Renaissance Warfare II

Warfare in Renaissance Italy

At the conclusion of the fifteenth century, Italy remained divided. There were four kingdoms: Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica, and Naples; many republics such as Venice, Genoa, Florence, Lucca, Siena, San Marino, Ragusa (in Dalmatia); small principalities, Piombino, Monaco; and the duchies of Savoy, Modena, Mantua, Milan, Ferrara, Massa, Carrara, and Urbino. Parts of Italy were under foreign rule. The Habsburgs controlled the Trentino, Upper Adige, Gorizia, and Trieste. Sardinia belonged to the kingdom of Aragon. Many Italian states, however, held territories outside of the peninsula. The duke of Savoy possessed the Italian region of Piedmont and the French-speaking Duchy of Savoy along with the counties of Geneva and Nice. Venice owned Crete, Cyprus, Dalmatia, and many Greek islands. The Banco di San Giorgio, the privately owned bank of the republic of Genoa, possessed the kingdom of Corsica. Italian princes also held titles and fiefdoms in neighboring states. Indeed, the duke of Savoy could also claim that he was heir and a descendant of the crusader kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem. All of this confusion often remained a source of contention in Italian politics.

The Muslims became the greatest threat to security when the Arabs occupied Sicily in the ninth century. Later Muslim attempts to conquer central Italy failed as a result of papal resistance. Although the Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily removed the immediate threat. Muslim ships raided the Italian coast until the 1820s.

This conflict with Islam resulted in substantial Italian participation in the Cru- sades. The Crusader military orders such as the Templars and the Order of Saint John were populated by a great number of Italian knights. Italian merchants, too, established their own warehouses and agencies in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. Thanks to the Crusades, Venice and Genoa increased their influence as well. They expanded their colonies, their revenues, and their importance to the Crusader kingdoms. Their wealth exceeded that of many European kingdoms.

The fall of the Crusader kingdoms, the Turkish conquests, and the fall of Constantinople by 1453 led to two significant consequences: the increasing influence of Byzantine and Greek culture in Italian society, and the growing Turkish threat to Italian territorial possessions in the Mediterranean. The conflict between Italians and Muslims was complex. For centuries Italians and Muslims were trading partners. So the wars between the Turks and Venetians therefore consisted of a combination of bloody campaigns, privateering, commerce, and maritime war lasting more than 350 years.

Despite a common enemy, common commercial and financial interests, a common language, and a common culture, Italian politics remained disparate and divisive. For much of the fifteenth century the states spent their time fighting each other over disputed territorial rights. Although they referred to themselves as Florentines, Lombards, Venetians, Genoese, or Neapolitans, when relating themselves to outsiders, such as Muslims, French, Germans, and other Europeans, they self- identified as “Italians.”

The Organization of Renaissance Armies

The lack of significant external threats led to the reduction in size of Italian armies. The cost of maintaining standing armies or employing their citizenry in permanent militias was too expensive and reduced the productivity of the population. Italian city-states, duchies, and principalities preferred to employ professional armies when needed, as they were extremely costly to hire. Larger states, such as the Republic of Venice, the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States possessed a limited permanent force, but the remainder of the Italian states had little more than city guards, or small garrisons. Nevertheless, Italian Renaissance armies, when organized, were divided into infantry and cavalry. Artillery was in its infancy and remained a severely limited in application. Cavalry was composed of heavy or armored cavalry, genti d’arme (men at arms), and light cavalry. Since the Middle Ages, genti d’arme were divided into “lances” composed of a “lance chief”—or corporal—a rider, and a boy. They were mounted on a warhorse, a charger, and a jade respectively. The single knight with his squire was known as lancia spezzata— literally “brokenspear,” or anspessade.

Infantry was divided into banners. Every banner was composed of a captain, two corporals, two boys, ten crossbowmen, nine palvesai, soldiers carrying the great medieval Italian shields called palvesi, and a servant for the captain. Generally the ratio of cavalry to infantry was one to ten. There was no organized artillery by the end of the fifteenth century, as it was relatively new to European armies.

An Evolution in Military Affairs, or the So-Called “Military Revolution”

Artillery was in its infancy during the fifteenth century, but in the early days of the sixteenth century, a quick and impressive development began. The Battle of Ravenna in 1512 marked the first decisive employment of cannons as field artillery. Soon infantry and cavalry realized the power of artillery and proceeded to alter their tactics to avoid or at least to reduce the damage. Moreover, the increasing power of artillery demonstrated the weakness of medieval castles and led to a trans- formation of military architecture. The traditional castle wall was vertical and tall and could be smashed by cannon-fired balls. In response, the new Italian-styled fortress appeared. Its walls were lower and oblique instead of perpendicular to the ground. The walls resisted cannonballs better, as their energy could also be diverted by the obliquity of the wall itself. Then, the pentagonal design was determined as best for a fortress, and each angle of the pentagon was reinforced by another smaller pentagon, called a bastion. It appeared as the main defensive work and was protected by many external defensive works, intended to break and scatter the enemy’s attack. The fifteenth-century Florentine walls in Volterra have many bastion elements, but the first Italian-styled fortress was at Civitavecchia, the harbor for the papal fleet, forty miles north of Rome. It was erected by Giuliano da Sangallo in 1519, but recent studies suggest that Sangallo exploited an older draft by Michelangelo.

The classical scheme of the Italian-styled fortress often referred to as the trace italienne was established in the second half of the sixteenth century. Its elegant efficiency was recognized by all powers. European sovereigns called upon Italian military architects to build these new fortresses in their countries. Antwerp, Parma, Vienna, Györ, Karlovac, Ersekujvar, Breda, Ostend, S’Hertogenbosch, Lyon, Char- leville, La Valletta, and Amiens all exhibited the style and ability of Giuliano da Sangallo, Francesco Paciotti, Pompeo Targone, Gerolamo Martini, and many other military architects, who disseminated a style and a culture to the entire Continent. The pentagonal style was further developed by Vauban and soon reached America, too, where many fortresses and military buildings were built on a pentagonal scheme.

This evolution in military architecture—generally known as “the Military Revolution”—meant order and uniformity. A revolution also occurred in uniforms and weapons. Venetian infantrymen shipping on galleys for the 1571 naval campaign were all dressed in the same way; and papal troops shown in two 1583 frescoes are dressed in yellow and red, or in white and red, depending on the company to which they belonged. Likewise, papal admiral Marcantonio Colonna, in 1571, ordered his captains to provide all their soldiers with “merion in the modern style, great velveted flasks for the powder, as fine as possible, and all with well ammunitioned match arquebuses . . . ” Of course, uniformity remained a dream, especially when compared with eighteenth- or nineteenth-century styles, but it was a first step.

Although a revolution in artillery and fortifications remained a significant aspect of the military revolution, captains faced the problem of increasing firepower. The Swiss went to battle in squared formations, but it proved to be unsatisfactory against artillery. Similarly, portable weapons could not fire and be reloaded fast enough, and it soon became apparent that armies needed a mixture of pike and firearms. The increasing range and effectiveness of firearms made speed on the field more important. It was clear that the more a captain could have a fast fire–armed maneuvering mass, the better the result in battle. Machiavelli examined this issue; he was as bad a military theorist as he was a formidable political theorist. He suggested the use of two men on horseback: a rider and a scoppiettiere—a “hand- gunner”—on the same horse. It was the first kind of mounted infantry in the modern era. Giovanni de’Medici, the brave Florentine captain known as Giovanni of the Black Band, adopted this system. Another contemporary Florentine captain, Pietro Strozzi, who reduced the men on horseback to only one, developed the same system. He fought against Florence and Spain, then he passed to the French flag at the end of the Italian Wars. When in France, he organized a unit based upon his previous experience. It was composed of firearmed riders, considered mounted infantrymen, referred to as dragoons.

The Swiss

The Swiss (on the left) assault the Landsknecht mercenaries in the French lines at the Battle of Marignano.

“As for trying to intimidate the enemy, blocks of thousands of oncoming merciless Swiss, advancing swiftly accompanied by what a contemporary called “the deep wails and moans of the Uri Bull and Unterwalden Cow*” or landsknechts chanting “look out, here I come” in time with their drums were posturing on a grand scale. Not to mention what 8 ranks of lowered pike-heads looked like when viewed from the receiving end…”

The modern scholars Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw tell us this about the Swiss mercenaries:

The French could boast the finest heavy cavalry in Europe in the companies d’ordonnance, permanent units raised and paid for by the Crown, in which the French competed to serve. For infantry, the French had come to rely heavily on Swiss mercenaries. In the 1490s, the reputation of the Swiss stood very high. They were a different kind of “national” army. A well-established system of training, organized by the governments of the cantons, resulted in a high proportion of able-bodied men having the strength and ability to handle pikes, halberds and two-handed swords, and the discipline to execute complex manoeuvres in formations of several thousand men.

Employers hired these men not only for their military skills but also because entire contingents could be recruited simply by contacting the Swiss cantons. Young men there were required to serve in the militia system, were willing and well-prepared to do so, and welcomed the chance to serve abroad. Alternatively, Swiss men could also hire themselves out individually or in small groups. It is clear that the Swiss were hard fighters and hard-headed businessmen as well. Their motto was: pas d’argent, pas de Swisse (no money, no Swiss).

Swiss mercenaries were highly valued through late medieval Europe because of the power of their determined mass attacks, in deep columns, with pikes and halberds. They specialized in sending large columns of soldiers into battle in “pike squares.” These were well-trained, well-disciplined bands of men armed with long steel-tipped poles and were grouped into 100-man formations that were 10 men wide and 10 men deep. On command, pike squares could wheel and maneuver so quickly that it was nearly suicidal for horsemen or infantrymen to attack them. As they came at their enemy with leveled pikes and hoarse battle cries, they were almost invincible.

These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A halberd is an axe blade topped with a spike and mounted on a long shaft. If the need arose, they could easily lay their pikes aside and take up other weapons instead. They were so effective that between about 1450 and 1500 every major leader in Europe either hired Swiss pikemen or hired fighters like the German Landsknecht who copied Swiss tactics. The extensive and continuous demand for these specialist Swiss and landsknecht pike companies may well have given them the illusion of permanency. In any case, what it did show was that medieval and Renaissance warfare was becoming better disciplined, more organized, and more professional.

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.


For all of their deficiencies, knights proved their mettle against Byzantine and Muslim forces, and for nearly 250 years after the Battle of Hastings (1066) they were all but invulnerable to the weapons used by European infantrymen. At the Battles of Courtrai (1302) in the Franco-Dutch War and the Morgarten (1315) in the First Austro-Swiss War, however, Flemish and Swiss pikemen demonstrated that the proper choice of terrain allowed resolute foot soldiers to defeat French and Austrian knights respectively. By then the use of powerful crossbows and longbows also put knights at greater risk of death on the battlefield at the hands of commoner bowmen. The combination of archer and dismounted knight used by the English throughout the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) proved deadly effective against French knights. Men-at-arms responded to their new vulnerability by using plate armor for themselves and their horses, which were more likely than their riders to be killed in battle. Plate armor presented several problems. It was too expensive for the less wealthy nobles, so that the near equality in knightly equipment that had marked the previous era disappeared. Its weight required larger and more costly warhorses, which were slower and less maneuverable, allowing the men-at-arms to do little more than a straight-ahead charge. Despite defeat by the Swiss infantrymen in numerous battles throughout the fifteenth century, culminating at Nancy (1477) in the death of Charles the Bold (1433-1477), the duke of Normandy, armored horsemen remained a potent element, especially in the French army.

A full suit of Italian plate armour circa 1450.

Renaissance armor was not just a means of protection, but also a work of art. Some armor, like the suit shown here, had simple borders cut into the metal. Other pieces displayed elaborate images of saints or ancient heroes. The most expensive armor included designs in silver or gold.

Development of Armor.

Arms and armor changed significantly during the Renaissance, with improvements in one of them often leading to modifications in the other. New military tactics and techniques triggered some developments, while others were based on fashion. Armor and weapons were not simply tools of war; they also served important social and artistic functions.

The most popular form of armor during the Middle Ages was mail—sheets of interlocking iron rings. Though flexible and strong, mail did not protect as well as solid plates. In the 1200s armorers began making plate armor out of materials such as leather and, eventually, steel. The earliest plate armor protected the lower legs and knees, the areas that a foot soldier could easily attack on a mounted knight. Over time, armor expanded to cover more and more of the body.

By the early 1400s, knights were encased in complete suits of overlapping steel plates. A full suit of armor might weigh as much as 60 pounds, but its weight was distributed over the entire body. A knight accustomed to wearing armor could mount and dismount a horse fairly easily and even lie down and rise again without difficulty. A foot soldier wore less armor than a knight. He might have an open-faced helmet and a shirt of mail with solid plates covering his back and chest.

Armor changed again as firearms became more common. Rigid armor would crack when hit by a shot from a pistol or musket. Some armorers responded by making their armor harder, while others produced plates that would dent rather than breaking. However, the only really effective technique was to thicken the armor, which made it too heavy to wear in battle. As armor became less useful, soldiers tended to wear less of it. By 1650 most mounted fighters wore only an open-faced helmet, a heavy breastplate, and a backplate. By 1700 armor had all but disappeared from the battlefield.

Tournaments called for special armor. Since participants did not have to carry the armor’s weight as long as they would in battle, they wore heavier armor that offered them greater protection. Each specific event in a tournament required its own type of armor. Some contests involved battles between mounted knights, while others featured hand-to-hand combat on foot.

Most armor, even that worn in battle, was decorated in some way. The decoration ranged from etched borders around the edges of plates to detailed images of saints or ancient heroes. Some very expensive armor was inlaid with patterns in silver or gold. Highly decorated weapons and suits of armor were status symbols, worn only at court or on special social occasions.

Development of Arms.

Renaissance weapons fell into three basic categories: edged weapons, staff weapons, and projectile weapons. Edged weapons included swords and daggers. Renaissance swords often had thin, stiff blades to pierce the gaps between the plates in a suit of armor. The blades were usually straight and had two sharpened edges, although some swords featured curved or single-edged blades. Large swords swung with two hands were common among foot soldiers in Germany and Switzerland.

A staff weapon, a pole with a steel head, was used to cut, stab, or strike an opponent. Heavily armored mounted knights favored the lance, a wooden shaft 10 to 12 feet long with a steel tip. Foot soldiers, especially in Switzerland, often used the halberd, a 5- to 7-foot shaft with a head that had both a cutting edge and a point for stabbing.

Projectile weapons were designed to hurl objects at great speeds. The simplest of these, the sling, threw stones or lead pellets. Most archers in the 1300s and 1400s used the longbow. Both it and the mechanical crossbow could shoot arrows capable of penetrating plate armor at certain ranges. In the 1500s, firearms gradually took the place of bows.

The first pistols, called “hand cannons,” appeared in the early 1300s. They were little more than a barrel with a handle, or stock. The barrel had a chamber, or breech, that held shot and powder. The soldier loaded powder into the open end of the barrel (the muzzle) and packed it tight with a rod. The bullet went in after the powder. The gunner touched a lighted fuse to a small hole in the barrel to ignite the powder and fire the shot.

Over the next few hundred years, various improvements made firearms more reliable and easier to fire. The most important development was the invention of firing mechanisms, known as locks, in the 1400s. The simplest kind was the matchlock. It had an arm that held the lighted fuse. Pulling a trigger turned the arm, touching the fuse to the powder. Even easier to use was the wheel lock, which removed the need for a fuse. It ignited the powder by striking a spark from a piece of iron pyrite when the trigger was pulled. A variation of this, the flintlock, relied on flint to produce a spark.

Heavy cannons, or artillery, appeared about the same time as firearms. Artillery pieces were loaded and fired in much the same way as firearms, but they fired much larger stones and iron balls. The biggest artillery pieces were used for castle sieges. The largest gun ever built could hurl a 300-pound stone ball up to two miles. However, siege cannons weighed thousands of pounds and could not be moved easily. By the late 1400s, field artillery had been developed that could be mounted on wheels and transported. Cannons also became common aboard ships. Like armor, many cannons were highly decorated with designs or the owners’ coats of arms.

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