The Nineteenth Century Memory of Renaissance Italian Warfare: Ercole Ricotti and Jacob Burckhardt
By William Caferro
Conference paper, Trauma at Trieste, 2015
Introduction: Fernand Braudel famously remarked that each generation fashions war in its own image. For this reason alone the memory of conflict, of trauma– the subject of this convegno— is always skewed. Indeed, warfare may be the most politicized topic of historical study, reinterpreted as it occurs by local patriotism and passed on to subsequent scholars and generations in a form that bears little resemblance to reality.
This is evident in the study of American history. Students are taught about the Revolutionary War: how it made the country independent, allowed citizens to pursue “life, liberty and happiness”— ideals that, along with economic opportunity, brought emigrant families like my own across the Atlantic. But the “revolutionary” war was fought primarily for the “rights of Englishmen.” Colonists sought their birthright, which was hardly revolutionary. Militarily we read of heroic resistance, the steadfast generalship of George Washington, the hardships he endured with the rag tag army of patriots against the best army of the day, replete with their strikingly red uniforms.
Lost in this secondary school rendering of events is consideration of the impossible logistics endured by the British, who were fighting a war across an ocean on foreign terrain in an era when such travel was difficult. Fighting long-distance war against a firmly entrenched opponent is always difficult, as America found out in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, American virtue and democratic principles triumphed during the Revolutionary War. A wholly new country was born, even if it looked and smelled a lot like England.
So it has been with Italian Renaissance military history. Patriotism and national considerations have played a major role in its study. The period has come down as one of decay and decadence, when Italian native martial spirit disappeared and was replaced by reliance on mercenary troops. The trecento is depicted as a key point of departure. States made widespread use of mercenaries, including foreign soldiers from outside the peninsula, who arrayed themselves in large autonomous companies, compagnie di ventura, and ravaged Italy. By the quattrocento the “mercenary system” evolved and saw the rise of the great individual Italian condottiere, captains who began taking over the states they served. These developments, made possible by political disunity among Italian states, paved the way for the invasion of Italy by the French armies of Charles VIII at the end of the fifteenth century. Italy became the theater for the Habsburg-Valois wars.
Renaissance Italian military history is thus a sad story of devolution, culminating in conquest by foreign powers. It stands as a “distant mirror” of the foreign oppression endured by nineteenth century Risorgimento Italy, when the academic study of Renaissance military history first began.