The Battle of Fornovo in the Gallery of Maps (Vatican Museums)

The intelligent use of reserves has sometimes been described as one of the distinguishing features of modern military tactics, and the concept was certainly one that had been widely explored by the condottieri. But in this case there was too much emphasis on reserves. Whether this was because Gonzaga had more men than he knew what to do with or whether it was a sort of natural caution is hard to say. However, part of the intention was clearly to prevent the reserves being committed too early or all at once, and the leaders of the various reserve divisions had strict orders not to enter the fray until called forward by Ridolfo Gonzaga and no one else.

The battle opened in mid-afternoon with a brief artillery duel across the Taro. But heavy rain had dampened the powder and the guns on both sides were more than usually ineffective. The rain had also swollen the river suddenly, and this was seriously to affect the Italian plan. When the signal to advance was given the three spearhead columns began to cross the river. The Count of Caiazzo attacked the van with indifferent success; his infantry were badly cut up by the Swiss who outnumbered them, and elements of his troops were soon fleeing towards Parma. However, he achieved his task of keeping the French vanguard occupied. The stradiots also reached their first objective and harried the French left flank. But when two of their leaders were killed, they drew off and began to plunder the baggage train, which their encircling movement had placed at their mercy. In the centre Gonzaga found it impossible to cross the river where he had intended and moved further upstream to cross close to Fortebraccio’s troops. This led to delay and some confusion; but above all it meant that instead of striking the gap between the French centre and the already committed vanguard, he crossed between the centre and the rearguard, thus exposing his flank to the full weight of the French centre. Here in the space of less than an hour the battle was decided. The element of surprise was lost by the delays, and Gonzaga and Fortebraccio found their squadrons depleted by the difficulties of crossing the river. They bore the full brunt of the counter-attacks of the French and no reserves came forward, as Ridolfo Gonzaga was mortally wounded at the height of the battle. Thus more than half the Italian army never got into action at all. The heavily mauled divisions of Gonzaga and Fortebraccio gave almost as good as they got; the two leaders particularly fighting with exceptional gallantry. At one point they came close to capturing Charles, but so furious a battle could not last for long. Both armies drew back to regroup, and then approaching darkness prevented a resumption of fighting.

The outcome of the battle appeared uncertain, and both sides claimed a victory. The French had achieved their aim of opening a road northwards, as they were able to resume their march stealthily the next night. They had inflicted the heavier casualties on Gonzaga’s army which lost over 2,000 men, including a number of captains. The Italians could claim to be the masters of the field as the French drew off, and they captured the French baggage, including Charles’ personal illustrated record of his many amorous conquests. They also took more prisoners. These perhaps, in terms of Italian warfare, were indications of victory; but Fornovo was fought for specific objectives, and Gonzaga failed to achieve his objective; so he can be said in real terms to have lost the battle. But he lost it not because the Swiss infantry and French artillery were invincible; neither of these elements played much part. Nor did he lose it because the French fought better or with more determination. He did not even lose it because a part of his army got out of hand, notably the stradiots, and another part, the Milanese, did not press their attack (perhaps on instructions from Milan), although these were the excuses given for the lack of success. Three factors really contributed to the Italian failure. First there was the sudden rising of the Taro which badly disrupted the Italian plan and caused last minute confusion. Secondly both Francesco Gonzaga and his uncle elected to lead the army, and thus no one was really in a position to direct the whole battle. Gonzaga, although he showed great personal bravery and many of the ideal qualities of a subordinate commander, had not appreciated that so large and complex an army needed to be directed from behind. This was by no means a typical Italian mistake; neither Braccio nor Sforza would ever have allowed themselves to make it. Finally the sheer size of the army and complexity of the battle plan frustrated success. This sudden attempt to translate tactics which could work well with a small army used to cooperation to a large composite army which had come together for the first time, was bound to run into difficulties. More traditional tactics would probably have won the day by sheer weight of numbers, which is a curious reflection on the theory that Italian methods were outdated and superseded.

Fornovo was one of the two major battles in the whole period between 1494 and 1530 when a largely Italian army met the invaders in the open field. It is therefore one of the few occasions when one can seek to assess the relative merits of Italian and ultramontane military methods. For the rest of the time the political disunity of Italy and political weakness of most of the states made combination against the invaders and a real trial of strength impossible. Italians fought, sometimes distinguished themselves, and occasionally disgraced themselves, on both sides in the wars, but the warfare was increasingly becoming international rather than Italian. It only remains therefore to analyse briefly the Italian contributions to the changes which were taking place during these protracted wars.

Battle of Fornovo, 1495

Charles VIII did not renew his attempts to dominate Italy, and the forces which he left in Naples were gradually overrun with the help of increasing numbers of Spanish troops. The Aragonese dynasty was re-established in Naples, but a Spanish army led by Gonsalvo de Cordoba, the Great Captain, became a permanent part of its defences. The next French invasion of Italy came in 1499 after Louis XII had succeeded Charles and added the Orleanist claim to Milan to the Angevin interest in Naples. The four year lull between the two invasions was filled by serious fighting in only one part of the peninsula, and this was the long war fought by Florence for the recovery of Pisa.

Pisa had declared her independence following Florence’s surrender to Charles VIII in 1494, and for fifteen years its recovery was the main preoccupation of Florentine policy. This war was an interesting one in a number of respects. It saw two states totally committed to war for a protracted period; not only the Pisans, subjected to almost continuous siege, but also the Florentines found that every aspect of the life of their cities was subject to the effects of war. In this situation Florence became to some extent reconciled to the problem of standing forces, but her suspicion of the condottieri remained. It was the sort of war in which condottiere cavalry could not be seen to best advantage. Paolo Vitelli, who was executed in 1499 for failing to take Pisa, was no more unsuccessful than the French troops hired two years later for the same purpose. The problem was of course not just a military one; the Pisans received support in turn from every state in Italy, together with France and Spain, as each struck at Florence through this running sore in her side. The solutions were therefore diplomatic—to avoid offending potential allies of Pisa and isolate her diplomatically—as well as military. In the latter sphere Florence turned to increasingly permanent companies of infantry, and eventually to Machiavelli’s militia, to surround Pisa and starve her into submission. But she still failed to build up the comprehensive military organisation which had long existed in Venice. She was still at the mercy of a military attack, such as those mounted against her by Cesare Borgia in 1501 and 1502, and even more conclusively by the Spanish in 1512. The sack of Prato in the latter year, and the complete humiliation of Florence’s new national militia by the Spanish troops, was not so much an indication of Italian military weakness as a justification for the faith which continued, for many years to come, to be placed in professional mercenary troops rather than embryo national armies.

Nor was the success of Cesare Borgia in winning control of the Romagna in a series of campaigns between 1499 and 1503 an example of the effectiveness of militia troops as Machiavelli seemed to think. Cesare’s army was essentially a mercenary army. He relied heavily on contingents of French and Spanish troops, and even in July 1502, when he was said to have assembled the best troops in Italy, his army was made up largely of the condottiere companies of men like Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo and the Orsini, and his own Romagnol mercenaries. Cesare, like a number of other Italian commanders, was experimenting with mounted arquebusiers and, with the aid of Vitellozzo, he had assembled a fine artillery train, but the Romagnol militia, paraded briefly in the last weeks of 1502, contributed little to his military success.

Cesare Borgia’s army was an effective military weapon for his limited purposes; he had some troops who would have undoubtedly given a good account of themselves against the French or the Spanish, and the French in particular went to considerable trouble to secure his assistance. But he did not have a monopoly of the good Italian troops or the effective Italian captains in the first years of the sixteenth century. The second French invasion of 1499, having absorbed Milan easily, led to a confrontation with Spain in Naples. On both sides in this war Italian commanders played a considerable role. In April 1503 at Cerignola the French and Spanish armies met for the first time in a major battle. In the French army were considerable numbers of Italian troops, but acting only in a supporting role to the French cavalry and the Swiss. On the Spanish side Gonsalvo de Cordoba relied heavily on Prospero and Fabrizio Colonna, who not only led his cavalry forces but also designed the powerful field fortification which contributed greatly to the Spanish victory. Cerignola was one of the most significant battles of the Italian Wars in that it demonstrated in the most complete fashion the answer to the problem of how to deal with the Swiss infantry square. Machiavelli was still obsessed by this problem twenty years later when he wrote his Arte della Guerra, but this was only an indication of the unreality of the theoretical framework within which he was writing. The Swiss were never the masters of the battlefields of the Italian Wars as they had been twenty years earlier; Spanish strength linked to the tactical conceptions of the Italian condottieri saw to that, and Cerignola was the turning point.

At Cerignola the Colonna brothers prepared a long ditch and rampart in front of the Spanish position. Behind this were placed the infantry made up of Landsknechte in the centre and large numbers of crossbowmen and arquebusiers on the flanks. Further out on either flank were stationed bodies of light cavalry, while the heavy cavalry was held in the rear in reserve under Prospero Colonna. The French attacked this position without fully reconnoitring it. First the heavy cavalry and then the Swiss were held up by the ditch and caught in a murderous crossfire from the arquebusiers. Confusion quickly spread, and, when the Spanish and Italian cavalry charged in on both flanks, the Swiss square was already broken and defenceless. The combination of field fortifications, hand firearms and light cavalry had proved the answer, and Cordoba and the Colonna brothers in finding that answer were profiting from the experiments of earlier condottiere warfare.

Cerignola was also the turning point in this war in Naples. The French, demoralised, began to retreat and were badly defeated again at the battle of the Garigliano later in the year. On this occasion Francesco Gonzaga had command of the French army, and proved no match for the tactical skill of Cordoba, the Colonna, and now also Bartolomeo d’Alviano, who proved himself a master of light cavalry tactics.

Most of the Italians involved in this campaign were Neapolitan and papal troops; the army of Venice was still waiting on the sidelines, committed to a war with the Turks until 1503. Venice had supported the French invasion in 1499 and still remained allied to France, although taking no serious part in the wars, until in February 1508 her northern Alpine frontiers were invaded by an imperial army anxious to participate in the spoils of a division of Italy. The imperialists were weak and the invading army contained no more than 5-6,000 Swiss and German infantry. It was completely out-manoeuvred and utterly defeated by Bartolomeo d’Alviano near Pieve di Cadore. This was a notable victory for an Italian army largely composed of infantry and light cavalry, and it established d’Alviano alongside the Colonna brothers and Gian Jacopo Trivulzio, who now commanded the French forces in Milan, amongst the leading captains of the day.

But this humiliation of the Emperor and Venice’s refusal to accept foreign control of Italy brought down on her in the last months of 1508 a combination of all the foreign powers together with the pope, Julius II, in the League of Cambrai. The decision to partition Venice and her large mainland empire was put into operation with less alacrity and determination than might have been expected, so that in the spring of 1509 it was only the French army attacking from the east which posed an immediate danger. This led to the second and final confrontation between a completely Italian army and the invaders at Agnadello.

The opposing armies at Agnadello were fairly evenly matched. The Venetians, commanded by Pitigliano and d’Alviano, had 10,000 cavalry and 22,000 infantry in the field; the infantry consisted of 9,000 militia dressed in their uniforms of red and white, and a core of Romagnol pike infantry trained in the manner of the Swiss. The French began to cross the frontier line of the Adda with almost 40,000 men including 15,000 heavy cavalry and 8,000 Swiss. The opportunity to attack the French while they were crossing the river was lost, as Pitigliano, the supreme commander, preferred to dig himself in and await the French assault in a powerful fortified camp. Pitigliano was an experienced condottiere of the old school; he lacked the confidence and the panache of d’Alviano, but there is no reason to suppose that, had he been allowed to keep to his plan, he would not have made the French pay dearly for an attack on his position. The French were certainly aware of this and hesitated in their advance; d’Alviano was all for ignoring the French army and making a swift counter-move against Milan itself. But this daring idea was rejected and, on orders from Venice, Pitigliano began to move his army cautiously forward, intending to occupy new fortified positions in a more commanding position. The move from one fortified camp to another was the undoing of the Venetians because it enabled the French to attack them in the open. In fact it was the Venetian rearguard, commanded by d’Alviano himself, which took the brunt of the French attack, and initially repelled it with heavy losses. However, the Venetian army was too spread out to take advantage of this situation, and the column next to d’Alviano’s, commanded by Antonio Pio da Carpi, did not move to his assistance. Indeed, when it was itself attacked by the ever-increasing concentration of French forces, the newly arrived militia from Brescia which made up a large part of the column, broke and fled. This left d’Alviano and his rear-guard completely isolated with Pitigliano still some two kilometres away and reluctant to commit the remainder of the army to this dangerous situation. D’Alviano was now in a hopeless position; he and his small force of cavalry were surrounded and captured; his infantry fought on desperately. Surrounded by overwhelming numbers of Swiss and Gascons, their leaders soon all killed, they were eventually annihilated.

The defeat at Agnadello had some similarities to Fornovo. In this case the Italian army was caught in a disadvantageous position, but again it was the failure to coordinate properly a large army which materially affected the result. Most of the troops actually involved gave a very good account of themselves. The flight of the Brescia militia was decisive, but other militia elements fought with outstanding heroism, and the condottiere troops stood equally firm. D’Alviano did all that could be done by one man to retrieve the situation; Pitigliano’s judgment and caution could certainly be questioned, but his action had some justification, and the fact that half the army was saved was to be an important factor in the subsequent campaign. The heroic defence of Padua two months later was made possible because so much of the army, and particularly the Romagnol infantry, had been preserved intact.

In the remaining battles of these wars, Italian troops and Italian leaders were heavily involved, but never again as a complete army. At Ravenna in 1512 the Ferrarese artillery of Alfonso d’Este played a major part in the French victory, while a large contingent of papal infantry, led by Ramazzotto da Forlì, fought gallantly on the Spanish side. The commander of the Spanish light cavalry at this battle was the Marquis of Pescara, an Aragonese-Neapolitan nobleman who was to become one of the most famous leaders in the later campaigns.

At Marignano in 1515, when the French recovered Milan, it was Trivulzio, who had been a decisive leader at Agnadello, who still led the French army, and d’Alviano with the Venetian cavalry who delivered the coup de grace to the Swiss. At Bicocca in 1522, the victorious Spanish army was commanded by the Marquis of Pescara and Prospero Colonna, and owed their victory to Colonna’s field fortifications and massive numbers of Spanish arquebusiers. On the French side, between two enormous squares of Swiss in the front line, were the mounted arquebusiers of yet another Italian leader, Giovanni de’ Medici, the famous Giovanni delle Bande Nere. But by the time of Pavia in 1525, the last of the major battles of these wars, the battle at which French hopes of Italian conquest finally faded and at which the French king, Francis I, was captured, the role of the Italians was somewhat reduced. There were probably 3,000–4,000 Italian troops on each side, of whom the most notable were the Black Bands of Giovanni de’ Medici, who were described as being amongst the finest troops in the French army. But Giovanni himself was wounded just before the battle and his companies, although they fought gallantly, were overwhelmed and largely destroyed by German Landsknechte. With Francis I was Teodoro Trivulzio, cousin of the more famous Gian Jacopo but a far less experienced commander. On the imperialist side was still Pescara, and his nephew Alfonso d’Avalos, Marquis del Vasto, with a few Neapolitan troops. But it was many years since any of these men had fought for an Italian state, and the links with the military scene of limited numbers and limited objectives before 1494 were becoming more and more remote.

Italian soldiers and Italian traditions had contributed much to military developments during these wars, but the only field in which they still predominated was in that of military engineering and architecture. Most of the fortifications built were the work of Italian architects. Francesco di Giorgio Martini, who had designed fortresses and siege works for Federigo da Montefeltro, was still active in Naples in the 1490’s. With him was Fra Giocondo, the Veronese architect who later designed the Venetian fortifications at Padua. The successor to Fra Giocondo in Venetian service was Sanmicheli, who was trained in Rome in the tradition of Bramante and the Sangallos and whose fortification work can still be seen all over the Veneto and the Venetian overseas empire. In central Italy the fortresses built by the Sangallo family stretch from Poggio Imperiale (1488) and the Fortezza del Basso (1534) in Tuscany to Civita Castellana (1494) and Nettuno (1502) in the Papal States. Leonardo da Vinci was inspector of fortresses for Cesare Borgia, and Michelangelo strengthened the fortifications of Florence in 1529.

But the only Italian army which remained intact in 1530 with traditions reaching back into the fifteenth century was that of Venice. Milan and Naples were now Spanish. Florence, besieged in that year by an imperialist army, had little or no army with which to defend itself. It relied on a hastily formed militia and the mercenaries of Malatesta Baglioni, employed for the occasion. The pope still had an army, but it was small, its components fluctuated, its traditions were few; it had been able to do little to save Rome from sack by the imperialists in 1527. While it would certainly be wrong to end a history of Italian warfare in the Renaissance in 1494, it would be equally wrong to try to continue it beyond 1530.

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