By Cecil H. Clough
The French Descent into Renaissance Italy 1494-95: Antecedents and Effects, edited by David Abulafia (Ashgate, 1995)
Introduction: In Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (the second draft transcribed 1520-21, as in the final version), it was given to Count Ludovico Canossa to stress the importance of the literature of Antiquity for the courtier, whose ‘principal and true profession… must be arms’. Canossa echoed the theoretical view of Italian humanists who regarded Classical Antiquity as the model to adopt, a model which in the fifteenth century in some measure was consciously manifest in warfare on the Italian peninsula. Vespasiano da Bisticci’s life of Federico da Montefeltro, written by 1498, emphasized that the latter’s military reputation was a direct consequence of his classical studies: ‘the Duke wrought the greater part of his martial deeds by ancient and modem example; from the ancients by his study of history…’ The recommendation to learn warfare from the ancients is most vividly portrayed in a miniature by Giovanni Pietro Birago, dated about 1490, depicting the successful condottiere Francesco Sforza, who gained the duchy of Milan by military means, listening attentively to such classical commanders as Hannibal, Scipio and Caesar. Canossa knew his claim had come to be seen as very flawed, for the French were victorious, yet as he admitted had little interest in letters, classical or otherwise; Canossa was forced to concede contrariwise that for all their knowledge of them ‘the Italians have shown little worth in arms for some time’, presumably meaning at least since 1494. He did not elaborate, concluding: ‘it is better to pass over in silence what cannot be remembered without pain’.
Contemporary Italians were conscious that they fought by their own ‘Italian’ rules, which supposedly could find justification from classical models. These rules meant that a condottiere commander waited for the opposing general to make the first move; battle was rare and usually occurred after a formal challenge given and accepted, when each side judged victory was certain, usually because of a presumed military superiority. As the Florentine Luca Landucci wrote in his chronicle under 1 August 1478: ‘he rule for our Italian soldiers seems to be this: “You pillage there and we will pillage here; there is no need for us to approach too close to one another.” They often let a fort be bombarded for several days, without attempting to succour it’. Such tactics ensured more pay and less risk for the military involved, as well as giving time for the political masters of the opposed forces to agree terms. Landucci reflected: ‘we require to be taught by the Ultramontanes how to make war.’ What he had in mind was ‘Continental’ fighting, which consisted of surprise attacks, giving no quarter, and violence against non-combatants. Early in September 1494 in the Romagna campaign there was an occasion when the herald of the Milanese commander in league with the French proclaimed to the opposing Neapolitan general that for his part the fighting would be by ‘Italian’ rules, not ‘a gorgia’, an allusion to Plato’s Gorgias, which denied morality and natural justice.
In the fifteenth century French romances were popular reading for men in the Italian courts because French chivalry was believed to derive from the warfare of antiquity; for the Italian nobility the French man-at-arms, who epitomized chivalry, represented the living tradition of classical fighting. Yet it was appreciated that the French army as a fighting force was neither chivalric nor did it abide by Italian rules of warfare, but sought to overcome by might and terror. From the very first major encounter during the invasion of the Italian peninsula in 1494 the French army fought the ‘continental’ way and was victorious. Marino Sanuto’s contemporary history was concerned exclusively with the initial French invasion, while Francesco Guicciardini and Paolo Giovio, near-contemporaries, covered the first and subsequent Italian wars. All three, like more recent scholars in the field, have sought to explain the overwhelming success of the foreign invaders, focusing either on the malaise of the Italian military, or on the lack of political unity on the Italian peninsula.
The purpose of this study is to examine one campaign related to the French invasion of 1494: that in the Romagna, which began in July and culminated in the French sack of Mordano on 20 October. It has been neglected by historians of the Italian wars, who either have not considered it coherently as a campaign, or dismiss it in a few sentences, often on the basis of factual errors; their lead has been followed by other historians of the period.l0 Here what is provided is a miniature rather than the large canvas, and an unfinished miniature at that, as further research is needed to fill in some details. At the centre are military circumstances, though in the background are the political issues and the resulting diplomacy. The miniature itself is used to bring into relief the nature of Italian military ineptitude.
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