In the autumn of 1494 the French King, Charles VIII, launched his famous invasion of Italy, and by February 1495 he was the master of the kingdom of Naples. No one would dispute the importance of this date and these events in Italian history; the political scene was never to be quite the same again. For forty years France and Spain struggled for predominance in the peninsula, and when in the 1530’s Spain emerged as the victor large parts of Italy had already learnt to accept the fact of foreign control. What particularly perplexed contemporary Italian writers was how it had happened so quickly; how had Charles been able to brush aside the resistance of three major Italian states and occupy one of them within six months? The first answer for writers like Machiavelli and Guicciardini lay in the weakness of Italy’s military defence. This was the basis for much of their attack on the condottiere system—that it had failed Italy in its time of need. Italy, sheltered behind the Alps, had lost touch with contemporary European military developments and the condottieri were still living in the anachronistic world of the medieval cavalry charge. Thus, when confronted with the fury of the French attack and the novelty of French military methods, their morale collapsed and they were unable to resist.
These are charges to which we must return in more detail, as they are a key to the whole understanding of Italian fifteenth-century warfare, but for the moment it is important to assess how true the basic premise is. To what extent had Italian warfare developed in a vacuum, isolated from ultramontane developments? How far is it true that since the departure of the foreign companies in the fourteenth century, and the death of Hawkwood, Italy had had no experience of foreign military methods?
There is, of course, some truth in it. There was no major invasion of Italy as a whole by a foreign army during the fifteenth century—until 1494; very few of the condottieri were non-Italians. However, as we have seen, quite a high proportion of the infantry constables were foreigners, and by the 1480’s large numbers of Albanian stradiots and even Turks were being used as light cavalry. Furthermore the history of Naples in the fifteenth century had been one of a constant struggle between Aragonese and Angevins. Several Angevin expeditionary forces had entered Italy during the century and the core of the armies with which Alfonso won the crown of Naples was Spanish. Nor had the activities of these French and Spanish troops been entirely confined to Naples. There was, in fact, a series of encounters throughout the century in which Italians had met foreign troops, from the battle of Brescia in 1401, when the Milanese army had defeated a German force, to the appearance of the Duke of Lorraine with 250 French lances as one of the Venetian commanders in the War of Ferrara.
Brescia in 1401 was the only major intervention by German troops in Italy during the century, and on this occasion the German cavalry was defeated by Facino Cane and Jacopo dal Verme. In 1411 and 1418 the Venetians faced massive Hungarian invasions and successfully countered both of them, and in 1422 Carmagnola with a Milanese army won a notable victory over the Swiss at Arbedo. Four thousand Swiss had crossed the St. Gothard pass in an attack on Bellinzona and Domodossola. They were met by Carmagnola with an army of about 5,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry. The Swiss formed a square of pike infantry in their traditional custom, but soon found themselves surrounded. Carmagnola dismounted his men-at-arms and launched them at the square in a manner reminiscent of Hawkwood. Refusing to accept the Swiss offers to surrender, he succeeded in completely shattering them. This was a blow which was remembered in Switzerland for many years and perhaps contributed in some degree to the relatively few appearances of Swiss troops in Italy for the rest of the century.
In 1447 and 1449 it was the turn of Colleoni to meet foreign invaders. French troops under the Duke of Orleans invaded Milan in alliance with the Venetians attacking from the east, and were met by Colleoni at Bosco Marengo. On this occasion he abandoned his normal Braccesco technique of wearing the enemy down with squadrons used in succession, and threw his whole army into a sudden impetuous charge. The French were taken by surprise and broken, leaving about 1,500 dead on the field. Two years later, another French expeditionary force was met by Colleoni at Romagnano Sesia, but this time he fought a carefully planned tactical battle in the Italian style against them and again won a complete victory. These two battles were the bases of Colleoni’s considerable international reputation and account for the great efforts which Charles the Bold made to obtain his services in later years.
In 1452 an Angevin force joined the Milanese in the war in Lombardy, but completely failed to give a good account of itself. The French troops were reluctant to engage in the slow and uncomfortable siege warfare which characterised this campaign; nor were they prepared to fight on into the winter as Francesco Sforza expected his troops to do. In fact it was only in their cruelty towards civilians that this French army proved itself superior to the Italians. In 1461 the French suffered another major defeat when they attempted to reimpose French rule in Genoa after a revolution in the city. The Genoese aided by a Milanese force repelled the French attack and inflicted very heavy casualties on the French knights from a prepared defensive position.
The record of Italian encounters with foreign armies was not entirely one of victories. In 1478 10,000 Swiss invaded the Ticino and, when forced to retreat by a larger Milanese army, succeeded in luring the Italians into the valley of Giornico, where, surrounded and subjected to a hail of fire from the encircling hills, the Milanese army was badly defeated. This defeat was avenged in 1487 when it was the turn of the Milanese led by Renato and Gian Jacopo Trivulzio to trap a large Swiss force at Ponte di Crevola. On this occasion, the Milanese army was largely made up of light cavalry and the new Milanese conscript infantry, and it proved itself more than a match for the Swiss force of over 5,000 men which was completely routed. The last major frontier battle before 1494 was that at Calliano (1487), north of Verona, when the Venetians, having turned back an Austrian invasion, sought to capture Trento. Roberto da Sanseverino commanded the Venetian army which had the difficult task of moving up the narrow valley of the Adige against heavily defended fortifications. He succeeded in bypassing two castles, but then as he crossed the Adige with a bridge of boats his army was attacked by a mixed force of Swiss and the new German Landsknechte trained to fight in the Swiss manner. Their commander was Friedrich Kappler, a veteran of the Burgundian Wars, and he succeeded in catching the Venetian army as it was half across the river. The centre of the Venetian cavalry was routed and driven back into the river where many, including Roberto himself, were drowned. But the Venetian right wing led by Guido Rossi counter-attacked and forced the Swiss and German infantry to retire. In that they lost their commander and were unable to continue their advance, this encounter must be regarded as a defeat for the Venetians. But both here and at Ponte di Crevola Italians had met, and to some extent gained an advantage over, the troops who were regarded as the masters of the European battlefields at the time.
Finally throughout this period, Italians had the unenviable experience of fighting the Turks. It was not only the Venetian army in Greece and on its own frontiers in Friuli that faced this enemy, since in 1480 a Turkish force occupied Otranto and the Neapolitans under Giulio Acquaviva and the Duke of Calabria had to conduct a protracted siege to evict them. After this 1,500 Turkish cavalry were hired by Naples and put in an appearance in northern Italy in the War of Ferrara.
There is another side to this question of military contacts and that is the appearance of Italian commanders and Italian troops in wars outside Italy. The Genoese had the reputation of being the best crossbowmen in Europe and were hired in large numbers as mercenaries, particularly for the French army. But even more significant was the reputation which Italian captains enjoyed in the second half of the fifteenth century. In 1465 a Milanese expeditionary force took part in the War of the Commonweal in France. It consisted of about 3,000 men led by Gaspare da Vimercate and the Sforzesco infantry captain, Donato del Conte, and was also accompanied by Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the eldest son of Francesco. The army had no artillery with it, but nevertheless was able to do some useful work in the Rhone valley for the royal cause, besieging and taking a number of small castles.
After the final collapse of the Angevin cause in Naples in 1462, a number of leading captains who had fought for the Angevins retired into exile in France and Burgundy. Cola di Monforte, Count of Campobasso, was probably the most notorious of these because his desertion of Charles the Bold before the battle of Nancy earned him the outraged censure of Philippe de Commynes in his memoirs, and subsequent reincarnation in the pages of Sir Walter Scott. ‘There is no treachery which the human mind can imagine for which his body and spirit are not well fitted’, was Scott’s comment, but in fact Cola di Monforte’s desertion of the Burgundian cause was an exceptional moment in the career of an otherwise faithful soldier. He served the Angevins in Italy, in France and in Spain, and only moved to Burgundian service after the death of Jean d’Anjou in 1470. The Burgundian army in the 1470’s was filled with Italians; Charles the Bold in his determination to create a permanent fighting force to match the French had not only recruited exiles like Monforte and his colleague, Jacopo Galeota, but had also sent recruiting agents into Italy to hire the best men available. Colleoni was approached, but Venice refused to release him; Troilo da Rossano was lured from the Sforza army, and Orso dall’Anguillara from the Papal States. The Italians numbered 1,000 lances in Charles’ army at this time, and Commynes regarded them as the core of the army.
After the defeat and death of Charles the Bold at Nancy Galeota took service with the French. For a further ten years he was a leading commander in the army of Louis XI until killed by an artillery shot in the Brittany campaign. With him in French service was another Neapolitan and Angevin condottiere, Boffillo del Giudice. Boffillo, on the death of Jean d’Anjou, had offered his services to Louis XI and for a time was in high favour with the king. He was a royal councillor and principal Italian adviser to Louis, and fought a successful campaign in Roussillon. After the death of Louis, he began to fall from favour, but retained his position of Governor of Roussillon where he maintained a picked company of 92 Italian men-at-arms. Both Galeota and Del Giudice were approached by Venice and offered command of the Venetian army in the late 1480’s, but the death of the former and the declining fortunes of the latter made the negotiations abortive.
In addition to the presence of considerable numbers of Italian troops and Italian captains in northern armies, one must remember also the sophisticated diplomatic reporting of which the Italians were acknowledged masters. Milanese and Venetian ambassadors in France, Burgundy and Germany-kept their governments fully informed of the strength and dispositions of the ultramontane armies. In the light of all this evidence, it is absurd to argue that the Italians were unaware of the military developments beyond the Alps or insufficiently prepared to meet the challenge of the Swiss infantry or the French artillery.
Nor do the events of 1494 and the subsequent years bear out the view that Italian warfare was notably degenerate and anachronistic. The invasion of Italy by Charles VIII was opposed by three of the five major Italian states and halfheartedly supported by one, Milan. The recent and uneasy alliance of Naples, the Papacy and Florence omitted two of the best armies in Italy. The Milanese army with its permanent core of household cavalry and conscript infantry was on the French side, while the Venetian army, perhaps the most experienced and certainly the best organised, remained neutral during the opening campaign. Of the three allies, Naples had by far the largest army with a readily mobilised potential of about 18,000 men. However, the Barons’ War, which had recently torn Naples apart, had damaged the morale and the leadership of the army, and its organisation does not seem to have been highly developed. Nevertheless, the three most experienced condottieri in Italy were in Neapolitan pay: Niccolò Orsini, Count of Pitigliano, Virginio Orsini and Gian Jacopo Trivulzio. It is significant perhaps that two of these men were Orsini, and yet were not leading the papal army. This army had rather declined since the days of Paul II and Sixtus IV and, although Alexander VI was making great efforts to build it up again, its strength was relatively small. The Florentines had done little to put right the years of despite and neglect of a permanent military establishment and had to start recruiting hurriedly to catch up.
These were the armies which faced the French in 1494, and they represented probably less than half Italy’s fighting strength. However, even then the military imbalance was a good deal less than is sometimes imagined. The total French force which crossed the Alps consisted of about 30,000 men, roughly equally divided between cavalry and infantry. The bulk of the cavalry were heavy cavalry organised into lances of six men each; thus the total figures included the usual proportion of non-combatants. The infantry included about 5,000 of the famous Swiss, but these were outnumbered by native French infantry of whom the majority were Gascon crossbowmen. Finally the artillery train consisted of at least 40 pieces of heavy siege artillery, which were both more mobile and had a greater hitting power than contemporary Italian guns. In addition the French had the static and rather lukewarm support of the Milanese army, and were augmented, as the invasion proceeded, by a growing number of Italian ‘deserters’, notably the Colonna and their troops, who abandoned the pope at an early stage.
The French army, when fully assembled, was the largest army that had been seen in Europe for more than a century, but much of its strength was rapidly dispersed in garrisons, and the army actually in the field rarely outnumbered the Italians opposed to it. Indeed, at the first major battle of the wars in 1495—Fornovo—the French were themselves considerably outnumbered.
Charles VIII launched his invasion relatively late in the campaigning season. After being held up by a bout of smallpox at Asti, he did not actually leave friendly Milanese soil until late October. By this time the allied military dispositions were complete and by no means doomed to failure. They were based on the justifiable assumption that the easiest route southwards lay through the Romagna, whilst any attempt to march down the west side of Italy would involve crossing the Apennines and dealing with the powerful Florentine fortresses of Sarzanella, Pietrasanta, and, ultimately, Pisa. Thus the main Neapolitan-papal army was concentrated on the eastern route, while the Florentines were expected to hold the Apennine passes. The chief threat to this comprehensive defensive plan was an amphibious landing further south, but the Neapolitan fleet was strong and could be expected to prevent such a possibility.
Charles and his generals, however, elected to attack on the western side given the lateness of the season and the need to go for the most direct route southwards, and also perhaps sensing that Florence was the weak link in the alliance. The French army, about 17,000 strong at this stage, tackled the Apennine passes and the Florentine fortresses without its siege artillery which had to be sent by sea, while a small detachment with the Milanese kept the Neapolitan main army engaged near Bologna. At this stage, political factors began to play their part. After the French had succeeded in taking the small fortress of Fivizzano by treachery and ruthlessly sacking it, Piero de’ Medici took fright and began to negotiate. He surrendered his major fortresses without a fight and allowed Charles a free passage through Tuscany. The fact that he immediately found himself ousted from power in Florence did not alter the situation that the Neapolitan-papal army in the Romagna was now outflanked and had no alternative but to retreat.
Rome now lay undefended as the pope hurriedly recalled his contingents from the eastern front. To add to his difficulties, the Colonna chose this moment to desert, seize Ostia (another modern fortress which would have been a real test for the French artillery), and thus provide the cover for a small French force to be landed south of Rome. Therefore, although the combined army got back in time to defend Rome itself, the French, now reunited with their siege artillery, were pouring into the Papal States and had already outflanked the city. Alexander VI decided, probably rightly, that Rome was now indefensible and advised the Neapolitan army to continue its withdrawal southwards while he came to terms. On 30 December 1494 Charles VIII entered Rome having scarcely fired a shot.
The Neapolitans still had a chance to defend their own frontiers, but by now morale was low and internal divisions rife. Charles’ army had been joined by some of the most experienced Italian captains, notably Prospero and Fabrizio Colonna, who took the lead in a rapid flanking march through the Abruzzi, which again bypassed the main Neapolitan defences. The French at last unmasked their guns to crush the small fortress of Monte S. Giovanni, and the terror which the ensuing sack produced was sufficient to make the populations of much more powerful cities, like Capua, refuse to co-operate in their defence. King Alfonso had already abdicated in favour of his son, and the will to resist had gone. On 20 February the French entered Naples and the long march was over.
Charles VIII had indeed ‘conquered Italy with the chalk of his billeting officers’ as Alexander VI put it, but this was not the fault of the soldiers. The chances to resist had been undermined by political indecision and civilian weakness. The Swiss, who only made up about a third of the French infantry, had played no part in the campaign; the artillery had scarcely been used. No reasonable chance of a genuine military confrontation had offered itself. It is true that the Italian armies did not hurl themselves into forlorn counter-attacks as they might have done, and it is also true that the strategic conceptions of the combined army were over-elaborate for forces which were not used to collaborating. Defensive and unduly complex tactics were weaknesses of Italian warfare, and the Italian Wars now starting were to prove over and over again that a new concept of war was emerging. The desire to seek final conclusions on the battlefield, to conquer rather than to manoeuvre for the preservation of the balance of power and the acquisition of small political counters, was to be the spirit in which the Italian Wars were fought. To what extent this attitude was introduced by French and Spanish armies hardened in the Hundred Years’ War and the atmosphere of the Reconquista, and to what extent it emerged during the course of the Italian Wars as very large armies fought many miles from their bases for exceptionally rich prizes, is hard to decide. Suffice it to say that the contrast between warfare in Italy before and after 1494 was not a simple one of effete Italian mercenaries versus battle-hardened national armies.
These points were abundantly proved and some of the lessons of the previous year repeated when the first full scale battle of the wars was fought at Fornovo in July 1495. Charles’ triumph in conquering Naples was short-lived. Those internal elements which had contributed to the overthrow of the Aragonese dynasty soon realised that French rule was not a satisfactory alternative, and increasing unrest made the position of Charles’ army a difficult one. The Italian states, with the exception of Florence, which was now permanently committed to the French cause, came together in an alliance to evict the French, and began to receive increasing encouragement from Spain and the Empire. At the end of May, Charles decided to return to France with the core of his army, leaving a skeleton force under Montpensier to defend Naples. The armies of the Italian League began to gather to oppose this return march, but there was still little real political unity, as some thought it best to let the French pass on their way out of Italy rather than risk a confrontation with them. However, the opportunity, as Charles marched northwards with a relatively small army, was too good a one to be missed and Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, Venetian captain general and commander of the combined army, elected to bring the French to open battle rather than simply hold the Apennine passes against them. The latter course would have involved little risk and could well have led either to the eventual surrender of the army as it was cut off from its base, or at least to a hazardous transhipment by sea. It would have been a strategy very much in the Italian tradition, but Gonzaga felt both sufficiently confident and sufficiently determined to achieve the personal glory of defeating the French, to go for a crushing victory.
The French retreated along the route they had come in the previous year. This meant crossing the Apennines between Sarzana and Parma by the Cisa Pass, and coming down into the valley of the Taro at Fornovo. Here, below the town where the valley widened out, the huge Italian army was waiting for them in a camp fortified with a ditch and a palisade. Gonzaga described his army as ‘the finest and most powerful that has been seen in Italy for many years’. It numbered about 25,000 men of whom about 5,000 were in Milanese service and the remainder in that of Venice. Two thousand two hundred heavy cavalry lances of five men each formed the core of the army, but there were also about 2,000 light cavalry, mostly stradiots, and 8,000 professional infantry. Four thousand Venetian militia had also arrived, although the bulk of the militia forces were still on the march, as was most of the Venetian heavy artillery. The French numbered about 900 lances of heavy cavalry, 3,000 Swiss infantry, 600 archers of the royal bodyguard and 1,000 artillerymen, a total of about 10,000 men.
When it reached Fornovo, the French army crossed the Taro and began to move down the left bank of the river in front of the Italian camp. Its left flank was thus protected by the hills and its right by the river. In the circumstances the French not surprisingly expected the main assault on them to come from straight up the valley, and to counter this the Swiss marched in a tight square close behind the cavalry advance guard. Two further large columns of cavalry completed the order of the march with the King commanding the centre himself and the rear led by Gaston de Foix. The baggage train laden down with loot from the campaign was placed towards the rear and close to the line of the hills; the artillery moved on the right flank along the river bank.
The Italian battle plan was drawn up by Ridolfo Gonzaga, uncle of the Marquis and himself a veteran of the Burgundian wars, with just these dispositions of the enemy in mind. The tactical conception was masterly, although the details for its execution were over-elaborate. Basically the plan was to block the French advance with a holding force and launch the main attack across the Taro on the flanks of the centre and rear columns. This would have the effect of pinning the enemy against the hills, splitting his extended line of march, and destroying the columns in detail. To carry out this operation the Italian army was divided into nine divisions. The Count of Caiazzo, with the main body of the Milanese cavalry and supported by a mixed infantry force and a large cavalry reserve, was to cross the Taro in front of the French and engage the vanguard. Gonzaga himself with his personal troops was to cross in the centre, engage the French centre, and split it off from the vanguard. Bernardino Fortebraccio had command of the third prong of the attack, made up of the leading Venetian cavalry squadrons, and was to attack the rearguard. In close support to Gonzaga and Fortebraccio came the cream of the Venetian infantry, and then in reserve two further columns of cavalry. The first of these comprised the lanze spezzate known as the Colleoneschi and commanded by the son-in-law of the legendary Colleoni, who had died nearly twenty years earlier. The second reserve column was led by Antonio da Montefeltro, the illegitimate son of that other leading figure of the preceding generation, Federigo. While all these divisions were attacking directly from across the Taro, the stradiots were to pass right around the rear of the enemy and attack the vanguard downhill, thus causing further confusion and preventing stragglers from escaping into the hills. Finally a strong guard of cavalry and militia was left in the camp.