As I’ve said here before, if you look at enough pictures of a distant time, you start to feel as if you’re actually there…
The year is approximately 1430 A.D., and I find myself in an encampment of mercenaries in Lombardy, in Northern Italy. In this era, the city-states of this nation hire paid soldiers to protect their powerful commercial interests, the riches brought back from trade in places like the Orient; it is cheaper (and safer to life and limb) to hire warriors than to have a standing army of citizens.
This is Paolo Uccello's 1456 "The Battle of San Romano."
The men who hire and organize the bands of soldiers are known as condottieri, which means “contractors.” But one of the condottieri is a remarkable gal named Onorata Rodiana. If you think the 1950s kept women at home, multiply their plight by a hundred when it comes to the Renaissance years. It was hard enough to get out of the house and learn to read, much less become a sword-wielding Amazon on horseback. And I can think of only one actress could have played Onorata with the appropriate feistiness and femininity: the Cuban-Mexican star of 1960s Italian spectacles, Chelo Alonso:
This is Chelo as a gypsy in Terror of the Red Mask.
Suddenly the night air is thundering with the hooves of horses, and through the brush comes Onorata and her men. She is dressed in the armor and uniform of a male. But those are the eyes of a magnificent female that flash in the torchlight as she dismounts and takes off her helmet, then goes into her tent for food and wine. She started as one of the soldiers, but rose in the ranks to have her own band of warriors.
If only I could give her a foot massage after her long day of plunder and pillage, as these mercenaries are wont to do! I would be satisfied with that…
Crouching in the dark behind a tree, I munch on some bread and drink a jug of wine I pilfered from a sleepy soldier, and think back to what I’ve heard about how Onorata found herself in this line of work…
Even more remarkable than her soldiering is that she was an accomplished artist first, a painter of murals, in these days when the rigors of artistic apprenticeship and training are so great that few males can ever achieve the skill and renown to get commissions. It’s not like 2009, where you can put a few blotches on a canvas and call yourself an artist.
Miss Rodiana is from the small Northern Italian town of Castelleone in the province of Cremona. The facts of her apprenticeship are not recorded, but in 1423 she was hired by the “Tyrant of Cremona,” Gabrino Fondulo (think Basil Rathbone if you like classic Hollywood, Christopher Walken if you like modern films), to do a fresco in his palace. But in the middle of the work, as she toiled on the wall painting, a sleazy courtier attempted to take liberties with the beauteous, vivacious Onorata, and she stabbed him to death when it became clear there was no other way to protect her virtue. Disguising herself in male attire, she fled to the mountains, where she found refuge with a band of mercenaries. “It is better to live honored outside my homeland, than dishonored within it!” she is recorded as having said (according to the 1590 book Storia di Castelleone, quoted in Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race, a book about female artists). The fellowship of the soldiers, and this new profession, appealed to her adventurous spirit.
This medieval painting shows horsewomen on a serious rampage!
The tyrant tried Onorata in her absence and condemned her, vowing to flush her out no matter where she hid. This was rather difficult, since she apparently was quite a canny crossdresser, and her soldier pals were quite loyal in hiding her. And remember, your style of headwear can make identification difficult.
Imagine Onorata's—or Chelo Alonso's—eyes peering out at you from this helmet!
But then the tyrant realized Onorata was the only one he wanted to complete that fresco (unless that was his rationalization for giving up the hunt), so he eventually put out the word that she was pardoned and she could come back and finish the painting.
Which she did.
And thus began a career that now encompasses two disciplines: artistic and military. She paints a fresco for some patron, then goes back to the boys for some pillage and plunder. The condotierri, who were businessmen as much (if not more than) warriors, frequently switched allegiances since they fought for money rather than patriotism, so Onorata probably has the opportunity to wear a number of different male outfits. However, I couldn’t find it recorded for how long she kept up the crossdressing; once she became a commander herself, she may have dressed with more of a feminine flourish. At least, I’d like to think so…
Maybe this is what Onorata looked like in those rare, stolen moments between palette and pike.
I look over at Onorata’s tent. Against the torchlight, I see her shadow as she undresses. What is her love life like? I haven’t found anything about it. Would she be up for a foot massage? Although the wine has gone to my head, I have the feeling that, alas, I might end up on the wrong end of a sword if I dare to sneak over and say hello…
So I return, however reluctantly, to 2009…
Back at my computer, I learn that in 1452, after a thirty year career of art and soldiering, Onorata and her band helped defend her hometown, Castelleone, against the Venetians. The invaders were successfully repelled, but Onorata was mortally wounded. It is recorded that she died within sight of the house where she was born. “Honored I lived, and honored I shall die.”
I guess the only reason this was never made into a movie (as far as I know) is that it would be hard to make a mercenary sympathetic, no matter how dramatic her story. The condotierri and their troops messed with their minds of the people who hired them, played one group against the other, switched sides, prolonged regional wars, all for profit and pleasure. True, it was a rather tough time to be alive, and you had to protect yourself, but these guys were no saints, and Onorata Rodiana chose to become one of them. Also, no examples of her work, or pictures of her, seem to have survived from that era, and she has been largely forgotten.
Except by travelers like yours truly, propelled by horniness and curiosity about the Eternal Feminine!
The queen of the Amazons leading her ladies into battle...
And, of course, as a cigar-chomping international film producer (in my mind), I’m always looking for vehicles perfect for Miss Chelo Alonso, even though at 75 she’s been long retired from film!
Chelo smolders in Morgan the Pirate. You can find her on DVD in Goliath and the Barbarians, also with Reeves.
Yes, this is a gal who never made enough movies! (And well worthy of a foot massage or two!!)
Punishment can be sweet when the punisher is perfection!
I got the images and info for this entry from various sources, but one essential place for all lovers of tempestuous female cinema talent is WOmWAm. This vast and entertaining site has great pix of Chelo Alonso, but that’s only the beginning. I’m adding WOmWAm (which stands for Women Doing Things to Men) to my blogroll.