Italian 15th Century Warfare I


The battle of Caravaggio and the other battles were the set pieces of Italian warfare. Such battles were relatively rare, although it was naturally on these that the chroniclers concentrated. The administrative documents of military life rarely mention the battles except as an aside to explain casualties and losses of equipment. In this they are more realistic and more informative than the chronicles, but neither succeed in telling us what military life was really like. Fifteenth-century military diaries have yet to be discovered, but still an attempt must be made to get below the surface and look at the realities of military practice, the day-to-day activities of Italian soldiers.

One man who was a conscientious writer of diaries, at least during his official missions, was the Florentine Luca di Maso degli Albizzi. He was the brother of Rinaldo degli Albizzi, the leading Florentine statesman who was overthrown and exiled by the Medici in 1434. Luca, like many Florentines of his class, spent much of his life on missions as representative of the Florentine Republic, and in May 1432 he was dispatched as special envoy to the camp of the Florentine captain general, Niccolò da Tolentino, near Arezzo. For about three weeks he was with the army and his account of those days is an interesting insight which is worth looking at in some detail.

Luca degli Albizzi left Florence on 18 May with a junior assistant, Bernardetto de’ Medici, and fifteen followers. He spent the first night at Castel S. Giovanni in the upper Arno valley where he was met by the civilian commissary with the army and a group of condottieri who were also on their way to join the captain general. The 200 men of these condottieri were billeted some miles further on in Montevarchi, and it was agreed that Luca would pick them up there the next morning and they would all go on together to the camp. Luca was an early riser and the next morning he arrived at Montevarchi to find the soldiers still in bed. They were clearly billeted in houses all over the town, and it took until mid-day to get the squadrons assembled and on the road. They arrived at the camp in mid-afternoon to find that Niccolò da Tolentino had gone out the previous evening with a force of 700 men to try and catch the Sienese under Francesco Piccinino in a night ambush. As he was not yet back, Luca waited for a couple of hours and then rode to Arezzo to spend the night in comfort. Niccolò had in fact failed to catch the Sienese who had received warning of his intentions, but he had ridden all the way to Montepulciano which was being besieged by the Sienese and had sent supplies and more troops into the town before returning. This itself meant that Niccolò da Tolentino had ridden over 50 miles in the 24 hours, but this was not considered in any way extraordinary.

On the 20th Luca returned to the camp and spent six hours with the captain general and his senior officers. They drew up written plans for the campaign, and Niccolò outlined his immediate needs. The troops needed pay, but even more important he wanted 60 mules to carry provisions behind the army as he planned to move fast and did not want to waste time collecting food. He also wanted two or three bombards and some stonemasons to make balls for them. He thought that a few hundred militia auxiliaries would be useful, including 50 pioneers with spades and axes. Luca got off a messenger immediately to Florence with these requirements, and he himself began to ride round collecting the militia.

The strategic position which Luca and Niccolò da Tolentino faced was that a number of contingents of allied Sienese and Milanese troops were operating in southern Tuscany occupying castles and towns and damaging crops. Another Florentine army was camped near Pisa under Micheletto Attendolo, but the needs of the campaign were speed rather than great strength, so it was decided not to try and link up with Attendolo. Niccolò da Tolentino was very anxious to get on with it and declined an offer from Luca that he should postpone operations until the normal ceremony for handing him the baton as captain general had been arranged. News had come that the Sienese were besieging Linari and Gambassi in the Valdelsa, and speed was vital if these towns were to be saved. However, it was bound to take three or four days to collect what was needed and break camp.

After three days of intense activity, the militia, provisions, and munitions had been assembled, and at dawn on 24 May Niccolò da Tolentino moved off with his army of about 4,000 men. He had about 50 miles of difficult country to cover to reach the besieged towns, and as half of the force was made up of infantry and militia it could not move very fast. A messenger met them on the first day with the news that Linari had surrendered, but that the enemy forces were still divided into two camps, one commanded by Francesco Piccinino and the other by Bernardino della Carda. On the evening of the 26th the army reached Poggibonsi and there heard that the Sienese had united, taken Gambassi, and were now moving to meet Niccolò’s army. The night was one full of alarms and false alarms, in one of which Niccolò’s eldest son, Baldovino, was shot in the leg by a jumpy Florentine archer. Luca marvelled at the Captain’s self control when he heard of this incident.

The next day, Tuesday, Niccolò da Tolentino detached some of his infantry and militia north-westwards to begin the siege of Linari, and he himself went southwest to try and cut off an enemy march towards Siena. But again either he had received false information or the Sienese got word of his movements, and they doubled back and headed towards the Arno valley taking Pontedera on the way. This left Niccolò with the task of retaking Linari before he could move on in pursuit. He tried negotiations with the defenders, threatening to hang them all if he had to take the town by storm, but this proved useless. There were only 100 Milanese and Sienese infantry defending it, but it had good walls and they believed that Niccolò would not waste time over them. Indeed he did not plan to waste time; he wanted to get on and bring the enemy to battle, but he was determined to deal with Linari first. He only had small bombards and the weather was blazing hot, but nevertheless he ordered an assault at dawn on the morning of the 30th. Four breaches were made in the walls and Niccolò’s dismounted men-at-arms surged into the assault. After three hours of bitter fighting the town was taken and sacked. There were a number of casualties; all the professional infantry in the defence were held as prisoners, but the local defenders were allowed to go free; a number of women were also taken by the Florentines. Finally the walls of Linari were pulled down and half the town burnt. Linari was a Florentine town; the treatment of it was harsh but effective; this was partly a reflection of basic Florentine attitudes towards the subject towns, partly a matter of military necessity. The place had to be made useless to the Sienese otherwise this sort of warfare could go on indefinitely.

The next day Niccolò da Tolentino turned northwards to join up with Micheletto Attendolo and seek out the enemy in the Arno valley. By now the militia had melted away; they were getting far from their homes near Arezzo and the few days’ campaigning had been tough. On 1 June the army came out into the Arno plain. It was a Sunday and normally in Italian warfare this was regarded as a day of rest when little activity was expected. It was perhaps for this reason that Niccolò da Tolentino succeeded at last in catching the enemy. The Sienese had begun to besiege Montopoli, and Niccolò, moving rapidly now that his troops were out in the open country, came up on them fast. He and Luca went ahead with 30 cavalry and Luca who knew the area well pointed out the lie of the land. Niccolò felt however that he still did not have a clear enough idea of the enemy’s dispositions and so, while Luca stayed with the main body and gave an oration to the troops, he went on further ahead with a few men and thoroughly explored the enemy position. Then without further delay he launched his attack. The battle was short but hard fought, and Luca commented on the useful role of the infantry. The arrival of Micheletto Attendolo from the other direction completed what appears to have been a thoroughly well-planned and organised operation. The Sienese were completely routed, a number of captains and 150 men captured and 600 horses taken. Some of the prisoners escaped the next day as they were being escorted to Empoli, but were quickly rounded up. This battle, described by Luca degli Albizzi, was in fact the Rout of S. Romano later made famous by the series of paintings executed by Paolo Uccello for the Medici palace. Luca’s eye-witness account is somewhat different to traditional descriptions of the battle, which suggest that Niccolò da Tolentino was surprised with a handful of men and held out against enormous odds for eight hours until Attendolo arrived. No doubt a desire to glorify Niccolò’s achievement played some part in the distortions which have crept into the story, but Luca’s account of Niccolò leading a carefully planned attack does the condottiere no less credit in a different way.

The Florentine army got its rest day on Monday and then began to besiege Pontedera. This was, however, a more formidable task than the siege of Linari and without good artillery was likely to take some time. After a fortnight’s intense activity, during which the army had covered many miles of difficult country, taken a town by assault, and won an important victory, there was inevitably a lull. Luca degli Albizzi returned to Florence on the 6th to urge on the provision of supplies and artillery. He confessed that he felt completely exhausted.

This is an instructive glimpse into the life of an army and one which is all too rare in the fifteenth century. The mobility of Niccolò da Tolentino’s force, although half its strength consisted of infantry, is indicative of one of the major features of the warfare of the period. Luca degli Albizzi remarked at one point that only 300 of the 2,000 infantry in the army were concentrated together in one column and the rest were divided up amongst the cavalry squadrons. Does this perhaps mean that many of these infantry rode behind the men-at-arms on their horses when on the march? This could well be the explanation of the speed with which small armies could move. Niccolò da Tolentino’s army of course had very limited artillery and apparently no carts in the baggage train, but it did have 60 mules with provisions and was not living off the country. A larger army, and particularly later in the century, would inevitably have been much more encumbered with munitions and baggage. But it was usually the case that the heavy baggage was detached from the fighting elements of an army and moved on different routes in the rear.

We can get an impression of the activities of the other Florentine army in 1432 under Micheletto Attendolo from the letters written by Micheletto and his attendant commissaries to Florence. It had moved out of its winter quarters outside Pisa in late March and did not return to these quarters finally until mid-December. During the nine months, the army marched all over the Arno valley and deep into the hills on either side; it conducted at least four sieges and numerous skirmishes, but fought no major battle other than its tardy intervention at S. Romano. In 1440 Baldaccio d’Anghiari marched with a small force from Lucca to Piombino in two days—a distance of over 100 miles.

However, some of the most striking evidence for the mobility of mid-fifteenth-century armies comes from the campaigns of 1438–9 in Lombardy. The march of Gattamelata around Lake Garda in the autumn of 1438, when he escaped with his Venetian army from Brescia, became almost legendary in the annals of Italian warfare. Brescia was being closely besieged by the Milanese under Niccolò Piccinino and the direct route eastwards was well blocked. But it was essential to extricate Gattamelata’s main army, both because its size was creating serious provisioning problems in the beleaguered city and because without it the defence of the rest of the Venetian state, and particularly Verona, was dangerously weak. The only feasible escape route was over the mountains around the north of Lake Garda. It was a route which had never been used by large bodies of troops and was therefore thinly guarded by the Milanese. It was over this route that Gattamelata marched his army of 3,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry, brushing aside the Milanese opposition and reaching Verona in five days. Piccinino was astonished by the feat, but he himself in the next year almost equalled it. Brescia was still being besieged and Gattamelata and Francesco Sforza marched to relieve it by the same route through the mountains. Piccinino moved north from Brescia to meet them and was badly beaten at Tenno. It was said that he escaped from the town, as the Venetian troops swarmed into it, carried in a sack on the back of a German soldier. However, he quickly rallied his forces and marched them around the south shore of the lake to attack Verona, while the Venetian army was still in the mountains. His forced march took Verona completely by surprise, and he occupied the city, although failing to take its two fortresses. Anxious messengers rode through the night to carry the news to Gattamelata and Sforza, and they, again acting with remarkable speed, marched back over the by then familiar road. It was once again the turn of Piccinino to be surprised; thinking that the Venetian army was still on the other side of the lake, his troops were contentedly looting Verona when Sforza and Gattamelata arrived outside the walls. Once more they had done the long march through the mountains in unbelievable time and the Milanese were in no position to defend their new possession. Piccinino and his men were bundled unceremoniously out of Verona having been its masters for less than three days.


Italian 15th Century Warfare II


The mobility of these armies around Lake Garda was the result of military necessity, but often the errant characteristics of Italian armies were dictated by the search for provisions. Particularly in the first half of the century, it was rare for camp to be pitched in the same place for more than two or three nights, even when the army was on the defensive. After 1450 the growing use of field fortifications and the improvement in provisioning organisation made camps much more permanent affairs. In 1479 the camp established by the Florentines and their allies at Poggio Imperiale was the base for the combined army throughout the summer.

It was Gattamelata and Sforza in 1439 who issued one of the best known sets of army regulations for this period. It was probably normal practice from early in the fifteenth century for a captain general to lay down regulations for the conduct of his army, particularly when in camp, but very few have survived. Such regulations were fairly stereotyped and clearly there were conventions about such things which soldiers accepted without question. In fact Italian army regulations differ little from those which have survived from English military administration of the same period. Gattamelata and Sforza were in a slightly unusual position in that they commanded a joint army; Gattamelata as Venetian captain general commanded the Venetian forces, Sforza was captain general of the League and commanded his own very large company and a certain number of Florentine-employed troops. Their regulations therefore had some peculiar features when they laid down the order of march; the two armies took turns day by day to lead and to be responsible for the defence of the marching column. Otherwise the regulations were conventional in their emphasis on not breaking ranks, on all provisioning companies being properly protected by cavalry, on the formation of a special billeting squadron consisting of representatives of each company, on the role of camp marshals, and on the procedure in the event of a sudden attack on the camp.

The one major omission from these regulations as compared with contemporary English ones was any reference to women in the camps. This was a distinction often noted by observers: Italian armies were encumbered (or perhaps inspired?) by the presence of large numbers of female camp followers. Niccolò da Tolentino’s army in 1432 took women from Linari after the assault and presumably added them to its following. But English regulations were quite specific that no women should be kept in the camp. Anyone finding a harlot about the camp could take all her money, break her arm, and drive her from the army. Niccolò de’ Favri, a member of the Venetian embassy in London, reported on Henry VIII’s 1513 expedition: ‘They did not take wenches with them and they were not profane swearers like our soldiers. Indeed there were few who failed daily to recite the office and Our Lady’s rosary.’ The second distinction observed by the Venetian seems to place the English army in a somewhat unreal light, although it is true that Italian army regulations were less concerned about blasphemy than contemporary maritime regulations. However, the distinction on the role of women in the camps was a true one, but one which reflected totally different social attitudes. Prostitution was an accepted feature of Italian society and so was the military brothel; the Florentines licensed brothels outside the walls of Pisa and used the proceeds from the taxes on them to repair the walls. The 211 prostitutes captured by the Paduans in the defeat of the Veronese army at the Brentelle in 1386 were escorted with great honour to Padua and entertained at the Lord of Padua’s table.

Given the seasonal nature of Italian warfare, camp life was only a part of the soldier’s life. The side about which we know even less is the conditions of troops in winter quarters. The Borgo S. Marco outside the walls of Pisa was often the winter quarters of Florentine armies and there Micheletto Attendolo spent the winter of 1431–2. It served the same purpose as the serragli of the Venetian cities, but one suspects that in the Borgo S. Marco troops were billeted in private houses, whereas in the serragli there were probably some form of permanent encampments. The bulk of the troops of a condottiere prince like Federigo da Montefeltro probably returned to their homes in and around Urbino in the winter, parading perhaps at infrequent intervals to receive pay. Even in the Venetian cities, where the companies had the same winter quarters for years on end, it seems likely that many of the soldiers had their families to which they returned when the campaigning season was over. But certainly, as the century advanced, there is increasing evidence that armies were held together and paid, at least in a rudimentary fashion, in the winter. Nor indeed was it always the case that campaigning stopped in the winter, and the winter break could certainly be very short; December and March were months in which there was often plenty of military activity. The summer break, still common in the first half of the century, was becoming less standard after 1450, although the Venetian army in the sixteenth century still held its manoeuvres in peacetime in spring and autumn.

The emphasis on active campaigning in spring and early summer, and again in the autumn, was not only the result of these being the more clement seasons for military operations. They were also the seasons when armies could do the most damage to crops, and this was always one of the prime aims of Italian warfare. Devastation and organised looting was economic warfare of a most effective kind; if carried out systematically it could have a much greater impact on a small Italian state than the defeat of its army in the field. The conscript pioneers attached to Italian armies were known as guastatori (devastators); their first function was breaking down and burning crops, and only subsequently did they become increasingly important as diggers of field fortifications and other constructive work.

Devastation and looting were therefore by no means necessarily to be linked with ill-discipline, although they were operations which could easily lead to loss of control and bad discipline. There were in fact two totally different sides to this problem. When an army was operating on friendly soil there was of course no question of systematic devastation. All provisions were in theory bought and, as far as possible, troops were kept under control. There were inevitably clashes between troops and civilians, but the condottieri were responsible for the discipline of their men and could be fined if these men inflicted damage on civilian property. The behaviour of troops in this situation was often the subject of complaints from the local populations, but the volume of individual complaints which have survived is not such as to suggest that the increasingly permanent armies were a positive scourge to their own civilians. After a defeat, when an army was in retreat, was the most dangerous time, and it was not uncommon for serious damage to be inflicted on the friendly local population. The other situation was that of an army operating in hostile territory when the whole outlook was totally different. Such armies lived as far as possible off the land and were committed to a policy of devastation. Both the collection of supplies and the ravaging were organised, and there were usually instructions that the property of the Church was to be spared. The condottieri were still concerned to see that their men did not get out of hand and that booty was divided up fairly.

Francesco Guicciardini, who was certainly no friend of the Italian mercenary system, remarked: ‘Ever since the times of antiquity in which military discipline was severely exercised, the soldiery had always been licentious and burdensome to the people, yet they never gave themselves loose to all manners of disorders, but lived for the most part on their pay, and their licentiousness was restrained within tolerable bounds. But the Spaniards in Italy were the first that presumed to maintain themselves wholly on the substance of the people.’ After 1494 the large French and Spanish armies in Italy were living permanently on hostile soil and behaved accordingly. The average Italian army of the fifteenth century spent most of its time billeted or camped on friendly soil, and this was when its ‘licentiousness was restrained within tolerable bounds’. Discipline depends to a large extent on long service under respected and responsible leaders; the peculiar and increasingly permanent condotta system of the fifteenth century provided these conditions to a greater extent than we sometimes imagine. It is significant that Luca degli Albizzi in the three weeks he was with the army in 1432 said not a word about bad discipline except to report that all the militia had deserted. Linari was sacked, but the impression given is that this was a calculated affair, a reprisal for resistance.

The possibilities of booty and at the same time a breakdown of discipline were always at their greatest when a town surrendered or was stormed after a siege. As in northern Europe, it was accepted practice in Italy that a town was formally summoned to surrender before a siege started. It was at this moment that a town could expect to secure the best terms before time, patience and lives had been lost in a siege. However, the terms of a surrender were by no means necessarily related to the length of the siege or the effort involved in it, nor indeed were the terms agreed necessarily honoured once the gates had been opened to a besieging army.

Ambitions of Condottieri


Braccio Andrea d’Oddo Fortebraccio


The Papal States, until well after the arrival of Martin V in Rome in 1420, remained the area in which the independence and ambitions of condottieri could be most easily asserted. Naples, after the death of Ladislas, became once more the scene of continuous civil war until the final victory of Alfonso V and the Aragonese in 1442. These were the conditions which encouraged the emergence of the two greatest condottieri figures of this period, Braccio da Montone and Musio Attendolo Sforza, whose distinctive styles of warfare were to be handed on to their successors and pupils and were to some extent to dominate Italian military history for the rest of the century.

Musio Attendolo, better known as Sforza, was born into the influential and warlike Romagnol family of the Attendoli in 1369. Although they were not noble, but in fact affluent rural middle class, the Attendoli were already competing with the noble Pasolini family for the domination of Cotignola, the town which was shortly to be given to Hawkwood by the pope. Musio, like many of his family, was destined to be a soldier, and at the age of thirteen he became a page to one of the men-at-arms of Boldrino da Panicale. In the early 1390’s he was with Alberigo da Barbiano, first as a squadron commander and then with his own condotta (contract) for 75 cavalry. By 1398 he was an independent condottiere employed in the defence of Perugia against the Visconti, and then in 1402 employed by Florence. He was in the Florentine army at Casalecchio where he was captured, and he remained with the Florentines as one of their leading commanders for the campaign against Pisa. By this time he had 180 lances and was well on his way to becoming one of Italy’s leading captains. After the fall of Pisa in 1406, he took service with Niccolò d’Este, the Lord of Ferrara, and became captain general of the Ferrarese army against Ottobuono Terzo, the Visconti captain who had seized Parma. By 1409 Ottobuono had been defeated and killed by Sforza, who received the castle of Montecchio in Emilia as a reward from Niccolò d’Este. Sforza then moved southwards and joined the army of the papal-Angevin-Florentine alliance against Ladislas of Naples and was the principal architect of the great victory of Roccasecca over the Neapolitans in 1411. As a reward for this success, Sforza was made Count of Cotignola by Pope John XXIII, thus recognising the predominance in that town which the Attendoli had by now established. However, he deserted the papal cause in the next year and joined Ladislas, receiving a condotta for 830 lances.

So by 1412, Musio Sforza had reached the top of his profession. He had not in fact risen from nothing as his eulogists claimed, since he had always had the advantage of a large and warlike family, many of whom served in his company, and a solid base in Cotignola from which to recruit. Nevertheless, his success had been spectacular and had depended to a considerable extent on his own military prowess. It also depended on some well-timed changes of side and on three marriages, each of which had brought him estates and added prestige. Sforza was described by one of the chroniclers as: ‘More than usually handsome with fierce features and an extremely powerful physique. He was intelligent and crafty, and a considerable orator who could inspire his troops with splendid speeches.’ He certainly seemed to be able to inspire his troops with an unusual degree of loyalty and discipline, and it was from this discipline that his reputation as a military innovator sprang. Because of this discipline and the amount of careful planning he put into each action, he was able to control his troops on the battlefield to an unusual degree. He was a believer in cautious tactics executed by large masses of well-disciplined troops, and this meant not only cavalry but also infantry on which he placed particular, and for his day unusual, emphasis.

Sforza was far less successful as a politician, and in Naples after the death of Ladislas he inevitably became involved in politics. During these years he was twice imprisoned and was only saved by the steadfastness of his family and his troops, who were able to exert military pressure to gain his release. On the field of battle he usually found himself opposed by Braccio da Montone against whose fire and brilliance he tended to be at a slight disadvantage. His role in these events was always that of commander of the troops of one or other political faction in Naples, and he never seemed to be interested in winning an independent state for himself. It was as Great Constable of Joanna II, the successor to Ladislas, that he marched northwards early in 1424, hoping to settle scores with Braccio who was besieging Aquila. It was mid-winter, and Sforza was forced to use the coast road up the east coast rather than striking directly across the mountains. At Pescara he was confronted by the river Pescara in spate and the Bracceschi holding the city. So he elected to ford the river at its mouth in an attempt to bypass the city. There was a gale blowing in from the Adriatic and this made the crossing extremely hazardous, but Sforza successfully led his advance guard across only to find that the main army had halted, deterred by the prospect of crossing behind him. There was no alternative for Sforza but to return and lead the rest of his troops across himself. This he proceeded to do; he re-crossed successfully, got his army moving again and set out to ford the swollen river for the third time. However, one of his pages got into difficulties and as Sforza turned to help him his horse lost its footing and Sforza was thrown in full armour into the river and drowned. His son, Francesco, held the Sforza companies together for the decisive campaign that was still to come, but briefly it was the figure of Braccio da Montone which predominated in Italy.

The Fortebraccio family of Perugia were nobles and amongst the most powerful families in the city. Their original rural base was the town of Montone, but they had lived in Perugia for at least two centuries. Andrea d’Oddo Fortebraccio was born in 1368, just a year before Sforza, and at some early stage began to call himself Braccio. From his first military engagement, at which he was captured because of his impetuosity, Braccio had a reputation for courage and audacity. But it was a surprisingly long time before he established himself as a commander of troops. Perhaps this was partly because his fiery methods were distrusted by the senior condottieri under whom he served. But the more likely cause was that from the early 1390’s the Fortebracci fell foul of the Michelotti family, who had gained control in Perugia, and had gone into exile, also losing their estates at Montone. So Braccio was unable to rely on his own recruiting ground and spent much of his life as an exile and a leader of exiles.

Braccio was severely wounded in the head in his second military encounter and was for a time half paralysed, and always walked with a limp. But he was a commanding figure, above average height and described by his contemporaries as a man who always stood out in a group. He served with a small following under Alberigo da Barbiano and with Florence in the 1390’s, and was back with Alberigo in 1405 but still with only 12 lances. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he rallied the Perugian exiles and tried to recover his position at Perugia, and the inconsistency towards his employers necessitated by this preoccupation with Perugia also contributed to the slow growth of his military reputation. So at the age of 37, when Sforza was already joint commander of the Florentine army, Braccio was still only a minor squadron commander.

However in 1406 the turning point in his career came. After some successful operations with Alberigo, which won him both the respect and the jealousy of his colleagues, he set out on his own, determined to make his own way. A series of blackmailing operations against small towns brought in cash, and he began to build up his own company always relying for the core of it on his fellow exiles from Perugia. In 1407 Roccacontrada in the Marches offered him the lordship of the town in exchange for protection against Ludovico Migliorati, and this at last gave Braccio a secure base. In the next years he steadily built up his strength as he moved from one side to the other in the balance between Ladislas and the papal-Angevin alliance. But it was always Perugia which was in the forefront of his mind, and he continued to lose opportunities for advancement as he concentrated on that. Braccio, unlike Sforza, was always the independent condottiere, but his restlessness was not just the search for a state for himself but the quest for a particular state, his native city, to which he felt he could only return as lord.

In 1414 Pope John XXIII made Braccio captain general of the Church and Count of Montone, and he had thus reached a position where rivalry with Sforza, now commander of the Neapolitan army, was inevitable. But it was two years later, in 1416, that the decisive moment for Braccio came. With his new strength and authority, and taking advantage of the lack of papal control during the Council of Constance, he launched his final assault on Perugia. The Perugians appealed to Carlo Malatesta to help them, and he marched to their relief with an army of some 5,000 men. The battle of S. Egidio which ensued was not a great battle in terms of numbers, but it was decisive for Perugia and was an interesting display of Braccio’s techniques.

The strength of Braccio’s methods lay, as did that of Sforza, in being able to control troops on the battlefield. However, there the similarity ends; Braccio believed in dividing his army into a number of small squadrons and committing them to battle piecemeal. In this way he found it not only easier to maintain personal control over the battle but was able to use his squadrons in rotation and thus rest them during the battle. The effect of this was that they fought fiercely for short spells and then fell back to be replaced by a refreshed squadron. It was this, together with the natural daring of Braccio himself, that produced the speed of manoeuvre and the bravura of Braccesco tactics. At the battle of S. Egidio, which was fought on a hot day in the height of summer, Braccio had had the foresight to provide large quantities of water in barrels immediately behind his lines. Thus, as the long day’s fighting wore on, Braccio’s troops remained fresher and more vigorous than the Malatesta forces drawn up in traditional mass divisions according to a prearranged plan. It was significant that Carlo Malatesta, having drawn up his army in a great half circle into which he hoped to draw the impetuous Bracceschi and then surround them, had retired behind the battle line to his tent believing that once the battle had started there was little more that he could do. Braccio avoided the obvious trap, kept up a constant pressure all along the line and finally, as the Malatesta troops tired and began to lose their cohesion, he threw in his reserves to break through. Carlo Malatesta was caught up in the flight of his army and captured; 300 dead were left on the field.

The Battle of S. Egidio made Braccio the master of Perugia and many of the surrounding towns. He had created a state for himself, and he devoted a part of each of his remaining years to governing it. He built extensively in Perugia and employed his army to dig a canal which drained part of the Umbrian plain into Lake Trasimene. But one of his main interests was inevitably defence; he reorganised the Perugian militia and held jousts and the traditional Perugian ‘battles of stones’ in the streets to arouse the military spirit of his new subjects. His company was increasingly made up of Umbrians and began to look almost like a national army. It certainly saw constant action, as Braccio continued to campaign each year either in self defence against growing pressure from Martin V, or in the Neapolitan wars against Sforza. He maintained his state intact, despite the activities of the pope, but in the end it was a combination of papal and Neapolitan forces which caught him outside Aquila in June 1424.

Braccio’s determined independence and self confidence was ultimately the cause of his downfall. Isolated in his attempts to gain control of the Arbuzzi and add it to his Umbrian state, he rejected opportunities to defeat the allied army piecemeal, as it assembled, in the belief that he could inflict a defeat on it which would settle the power balance in central Italy permanently. It was again a hot summer’s day when Braccio’s army faced a much larger combined army on the plain of Aquila. His opponents that day were not only the Sforza squadrons led by Francesco and his cousin Micheletto Attendolo, but also the new Neapolitan captain general, Jacopo Caldora. Caldora had served with Braccio in the past and learnt a lot from him, and he also had a company made up largely of troops from the Abruzzi who were personally loyal to him. The tactics of Caldora and Francesco Sforza were inevitably a combination of the two schools of warfare. The army was divided into large squadrons and Caldora employed the Braccesco method of constantly rotating the squadrons, so that he always had fresh troops in reserve. Braccio, with a much smaller army, planned to hold the disciplined impetus of the Sforzeschi in check on his right while he broke Caldora in the centre and on the left. But he had underestimated Caldora’s mastery of his own tactics and found that, although he gained an initial advantage against him, in the end it was Caldora who had the greater reserve strength and was able to counter attack with devastating effect. Meanwhile Braccio’s right was also unable to hold the Sforzeschi who began to break through. As a last resort Braccio’s chief lieutenant, Niccolò Piccinino, who had been detailed to guard the rear against an outbreak from the besieged city of Aquila, left his post in an attempt to restore the balance in the main battle. However, he not only failed to do this, but also left the rear exposed to a determined rush from the Aquilani, who began to sack the Braccesco camp. The day was totally lost for Braccio; his army was scattered and he himself wounded and taken prisoner. The chronicles record that when he was being treated for his head wounds by Caldora’s doctor, an unknown hand jogged the doctor’s arm and drove the scalpel into Braccio’s brain. From this wound and also from sheer despair he could not recover. Three days later Braccio died, having refused to eat or exchange a word with his captors.

The list of the commanders in the two armies at Aquila could almost be used as a roll call of the leading soldiers of the next generation. Among the Bracceschi were Niccolò Piccinino, another Perugian who was to lead the Milanese army for 20 years, Gattamelata, commander of the Venetian army from 1434 to 1441, and Niccolò Fortebraccio della Stella, commander of the Florentine army in the early 1430’s. In the allied army, in addition to Caldora and Francesco Sforza, were Micheletto Attendolo whose career will take up some of the following pages, Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venetian commander from 1455 to 1475, Niccolò Mauruzzi da Tolentino, leader of one of the most famous dynasties of condottieri in the fifteenth century, and Luigi da Sanseverino, whose family was also to become increasingly famous in Italian armies. The names of Sforza and Braccio were battle cries for almost the whole century, and even as late as the Pazzi War in 1478–9, many of the Florentine and Venetian troops still marched under the banner of the black ram (montone) on a yellow ground. At this time Braccio’s grandson, Bernardino, was a leading Venetian commander, and the Milanese army contained several members of the Sforza family; but the old rallying cries and the old traditions of the Bracceschi and Sforzeschi embraced a wider group of late fifteenth-century commanders than just the survivors of the two families.

But while these traditions lived on, the political conditions in Italy, which so vitally affected the type of warfare and the military institutions, were entering a new phase in 1424. Milan, Florence and Venice were about to embark on thirty-years of prolonged warfare from which permanent military institutions finally emerged. Martin V had clearly started the process of restoring order in the Papal States and building up a papal army. Alfonso of Aragon was already committed to his long campaign to capture the throne of Naples, a campaign which ended in success and a new and more powerful Neapolitan dynasty in 1442. From this moment onwards it is necessary to think more of armies, military institutions, and military administration rather than individual captains for whom the opportunities for independent action were rapidly declining. This is not to say that the leaders did not remain condottieri; but they were condottieri of the type of Jacopo dal Verme rather than that of Braccio da Montone.

The Italian Wars–Fornovo in July 1495


Charles VIII is attacked, Battle of Fornovo, 6 July 1495.


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.

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.

Operation Azalee


The Comoros Islands had been a French colony until July of 1975, when they gained their independence. The islands are a poorly developed agricultural economy that relies heavily on foreign grants to sustain roughly 550,000 people. There is little industry and little natural resources. The terrain is mountainous, with only 750 km (450 miles) of roads, 540 km (324 miles) of which is gravel.

On September 28, 1995 Bob Denard and 33 mercenaries took control of the Comoros islands in a coup (named operation Kaskari by the mercenaries) against President Djohar. Despite having received advanced notice and hints about the coup, France did nothing until the day of the invasion; when they severely denounced it.

President Jacques Chirac requested that the Minister of Defense and the Army Chief of Staff begin drafting plans for the retaking of the Comoros Islands. Intelligence was gathered and COS (the French special operations command) assets were placed on alert. Teams from GIGN, DRM, and DGSE began discreetly deploying to the area around the Indian Ocean. On October 3 the French government gave Operation Azalee the green light.

Bob Denard began to create a civilian government in an effort to stave off the impending invasion. A new presidential guard was created from loyal members of the old guard that Denard himself had trained. Strategic Strong points armed with heavy machine guns were set up around the island, particularly around the islands two airports.

By this time, more than 200 members of COS and DRM were on their way to the islands aboard a frigate and two patrol boats. Members of GIGN and Commandos Jaubert as well as several Puma squadrons were also in the area.


The French ultimately deployed 600 men against a force of 33 mercenaries and a 300 man dissident force. The operation started off at 11 PM on October 3rd when members of Commandos Jaubert explored the beaches near the island’s two airports at Hahaya and Iconi. At 2:30 AM three Pumas delivered members of 1erRPIMa, 13eRDP to the tarmac of the Hahaya airport. Initially taken under fire from the insurrectionist’s heavy machine guns, the French troopers use their night vision gear and the cover of darkness to secure the airport and local area. 20 Comoran soldiers are captured in the process.

By 3:00 AM members of Commandos Jaubert had secured the Iconi airport. Elements of 5eRIAOM, 2eRAMa and, 2eRPIMaare flown in on C-160 Transals to hold the airfield while Commandos Jaubert heads for the Kandani barracks. 30 Comoran soldiers are captured in the process. 15 members of GIGN are then flown in and liberate the French Embassy in Moroni. Another team of Jaubert commandos assault and seize the Vulcain; the ship used by Denard and his mercenaries to reach Comoros.

The main air assault begins at 5 AM, when two Transalls deliver elements of the Foreign Legion to the runway at Hahaya. 30 minutes later they are joined by members of 2ea, RIAOM Marines, and 2e RAMa artillery. By 5:50 the airport is secure and a security zone has been established around it. Supplies start arriving by shuttle as French units begin moving towards the capital of Moroni.

At 6:30 AM French units are racing to reach the barracks at Kandani before Bob Denard and his mercenaries break free. Another force races towards pass where a force of 200 insurgents has been reported.

By 3:00 pm the next day Bob Denard and his Mercenaries had surrendered. After being frisked by GIGN gendarmes, he is taken to the Iconi airport, flown to France, and Jailed.

While not a pure special operations action, the French re-taking of the Comoros Islands is of noteworthy status. Special operations units were successfully deployed and utilized in a timely manner. In seven days, plans were drawn up and roughly 1,000 soldiers were deployed to support this operation. Air assets were used to move soldiers around quickly and concisely.

Once Denard realized that the French planned to retake Comoros the mercenaries were ordered not to fight. In addition the odds were very disproportional; some might say that this was not a “fair” fight. However, by presenting such overwhelming odds, the French made any resistance futile and thus prevented bloodshed. France acted decisively and used their special forces to move rapidly and achieve tactical surprise. Units such as GIGN and Commandos Jaubert were used to clear potentially dangerous buildings. Using the right combination of paratroopers and Special Forces teams, French units were able to retake the island in less than 48 hours.


Australia impounds [still has] Papua New Guinea-bound Mi-24s


A pair of Mi-24s that are languished at RAAF Base Tindal since 1997 might be disposed off in 2016. The gunships were on their way to Papua New Guinea (PNG) when the RAAF intercepted the An-124 transport carrying them and divert the cargo to Tindal. A newly installed government in PNG then had refused to allow the helicopters to enter the country.

09 April, 1997

Australia has intervened in a pending dispute between a UK military consultancy and the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Government over ownership of an arms shipment, including four Russian military helicopters, now on Australian soil.

Australian prime minister John Howard says that the diversion of the Antonov An-124, which was being used to ferry the arms, had been arranged “in consultation with the PNG and other regional governments”. This followed a request by PNG’s recently appointed acting prime minister and his refusal to allow the aircraft to land in PNG.

The shipment had previously been impounded for about a week by Thai authorities over discrepancies in the aircraft’s manifest and the identities of crewmembers.

The An-124, due originally to be flown from Bangkok to Port Moresby, was diverted to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base at Tindal, Northern Territory, and its cargo unloaded and impounded on 27 March. Several RAAF McDonnell Douglas F-18s reportedly escorted the aircraft as it approached Tindal.

The freighter, which was carrying two Russian-built Mil Mi-24 Hind assault helicopters, two Mil Mi-17 troop carriers, six rocket pods for the helicopters, 1,000 67mm high-explosive rockets, and other armament and vehicles, departed after unloading.

The helicopters were part of a A$46 million ($36 million) package purchased from UK-based consultancy Sandline International by the PNG Government before the country’s prime minister, Sir Julius Chan, was forced to step down.

The package also included the services of about 50 South African mercenaries, to be used in the suppression of secessionist forces in Bougainville, PNG.

The mercenaries, and Sandline executive Tim Spicer, were deported before Chan stood down, along with deputy prime minister and finance minister Chris Haiveta and the defence minister. This followed a confrontation between Chan and military leader Brig Gen Jerry Singaroff, who demanded a judicial inquiry into alleged corruption in the deal with Sandline. The helicopters and other arms are understood to have been bought on behalf of the PNG Government by Sandline.

The caretaker Government invited Australia’s intervention, to avoid the equipment falling into the hands of military elements still not yielding to government authority. It is believed that the helicopters were to be flown by pilots supplied by Executive Outcomes, a South African group associated with Sandline.


Shortly after the Cold War, the world witnessed the resurgence of private military force. Perhaps it is not surprising that the first real mercenary firm emerged in Africa. With the fall of the South African apartheid regime, Lieutenant-Colonel Eeben Barlow left the South African Defense Force to establish the first combat-offensive PMC, the appropriately named Executive Outcomes. Its ranks were populated by soldiers from South African special forces units, such as the 32nd Battalion and the Koevoet (“crowbar” in Afrikaans), a special counterinsurgency police force. Unlike the SAS-PMCs, Executive Outcomes was not a military enterpriser but a true mercenary firm: a private army in the mold of the old condottieri. It was a fully functional, self-contained military organization, complete with its own air force, which would conduct full-spectrum combat operations for the right price.

In the early days of the Rwandan genocide, Executive Outcomes approached then–UNDPKO chief Kofi Annan and offered to help contain the violence as the United Nations generated a competent peacekeeping force, which normally requires several months. Annan refused Executive Outcomes’ offer, claiming later that “the world may not be ready to privatize peace.” This view was costly, as more than eight hundred thousand people died within one hundred days, or eight thousand people a day, more than all those killed in the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Later, Angola, Mozambique, Uganda, and Kenya also turned to Executive Outcomes for help. Some scholars suggested, with a fair degree of hyperbole, that Executive Outcomes represented the future of armed conflict, but this has not come to pass. Executive Outcomes remains an exceptional phenomenon. Taking a cue from its progenitors 350 years earlier, the South Africa government outlawed mercenaries in 1998, and Executive Outcomes was dissolved as mandated by the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.

However, Executive Outcomes’ legacy lives on. The firm was loosely linked to a London-based PMC known as Sandline International, managed by former British Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer, British Special Air Service (SAS) officer Simon Mann, and US Army Special Forces Colonel Bernie McCabe. Connecting these two PMCs were Mann, who had worked for Executive Outcomes, and Anthony Buckingham, a British army officer–turned–oil executive who helped Executive Outcomes secure contracts in Angola.

Fearing Executive Outcomes’ imminent demise in the late 1990s, Buckingham turned to Sandline for services, although the exact relationship among Executive Outcomes, Sandline, and Buckingham remains unclear. In 1997, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Julius Chan, contracted the firm to recapture copper mines held by separatists on Bougainville Island for $36 million. Sandline subcontracted most of its personnel from Executive Outcomes, only to be rebuffed by the Papua New Guinea army, which arrested and deported the contractors without shots fired. Chan was forced to resign, and the entire spectacle made world news as the Sandline Affair.

The Condotte


Federico da Montefeltro (Duke of Urbino) 1422 – 82 (60)  was one of the most skilled and ruthlessly focused of the Condottieri of the 14 hundreds, but his preferred image was that of Renaissance Scholar rather than horseman and slaughterer.

From the end of the War of the Sicilian Vespers (1282-1302), the Italians tried to decide for themselves what government they wanted, resulting in conflict between the Ghibellines-who supported Imperial rule-and the Guelfs-who supported papal rule. The Guelfs were successful in the first decade of the fourteenth century, ironically at much the same time the papacy moved to Avignon in 1308. Suddenly freed from either Imperial or papal influence, the large number of sovereign states in northern and central Italy began to try to exert control over their neighbors. Florence, Milan, and Venice, and to a lesser extent Lucca, Siena, Mantua, and Genoa, all profited from the early-fourteenth-century military situation by exerting their independence. But this independence came at a price. The inhabitants of the north Italian city-states had enough wealth to be able to pay for others to fight for them and they frequently employed soldiers, condottieri in their language (from the condotte, the contract hiring these soldiers) and mercenaries in ours. Indeed, the immense wealth of the Italian city-states in the late Middle Ages meant that the number of native soldiers was lower than elsewhere in Europe at the same time, but it meant the cost of waging war was much higher.

One might think that having to add the pay for condottieri to the normal costs of war would have limited the numbers of military conflicts in late medieval Italy. But that was not the case and, in what was an incredibly bellicose time, Italy was one of the most fought over regions in Europe. Most of these wars were small, with one city’s mercenary forces facing another’s, but they were very frequent. They gave employment to a large number of condottieri, who in turn fought the wars, which in turn employed the condottieri. An obvious self-perpetuating circle developed. It was fueled by a number of factors: the wealth of northern Italy; the greed of wealthier Italians to acquire more wealth by occupying neighboring cities and lands (or to keep these cities from competing by incorporating their economies); their unwillingness themselves to fight the wars; and the availability of a large number of men who were not only willing to do so, but who saw regular employment in their mercenary companies as a means to comfort, wealth, and often titles and offices. In 1416, one condottierie, Braccio da Montone, became lord of Perugia, while a short time later two others, condottieri sons of the condottiere Muccio Attendolo Sforza, Alessandro and Francesco, became the Master of Pesaro and Duke of Milan, respectively. Other condottieri became governors of Urbino, Mantua, Rimini, and Ferrara during the fifteenth century.

Venice and Genoa continued to be the greatest rivals among the northern Italian city-states. Both believed the Mediterranean to be theirs, and they refused to share it with anyone, including Naples and Aragon, nor, of course, with each other. This became a military issue at the end of the fifteenth century. The common practice was a monopoly trading contract. Venice’s monopoly with the crusader states ceased when the crusaders were forced from the Middle East in 1291, although they were able to sustain their trade with the victorious Muslim powers. And Venice’s contract with Constantinople was abandoned with the fall of the Latin Kingdom in 1261, only to be replaced by a similar contract with Genoa that would last till the city’s fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Frequently during the late Middle Ages, this rivalry turned to warfare, fought primarily on the sea, as was fitting for two naval powers. Venice almost always won these engagements, most notably the War of Chioggia (1376-1381), and there seems little doubt that such defeats led to a weakening of the political independence and economic strength of Genoa. Although Venice never actually conquered Genoa, nor does it appear that the Venetian rulers considered this to be in their city’s interest, other principalities did target the once powerful city-state. Florence held Genoa for a period of three years (1353-1356), and Naples, Aragon, and Milan vied for control in the fifteenth century. Seeking defensive assistance, the Republic of Genoa sought alliance with the Kingdom of France, and it is in this context that their most prominent military feature is set, the Genoese mercenary. During the Hundred Years War, Genoa supplied France with naval and, more famously, crossbowmen mercenaries, the latter ironically provided by a city whose experience in land warfare was rather thin.

Before the fifteenth century, the Republic of Venice had also rarely participated in land campaigns-except for leading the forces of the Second Crusade in their attack of Constantinople in 1204. Seeing the sea not only as a provider of economic security but also as defense for the city, Venetian doges and other city officials had rarely pursued campaigns against their neighbors. However, in 1404- 1405, a Venetian army, once again almost entirely mercenaries, attacked to the west and captured Vicenza, Verona, and Padua. In 1411-1412 and again in 1418-1420, they attacked to the northeast, against Hungary, and captured Dalmatia, Fruili, and Istria. So far it had been easy-simply pay for enough condottieri to fight the wars, and reap the profits of conquest. But in 1424 Venice ran into two Italian city-states that had the same military philosophy they did, and both were as wealthy: Milan and Florence. The result was thirty years of protracted warfare.

The strategy of all three of these city-states during this conflict was to employ more and more mercenaries. At the start, the Venetian army numbered 10,000-12,000; by 1432 this figure had grown to 18,000; and by 1439 it was 25,000, although it declined to 20,000 during the 1440s and 1450s. The other two city-states kept pace. At almost any time after 1430 more than 50,000 soldiers were fighting in northern Italy. The economy and society of the whole region were damaged, with little gain by any of the protagonists during the war. At its end, a negotiated settlement, Venice gained little, but it also lost very little. The city went back to war in 1478-1479, the Pazzi War, and again in 1482-1484, the War of Ferrara. The Florentines and Milanese participated in both as well.

After the acquisition of Vicenza, Verona, and Padua in 1405 Venice shared a land frontier with Milan. From that time forward Milan was the greatest threat to Venice and her allies, and to practically any other city-state, town, or village in northern Italy. Milan also shared a land frontier with Florence, and if Milanese armies were not fighting Venetian armies, they were fighting Florentine armies, sometimes taking on both at the same time.

Their animosity predates the later Middle Ages, but it intensified with the wealth and ability of both sides to hire condottieri. This led to wars with Florence in 1351-1354 and 1390-1402, and with Florence and Venice (in league together) in 1423-1454, 1478-1479, and 1482-1484. In those rare times when not at war with Florence or Venice, Milanese armies often turned on other neighboring towns, for example, capturing Pavia and Monza among other places.

Perhaps the most telling sign of Milan’s bellicosity is the rise to power of its condottiere ruler, Francesco Sforza, in 1450. Sforza had been one of Milan’s condottieri captains for a number of years, following in the footsteps of his father, Muccio, who had been in the city-state’s employ off and on since about 1400. Both had performed diligently, successfully, and, at least for condottieri, loyally, and they had become wealthy because of it. Francesco had even married the illegitimate daughter of the reigning Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti. But during the most recent wars, after he had assumed the lordship of Pavia, and in the wake of Filippo’s death in 1447, the Milanese decided not to renew Francesco’s contract. In response, the condottiere used his army to besiege the city, which capitulated in less than a year. Within a very short time, Francesco Sforza had insinuated himself into all facets of Milanese rule; his brother even became the city’s archbishop in 1454, and his descendants continued to hold power in the sixteenth century.

Genoa, Venice, and Milan all fought extensively throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but Florence played the most active role in Italian warfare of the later Middle Ages. A republican city-state, although in the fifteenth century controlled almost exclusively by the Medici family, Florence had been deeply involved in the Guelf and Ghibelline conflicts of the thirteenth century, serving as the center of the Guelf party. But though the Guelfs were successful this did not bring peace to Florence and when, in 1301, they split into two parties-the blacks and the whites-the fighting continued until 1307. Before this feud was even concluded, however, the Florentine army, numbering 7,000, mostly condottieri, attacked Pistoia, capturing the city in 1307. In 1315 in league with Naples, Florentine forces attempted to take Pisa, but were defeated. In 1325, they were again defeated while trying to take Pisa and Lucca. Between 1351 and 1354 they fought the Milanese. From 1376 to 1378 they fought against papal forces hired at and drawn from Rome in what was known as the War of the Eight Saints, but the Florentines lost more than they gained. Forming the League of Bologna with Bologna, Padua, Ferrara, and other northern Italian cities, they warred against Milan from 1390 to 1402. While they were initially successful against the Milanese, Gian Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, was eventually able to bring Pisa, Lucca, and Venice onto his city’s side, and once again Florence was defeated. In 1406 Florence annexed Pisa without armed resistance. But war broke out with Milan again in 1423 lasting until 1454; Florence would ally with Venice in 1425, and with the papacy in 1440. Battles were lost on the Serchio in 1450 and at Imola in 1434, but won at Anghiara in 1440. Finally, after the Peace of Lodi was signed in 1454 ending the conflict, a league was formed between Florence, Venice, and Milan that lasted for 25 years. But, after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici and the attempted murder of his brother, Lorenzo-Pope Sixtus IV was complicit in the affair-war broke out in 1478 with the papacy and lasted until the death of Sixtus in 1484. In addition, interspersed with these external wars were numerous rebellions within Florence itself. In 1345 a revolt broke out at the announcement of the bankruptcy of the Bardi and Peruzzi banking firms; in 1368 the dyers revolted; in 1378 there was the Ciompi Revolt; and in 1382 the popolo grasso revolt. None of these were extensive or successful, but they did disrupt social, economic, and political life in the city until permanently put to rest by the rise to power of the Medicis.

Why Florence continued to wage so many wars in the face of so many defeats and revolts is simple to understand. Again one must see the role of the condottieri in Florentine military strategy; as long as the governors of the city-state were willing to pay for military activity and as long as there were soldiers willing to take this pay, wars would continue until the wealth of the town ran out. In Renaissance Florence this did not happen. Take, for example, the employment of perhaps the most famous condottiere, Sir John Hawkwood. Coming south in 1361, during one of the lulls in fighting in the Hundred Years War, the Englishman Hawkwood joined the White Company, a unit of condottieri already fighting in Italy. In 1364, while in the pay of Pisa, the White Company had its first encounter with Florence when, unable to effectively besiege the city, they sacked and pillaged its rich suburbs. In 1375, now under the leadership of Hawkwood, the White Company made an agreement with the Florentines not to attack them, only to discover later that year, now in the pay of the papacy, that they were required to fight in the Florentine-controlled Romagna. Hawkwood decided that he was not actually attacking Florence, and the White Company conquered Faenza in 1376 and Cesena in 1377. However, perhaps because the papacy ordered the massacres of the people of both towns, a short time later Hawkwood and his condottieri left their papal employment. They did not stay unemployed for long, however; Florence hired them almost immediately, and for the next seventeen years, John Hawkwood and the White Company fought diligently, although not always successfully, for the city. All of the company’s condottieri became quite wealthy, but Hawkwood especially prospered. He was granted three castles outside the city, a house in Florence, a life pension of 2,000 florins, a pension for his wife, Donnina Visconti, payable after his death, and dowries for his three daughters, above his contracted pay. Florentines, it seems, loved to lavish their wealth on those whom they employed to carry out their wars, whether they were successful or not.

In comparison to the north, the south of Italy was positively peaceful. Much of this came from the fact that there were only two powers in southern Italy. The Papal States, with Rome as their capital, did not have the prosperity of the northern city-states, and in fact for most of the later Middle Ages they were, essentially, bankrupt. But economic problems were not the only matter that disrupted Roman life. From 1308 to 1378 there was no pope in Rome and from then until 1417 the Roman pontiff was one of two (and sometimes three) popes sitting on the papal throne at the same time. But even after 1417 the papacy was weak, kept that way by a Roman populace not willing to see a theocracy return to power. Perhaps this is the reason why the Papal States suffered so many insurrections. In 1347 Cola di Rienzo defeated the Roman nobles and was named Tribune by the Roman people. He governed until those same people overthrew and executed him in 1354. In 1434 the Columna family established a republican government in the Papal States, forcing the ruling pope, Eugenius IV, to flee to Florence. He did not return and reestablish his government until 1343. Finally, in 1453, a plot to put another republican government in place was halted only by the general dislike for its leader, Stefano Porcaro, who was executed for treason.

One might think that such political and economic turmoil would not breed much military confidence, yet it did not seem to keep the governors of the Papal States from hiring mercenaries, making alliances with other Italian states, or pursuing an active military role, especially in the central parts of Italy. Usually small papal armies were pitted against much larger northern city-state forces, yet often these small numbers carried the day, perhaps not winning many battles, but often winning the wars, certainly as much because of the Papal States alliances as its military prowess. This meant that despite all the obvious upheaval in the Papal States during the later Middle Ages, at the beginning of the 1490s it was much larger and more powerful than it had ever been previously.