which allowed the remaining part of the Lombard League army, actually led by Guido da Landriano[13], to arrive from Milan and defeat Frederick Barbarossa in the famous clash of Legnano. Today it is difficult to establish precisely the exact location of the Carroccio in reference to the current topography of Legnano. One of the chronicles of the clash, the Cologne Annals, contain important information[14]:

View of the Castello park in Legnano. In the foreground we see part of the escarpment where, according to some hypotheses, the Carroccio may have been defended during the battle of Legnano.

[...] The Lombards, ready to win or die on the field, placed their army inside a large pit, so that when the battle was in full swing, no one could escape. [...][a]

— Annals of Cologne

This would suggest that the Carroccio was located on the edge of a steep slope flanking the river Olona, so that the imperial cavalry, whose arrival was planned by Castellanza along the river, would have been forced to attack the center of the army of the Lombard League going up the escarpment[13]: this decision later proved to be strategically incorrect, given that Frederick Barbarossa came instead from Borsano, or from the opposite side, which forced the municipal troops to resist around the Carroccio with the escape road blocked by the Olona[14].

Considering the evolution of the clash, this could mean that the crucial phases in defense of the Carroccio have been fought on the territory of the San Martino contrada (more precisely, near the 15th century church of the same name, which in fact dominates a slope that descends towards the Olona[14]) or of the Legnanese quarter of "Costa di San Giorgio", since in another part of the neighboring areas it is not possible to identify another depression with the characteristics suitable for its defense[13][15]. Considering the last hypothesis mentioned, the final clash could also have taken place on part of the territory now belonging to the contrade of Sant'Ambrogio and San Magno (between the quartier of "Costa di San Giorgio" and the Olona is still present a steep slope: this slope was later included in the Castello park) and to the municipality of San Giorgio su Legnano[13][15].

13th century[edit]

It was afterwards adopted by other cities, and first appears, after Legnano, on a Florentine battlefield in 1228. The Florentine Carroccio was usually followed by a smaller cart bearing the "martinella", a bell to ring out military signals. When war was regarded as likely the "martinell" was attached to the door of the Church of Santa Maria in the Mercato Nuovo in Florence and rung to warn both citizens and enemies. In times of peace the Carroccio was in the keeping of a great family which had distinguished itself by signal services to the republic. The Florentine carroccio was captured by the Ghibelline forces of Castruccio Castracani in the 1325 Battle of Altopascio, after which it was displayed by the victors in a triumph held in the streets of Lucca.

The carro della guerra of Milan was described in detail in 1288 by Bonvesin de la Riva in his book on the "Marvels of Milan". Wrapped in scarlet cloth and drawn by three yoke of oxen that were caparisoned in white with the red cross of Saint George, the city's patron, it carried a crucifix so massive it took four men to step it in place, like a ship's mast.[16]

The Carroccio of the Lombard League was captured by the imperials in 1237 during the battle of Cortenuova, donated to Pope Gregory IX by the emperor Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, and transported to the Palazzo Senatorio in Rome in what is still called the Sala del Carroccio ("Room of Carroccio"), where the commemorative inscription of the gift is kept made by the emperor to the Roman people. The inscription reads[17][18]:

Plaque commemorates the departure of the Carroccio in San Simpliciano church towards Legnano just before the homonymous battle

Receive, or Rome, the chariot, a gift of Emperor Frederick II, the perennial honor of the city. Captured in the defeat of Milan, he comes as a glorious prey to announce the triumphs of Caesar. He will be held as a disgrace to the enemy, he is sent here for the glory of the City, he sent him the love of Rome[b]

Rome, in addition to being the seat of the papacy, was also the capital of a vast empire, and therefore the sending of the Carroccio to the city by the emperor had a strong symbolic meaning[18]. In particular, in 1237 the Lega Lombarda lost the Carroccio in battle because of the muddy roads, which prevented the municipal troops from putting it safely in time[8].

In 1275 it was the Carroccio of the Bolognese (who were Guelphs) to be captured in the battle of San Procolo by the Forlivese, who were instead Ghibellines, and to be brought in triumph to Forlì. In the mid-13th century the Carroccio di Cremona was instead captured in battle by the municipal militias of Parma[10].

Accounts of the Carroccio will be found in most histories of the Italian republics.[19]

14th century: decay and disappearance[edit]

The decadence of the Carroccio occurred due to the evolution of war tactics. When larger and more manoeuvrable armies began to appear, the municipal infantry were replaced by soldiers of "ventura", who, being mercenaries, lacked emotional ties and belonging to the city[8].

The symbolic value of the Carroccio, in this historical context, was therefore less[8]. Moreover, from a logistical point of view, the Carroccio, being a very slow vehicle drawn by oxen, was not very mobile, and often created obstacles to the actions of war, which were becoming faster and faster[8]. For these reasons, the Carroccio, in the 14th century, went inexorably towards a phase of decadence which then led to its disappearance from the battlefields.

The use of the Carroccio outside Italy[edit]

Similar cart-mounted standards were also to be found elsewhere in Europe, at the Battle of the Standard (1138), employed by the English, and at the Battle of Sirmium (1167), employed by the Hungarians.[20][21] In addition, the Carroccio was also used in 1214 in the Battle of Bouvines.


In addition to the already mentioned symbolic value, the Carroccio had an important military tactical function[22]. He began to gain military value especially after the battle of Legnano, where, between the first times in history, the infantry, which was gathered around the Carroccio, held the chivalry head[22]. Until then, the latter was in fact considered clearly superior to the soldiers on foot[22].

Since the infantry gathered around the Carroccio, the latter, besides having a strong symbolic value, therefore had an important tactical function: with the capture of the Carroccio, for the municipal militias, the defeat was almost certain[18]. Also for this reason, the Carroccio, in addition to being considered the most coveted war booty, was kept in the cathedrals, which were the most important churches of the municipalities, and was the protagonist, always in times of peace, of the most important ceremonies and events that took place in the cities[18].

In addition to the war purpose, the Carroccio had other functions, which could also be carried out in times of peace[10]. The leaders of the municipalities, on the Carroccio, could make important decisions concerning the city, while the judges could use it as a mobile tribunal to issue their sentences[10].

The Lombard Lega infantry, during the battle of Legnano, managed to resist the various attacks perpetrated by the imperial cavalry due to the tactics of the latter, which foresaw assaults on small disorganized groups[18]. Only after the clash of Legnano did the cavalry begin to change strategy, attacking the infantry in defense of the Carroccio in conspicuous organized forces, thus succeeding in breaking its resistance[18]. This change in war strategy contributed, together with the reasons already mentioned in the previous paragraph, to the decadence and disappearance of the Carroccio from the battlefields[8].


The remains that survived[edit]

Reproduction of the Carroccio during the historical parade of the Palio di Legnano 2015

In Brescia there is a cross that probably belonged to the flagpole of the Carroccio from Cremona conquered in 1191 at the battle of the Malamorte[23]. Inside the Siena Cathedral, on the other hand, two large 10-15 meter spars are preserved, which traditionally refers to the Carroccio, victorious from the battle of Montaperti. In Cremona, in the civic museum, there is a wooden platform that is thought to have belonged to the cart of the wagon taken from the Milanese in 1213 in Castelleone.

In the chronicles[edit]

Since there are very few surviving remains from medieval times, information on the shape of the Carroccio is fragmentary. Alessandro Visconti, in a book from 1945, referring to the chronicler Arnulf of Milan, reports this description:

[...] The sign that was to precede the fighters was like this: a tall antenna, like a ship's mast, planted in a sturdy wagon rose up high, bringing to the top a golden knob with two flaps of white hanging linen. In the midst of that antenna the venerable Cross was fixed with the image of the Redeemer painted with open arms facing the surrounding ranks, because whatever the event of the war, looking at that sign, the soldiers comforted it.. [...][c]

— Alessandro Visconti, History of Milan, 1945, p. 169

It is possible to imagine the size of the Carroccio banner taking as a reference the banner of the bishop of the city of Würzburg, used in 1266 during the battle of Kitzingen and kept at the Mainfrankisches Museum. The banner is three meters by five with the image of Saint Kilian.

Two depictions of the Carroccio in the Middle Ages reached the 21st century iconographically: the first is present in the Montauri Chronicles of Siena, and the second in the Chronicle of Giovanni Villani[24]. The two representations are the result of stories by non-ocular chroniclers, being the authors of the 14th and 15th centuries, therefore of an era where the presence of the Carroccio in everyday life had by now disappeared.

The first representation shows only two movable flagpoles, one with the help of the other, while in the second image, where there is a four-wheeled cart with a flag, the subject is shown in more detail. The same image of the Carroccio is present in a fresco by Stradanus dedicated to the House of Medici, which depicts Piazza della Signoria during the feast of John the Baptist.

It is therefore probable that three types of Carroccio existed: the first "classic" on the Milanese model, the Tuscan one with two flagpoles (with the Carroccio of Florence that presented a bell), and the one widespread in Flanders and Germany, which was a simple cart with a central flagpole.

From the description, made by Salimbene di Adam, of the dismantling of the one captured by the Parmesans to the Cremonese during the Battle of Parma in 1248, it can be deduced that there were five parts of the Carroccio: four wheels, a platform, the flagpole, the flag and various decorations. The wheels were very large, and were usually painted red in Milan and Florence, white in Parma, and in precious colors not specified in Siena and Padua.

The flagpole, according to the description of Bonvesin da la Riva, weighed as four men and was usually supported by ropes (certainly that of Milan). In the Chigi codex, the Florentine Carroccio presents two flagpoles and the flag, which very often was not fixed to a side bar, was in precious fabric usually divided into two halved colors, or it was decorated with a cross motif. Unlike in Northern Europe, the representation of the patron saint did not appear on Italian wagons, where it was often depicted as decoration of the front body[4].

The tow of the Carroccio was usually executed by oxen or - very rarely - by horses.

The "martinella"[edit]

On the right, the Carroccio during the battle of Legnano on a painting by Amos Cassioli

The use of the bell (the "martinella") is still controversial. It is not clear whether he was directly on the Carroccio or else he followed on another vehicle. The function of recall of the soldiers around the Carroccio was carried out by the "martinella", while the trumpeters imparted the orders and, very often, incited the troop to the combat[22].

In 2000 the original "martinella" of the Battle of Legnano was identified: it was kept on the bell tower of the hermitage of Sant'Alberto di Butrio of Ponte Nizza, in the province of Pavia[25]. In the same year of the discovery, it was paraded during the historical procession of the Palio di Legnano[26].

The specialis magister[edit]

The specialis magister, who took care of the maintenance of the Carroccio, was paid by the municipality, for his service, 8 soldi a day[22]. In addition to checking the functionality of the wagon, the specialis magister participated in the war actions in which the Carroccio was involved by dressing armor and carrying a sword[22].

On the Carroccio a chaplain was also present, whose function was to celebrate Mass on the altar placed on the Carroccio[22]. Also this religious figure, together with that of the cleric, was paid by the municipality[22].

In the literature[edit]

The first literary trace of the Carroccio appears in the poem by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, French troubadour of the 12th century, entitled "Il Carros", where the man of letters, turning his flattery to Beatrice, daughter of Boniface I, Marquess of Montferrat, states that the Lombard women rivals in beauty of the girl they use a Carroccio and other chariots to "fight" the growing fame of the girl[27].

Giacomo da Lentini, imperial official of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, dealt with the Carroccio in the song Ben m'è venuto, which is a poetic piece of love inspired by the poems of the troubadours and probably composed before the battle of Cortenuova (between 1233 and 1237).

The Carroccio in the modern era[edit]

Posthumous meaning[edit]

Reproduction of the Carroccio during the historical parade of the Palio di Legnano 2015

Since the Carroccio is a signum, in modern times it has become a symbol of ideas, hopes and different meanings, very often as anti-tyrannical propaganda during the period of the Signorias, up to Romanticism and the Risorgimento, where it became the symbol of the struggle against the occupation foreign. Important promoters of these ideas were Massimo d'Azeglio, Giovanni Berchet, Amos Cassioli, Francesco Hayez.

Giosuè Carducci first and Giovanni Pascoli then recalled, with the Canzone di Legnano and Canzone del Carroccio, the splendours and splendours of medieval Italian comunes, concepts that were later taken up also by the writings of Gabriele D'Annunzio.


In the festivals and historical re-enactments, very often, the pivotal figure is represented by the Carroccio:

Reproduction of the Carroccio of Siena during the Palio 2006
  • In the Palio di Siena (2 July - 16 August) the Carroccio, which parades with the black-and-white sock of the municipality, carries the Palio (also known as "cencio"), or a painted silk drapery, prize of the horse race (called also "carriera") which closes the event. The bell and the heralds represent the final moment of the Corteo Storico, before the carriera for the conquest of the rag.
  • In the Palio di Legnano (last Sunday of May), a copy of the Carroccio parades through the streets of Legnano pulled by oxen. This wagon, which concludes the historical procession, carries the Cross of Aribert, the coveted prize of the horse race in which the eight contrade in which Legnano is divided compete in the stadio Giovanni Mari. The Carroccio, during the historical procession, which closes at the stadio Giovanni Mari, is escorted by some figurants who impersonate Alberto da Giussano and the Company of Death. The latter, before the horse race, recall the charge made, according to legend, by the Company of Death and Alberto da Giussano during the battle of Legnano.
  • In the Palio di Asti (third Sunday of September), the Carroccio is pulled by three pairs of oxen and brings, as tradition dictates, the insignia of the city (a white cross on a red field), a wrought iron rooster (symbol of freedom municipal), and the Palio di Asti, the coveted prize of the winner of the horse race. It is a historical reconstruction of the medieval Asti Carroccio and bears the altar with a reproduction of Secundus of Asti, present in the Gothic choir of the Asti Cathedral. On the Carroccio di Asti there is also the "martinella", or the bell that once served to call the municipal troops to pray before the battle. It is kept in the Collegiate Church of San Secondo, from which it comes out only once a year, on the occasion of the Palio race, on the third Sunday of September.


  1. ^ [...] I lombardi, pronti a vincere o a morire sul campo, collocarono il proprio esercito all'interno di una grande fossa, in modo tale che quando la battaglia fosse stata nel vivo, nessuno sarebbe potuto fuggire. [...]
  2. ^ Ricevi, o Roma, il carro, dono dell'imperatore Federico II, onore perenne della città. Catturato nella sconfitta di Milano, viene come preda gloriosa ad annunciare i trionfi di Cesare. Sarà tenuto come vergogna del nemico, è qui inviato per la gloria dell'Urbe, lo fece inviare l'amore di Roma. [...]
  3. ^ [...] L'insegna che doveva precedere i combattenti era fatta così: un'alta antenna, a guisa d'un albero di nave, piantata in un robusto carro s'ergeva in alto portando alla cima un aureo pomo con due lembi di candido lino pendenti. In mezzo a quell'antenna stava infissa la veneranda Croce con dipinta l'immagine del Redentore a braccia aperte rivolte alle schiere circostanti, perché qualunque fosse l'evento della guerra, guardando quell'insegna, i soldati ne avessero conforto. [...]
  1. ^ "Ars Bellica - Le grandi battaglie della storia - La battaglia di Legnano" (in Italian). Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  2. ^ Mallett, Michael (2006). Signori e mercenari - La guerra nell'Italia del Rinascimento [Mercenaries and their masters] (in Italian). Bologna: Il Mulino. p. 21. ISBN 88-15-11407-6.
  3. ^ D'Ilario, 1976, pp. 189-190.
  4. ^ a b c D'Ilario, 1976, p. 190.
  5. ^ a b c d e f D'Ilario, 1976, p. 189.
  6. ^ Santosuosso, Antonio (2004). Barbarians, Marauders, and Infidels: The Ways of Medieval Warfare. New York, NY: MJF Books. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-56731-891-3.
  7. ^ Guida d'Italia Touring Club Italiano, Milano Touring editore, 2007, p. 26
  8. ^ a b c d e f D'Ilario, 1976, p. 196.
  9. ^ Colombo, Alessandro (1935). I trentasei stendardi di Milano comunale (PDF). Famiglia Meneghina. p. 58.
  10. ^ a b c d D'Ilario, 1976, p. 197.
  11. ^ D'Ilario, 1976, p. 80.
  12. ^ Marinoni, p. 37.
  13. ^ a b c d Agnoletto, p. 39.
  14. ^ a b c D'Ilario, 1984, p. 233.
  15. ^ a b Percivaldi, p. 8.
  16. ^ Bovesin de la Riva, De Magnalibus Mediolani: Meraviglie di Milano (Milan, 1998), as reported in John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food (New York, 2008), p. 33.
  17. ^ Bréholles, p. 132.
  18. ^ a b c d e f D'Ilario, 1976, p. 193.
  19. ^ ; see, for instance, Matteo Villani's Chronache, vi. 5 (Florence, 1825-1826); P. Villari, The Two First Centuries of Florentine History, vol. i. (Engl. transl., London, 1894); Gino Capponi, Storia della Repubblica di Firenze, vol. i. (Florence, 1875)
  20. ^ “A carroccio made an appearance in England with the English army fighting for King Stephen at Northallerton in 1138 (the Battle of the Standard).” Jim Bradbury, The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, Routledge (2004) p.238 ISBN 978-0-203-64466-9
  21. ^ Treadgold, Warren (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society. p. 646. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2630-2.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h D'Ilario, 1976, p. 192.
  23. ^ Tucci, p. 4.
  24. ^ Voltmer, pp. 183-184.
  25. ^ "È sul campanile di un eremo medievale dell'Oltrepò Pavese la storica «martinella» del carroccio" (in Italian). Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  26. ^ Ferrarini, p. 188.
  27. ^ Voltmer, p. 6.


  • (In Italian) Giorgio D'Ilario, Egidio Gianazza, Augusto Marinoni, Legnano e la battaglia, Edizioni Landoni, 1976.
  • (In Italian) Gabriella Ferrarini, Marco Stadiotti, Legnano una città, la sua storia, la sua anima, Telesio editore, 2001.
  • (In Italian) Chiara Frugoni, Il Villani illustrato : Firenze e l'Italia medievale nelle 253 immagini del ms. Chigiano L VIII 296 della Biblioteca Vaticana, texts by Alessandro Barbero, Alessandro Savorelli to others, Firenze, Le lettere, 2005.
  • (In Italian) Paolo Grillo, Legnano 1176. Una battaglia per la libertà, Laterza, 2010.
  • (In Latin) Alphonse Huillard-Bréholles, Tomus 5, pars 1, part of Historia diplomatica Friderici secundi, Anastatic reprint. of edition: Parisiis Henricus Plon, Torino, Bottega d'Erasmo, 1963 [1857].
  • (In Italian) Augusto Marinoni, La battaglia di Legnano è avvenuta nel territorio sangiorgese?, in Attilio Agnoletto, San Giorgio su Legnano - storia, società, ambiente, Edizioni Landoni, 1992.
  • (In Italian) Cesare Paoli, Il libro di Montaperti : (an. 1260), Firenze, G. P. Vieusseux, 1889.
  • (In German) H. Zug Tucci, Il Carroccio, in Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Bibliotheken und Archiven, vol. 65, 1985, pp. 1-104.
  • (In Italian) Guglielmo Ventura, Memoriale, by Ludovico Antonio Muratori, Milano, 1727.
  • (In Italian) Ernst Voltmer, Il Carroccio, translation of Giuseppe Albertoni, Torino, Einaudi, 1994.

External links[edit]

See also[edit]