French troops arriving in Naples, 1494.
The first fully mobile and effective field artillery appeared in 1494 in the train of Charles VIII of France when he invaded Italy, and Fornovo (1495) was probably the first battle where artillery played a really effective part. The eight-foot bronze guns were drawn by horse teams and could keep up with marching infantry. They made a great impression on the Italians whose few heavy pieces, being ox-drawn, usually arrived too late for battles and, according to Machiavelli, could never fire more than one or two shots before battle was joined.
The offensive on the rampage 1494-1503
Charles VIII and the advent of mobile siege artillery
In military affairs, the events of 1494 did much to bring the Middle Ages to an end. In that year King Charles VIII of France led his army across the Mont-Genevre Pass into Italy, and marched across the Lombard plain and the Apennines to the port of La Spezia, where he picked up the forty or so siege guns with which he intended to make good his claim to the Kingdom of Naples.
These guns were the lineal descendants of the state-owned artillery which had enabled the French to burst open the English strongholds in Normandy and Guyenne in the middle of the century. Craftsmen and bell-founders worked tirelessly to improve the weapon, and by the 1490S they had evolved a cannon that was recognisably the same creature that was going to decide battles and sieges for nearly four hundred years to come.
The medieval bombard was a massive pipe of wrought-iron rods or bronze, designed specifically to throw a large but relatively light ball of stone. The weapon was by no means without its virtues. In relation to muzzle velocity, the stone ball required only one-half the weight of powder as an iron shot of the same calibre, and it exercised a considerable smashing effect on targets like walls, siege towers, ships and trenches full of men. At the same time the bombard and its ammunition were undeniably bulky. The gun was usually fired from a solid block of wood, which rested directly on the earth; it put up a valiant fight against any gunners who threatened to disturb its repose. For transport, the bombard had to be lifted bodily onto an ox waggon running on disc-like wheels which, whenever the cart was canted over to one side, threatened to collapse and deposit the whole load gently back to earth again.
Another disadvantage concerned the manufacture of the missiles. Whereas the casting or forging of an iron cannon ball was a hot but satisfying business, skilled stonemasons had to be paid highly if they were to address themselves to the laborious and frustrating work of carving a stone ball that was just going to be fired from a gun.
In the train of Charles VIII, however, the bombard had been largely supplanted by cannon with homogeneous bronze barrels no more than eight feet long. These pieces could be transported and loaded with ease, and they discharged wrought-iron balls which could compete in range and accuracy with stone-firing bombards of at least three times their calibre. The barrel of the French cannon was readily elevated or depressed around the fulcrum formed by two trunnions (prongs). These were cast into the barrel just forward of the centre of gravity, and rested almost over the axle of the two-wheeled gun carriage beneath. For traversing, the trail of the carriage was lifted from the ground and swung to right or left.
The numerous and well-trained French gunners knew how to take advantage of their new weapon, and an Italian contemporary (Guicciardini, 1562, Bk I) wrote that the cannon were planted against the walls of a town with such speed, the space between the shots was so brief, and the balls flew so speedily, and were driven with such force, that as much execution was inflicted in a few hours as used to be done in Italy over the same number of days.
The enhanced mobility of the French guns was, if possible, still more important than their firepower. Over long distances the heavier of the barrels still had to be loaded onto separate waggons, as before, but gun carriages and waggons alike were now drawn by strong and trained horses, and travelled on ‘dished’ wheels which stood up stoutly to the strains imposed upon them by fifteenth-century roads.
By all reasonable calculations Charles should have been stopped short by one of the Florentine or papal fortresses long before he could reach his goal of Naples. Unfortunately for Italy, the French and their artillery were not reasonable opponents. Charles directed his march down the western side of the Apennines against the northern frontier of the state of Florence, the first obstacle in his path. Florence was on the verge of one of its bouts of puritanical, patriotic republicanism, and the poor Duke Piero de’ Medici, already insecure at home, threw himself on the mercy of Charles as soon as he learnt that the little fortress of Fivizzano had fallen to the French. Sarzana, Sarzanello, Pietra Santa and the citadels of Pisa and Leghorn, all were delivered up without resistance, and on 17 November the pale little French king made his triumphal entry into Florence, lance balanced on thigh. The terrified Pope Alexander VI followed Piero’s example, and hastened to place his strongholds at the disposal of the French.
There was nothing to stand between Charles and the kingdom of Naples. The small Neapolitan citadel of Monte Fortino capitulated as soon as the cannon were planted against it; and the French took a mere eight hours for the business of breaching the important frontier stronghold of Monte San Giovanni and massacring its garrison. The place had once withstood a siege of seven years. With horrifying consistency the French later used the same cruelty at Capua in 1501, Pavia in 1527, and Melfi in 1528.
In the short term the impact of the new French methods was devastating, and on 22 February 1495 Charles was able to ride into the city of Naples in the same style as he had entered Florence.
The French successes had conjured up a hostile league of Venice, the Pope, Milan and Spain. Charles accordingly retraced his steps and smashed open his communications back to France. The king thereafter lost interest in his new conquests, and over the course of 1496 his negligence and cowardice permitted the Spanish to starve into submission all the strongholds in Naples – an episode which indicated that it was nowadays far easier to conquer a kingdom than to hold it.
The Spanish counter-attack and the gunpowder mine
Objections may be made to the choice of the year 1494 to mark the beginning of early modern fortress warfare. Italian military technology had not been entirely static and, as we shall see, the all-important device of the angle bastion was invented seven years before Charles VIII burst into Italy. Then again, the occasions on which the French needed to plant their cannon were surprisingly few, because fortresses tended to surrender at the very wind of their coming. However, Macchiavelli, Guicciardini and almost all the people who have written since about Renaissance warfare are surely right to stress the revolutionary impact of the French and their new artillery. What the authorities are talking about was essentially a Blitzkrieg, which depended as much for its effect upon speed, energy and the potential for destruction, as the actual scale of physical damage. Warfare was prosecuted with a new urgency and tempo, and, no less importantly, big-power politics intruded on Italian affairs.
The newly-revealed power of the offensive fired the ambition of all the hungry southern princes, and upset the equilibrium which had reigned among the major Italian states since the middle of the fifteenth century. In 15°2 the French and Spaniards came to blows over the possession of Naples. Acting with admirable energy, the Spanish defeated the French field army twice over, then proceeded to mop up the isolated enemy garrisons all over Naples.
Out of all the doomed strongholds, the Castle of Uovo (by the city of Naples) was certainly the one that was taken in the most spectacular fashion. Cannon alone were powerless to reduce the place, situated as it was on a narrow peninsula separated from the mainland by a deep ditch. The Spaniards, however, had in their ranks one Pedro Navarro, ‘a thin little man’, who had perfected the gunpowder mine, the one weapon capable of blasting the French from their rocky retreat.
Gunpowder mines had figured in the treatises of Taccola, Mariano of Siena, and Francesco di Giorgio Martini, but it seems that they were first used in actual warfare in 1439, when the Italian educated John Vrano used a countermine in his defence of Belgrade against Sultan Amurath. Under the direction of Martini, the Genoese used gunpowder below ground in their attack on the Florentine held fortress of Sarzanello in 1487. The effect on this occasion was small, for the gallery had not been driven far enough under the foundations. Pedro Navarro, who is said to have witnessed the experiment as a private soldier, went on to remedy this effect at the siege of the Turkish fortress of San Giorgio on the island of Cephalonia in 1500. On that occasion Navarro tunnelled out long galleries beneath the citadel rock, stuffed them with gunpowder ‘to excite the flames’, and produced a devastating flare-up.
The wording of the descriptions of these early mines leaves open the possibility that the powder charges were not primarily explosive in character, but rather intended to hasten the burning of the props which supported the undermined masonry. No such doubt attaches to Navarro’s device at the Castle of Uovo in 1503. He piled his men and tools into covered boats, brought them unknown to the French to the side of the cliff facing Pizzafalcone, and laboured for three weeks to drive a gallery through the rock. On 26 June the Spanish touched off the charge, and part of the rock sprang into the air. The governor and his council were at debate in the chapel above, and despite their misuse of these sacred precincts they were propelled heavenwards with greater force than all the saints of Christianity. Thus Navarro ‘gained great credit at this siege, and struck a terror into everybody’ (Guicciardini, 1562, Bk I).
For a time the older and newer methods of mining co-existed. As late as 1537 the Spaniards attacked Saint-PQI by cutting a gash in the salient of a tower, supporting the masonry by timber, and then burning away the props. In the main, however, besiegers avidly seized on the possibility of wrecking a wall by an explosion, rather than effecting its tame subsidence by the ‘burnt-prop’ method. The explosive mine furthered the work of the cannon in wiping from the strategic map the hosts of small medieval castles which had disrupted and bedevilled so many offensive campaigns in the past. Only a good wet ditch, or a deep and well-flanked dry one was capable of deterring the enemy from ‘attaching the miner’ to the scarp.