Italian Renaissance Infantry



It is a commonly held view that disciplined and effective infantry largely disappeared from the Italian military scene in the second half of the fourteenth and in the fifteenth centuries. Indeed even the great masses of ill-trained levies, which provided the numbers of thirteenth-century armies, seemed to play little part in fifteenth-century warfare. However, the emergence of smaller groups of more professional, more specialised, infantry was an early development, and, although there was perhaps a period when such troops were still relatively few and the mass levy was either discarded or clearly recognised as a separate auxiliary force, this period was short, and throughout the fifteenth century the number of genuine and effective infantry in Italian armies was growing.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century the effective infantry were still divided into three groups: the infantry lances, the shield bearers, and the crossbowmen. An infantry company was usually made up of equal proportions of each, and, although only the larger condottiere companies contained infantry, there were many wholly infantry companies available. It is true that the role of such infantry was largely defensive; the lancers and the shield bearers with their long cumbersome shields could form a wall behind which cavalry could reform. The other main role for such infantry was in siege warfare, when both the defence of the besieging encampment against sorties and the actual assault were entrusted to them.

Although the crossbow was the main missile weapon of Italian infantry and had been since the early thirteenth century, there were still some companies of English archers to be found in Italy as late as 1430. Thirty archers under John Clement and Godfrey Reynolds were in Florentine service in that year, and in 1431 Walter of England was employed by Venice with 90 archers. The pay of these men was rather better than that of the average Italian infantryman, but this was perhaps because they were still mounted in the tradition of Hawkwood and his archers, rather than because their services as infantry were particularly prized. There was still a slight predominance of Genoese amongst the crossbowmen but, on the whole, ability to use the crossbow was widespread. Venetians all learnt to fire a crossbow as part of their civic obligations, and it was the standard weapon of garrison troops and town guards.

Infantry units maintained this threefold division until around the middle of the century, although the prestige of infantry was certainly growing. Both Sforza and Braccio attached particular importance to their infantry. Francesco Sforza developed a highly disciplined infantry force, commanded by such men as Pietro Brunoro and Donato del Conte, in which crossbowmen, and later hand-gun men, predominated. In this emphasis one can see an intention to use infantry in a more offensive role, and Braccio had the same ideas, as he developed a lighter type of infantry armed with sword and round shield which took part in the assault on Perugia in 1416. By the 1440’s the leading infantry commanders were men of considerable reputation and were regarded as the equals of the best of the cavalry leaders. Diotisalvi Lupi, who commanded the Venetian infantry for many years in the 1430’s and 1440’s, was a close associate of Carmagnola and Colleoni, received large estates and rewards, and was knighted by the Republic in 1447. His successor, Matteo Griffoni, had commanded the Florentine infantry in the 1440’s and was brought to Venice about 1447. He still commanded the Venetian infantry in 1470. He also was knighted for his services and was second only to Colleoni in the military hierarchy of the Republic. He commanded a company of 500 infantry of his own as well as his overall command of the Venetian infantry.

The emergence of men such as these, and the Venetians were by no means exceptional, is indicative of the way in which the wars in Lombardy between 1425 and 1454 changed the nature of Italian warfare. The central Lombard plain, the area of the subsequently famous Quadrilateral, was ideal country for campaigning. It is open and flat and yet intersected with several rivers and many canals. Here increasingly large armies could be deployed, and there was room to manoeuvre large bodies of cavalry. At the same time the natural barriers could be readily converted into massive field fortifications, and there was plenty of peasant manpower available for digging. This development brought the infantry to the fore, while the new size of armies and their subsequently retarded speed of manoeuvre enabled infantry to participate much more fully in the campaigns.

It was to combat the new emphasis on field fortifications that a new type of infantry became popular in Italian armies. This was the so-called ‘sword and buckler’ infantry, first experimented with by Braccio. They were lightly armed, agile, and equipped for hand-to-hand offensive fighting. The type had already been developed in Spain in fighting with the Moors, and the establishment of the Aragonese in Naples in the 1440’s clearly had something to do with their appearance in Italy at this time. But the best infantry forces appeared in Lombardy and were clearly a development from the special conditions of Lombard warfare. Florence, for example, retained the traditional types of infantry well into the 1470’s, and, despite its Spanish antecedents, there is no indication of a particularly effective Neapolitan infantry growing up. After Milan and Venice, it was the papal army which had the best infantry in the middle of the century. This was partly a matter of having some of the best recruiting grounds in the mountain valleys of Umbria, the Romagna, and the Abruzzi, but it also in part perhaps reflected the Spanish influence of Calixtus III and his entourage. A number of the leading infantry captains in the papal army in the 1450’s were Spaniards.

It was at about the same moment that the other major development in Italian infantry took place—the large scale introduction of hand firearms. The earliest hand firearm was the schioppetto or hand-gun, and the introduction of these has been postulated as early as the late thirteenth century. By the second half of the fourteenth century there is a good deal of sporadic evidence of their use but almost entirely in the defence of towns. The primitive hand-gun was three or four feet long, rather cumbersome and shapeless and had to be fired with a match. It cannot have been an easy weapon to use in the field or without a rest. However, by the 1430’s there was growing evidence of groups of specialist hand-gun men in the field armies. The emperor Sigismond had 500 in his following on his visit to Rome in 1430, but these were clearly intended for display and their presence does not indicate that the hand-gun had arrived as an infantry battle weapon. But the presence of schioppettieri companies in the Milanese and Venetian armies in the next two decades, and descriptions of their activities, clearly do indicate just such an initiative. Both Francesco Sforza and his cousin Micheletto Attendolo, who commanded the Venetian army between 1441 and 1448, had hand-gun contingents in their companies, and Colleoni and the Venetian infantry commander, Diotisalvi Lupi, were others who were associated with the new weapon in this period. In the 1440’s the Venetian senate was alarmed by reports that the Milanese army had superior numbers of hand-gun men and that these were causing considerable casualties in the Venetian army. In 1448 at the battle of Caravaggio, Francesco Sforza had so many hand-gun men firing that they could not see each other for the smoke from their guns. In the next year when the short-lived Ambrosian Republic of Milan sought to oppose Francesco Sforza, it was claimed that it could put 20,000 Milanese citizens into the field equipped with hand-guns. This was clearly pure propaganda intended to frighten Sforza off, but the very fact that such a claim could be made and thought to be efficacious indicates the extent to which the hand-gun had arrived by this time. Certainly hand-gun men captured in the battles of the 1440’s received short shrift and were usually executed on the spot; this was a tribute to their effectiveness rather than a sign of abhorrence for their unchivalrous weapon.

In the years following the Peace of Lodi in 1454 hand-gun companies became a part of all the Italian standing armies. As in so many of the military developments of the period, Florence seemed to be behind in the use of the new weapon, but hand-gun men appeared in the papal army from at least the mid-1450’s. At the siege of Rimini in 1469, the papal army had a company of 77 hand-gun men led by a German commander, and by this time a number of Germans appeared in this role in Italian armies. But there is no evidence that hand-gun development was exclusively a preserve of Germans. In 1476 one-fifth of the Milanese infantry, 2,000 men, were equipped with hand-guns, and in 1482, in the preparations for the War of Ferrara, the Milanese contingent was issued with 1,250 hand-guns, 352 arquebuses, but only 233 crossbows. By this time in fact the old hand-gun was beginning to be superseded by the arquebus, a more sophisticated weapon, perhaps heavier, but fitted with a trigger. The Milanese hand-gun man was equipped with a steel skull-cap and breastplate, and in addition to his gun and powder he carried a sword and a halberd. By the 1490’s mounted hand-gun men and arquebusiers were being used by Camillo Vitelli and Cesare Borgia, and thus a new dimension was added to the light cavalry as well as the infantry forces.

It has been usually thought that the hand-gun was a largely ineffective and despised weapon before 1500, but both the evidence of its growing use in Italian armies and of the growing numbers of casualties inflicted by hand-gun men would suggest differently. No serious comparison of the range, firepower or practicability of the hand-gun and the crossbow has yet been attempted, but it is clear that the former was steadily replacing the latter as the principal infantry missile weapon from a fairly early moment in the fifteenth century. This was to some extent because the hand-gun and its ammunition were cheaper to produce and easier to use than the crossbow, rather than because of its superiority as a weapon. At the same time the stage had not yet been reached when trained and disciplined bodies of hand-gun men could swing the course of a battle by controlled and concentrated fire. The hand-gun was still used, as the crossbow had been used, to harass the enemy and protect the flanks of an army in the field and even more effectively, both by besiegers and besieged, in siege warfare.

Infantry forces, therefore, formed a significant part of fifteenth-century Italian armies. It is true that there was no disciplined pike infantry of the Swiss type, which was enjoying brief, but lastingly significant success beyond the Alps. It is also true that, because of the nature of the Italian mercenary system, the companies tended to be small and unused to operating en masse. But large numbers of specialist and well-trained infantry were available and played an increasing part in the warfare. Only infantry and light artillery could deal with the field fortifications, which were so much in vogue, and the decisive victory won by Roberto Malatesta over the Duke of Calabria at Campomorto in 1482 was won by an infantry assault over marshy ground on a fortified camp.

As we have seen, permanent infantry forces in the pay of Italian states were appearing beside the companies of the mercenary constables. The increased status of the infantryman was indicated by the fact that the organisation of professional infantry was beginning to resemble that of the cavalry lance, with an infantryman attended by two or three followers who looked after his equipment and supported him in battle. This improvement in status was also evident amongst the infantry leaders, who were more often than not drawn from noble families in the later fifteenth century. Finally the ranks of the infantry companies were more filled with foreigners than were those of the cavalry, and this was a factor in ensuring professionalism and progressive developments. Corsicans were particularly prominent both as constables and in the ranks, and there were increasing numbers of Spaniards, Germans and Albanians. Of the eighteen commanders in the Milanese regular infantry in 1467, three were Spaniards, three Corsicans and one Albanian. These men did not command integrated companies of their own nationals, and it seems to be true that the proportion of foreigners amongst the leaders was higher than amongst the rank and file. All this, however, was a world apart from the untrained militia and country levies who certainly played their part in Renaissance warfare, but in different capacities to those so far described.