Where it all began

I have been able to visit some of the key sites of the Italian Wars thanks to the support of the Leverhulme Trust. I was recently in the grand and grubby city of Genoa, which endured a sack in 1522, and I took the opportunity to visit the lovely coastal town of Rapallo nearby (pictured) which was really the first engagement of the war. It was here in September 1494 that the French fleet brought artillery and Swiss troops to bear on the town and the Neapolitan forces encamped there. The battle is of particular interest as it was variously reported as a success for French artillery and for the ferocious Swiss, as an example of Italian pusillanimity, and as an early example of the mass murder of civilians.

Thus, the courtier and diplomat Philippe de Commynes noted in his chronicle a few years after the event: ‘[A]nd getting as near the shore as possible, they [i.e. the French] cannonaded the enemy so briskly with their great guns (which till that time were unknown in Italy), that they beat them from their port, and landed what soldiers they had in their ships.’[1] Commynes, who based his account of the battle on letters to the King of France and the Duke of Milan, summarised events: ‘In short, when joined by these reinforcements, our army attacked and utterly defeated the enemy, of whom about a hundred or six-score were killed in the pursuit, and about eight or ten taken prisoners.’[2] Commynes’ account is interesting for its emphasis on the role of the artillery, and also for the rather sanitised and ordered version of events on the sea-shore: ‘Those who were taken were stripped to their shirts by the Duke of Milan’s soldiers, and dismissed without other injury, for in Italy that is the law of arms.’[3] By contrast, Charles VIII’s own account of the ‘escarmouche’ (skirmish), based on a report from his brother the Duke of Orléans, does not mention the role of the artillery at all but places much greater stress on the success of Swiss assaults on key positions and the pusillanimity of the enemy troops who seemed at first ready to fight but then fled in their thousands through woods and vineyards to the surrounding mountains ‘de tous coustez’ (on all sides).[4]

Contemporaries were also divided about the nature of the slaughter at Rapallo. Charles VIII merely mentions six or seven hundred killed or taken prisoner, and like Commynes glosses over the massacre of civilians which, by other accounts, took place. The Genoese historian Bartolomeo Senarega noted that those who fled were not cut down, but then added: ‘Only the Swiss spared nobody.’[5] As he put it: ‘Armed and unarmed were treated alike by these [troops]’.[6] In 1495 Marin Sanudo in Venice also wrote about the alleged violent behaviour of the Swiss. They had followed about sixty of the fleeing Neapolitan troops into the hospital of San Lazzaro in Rapallo and not only slaughtered many of them but killed ‘the poor people’ (li poveri) found there. He goes on: ‘And seeing this the local inhabitants decided not to put up with such insolence, and they took up arms, and they went into combat with the said Swiss of which around twenty-five died’.[7] Senarega, followed by Agostino Giustiniani in 1536, told a similar tale, adding that the behaviour of the troops horrified not only the Genoese but all Italians and that a wider tumult in the town was only avoided thanks to the intervention of Giovanni Adorno.[8]

The reports of the behaviour of the Swiss – and possibly German Landsknechten, who might include Swiss recruits – at Rapallo conform to observations made by contemporaries about their doggedness, boldness and effectiveness in open battle, which explains why the French and other powers spent so much to hire them. But the critical reports are also consonant with widespread complaints about the difficulty of disciplining them, their unreliability, and their focus on financial reward with its consequent tendency to pillage. The report of outrages against the poor patients of the hospital, whether true or not, is also a telling local detail because as I found out on my tour of the town the whole coast was once lined with lazaretti or hospitals in which men and women suspected of infection were quarantined.



Charles VIII. Lettres de Charles VIII, roi de France, ed. Paul Pélicier. 5 vols. Paris: Renouard, 1898-1905

Les lettres envoyees du roy nostre a nos seigneurs de parlement, des comptes, et de lhostel de la ville de Paris. N.p., n.d. (c. 1494)

Commynes, Philippe de. Mémoires. Ed. Joël Blanchard. 2 vols. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2007

The Memoirs of Philip de Commines, Lord of Argenton, ed. Andrew R. Scoble. 2 vols. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1856

Giustiniani, Agostino. Castigatissimi annali con la loro copiosa tavola della Eccelsa & Illustrissima Republi. di Genova, da fideli & approvati Scrittori. Genoa: Per Antonio Bellone, 1537

Sanudo, Marin. La spedizione di Carlo VIII in Italia, ed. R. Fulin. Venice: M. Visentini, 1873

Senarega, Bartolomeo. De Rebus Genuensibus Commentaria ab Anno MCDLXXXVIII usque ad Annum MDXIV. Ed. Emilio Pandiani. In Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 24, part 8. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1929-32

[1] Commines, Memoirs, 2: 126.

[2] Ibid., 126-7.

[3] Ibid., 127.

[4] Charles VIII, Lettres, 4: 89-93. This letter was printed contemporaneously in idem, Lettres envoyees, unpaginated.

[5] ‘Soli Elvetii nemini parcebant.’ Senarega, Commentaria, 36.

[6] ‘Armati et inermes uno modo ab ipsis habebantur.’ Ibid., 37.

[7] ‘et vedendo quelli di la terra questo, deliberò di non sopportar tal insolentia, et se messeno in arme, et fanno a le man con ditti Sguizzari, de quali ne fo morti zerca 25 …’. Sanudo, Spedizione, 84.

[8] Senarega, Commentaria, 37; Giustiniani, Castigatissimi annali, fols. CCXLIXv-CCLr (probably based on Senarega, who is mentioned at ibid., fol. CCLVIIIv).

Avoiding a Massacre

In 1494 the sleepy town of Sutri (pictured), near Viterbo, was menaced by Charles VIII and his army. The town was then in the control of Virginio Orsini who at first came out of Rome towards Viterbo to secure his lands but finding the French already there came to an agreement with the king in order to prevent the loss of his lands to his hated Colonna rivals.[1] Unfortunately, some French troops attempted to sack the city but their violence was stemmed by the prompt actions of the local lawyer Giovanni Francesco Arcoate whose memory was celebrated in the Memoratu apprime digna in adventu Caroli Francorum Regis in Italia published posthumously in 1514. Arcoate declared that the reader would find an account of the ‘advent of Charles, king of the French, in Italy, the advance of his people on unfortunate Sutri, the dreadful prodigies, [and] the scarcely believable work of fortitude accomplished by the inhabitants of Sutri during the transit of the French.’[2] The book, which also includes a reprint of his oration to Julius II and poems in praise of Arcoate by his son and other local humanists, stands as a striking humanist memorial and as an intriguing witness to the long-forgotten assault by the French on Sutri.

The first part of the book is formed by an oration addressed by Arcoate to Charles VIII ‘by which he was freed immediately from extinction’.[3] In this section he addresses Charles with respect but accuses Charles’ troops of ignoring royal orders and breaking into Sutri through one of its gates and threatening it with fire and the sword. This inglorious act of rebellion was met quite correctly, in Arcoate’s view, with a patriotic defense that led to his imprisonment and torture. He outlines the reasons why he should be set free. Those who kill are prosecuted with death as homicides and the laws make absolutely no distinction among homicides, and to harm a man or to ambush men is wicked (nefas).[4] All divine and human laws, he writes, permit strength to be repelled to avoid injury and what could be more reasonable or just, indeed worthy of eternal memory, than to free one’s homeland from military destruction and to defend one’s family from a rape and massacre with horrible laments taking place before one’s eyes? The king should enforce military discipline or he will be unable to ensure victory as the example of Roman discipline demonstrates. He also reminds the king of the virtues, again held by the Romans, which a king ought to possess: principally Justice, Fortitude, Magnanimity, and Liberality. He draws a broader lesson linked to the king’s intention to move against the Turks which, he says, is well known throughout Italy. The Turks have occupied by force Christian lands without provocation and it is right by holy laws to defend them and not only just but necessary for the king to wage war on them. The lengthy disquisition here on the crimes of the Turks, and their essentially irredeemable nature, which justifies war and the recuperation of Jerusalem, may have been added or expanded to suit the heightened crusade rhetoric of Fifth Lateran Council, which was in session when the work was published. The language used here certainly resembles that found in the pamphlets and orations on the need for a crusade which were issued at the time and suggests why the work may have been printed in Rome twenty years after the events it describes.

In a similar vein, in an oration addressed to Julius II and originally published in 1503, Arcoate praises the pope as a man of outstanding virtues sent by providence at a time of great troubles for the Church, with so many Christians harmed or threatened by the Turks. The people of Sutri offer their loyalty to the pope and Arcoate recalls the arrival of Charles and his army at Sutri in 1494 when they insolently and with ferocity broke into the city with most terrible cries and against law and that which is right (‘contra ius fasque’) cruelly put the place to fire and sword. Modestly claiming to desire to convey to the pope the truth of the matter rather than to speak arrogantly Arcoate asserts that he fought patriotically to defend his town.[6] The French Cardinal of San Dionysio (Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas) brokered a contract (foedus) for peace between the two sides but then the army entered, shattering the pact and apprehended Arcoate unarmed and disguised in the habit of a Franciscan in the Franciscan church. He was put in chains and his son fled to Julius, who had some authority with the king, and pleaded for his life. His life was restored and he was liberated and he now praised Julius and asked for his services to be recalled as well as those of his father Angelo.[7]

Giovanni Poggio, the Florentine orator, testified to Arcoate’s virtues and his actions during the attack by forty Frenchman on Sutri, noting that he ordered guards to be put on the town gates to prevent the entry of armed men, but the French, a very proud people, broke in and he was seized by the ‘barbarians’ against the terms of the pact and against justice disguised in a Franciscan habit. Fearful for his life he spoke with eloquence in Latin since he himself did not know French and the king ordered him to be freed.[8] Francesco Tito Sutrino, an orator, also provides details of the event in 1495 with note of a miracle of the Virgin at a new shrine at Monte Bono warning of danger like Cassandra before Troy. The example of Israel and the Midians is recalled, as well as other Old Testament incidents, but Arcoate leads the defense like Horatio.[9] A number of verses comparing him to classical heroes by various authors follow,[10] but the major production in this part of the book is Girolamo Amphion Arcoate’s Arcuantiados, an epic work in four books describing the actions of Giovanni Francesco in the guise of Camillus who had repelled the Gauls after they sacked Rome in 490 BC.[11]

The averted massacre at Sutri was a minor incident of the Italian Wars given an epic treatment. Arcoate’s actions have long been forgotten but the image of the local lawyer standing up to Charles VIII and reminding him of his duties is an appealing one, and a much happier episode of the wars than most with which this blog has been concerned.


Primary Source

Arcoate, Giovanni Francesco. Memoratu apprime digna in adventu Caroli Francorum regis in Italiam per Io. Franciscum Arcuantem Sutrinum iureco. et Hieronymum Amphionium Arcuantem filium. Rome: Per Etienne Guillery and Ercole Nani, 12 July 1514

Secondary Sources

Labande-Mailfert, Yvonne. Charles VIII et son milieu (1470-1498): la jeunesse au pouvoir. Paris: C. Klincksieck, 1975

Negri, Paolo. ‘Le missioni di Pandolfo Collenuccio a papa Alessandro VI (1494-1498)’. Archivio della Reale Società Romana di Storia Patria, 33 (1910): 333-439

[1] Labande-Mailfert, Charles VIII, 302. On the French occupation of Viterbo and advance into papal lands, and the report that the Orsini and Colonna had come to an agreement with Charles to rob the territory, see the dispatch of the Ferrarese ambassador from Rome dated 30 November 1494: Negri, ‘Missioni’, 427-8.

[2] ‘adventum Caroli francorum regis in Italiam, successumque ad Sutrium eius gentis infaustum, horrendaque prodigia, ac vix credibile fortitudinis opus in transitu gallorum Sutrii perpetratum invenies.’ Arcoate, Memoratu, fol. iiv. On Arcoate’s death and burial far from Sutri see the epitaph in ibid., fol. xliiv.

[3] ‘Iohannis Francisci Arcuantis de Arcu iurisconsulti Sutrini ad Carolum octavum Francorum Regem pro se ipso habita Oratio ob quam confestim ab interitu liberatus.’ Ibid., fols. iiiiv-xxxviir.

[4] ‘Occidendi sunt inquiunt homicidae, legibus hoc asseverantibus morte mulctandi, homicidia nullatenus distinguentes. Non te fugit iustissime Rex quod ex hominum animis ac voluntatibus leges maleficia metiuntur. Alterum laedere hominem homini insidiari (cognationem inter nos quondam natura cum constituerit) nefas esse declarantes.’ Ibid., fol. vir-v. Note contrasting use of ‘fas’ at ibid., fol. xlr.

[5] ‘Romani vero qui ab conditae urbis primordiis (ut historias percurrentibus pervidere licet) tam cum vicinis quam cum longinquis populis ac nationibus, antequam ad arma prorumperent praemissis semper legatis quaestum iniurias resque repetitum hoc est qui illatas conquerentur iniurias, ablataque si qua essent ut restituerentur expostularent qui iuste semper, recte, sancte, rite, moderate, sapienter, nunquam alios provocando sed semper illatas iniurias ulciscendo et vindicando iustitia duce susceperunt bella. Ad postremum innumeris insignibus, incredibilibusque victoriis tantum quantum numquam fuit ab initio mundi tam diuturnum sibi imperium peperere.’ Ibid., fol. xixr.

[6] ‘Quos solus ego (quod quidem non arroganter dictum existimetur est enim ut te non latet notissima veritas) caeteris fugientibus armatus occurrens gloriosusque nihil esse ducens quam fortiter strenueque pugnando pro patriae salute mortem occumbere cum ipsorum non parva strage suffragante aliquantulum loci eminentia eieci, salutemque patriae defendi.’ Ibid., fols. xxxviir-xliir (quotation at fol. xlr).

[7] Ibid., fols. xlr-xliv.

[8] Ibid., fols. xliiv-xliiiir.

[9] Ibid., fols. xliiiir-xlviv.

[10] Ibid., fols. xlviv-xlixv.

[11] Ibid., fols. lr-lxxxixr.

Images and Emotions of Violence

As I have argued elsewhere the spectacle of mass murder did not render early modern writers and artists mute, even if the emotional key in which they sometimes depicted such events can appear subdued to modern taste. As André Chastel remarked of representations of the sack of Rome: ‘[I]t is as though there had been a refusal in Italy to portray the event, a kind of instinctive censorship.’[1] Moreover, the paucity of images of battles and soldiers in contemporary dress in Italian art led John Hale to wonder: ‘so much war, so much art: why did the two meet so rarely?’[2] When artists depicted events like the sack of Rome they often did so in an obliquely mythologized or allegorical way in recognition of the fact that war and violence carried a predominantly ethical or moral meaning. The depiction of the scriptural image of the massacre of the innocents in a modern setting, as I have argued in a previous post, was one way in which artists could link contemporary events to religious truth. The focus on the deeds of the military in such scenes, and their classicized appearance, not only reflected assumptions about the relative honour of soldiers and non-combatants but also conformed to the conventions of epic historical painting, a form which would be most acceptable to many Italian patrons.

There are two dangers which might arise from a casual reading of these images: one is the assumption that Renaissance men and women were emotionally traumatised by these events or lacked an emotional language with which to address them. The other, linked, danger, is the assumption that artistic portrayals of violence were predominantly aesthetic and in most cases intent on avoiding the ‘reality’ of war and atrocity. I want to look at each of these assumptions in turn here.

I have so far come across very few discussions of violence and emotion by Renaissance writers so it is fascinating to find the matter addressed in one of the ‘natural problems’ discussed by Girolamo Garimberto in his Problemi naturali e morali (first printed in Venice in 1549)  – a passage kindly brought to my attention by my colleague Dr Jill Burke. In this work Garimberto asks the question: ‘What causes a man to feel less upset at the sight of the death of many persons in war, than in seeing one die anywhere else [?]’[3] Garimberto’s discussion of this problem begins with the assertion that he has shown how the intense operation of one sense can impede the operation of the others. In war, in the same way, a man may find himself in manifest danger of his life and surrounded by death, or may be oppressed by fear or blinded by anger. In the first case, sensing manifest danger, a man is so intent on his own fate that he does not have eyes sufficient to see the damage to others, and not really seeing it, it does not come into his consideration, nor in considering it to bring about much of an alteration. In the second case anger causes the blood to rise, the bodily parts to be heated, and the spirit to behave bravely so that a man puts little store either in his own bad state or yet that of others. Just as the body is stronger when more unified, so those who form a single body in an enterprise will reasonably feel little of that fear that usually accompanies death.

By contrast, men feel that fear somewhat in every other place because where there is not a manifest danger to their own life there is not yet the virtue of the spirit and senses joined together so strongly as to rule over that terror that causes one to see the death of others. The image of it, in such cases, easily impressing itself on our fantasies and representing to us a similar future and inevitable evil for us disturbs and fills us with horrors. We see in small children how they lack this imagination and therefore lack the fear. There not being anything more contrary and hostile to life than the effect of death, and by nature nothing more friendly to man than life itself, naturally the living hate to see a dead person, as directly opposing to himself, especially outside of war and in particular in bed, where natural death occurs and where the length of the illness of the patient gradually displeases the mind of he who desires health and makes a battle between hope and fear, induces a certain sadness in his spirit, leading to a languidness from which is born that perturbation and terror that envisages the coming of death.

Garimberto then illustrates his point with reference to Caesar who never lost his composure in the face of so many terrifying spectacles in battle but then cried over the head of the dead Pompey his enemy. Vespasiano in the siege and capture of Jerusalem many times saw with those eyes the earth bathed with Roman blood but in Rome could no support to see the death of anyone. Saladin was moved even to pity to comfort the widows of the Christian soldiers killed in great number by his men in the capture of Jerusalem and lamenting with them the loss of martyrs searched not only with words but with deeds to mitigate the sadness with gifts of money. Renato, duke of Lorraine, after he had defeated Charles, duke of Burgundy, with the aid of the Swiss, nevertheless found his body among the dead, which moved his soul and for which he showed sadness, so that he commanded it to be buried with solemnity fitting such a great prince and wished to accompany it to the tomb with all of his family dressed in mourning.

The contrast between the pathos provoked by a single dead body and the sense of detachment or self-preservation arising in the midst of slaughter likely has classical roots that I need to investigate further with the help of colleagues here in Edinburgh working on the history of emotions. However, I want to move on now to the puzzle about the absence of depictions of atrocity in a realistic fashion. Where some historians have seen in some Renaissance depictions of battle a ‘purely aesthetic production’ with the painter as ‘more theatre director than a historian’,[4] it seems that for other artists aesthetic concerns were hardly divorced from broader considerations and theories of war and violence, which were embedded in the discourses of just war with which commissioners or viewers were familiar. Even the supposedly ‘laicized’ Miseries of War (1633) series by Jacques Callot formed a catalogue of military behaviour in warfare to be condemned, punished and contrasted with virtuous soldiers suitably rewarded, drew on Callot’s perennial interest in violence and criminals, and may reflect Callot’s knowledge of military manuals such as that by Fourquevaux as well as the political and personal difficulties of his final years.[5]

The narrative of a development in the representation of violence from the highly stylized and emotionally distant to realistic proto-‘reportage’ exhibiting or inducing heightened emotion is as unhelpful as a desire to focus on accuracy and truth in textual evidence to the exclusion of rhetoric. It can encourage historians to look for modern paradigm of suffering in war in early modern depictions. For example, the mercenary-artist Urs Graf’s ‘Armloses Mädchen’ (Armless maiden) (depicted at the top of this post) has been presented as a possible prostitute and an example of the artist’s ‘condemnation of the misère de la guerre’.[6] By contrast, this striking image has also been interpreted as an indictment of municipal justice and administration in Basel at a moment when it was riven with discontent with evidence of councillors accepting private income from the French crown keen to secure troops. The armless maiden, in this reading, is ‘analogous to the motif of Justice without hands’ found in some late medieval catalogues of virtues and vices.[7] In a similar way, the apparently emotionally distanced form of the siege plan can be read as a representation of ‘religious dramas, confessional testimonies, and delights to curious audiences across Europe.’[8]

I have sometimes been tempted to read into certain Renaissance images of violence a modern intention to depict the ‘reality’ of war and massacre, some hostility towards war, or the expression of emotions such as pathos. All of these intentions, readings and feelings may be involved for the viewer and artist. But it has been more valuable for me to recognise the ways in which representations of violence can be related to an idea of war quite distant from the modern terms within which I have been most familiar until I began this research project. This unsettling recognition has also operated in relation the poetry of the Italian Wars, which I may write about in a future post. The presentation of the peaceful state in Italy or the world before 1494, sometimes found there, grew out of the assumption that peace was the natural state of man. The repeated emphasis on the bestiality of the enemy, the storms which raged over Italy, and a general sense of natural disorder linked descriptions of massacres and other events with the natural law basis for the theory of war. The direct appeal to God, Christ or the Virgin Mary, and to the northern princes who acted as the instruments of His punishment for sinful humanity, as well as to the machinations of classical gods such as Mars clearly stemmed from a general millenarianism and a desire to frame events in cosmic terms. These motifs may also related to the Augustinian sense of war as a punishment for sin and as a right path to the restoration of justice. Finally, the repeated comparisons of contemporary Italians with the valour and virtue of ancient Romans together with sporadic appeals for a new Camillus or Scipio to lead the Italians to salvation as well as the frequent disregard for the fate of civilians in favour of accounts of noble and chivalrous princes or captains was a distillation of the sense that just war required a valid and virtuous authority and that what mattered was the cause of war rather more than its conduct.



Garimberto, Girolamo. Problemi naturali e morali. Venice: Nella bottega d’Erasmo di Vicenzo Valgrisi, 1550


Chastel, André. The Sack of Rome, 1527, trans. Beth Archer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983

Groebner, Valentin. Liquid Assets, Dangerous Gifts: Presents and Politics at the End of the Middle Ages. Trans. Pamela E. Selwyn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002

Hale, John R. Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990

Roeck, Bernd. ‘The Atrocities of War in Early Modern Art.’ Trans. Olga Pollack. In Joseph Canning, Hartmut Lehmann, and Jay Winter (eds), Power, Violence and Mass Death in Pre-Modern and Modern Times. 129-40. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004

Sandberg, Brian. ‘“To Have the Pleasure of This Siege.”: Envisioning Siege Warfare During the European Wars of Religion’. In Allie Terry-Fritsch and Erin Felicia Labbie (eds), Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. 143-62. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012

Wolfthal, Diane. ‘Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War’. Art Bulletin 59/2 (1977): 222-33

[1] Chastel, Sack of Rome, 44.

[2] Hale, Artists and Warfare, 145.

[3] ‘Perche causa l’huomo senta minor alteration d’animo in veder morire una moltitudine di persone su la guerra, che in vederne in ogni altro luogo morir un solo’. Garimberto, Problemi, 50-52 (problem 29).

[4] Roeck, ‘Atrocities’, 129, 130. The argument here is not entirely clear, though, and is hampered by a rather clunky translation into English.

[5] Ibid., 139. In contrast, see Wolfthal, ‘Jacques Callot’s’.

[6] Roeck, ‘Atrocities’, 133.

[7] Groebner, Liquid Assets, 134-5.

[8] Sandberg, ‘“To Have the Pleasure of This Siege”’, 145.

Jews on the Move

The recent quincentenary of the foundation of Venetian ghetto has been marked by a number of conferences and other events. The ghetto was initially populated by many Jews who had fled from Venice’s mainland empire, where they had long been settled, as a result of the dislocation of the wars from 1509 onwards. In this respect, their experience of war was not dissimilar to that of other Venetian subjects caught in the path of war. One Venetian chronicler observing this stream of refugees to the metropole at this time took the opportunity to evoke the Venetian foundation myth. They came to Venice, he wrote, like sons seeking the protection of their mother or chicks sheltering under the wings of their mother – just as in the time of Attila when this ‘scourge of God’ had persecuted Christians and they had fled the mainland for the lagoon and founded Venice.[1] The chronicler went on to describe how no humane person (‘persona humana’) seeing such a mournful spectacle could not fail to provide shelter out of pity for such desperation. Some Venetians, he claimed, sheltered ten refugees, some twenty, some thirty, some forty, and many were placed in churches, hospitals and even in the newly-built but uninhabited warehouse-residence for the German community, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (now a flashy shopping centre) by the Rialto bridge.[2]

However, the experience of mainland Jews did differ in some respects from that of their Christian neighbours. When Brescia passed from Venetian to French control in 1509 the Brescians marked the change in authority by pillaging Venetian property in the form of the Jews. This pillaging has been presented as a ritual event by the Bologna Seminar coordinated by Carlo Ginzburg, but the theft or destruction of Jewish stores of pledges and lists of debtors by Brescians and French troops in the mini-sack which accompanied their arrival in 1509 was also highly opportunistic. According to the Jews who reached Venice a few days later they had lost as much as thirty thousand ducats. King Louis XII conceded the Brescian request ‘pro veneratione Religionis Christiane’ to prohibit Jews from living in the city and from lending money in the surrounding district. However, subsequent attempts on the part of the council and the new royal government to trace the pledges lost in 1509, to reconstitute the list of debtors and even to extend some protection to the remaining Jews failed or were rejected and it seems as if the Jews gave up on Brescia and like many other Jews in the terraferma moved permanently to Venice.[3]

The suspicion that the Jews were intent on revenge and enrichment because of such experiences helps to explain the anti-Jewish theme which ran through the vivid account of the bloody sack of Brescia in 1512 written by Marco Negro. He calls the French the ‘enemies of God and of humanity, bloodsuckers, and people without laws or faith, not worthy of being called Christian.’ It was reported that Jews stole some of the funds of the monte di pietà and that this money ended up in the hands of some Milanese Jews together with the communal archive. Negro went much further than this and in an echo of the blood libel (that Jews killed Christian children and consumed their blood) he described a massacre in the Brescian duomo with Jews filled with lust for Christian blood among the French attackers. Negro alleged that the French commander Gaston de Foix himself led Jews in cruel raids on regular clergy and friars and looted holy objects. The king of France was characterized by Negro as the ‘most greedy, cruel and unjust supporter of thieves, libertines and Jews.’[4] 

As might be expected the entry of troops into Italian towns during the Italian Wars was often characterised by violence and the looting of Jewish property. A chronicler in Modena recorded the sacking of some Jews by the Swiss in Rome in January 1495.[5] In anticipation of regime change with the approach of the French the Neapolitans sacked very rich Jews in the city who had fled there from persecution in Spain. Even those who escaped from the Jewish quarter to the safety of the castle were sacked.[6] The local chronicler Giuliano Passero estimated the sack to amount to two thousand ducats.[7] The news from Naples passed on to Ludovico Sforza in Milan in February 1495 included a note to the effect that the Jews and ‘Maranni’ (crypto-Jews) had been pillaged and that while the latter had been saved in ships the Jews had been ‘cut to pieces’.[8] From Bari it was reported a month later that all the Jews had been expelled by the local inhabitants and that a booty estimated at 16,000 ducats had been taken from them.[9] Similar examples of such looting and violence were reported throughout the Italian Wars.

It seems that these troubles could contribute to both Jewish and Christian concerns about divine intentions for men and women. Some Jews followed kabbalistic calculations that 1490 marked the year of Jewish deliverance, while for others the year 1495 with the pope’s flight before the advance of the French army (albeit only to the Castel Sant’Angelo within the city of Rome) and Charles VIII’s entry into Naples, where the Jews were sacked but quickly put under his protection, marked the beginning of years of suffering that preceded deliverance.[10] In Christian eschatology, of course, the final conversion of all the remaining Jews was one of the signs of the Apocalypse. It is probably in this sense that we should understand the presence in Marin Sanudo’s compilation of verses about the arrival of Charles VIII in Italy of a poem about the conversion of the Jews.[11] 

The providential hopes and fears of Italians were widely stirred by the arrival of Charles VIII, a man judged very ugly by many Italian witnesses (judge for yourself here) and acclaimed by others as the ‘king of fierce countenance’ foretold in the Book of Daniel (8: 23); indeed, the rise to power of the friar Girolamo Savonarola in Florence drew strength from this eschatological sentiment. It is useful, though, to consider the fate of Jewish lives and goods as part of the social history of the Italian Wars. They were an especially vulnerable group during the sacks of cities given their stores of pledges or lists of Christian debtors; but they were also a resented local presence because they fell under the direct protection of higher authorities such as the Neapolitan king or the Venetian doge rather than the local powers. When royal or republican protection failed they were forced to flee – forming another episode in the long history of Jewish mobility, the subject of a conference in Edinburgh in July.


Primary Sources


Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Viscontea-Sforzesco, potenze estere, 252, 253

Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, It.VII.323 (8646). Donà, Tommaso (attr.). ‘Cronaca di Venezia fino al 1528’

— It.IX.363. Marin Sanudo (comp.), ‘Composizioni poetiche volgari e latine intorno le cose d’Italia sul finire del sc. XV’.


Coniger, Antonello. ‘Recoglimento de’ più scartafi’. In K. Pelliccia (ed.), Raccolta di varie croniche, diarj ed altri opuscoli, così Italiani, come Latini, appartenenti alla storia del Regno di Napoli, 5: 5-54 (second pagination). Naples: Bernardo Perger, 1782

De’ Bianchi detto de’ Lancellotti, Tommasino. Cronaca Modenese. 2 vols. Parma: Pietro Fiaccadori, 1862-5

Dei Conti, Sigismondo. Le Storie de’ suoi tempi dal 1475 al 1510. 2 vols. Rome, 1883. Facsimile reprint. Foligno: Accademia Fulginia di Lettere Scienze e Arti, 2015

Passero, Giuliano. Storie in forma di Giornali. Ed. Vincenzo Maria Altobelli. Naples: Vincenzo Orsino, 1785

Secondary Sources

Bowd, Stephen D. Venice’s Most Loyal City: Civic Identity in Renaissance Brescia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010

 Krauss, Samuel. ‘Le roi de France Charles VIII et les espérances messianiques.’ Revue des Etudes Juives, 51 (1906): 87-96

[1] Tommaso Donà (attr.), ‘Cronaca di Venezia fino al 1528’, Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, It.VII.323 (8646), fols. 223r, 223v. See also ibid., fol. 244v for a similar use of the example of Attila.

[2] Tommaso Donà (attr.), ‘Cronaca di Venezia fino al 1528’, Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, It.VII.323 (8646), fol. 223v.

[3] Bowd, Venice’s, 199-200.

[4] Ibid., 200-05.

[5] De’ Bianchi, Cronaca, 1: 129.

[6] Dei Conti, Storie, 2: 106; Coniger, ‘Recoglimento’, 30, 31.

[7] Passero, Storie, 66-7.

[8] ‘Li Iudei et Marani  sono stati pigliati. Li Judei sono stati tagliati a peze et li Marani sono salvati in Nave.’ ‘Novelle arrivate de presente da Napoli scripte in lo dicto loco à 20 di e altre novelle à 21 de Febraro’, in Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Viscontea-Sforzesco, potenze estere, 252

[9] Letter dated at Bari on 22 March 1495 to the Duke of Milan, in Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Viscontea-Sforzesco, potenze estere, 253.

[10] Krauss, ‘Roi di France’.

[11] Marin Sanudo (comp.), ‘Composizioni poetiche volgari e latine intorno le cose d’Italia sul finire del sc. XV’, in Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, It.IX.363, fol. 58v.

Civilians fight back!

‘Total’ war is a modern term but not a modern invention and historians have begun to analyse its nature and causes in the early modern era. For example, the striking level of violence inflicted by soldiers on civilians in Germany during the Thirty Years War (1618-48) can be related to the structures of military supply and accommodation in place at the time.[1] Soldiers were not simply provoked and driven to irrational cruelty and civilians were not merely passive victims of violence; both sides were involved in a struggle over resources, including money, which was marked by the threat or use of force. The ransoming and kidnapping of civilians by soldiers was a customary part of this ‘negotiation’ (as it has been termed) and some ‘quarter’, or protection for civilians, might be given during a sack in return for money. On the other side of the negotiation, civilians who faced successive waves of attackers in the course of intense and localised military campaigns might try to mitigate the troops’ demands with reference to the assaults and robberies already endured, or they could fight back.[2]

This model of military threat, exploitation and ‘negotiation’ is relevant to the civilian experience of the Italian Wars. In the first place, the mercenary commanders, or condottiere, were awarded a right to plunder and ransoms according to the terms of their contract.[3] The other ranks also sought wealth on the campaign in Italy. One study shows that the hired Swiss who were so vital for the wars included artisans, the better-born (including the poet and artist Niklaus Manuel), shoemakers and butcher’s sons, as well as young men (some barely into their teens) struggling with debt, poverty, or other difficulties at home. As one of them, Peter Falk of Freibourg, wrote home while on the march towards Milan and Pavia in 1512: ‘Never have our comrades seen such splendid and wealthy encampments as these that we have had up until now in town and country. Everything that a man could desire has been found in sufficiency. The soldiers are full of money and marvelous things that belonged to the French and have been harvested everywhere … We are so happy and in such good heart for which we thank the Lord God for eternity.’[4]

The French king and the emperor, who paid dearly for these Swiss mercenaries, were obviously drawn to Italy by its wealth, which could be extracted as plunder, taxation, and annual tributes. According to one recent historian, though, it would be wrong to assume that Italy alone financed the campaigns of the French: ‘At best the Italian possessions assured an equilibrium between income and expenditure.’ The failure of sufficient funds to arrive from France naturally increased the demands made on civilians in Italy.[5] In addition, it seems as if the prices of goods on the road could rise and consequently depreciate the real value of pay.[6] All of these difficulties of feeding and accommodating the large armies passing through Italy fuelled ‘negotiations’ between soldiers and civilians, stoked rising tensions and encouraged local resistance to soldiers in Italian cities.

The sense of tension was palpable in 1494 when the commander Galeazzo Sanseverino reported to the duke of Milan a conversation with French archers and gentlemen outside the king’s lodging in Florence about the fact that the Florentines were still in arms and the French ‘avid for plunder’ (‘cupidi de preda’). He wrote that the danger that a ‘very great scandal with much loss of blood’ would occur as a result of this tense situation led him to advise the king to keep the troops in the city in good order.[7] As he wrote a few days later the situation was not helped by the great want of victuals in the city as the French lived at the expense of the country, did not pay the price of the things taken, despite orders for them to do so (as in Lombardy), and were also stealing.[8]

As Dr Christine Shaw has rightly pointed out, these tensions could erupt into civilian violence against troops. In 1500 the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole I d’Este, instructed his ambassador at the French court to congratulate King Louis XII on his acquisition of Milan, to confirm his support for him, and to advise the king to furnish his troops, which were coming through Ferrarese territory, with abundant supplies and comfortable billets given that some soldiers had ‘used a thousand cruelties, meanness, and rapine, and sacked Bondena [to the north-east of Ferrara], and killed many men, and some good and honourable citizens, for which injuries they were deservedly cut to pieces by our subjects.’[9]

The presence of large imperial armies throughout the Venetian mainland empire after 1508 placed huge burdens on the civilian populations in town and countryside. In December 1509 the Paduan nobleman and soldier Giovan Francesco Buzzacarini described how troops of all nations crowded into Verona for their winter quarters enjoying reasonable food and putting the whole of the Veronese to plunder (’in preda’). The Germans were unpaid and sacked the piazza in Verona three times a day. They were so hungry that they were only interested in goods they could eat.[10] Imperial troops, who left Vicenza by an accord with the Venetians the previous month, had clearly behaved little better while in occupation for they found that while they were exercising at arms on the piazza their recent payment of cloth was covered with excrement, urine, and hot water, and thrown into the street out of the windows of their (now locked) lodgings by the Vicentines.[11]

During the same period peasants in the Venetian countryside took up arms against imperial troops with impressive and deadly effect.[12] Buzzacarini, who fought with the imperial and Spanish armies during the War of the League of Cambrai (1508-17), left a vivid and illuminating account of these encounters (now published). He described the ‘terrible’ sight of peasants coming from the mountains in great numbers with arrows, crossbows, and handguns and crying ‘[St] Mark! [St] Mark!’ as a signal of their support for Venice. These peasants followed the imperial camp with net bags hanging from their belts and were for the most part unshod. When imperial forces burned Vigodarzere in August 1509 and killed or captured those few inhabitants who had not fled for Padua to the south they found that the peasants had fortified it with barrels and tubs filled with earth, behind which they waited with handguns and crossbows. Around the same time six thousand peasants commanded by Gianconte Brandolini, a condottiero in the service of Venice, took Seravalle from the Spanish and Germans and inflicted a massacre on both defending troops and inhabitants who had killed some of their fellow peasants.

Buzzacarini also records the process of ‘negotiation’ with the peasants. He and his brother were asked by the emperor to persuade the peasants at Bovolenta to change sides; they were threatened with hanging by the peasants when they tried to do so. The process of negotiation continued as the brothers told the emperor of their failure and then returned to threaten the peasants with the sacking of their homes, taking their beasts, shaming their wives and daughters, and those not killed taken prisoner ‘bound up like dogs’ (‘e menadi ligati come canni’). When the peasants remained obstinate the stakes were raised once again and two falconets (light cannon) were brought in to give cover while the army crossed the river and the proceeded to steal beasts up to the value of 250,000 scudi before setting camp from which troops emerged to grab ‘a world of beasts’ (‘un mondo de bestiame’) every day. As Buzzacarini noted, from this devastation arose the obstinacy of the peasants, who had lost both goods and honour.[13]




Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Giovan Francesco Buzzacarini, Cronaca delle guerre in Italia dall’anno 1482 fino al 1520. Gino Capponi, cod. CLXXII

Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Sforzesco, potenze estere, Firenze e Pisa, 940

Modena, Archivio di Stato, Archivio segreto Estense, cancelleria, ambasciatori, agenti e corrispondenti all’estero, Francia, busta 2


Amaseo, Leonardo, Gregorio Amaseo, and Giovanni Antonio Azio. Diarii Udinesi dall’anno 1508 al 1541. Ed. Antonio Ceruti. Venice: Fratelli Visentini, 1884

Dumont, Jean. Corps universel diplomatique du droit des gens; contenant un recueil des traitez d’alliance, de paix, de toutes les conventions, et autre contrats, qui ont été faits en Europe depuis le regne de l’empereur Charlemagne jusques à present. 8 vols. The Hague: P. Husson and Charles Levier, 1726-31

Guyon, Fery de. Mémoires. Ed. A.L.-P. Robaulx de Soumoy. Brussels: Société de l’Histoire de Belgique, 1858

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Arte della Guerra, scritti politici minori, ed. Jean-Jacques Marchand, Denis Fachard, and Giorgio Masi. Rome: Salerno, 2001

The Art of War, ed. and trans. Christopher Lynch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003


Asch, Ronald G. “‘Wo der soldat hinkömbt, da ist alles sein’: Military Violence and Atrocities in the Thirty Years War Re-examined”. German History 18.3 (2000): 291-309

Esch, Arnold. I mercenari svizzeri in Italia: L’esperienza delle guerre milanesi (1510-1515) tratta da fonti bernesi. Verbania: Alberti, 1999

Hamon, Philippe. ‘L’Italie finance-t-elle les guerres d’Italie?’. In Jean Balsamo (ed), Passer les Monts: Français en Italie – l’Italie en France (1494-1525). Xe colloque de la Société française d’étude du Seizième Siècle, 25-37. Paris and Florence: Honoré Champion Editeur and Edizioni Cadmo, 1998

Outram, Quentin. ‘The Demographic Impact of Early Modern Warfare’ Social Science History 26.2 (2002): 245-72

Shaw, Christine. ‘Popular Resistance to Military Occupation during the Italian Wars.’ In Samuel Kline Cohn Jr and Fabrizio Ricciardelli (eds.), The Culture of Violence in Renaissance Italy: proceedings of the International Conference; Georgetown University at Villa Le Balze, 3-4 May, 2010, 257-72. Florence: Le Lettere, 2012

Tallett, Frank. War and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1495-1715. London: Routledge, 1992

Ulbricht, Otto. ‘The Experience of Violence During the Thirty Years War: A Look at the Victims.’ In Joseph Canning, Hartmut Lehmann, and Jay Winter (eds), Power, Violence and Mass Death in Pre-Modern and Modern Times, 97-127. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004

[1] Outram, ‘Demographic Impact’; Asch, “‘Wo der soldat”’. On the impact of war on civilians see Tallett, War, 148-67.

[2] Ulbricht, ‘Experience’, 103, 110 (quotation), 124-5.

[3] For example, see the condotta drawn up for Francesco Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua, by Florence in June 1505 in Dumont, Corps, 4.1: 64.

[4] ‘Mai prima i confederati avevano visto accampamenti sì splendidi e ricchi come quelli, che abbiamo avuto finora in città e campagna. Tutto ciò che l’uomo desidera, lo si trova a sufficienza. Per tale motivo i soldati sono pieni di soldi e di cose meravigliose, appartenute ai francesi e raccolte dappertutto … Siamo così felici e stiamo così bene per cui il Signore Iddio sia ringraziato per l’eternità.’ Translated into modern Italian and quoted in Esch, Mercenari, 5. On the mercenaries’ range of social backgrounds, ages and motives for joining up see ibid., 20-28, 85-6.

[5] ‘Au mieux les possessions italiennes ont dû assurer l’équilibre entre recettes et dépenses.’ Hamon, ‘Italie’, 32 (quotation), 35.

[6] Esch, Mercenari, 76, quoting a letter of 1512 written by a Bernese soldier at the siege of Locarno.

[7] Galeazzo Sanseverino to duke of Milan, Florence, 21 November 1494, in Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Sforzesco, potenze estere, Firenze e Pisa, 940.

[8] Galeazzo Sanseverino to duke of Milan, Florence, 27 November 1494, in Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Sforzesco, potenze estere, Firenze e Pisa, 940.

[9] ‘Et benche quelli fanti usasseno mille crudelita, deshonesta, e rapine, e sachegiasseno il Bondeno, e amazasseno molti homini, e alcuni boni e honorabili Citadini, per la quale Iniuria seriano <meritamente> stati tuti tagliati in pezi da li subditi nostri.’ Modena, Archivio di Stato, Archivio segreto Estense, cancelleria, ambasciatori, agenti e corrispondenti all’estero, Francia, busta 2, fasc. 32, letter dated 2 March 1500. The word in angle brackets is in the margin of the manuscript. In general, see Shaw, ‘Popular Resistance’.

[10] Giovan Francesco Buzzacarini, Cronaca delle guerre in Italia dall’anno 1482 fino al 1520, Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Gino Capponi, cod. CLXXII, 244-5.

[11] Ibid., 239.

[12] In 1509 the peasants (‘vilani’) of the Mestre and Trevisano provoked murderous and cruel reprisals against even babies in their cradles because they had off the balls of some German soldiers: Amaseo, Amaseo, and Azio, Diarii, 120. On peasants slaughtering French troops on retreat from the siege of Naples in 1528 see Guyon, Mémoires, 44. In his Art of War (1521) Machiavelli has his interlocutor Fabrizio Colonna recommend that troops should be selected primarily from hardy countrypeople used to working the land: Machiavelli, Art, 22, 26 (1.141, 196).

[13] Giovan Francesco Buzzacarini, Cronaca delle guerre in Italia dall’anno 1482 fino al 1520, Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Gino Capponi, cod. CLXXII, 215, 218-19, 224, 229-30, 231-3, 270-71.

Plunder, booty, and ransom

I sometimes get the impression that the authors of accounts of massacres and sacks could take the dehumanisation of the victims to an extreme level and ignore them altogether in favour of bloodless descriptions of precious booty.[1] For example, in his description of the sack of a corrupt Rome in 1527 Francesco Vettori briefly listed the array of actions undertaken by the imperial troops and commented: ‘There was not a great deal of killing because those who do not wish to defend themselves are rarely killed, but the plundering was impossible to estimate, and included currency, jewels, worked gold and silver, clothes, tapestries, household hangings, and mercery of all sorts; and beyond all this, the weighty ransoms of money [demanded] …’.[2] The Cardinal of Como’s account of the sack of Rome methodically listed the noble palaces and churches sacked and noted the amounts extracted from their terrified inhabitants, but he mentioned the dead only once and in passing.[3]

What exactly did soldiers seize in these sacks? I have come across a few sources which provide lists of plundered goods and these can give a good idea of the wealth of a city, the priorities of the soldiers, and even the strategies for survival adopted by men and women in times of extremity. In 1512 an assessment of damages and ransoms which arose as a result of the sack of Prato (which I wrote about last time) was undertaken by the commissioner Bartolomeo de Mancinis at the instance of the Florentine Office of Eight, under the auspices of new Medici regime. It is likely that this took place in order to calculate the compensation and tax rebates which the Pratese might claim.[4]

The inventory of plunder (‘inventarium rerum et spoliarum Pratensium’) compiled between the end of September and the end of October reveals that the Spanish took a fairly representative sample of household goods ranging in condition from the commonly old, used and worn (‘vecchio’ or ‘uso’ and ‘tristo’) to the rarer new (‘nuovo’). The goods taken were easily portable, could be readily consumed or used, or easily resold by soldiers. Claims were made for many pieces of cloth and a variety of clothing including women’s dresses (‘gammurra’), hooded garments (‘cioppetta monachina’), and cloaks (such as the ‘saltambarcha romagnuiolo’), sleeves and linings. Claims were also made for plundered grain and flour, basins and other vessels (some tin), hats, hoods, some hangings, mattresses, candlesticks, tools, soap, chains, bells, knives, silver forks, some leather work, including scabbards, a bronze mortar, a pair of spicer’s balances, and part of a crossbow. Carts and asses (and one horse) were also taken, presumably to transport the loot to market or to camp.[5]

The Florentine orators in Prato advised the new regime that the Spanish should be given safe conducts to come to Florence to sell their booty otherwise, being constrained to leave it behind, they would burn it along with the town itself.[6] Some Spaniards found in Florence selling goods stolen in the sack of Prato were killed, and ‘deservedly’ (‘e meritamente’) according to one chronicler.[7] But it was also claimed that the Florentines themselves went to Prato to buy grain and oil at low prices, and even sacked the goods of the Pratese. Indeed, there exists a list made in January 1513 of plundered Pratese goods bought by the inhabitants of Firenzuola from the Spanish.[8]

The value placed on the goods sacked in Prato was fairly modest in each case, little more than a few florins in total. More substantial was the claim made in the aftermath of the sack of Ravenna in the same year. There survives in the archives a note of the damages received by the ancient abbey of Classe during the sack. The abbey claimed that chalices, vestments (including those of silk and velvet brought from Venice by the abbot who subsequently died in the sack), missals, tapestries, carpets, and other furnishings and goods to the value of more than three thousand ducats had been taken or damaged by the troops. However, a note appended to the document alleges that most of the claims were false. It seems that the abbey was rather too keen to obtain an exemption from a tribute from the monasteries to help restore damaged parochial churches.[9]

It’s possible that the level of damages claimed at Prato was also exaggerated, but they still pale in comparison with the amounts of ransom which the Pratese claimed they had paid to the Spanish. In contrast to the Venetian supplications I wrote about in my post last August the 144 declarations of the ransom paid to Spaniards during the sack of Prato in August 1512 are generally very terse.[10] These declarations, which were submitted to the commune in the months that followed the sack, were presumably intended to form the basis for the calculation of fiscal relief or the distribution of compensation given to Prato by the new Medici regime. The supplicants, or the notary who drafted the document, often simply noted the location of capture and the name of the Spaniard who extracted the ransom. For example, Biagio di Piero d’Antonio Tinacci di Prato was captured in the Canto Alle Tre Gore, northwest of the duomo, by a Spanish squadron captain called Luigi who was an ensign for the Spanish viceroy and who demanded fifteen florins, of which Biagio paid thirteen.[11]

The first-person narratives do sometimes offer a little more detail about the desperate course of events which led to the supplicant’s capture and ransoming. For example, the tailor Sano de Matteo de Meo described how he was taken in his house and a ransom was demanded, but he managed to flee along the southern city wall at Santa Chiara before he was captured, taken home, and forced to pay eight florins by the Spaniard Alessandro de Iacopo.[12] The canon Messer Andrea di Chimenti Luschini was taken prisoner and tortured (‘martoriato’) by Giovani d’Urbina e di Villarta in the house of Gherardo di Charllo. He paid thirty ducats ‘larghi’ of his ransom and was taken to the camp at Bologna where he paid the remaining twenty.[13] Lodovicho di Nichollo Guiliconii describes how he was taken prisoner by the Spanish in his home, bound and ransomed for fifty gold ducats. He writes: ‘One evening I escaped and threw myself to the ground from a window, and I broke both feet so that I could not run, and so I was recaptured by other Spaniards, and [a ransom] again demanded of me they made me pay three gold ducats.’[14] The barber Filippo di Piero d’Antonio described how on 19 September he was held in the house of Tomaso di Buonaguida and ransomed for ninety-six gold ducats to the Spaniards Michele and Giovanni della Chocha, and to Giovanni da Vadagno. He went on: ‘I furthermore swear to you that my son Giovanni Antonio was imprisoned by the Spaniard Pietro Valesero with the colonel of lord Giovanni of Urbino, and paid a ransom of fifty ducats. And they burned my country house, and threw me to the ground from the roof of the stables of the house in Prato. Recommend me to your charity and alms, staying content and silent at your decision.’[15]

The range of occupations held by those ransomed is fairly modest, as well as a canon, there is the priest Neri di Ludovico di Marchavaldo who paid nine gold ducats to a certain Rosso, a gunner (‘scoppietiero’) in the company of Don Francesco di Giovan Salvetti; an arch-priest called Bertoldo Guazaloti; a rector of San Giorgio taken to Verona; Michele de Mariano Nomi, butcher (‘bicheraio’), who was taken prisoner by Giovanni d’Aragona and ransomed for a surprisingly substantial fifty gold florins; the barber Filippo di Piero d’Antonio; the spicer Battista di Nicolo di Papi taken in the Cintola Chapel in the duomo (where the girdle of the Virgin given to St Thomas was held) and paid forty ducats ransom; the baker Francesco di Leonardo di Mariotto di della Chandela held prisoner from 29 August until 18 September, and a dyer.[16] It is clear that Spanish soldiers of every rank took part in the ransoming – from infantrymen to men-at-arms and captains and their companies – and it is clear that this was a lucrative business even if it sometimes meant that the ransomed men and women had to be transported to camp with the army until satisfaction was obtained.[17]

The difficulties faced by those ransomed and transported in this way are vividly captured in one memoir. The eighteen-year old Andrea Bocchineri and his father Gherardo, who were captured in the church of San Domenico in Prato, were ransomed by Signor Alvedo, master of the camp, and by the Viceroy Ramón Cardona himself, for one thousand ducats, while his brother-in-law was ransomed for only two hundred ducats. Andrea’s father then spent two days travelling to Florence to collect the money while Andrea was left behind as a ‘pledge’ (pegno) with Piero. However, when the Spanish saw that Gherardo was not returning with the money they placed the two remaining men in a privy in San Domenico, bound to a stake by the neck, hands, and feet. They were transported in this fashion from Prato to Bologna, where they were bought by a Florentine called Francesco Frescobaldi, the papal commissioner in the city, who threw them into prison and had irons clapped onto their legs when he found that their ransom was not forthcoming. The two men were then taken to Modena, sold back to the Spanish, while Gherardo was captured and 190 florins ‘in oro larghi’ was taken from him. Piero, who was close to death, was released for 39 florins, but Andrea and his father were taken in chains to the castle of count Sigismondo Rangoni where they were placed under Spanish guard at the base of a tower. Eventually, they managed to kill their guard and return to Prato, where Andrea left a votive image at the church of Madonna delle Carceri and at the church of Sant’Anna fuori di Prato in thanks for his deliverance.[18]


Primary Sources


Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549

Ravenna, Archivio di Stato, Corporazioni religiose, Abbazia di Sant’Apollinare in Classe, 239


Bocchineri, Andrea. ‘Ricordi’. In Il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze nel MDXII. Pt. 1. Narrazioni in verso e in prosa. Bologna: Gaetano Romagnoli, 1880. Facsimile edition published in Scelta di curiosità letterarie inedite o rare dal secolo XIII al XIX. In appendice alla Collezione di Opere Inedite o rare. Dispense CLXXVII-CLXXVIII, 129-45. Bologna: Commissione per I testi di lingua, 1968

‘Documenti per la massima parte inediti che concernono il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze.’ In Il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze nel MDXII. Pt. 2. Documenti per la massima parte inediti. Bologna: Gaetano Romagnoli, 1880. Facsimile edition published in Scelta di curiosità letterarie inedite o rare dal secolo XIII al XIX. In appendice alla Collezione di Opere Inedite o rare. Dispense CLXXVII-CLXXVIII. Bologna: Commissione per I testi di lingua, 1968

Landucci, Luca. Diario fiorentino dal 1450 al 1516 di Luca Landucci, continuato da un anonimo fino al 1542, ed. Jodoco del Badia. Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1883

Lapini, Agostino. Diario Fiorentino di Agostino Lapini dal 252 al 1596. Ed. Giuseppe Odoardo Corazzini. Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1900

Carlo Milanesi (ed.), Il sacco di Roma del MDXXVII. Florence: G. Barbèra, 1867

Modesti, Iacopo. ‘Il miserando sacco dato alla terra di Prato dagli Spagnoli l’anno 1512’, Archivio Storico Italiano, 1 (1842): 233-51. Reprinted in Il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze nel MDXII. Pt. 1. Narrazioni in verso e in prosa. Bologna: Gaetano Romagnoli, 1880. Facsimile edition published in Scelta di curiosità letterarie inedite o rare dal secolo XIII al XIX. In appendice alla Collezione di Opere Inedite o rare. Dispense CLXXVII-CLXXVIII, 97-110. Bologna: Commissione per I testi di lingua, 1968

Vettori, Francesco. ‘Sommario della istoria d’Italia (1511-1527)’. In Scritti storici e politici, ed. Enrico Niccolini. Bari: G. Laterza, 1972

Secondary Sources

Giuliani, Claudia. I Libri delle Battaglie. La Rotta di Ravenna del 1512 e l’arte militare nel Cinquecento nelle collezioni antiche della Biblioteca Classense. Special Issue of Classense, 5 (2012)

Kuijpers, Erika, Judith Pollmann, Johannes Müller, and Jasper van der Steen (eds.), Memory before Modernity: Practices of Memory in Early Modern Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2013

[1] Kuijpers, Pollmann, Müller, and van der Steen, Memory.

[2] ‘La occisione non fu molta, perché rari uccidono quelli che non si vogliono difendere, ma la preda fu inestimabile, di danari contanti, di gioie, d’oro et argento lavorato, di vestiti, d’arazzi, paramenti di case, mercantile d’ogni sorte; et oltre a tutte queste cose, le taglie, che montorono tanti danari …’. Vettori, ‘Sommario’, 244. In his dialogue on the sack of Rome the figure of ‘Antonio’ recounts his experience of being ransomed by troops who menace and beat him until he agrees to find 300 of the 500 ducats demanded despite his age and poverty: ibid., 286-87.

[3] Milanesi, Sacco, 469-90.

[4] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 1r-197v. See also ‘Documenti’, 171-8.

[5] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 1r-53v. The balances and crossbow ‘tonieri’ are listed in ibid., fol. 42r, the bronze mortar in ibid., fol. 15v.

[6] Documenti’, 158. See also ibid., 165.

[7] Lapini, Diario, 83. See also Landucci, Diario, 326.

[8] Modesti, ‘Miserando Sacco’, 108; Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 198r-205v.

[9] Ravenna, Archivio di Stato, Corporazioni religiose, Abbazia di Sant’Apollinare in Classe, 239, fols. 42r-43v. See also Giuliani, I Libri, 18-19.

[10] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 55r-197v. See also ‘Documenti’, 172-8.

[11] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fol. 68r.

[12] Ibid., fol. 73r.

[13] Ibid., fol. 81r.

[14] ‘Una sera io miscollsi e gittami attera dalle fenestre: e ischolami ttutta dua e piedi in modo che io no pottevi chorere, e pero fui represo dalltre i spagnuolli e rachomandadomi mi farano pagare duchatti tre doro.’ Ibid., fol. 121r.

[15] ‘E piu vi fo fede chome Giovanni Antonio mio figliolo ene prigione de Pietro Valesero isspagnolo nello cholonello del signore giovanni durbina e ane di taglia ducati cinquanta cioe ducati 50. E anomi arso la casa divilla e gittatomi intera e tecto della stalla della casa di prato. Rachomandomi alle vostre lemosine e charita istando tacito e content[o] a ogni vostra determination.’ Ibid., fol. 134r.

[16] Ibid., fols. 107r, 117r, 130r, 105r, 134r, 144r, 154r, 155r, ‘Documenti’, 177.

[17] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 108r (an unnamed Spanish infantryman paid fifteen gold ducats), 116r (a Captain Gratiano and his company), 117r (‘un omo d’arme del duca di Traichato’ who demanded 150 gold florins, half of which was paid by Cardinal Giovanni de’Medici and the other half by Monsignor de Vitelli), 154r (an unnamed captain identified at fol. 155r with ‘la bandera del Capitano naveretto’), 167r (a captain named ‘Ser Giovanni di Chamarcho’ who was paid a hundred gold ducats), 169r (ten and a half gold ducats paid to the Spaniard Pierluigi and to Messer Pieralfolso Napoletano ‘erano chompagni sotto la bandiera di don Ferrante’).

[18] Bocchineri, ‘Ricordi’. This account only survives in an eighteenth-century transcription and certainly shows some signs of being reworked, and perhaps embellished. Nevertheless it contains general details, such as prisoners taken at the church of San Domenico and to Bologna, which are confirmed by the documents in Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 55r-197v.

‘Oh God! Oh God! Oh God what cruelty!’

I have just been in the excellent and helpful Archivio di Stato in Modena for the first time reading eyewitness accounts of the sack of Prato, near Florence, in August 1512 by troops of the Holy League under the command of the Spaniard Ramón de Cardona. I originally read some of these letters, written by the duke of Ferrara’s secretary, the humanist Bonaventura Pistofilo, in a nineteenth-century edition, which omitted some of the more personal details which are of interest to me as I try to reconstruct how Renaissance Italians expressed their reactions to these events of mass murder (five thousand are said to have died at Prato, but the true figure may be a tenth of that).[1]

The trauma of mass murder posed a challenge for those who wished to record or represent such events.[2] As the author of a lament about the sack of Rome in 1527 complained, chronicles and pictures were inadequate to express such dark cruelties.[3] This was a well-worn narrative device to indicate the gravity of the tale to follow. As the author of a lament for the sack of Prato in 1512 put it: ‘In twenty-three hours they made such an assault that the mortal tongue cannot express it.’ Even then, the poet went on, it was hard for the mortal ear to hear about such things.[4] However, witnesses of destruction and mass murder were not always inarticulate with grief or shock, even if the language they used was often less emotionally charged and more communal and providential than its modern counterpart.

Soldier-memoirists, who proliferated during the sixteenth century, were primarily concerned with providing a record of their deeds which would above all confirm their honourable status. Fairly typical of such accounts is that of the Burgundian Fery de Guyon who was with the Spanish army in Italy. His description of the capture of Rome entirely omits any mention of non-combatant fatalities; a tactful silence given his own loyalties.[5] Also apposite is the example of the military entrepreneur and field commander Sebastian Schertlin von Burtenbach, who fought at Pavia (1525) and the sack of Rome, and made enough money to buy a castle. His autobiography (c. 1560-75) was written with an eye on his posthumous reputation and records the ransoms and rewards which he acquired in the course of military career. At the conclusion of his account of the material gains he made during the Italian campaign, which culminated in the sack of Rome in 1527, he declared that ‘thanks to the Almighty, I earned it well.’[6]

This emphasis on ‘services rendered’ and an explicit desire to counter slurs to honour and reputation marked Adam Reissner’s c. 1568 biography of Georg von Frundsberg. Reissner had accompanied Frundberg during the campaign in Italy of 1526-7. He was strongly Protestant and he aimed to counter Italian silence about, or criticism of German knightly deeds in these wars. He argued that the sack of Rome was a form of divine punishment and that the German commanders like Frundsberg had had no choice but to allow the troops to plunder given the failure of payment from Charles V or Clement VII. He had fought to preserve lands and peoples and secure peace, and not for gain.[7]

The way that diplomats focused on the political and military implications of mass murder can also seem callous, but this perspective was formed by the priorities of the profession and the conventions of their forms of communication. In 1494 the Ferrarese ambassador to Florence reported the sack of Fivizzano (and other castles) to his lord with no mention of casualties.[8] In 1512 the Spanish ambassador Girolamo Vich in Rome wrote of the reports he had received, via the Florentines in the French camp, of the massacre at Brescia. He noted the loss of life in the city and described it as a ‘victory with much blood and loss of Frenchmen’. However, the speed with which Gaston de Foix and the French army had retaken the city meant that, together with the French army, he ‘has gained a great reputation’.[9] The reports sent home by the Florentine orators to the viceroy at the time of the sack and massacre in Prato in 1512 generally, and quite naturally, focus on the diplomatic ramifications of the Spanish army’s action, which made the return to Florence of the Medici more certain. For example, at the end of August, while discussing the adherence of Florence to the league and the change of regime, the orators reported that the viceroy asserted that the Catholic king was not in Italy to destroy its territories but ‘to mend them’ (‘rassectarle’).[10]

Our Ferrarese ambassador to Florence, Pistofilo, also maintained a professional calm in his reports to the duke of Ferrara about the sack of Prato and its ramifications for Florentine politics.[11] In a letter to ‘Messer Alexandro mio honoratissimo’, described as a brother of the duke, he wrote: ‘I saw the greatest cruelty that I have ever seen: all of the streets and the very churches were filled with the dead, and I saw little children and women killed.’ He went on to describe how he (and many others) had seen some crows circling and cawing above Prato, although he added that it was ‘superstition to lend credence to auguries’.[12] It was only when writing to a certain Hieronimo, with whom he was clearly on informal terms, that he revealed his feelings in a more emotional key:

For my part I advise you of the capture of Prato, which was taken yesterday by force of battle. These Spaniards made such a massacre and butchery the like of which I have never seen, so that all the streets, houses, and churches themselves were full of the dead, and all of the women have fled to some monasteries and churches where the most miserable laments and pleas that it is possible could be heard. The whole place is put to the sack. I have stayed [here] eight days and neither my stomach nor my spirit is good on account of what I have seen and heard. I would very willingly not stay here. I beg you to send here the [one word illegible] by the posts that come to us. I look for a small bottle of corked Nebbiano [wine], and also a bottle of scordion [medicine] for me.

In a postscript (see image) he added: ‘The viceroy [Ramón de Cardona] appeared today with all of the army in Prato where they will be for two days because the infantry digests its sack. Oh God! Oh God! Oh God what cruelty!’[13]




Modena, Archivio di Stato, Archivio segreto Estense, cancelleria, ambasciatori, agenti e corrispondenti all’estero, Firenze, busta 11,


Anonymous. ‘Lamento e rotta di Prato.’ In Il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze nel MDXII. Pt. 1. Narrazioni in verso e in prosa. Bologna: Gaetano Romagnoli, 1880. Facsimile edition published in Scelta di curiosità letterarie inedite o rare dal secolo XIII al XIX. In appendice alla Collezione di Opere Inedite o rare. Dispense CLXXVII-CLXXVIII, 3-33. Bologna: Commissione per I testi di lingua, 1968

Anonymous. ‘La presa et lamento di Roma et le gran crudeltade fatte drento: con el credo che ha fatto li Romani: con un sonetto: et un successo di Pasquino’. In Antonio Medin and Ludovico Frati (eds.), Lamenti storici dei secoli XIV, XV e XVI, vol. 3, ch. 21. Facsimile reproduction. Bologna: Commissione per i testi di lingua, 1969

‘Documenti per la massima parte inediti che concernono il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze.’ In Il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze nel MDXII. Pt. 2. Documenti per la massima parte inediti. Bologna: Gaetano Romagnoli, 1880. Facsimile edition published in Scelta di curiosità letterarie inedite o rare dal secolo XIII al XIX. In appendice alla Collezione di Opere Inedite o rare. Dispense CLXXVII-CLXXVIII. Bologna: Commissione per I testi di lingua, 1968

Terrateig, Baron de. Politica en Italia del Rey Catolico, 1507-1516: correspondencia inedita con el embajador Vich. 2 vols. Madrid, 1963

Guyon, Fery de. Mémoires. Ed. A.L.-P. Robaulx de Soumoy. Brussels: Société de l’Histoire de Belgique, 1858


Cohn, Henry J. ‘Götz von Berlichingen and the Art of Military Autobiography.’ In J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring (eds), War, Literature and the Arts in Sixteenth-Century Europe, 22-40. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989

LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001

[1] ‘Documenti’.

[2] For a modern view see LaCapra, Writing History.

[3] ‘Et altre lacrimando desolate / Piangeran le innocente creature, / Che da l’altre fenestre eran gittate. / Tacian ormai le croniche e pitture, / Taccia le crudeltade preterite, / Ché queste son assai più delle altre oscure …’. Anon., ‘La presa et lamento di Roma et le gran crudeltade fatte drento: con el credo che ha fatto li Romani: con un sonetto: et un successo di Pasquino’, in Medin and Frati, Lamenti storici, vol. 3, ch. 21, 364.

[4] ‘Fessi in venti tre ore un tale assalto, / Che sprimer no lo può lingua mortale.’ Anon., ‘Lamento e rotta’, 10 (quotation), 18.

[5] Guyon, Mémoires, 23-31.

[6] Cohn, ‘Götz’, 28-9, 35 (quoting Schertlin).

[7] Ibid., 26-8.

[8] Modena, Archivio di Stato, Archivio segreto Estense, cancelleria, ambasciatori, agenti e corrispondenti all’estero, Firenze, busta 11, unnumbered fasc., letter dated 2 November 1494.

[9] ‘la victoria con mucha sangre y perdicion de gente francessa … Que ciertamente monseñor de Fox con el exercito frances ha ganado mucha reputacion’. Terrateig, Politica, 2: 182.

[10] Orators to the Ten, Prato, 30 August 1512, in ‘Documenti’, 134.

[11] Modena, Archivio di Stato, Archivio segreto Estense, cancelleria, ambasciatori, agenti e corrispondenti all’estero, Firenze, busta 11, fasc. 32, letters dated 26, 28 and 29 August 1512.

[12] ‘[Ben]che sia superstitione a poner fantasia alli augurii: pur non stato de advisar la Magnifica Vostra che tutta questa mattina hanno volteggiar alcuni corvi gracchiando intorno al sopra Prato: cosa che è stato notata da molti.’ Modena, Archivio di Stato, Archivio segreto Estense, cancelleria, ambasciatori, agenti e corrispondenti all’estero, Firenze, busta 11, unnumbered fasc., letter dated 29 August 1512. See also ‘Documenti’, 120.

[13] ‘[P]er mia parte vadvisasse de la presa di prato che se conquisto heri per forza di battaglia, e fecerono dentro questi spagnoli una strage e becheria la piu crudele che io vedesse mai, che tutte le strade, case, e le chiesie istesse erano piene di morti, e tutte le donne se sentivano li piu miserandi lamenti e piati che se possa dir. Et è posta a sacco tutta la terra. Io staro otto giorni che non saro di bon stomacho ne di bono animo per quello che ho visto et a[u]dito, e vorrei volontieri non ci esser stato. Prego che mandiare le qui [one word illegible] per le poste a nui vanno. Cercondassvi duno vaseletto di nebbiano sobietto, e uno vasello poi de scordo per me … El Vice Re è petrato hoggi con tutto lo exercito in prato dove staremo dui di perche la fanteria smaltisca il sacco. O Dio, O Dio, O Dio che crudeltà.’ Modena, Archivio di Stato, Archivio segreto Estense, cancelleria, ambasciatori, agenti e corrispondenti all’estero, Firenze, busta 11, unnumbered fasc., letter dated 30 August 1512. See also ‘Documenti’, 135-6.

Burying the Dead

I have just been reading a fascinating book by Yuval Noah Harari (who has now turned his attentions to all human history) in which he argues that for early modern soldier-memoirists and artists war was not a ‘revelatory experience’, and that there was little or no reflection on the inner experience of war of the type which is more common today. The reason ‘war revealed nothing’ was, he argues, due to the emphasis placed on the formulation in the mind of military ideals, including that of honour, and the inferior role assigned to the body in realizing these ideals. The deeds of war related in military memoirs constituted the honourable name of the author, more than any reflections on the inner experience of war. These memoirs could also serve as a record of ‘services rendered’ and might also enumerate material gains.[1] Intriguingly he contrasts a ‘war culture’ with a ‘general culture’ in terms of attitudes towards the body and as evidence he cites differing burial practices, with soldiers who fell in battle ‘not given much thought.’[2]

As I wrote back in August one of the aspects of mass murder which I hoped to illuminate in the course of my research was burial practice. I turned first of all to the evidence of mass graves of soldiers and found that these could be treated without much evidence of care, and even with calculated insult. The archaeologists who excavated the mass grave associated with the English Battle of Towton (1461) found at least sixty-one individual males aged between sixteen and fifty years. They postulated that the men were either brought down by mounted troops in a rout as they ran from the battlefield discarding their sallets (helmets), or were deliberately disfigured and massacred after they sought safety or medical aid at nearby Towton Hall.

The evidence is open to different interpretations, of course. Some of the bodies were buried in prone or reversed orientation as a possible mark of shame.[3] The pit was dug in unconsecrated ground near the battlefield where they fell and ‘was almost certainly filled in immediately after the bodies had been placed in [sic] … with little opportunity for the accumulation of contemporary objects.’ There were few objects found in association with the bodies themselves, perhaps indicating that they were stripped before burial.[4] There was evidence of many blade wounds to the front and back of heads, some blunt force injuries to the face, and a few projectile injuries, which was judged consistent with battlefield injuries rather than executions.[5]

Some idea of the rough treatment that even soldiers might be given by their own side during the Italian Wars is suggested by a few of my Italian sources. A number of Italian chroniclers who described the aftermath of the Battle of Fornovo (1495), for example, alleged that the French killed their own wounded soldiers. The physician Alessandro Benedetti described the French in retreat from this defeat burning tents, burying artillery and military objects, and slaying horses wounded in battle, added circumspectly: ‘The report is that they killed with barbarous cruelty some wounded and sick men who could not follow the lines.’[6] He went on: ‘Those of the French who were wounded or worn out from the journey and who had died were buried along the road, as the many graves show. On this flight the brother of the prince of Tours died and was committed to the earth without funeral services.’[7] Leone Cobelli, the chronicler at Forlì, described men who could not walk being rounded up with injured horses, and corralled into a house that was set on fire.[8] More moderately, one chronicler in Pistoia suggested that due to the difficulties of burying the dead the bodies scattered for miles along the riverbank were burned.[9] Francesco Matarazzo in Perugia suggested that Italian soldiers in the pay of the French king killed and robbed any French soldiers they came across after Fornovo, disregarding the fact that they had the same master; indeed, they treated them worse than their enemy.[10] In sum, the picture is of a hurried and confused French retreat in which the injured and the prisoners were merely a logistical problem.

But what happened to the bodies of civilians killed en masse? Once again, it seems as if treatment probably varied according to status, the immediacy of the military threat, and the determination (or resources) of the dead person’s family. In June 1497 a skirmish outside Montelione left a number of Orvietans dead, including five young men who were buried in a single grave outside the town close to a very small church. However, within two days the corpse of one of the dead, a Lactantio de Lactantio Pellegrino de Lorenzo de Birichocho, was dug up and transported in a pitch-covered box (‘una cassa impeciata’) to Orvieto where it was met at the gate by the clergy of the town and accompanied to the church of San Francesco along with mourning women, including the deceased’s wife, sister, and other relations. Touchingly, the body was taken past his former home so that his mother, who was ill and waiting outside, could see it.[11]

On 13 January 1500 Cesare Borgia ordered that those killed in taking the citadel at Forlì be buried, as described by the local chronicler Andrea Bernardi.[12] Bernardi wrote of how the bodies were taken out of the citadel and placed on the banks of the ditches, and he wrote that this presented a spectacle of cruelty the like of which the world had never before seen (although he immediately invoked the precedent of the Massacre of the Innocents):

Because it truly seemed to me, as Holy Scripture tells, like the children who died for the true redeemer, as they were injured in various ways, some beheaded, others injured in their little bodies, in the arms or legs according to the care of their mothers who held them in their arms. And there was a great number one on top of the other with the intention of flattening them.[13]

These corpses were given the ‘nomice’ (i.e. the Trinitarian formula ‘In nomine …’?) where they were discovered. In a cavern in the citadel were found ten or twelve bodies one on top of the other, people who had been robbed and mortally injured and then abandoned. These, and others who died of their wounds, were taken away very quickly by the members of the lay confraternity of the battuti otherwise the bodies would be thrown into lime (malta). Truly, Bernardi wrote, the men of this army were without mercy and some of the victims, seeing such cruelty, had preferred to kill themselves in the ditch rather than be taken. Outside the citadel carts were ordered to take the bodies to the churches for burial. First, a ditch of great size (‘de gram stature’) was dug by the duomo in the cemetery towards Ravenna, between the campanile and its gate, and about 10 ‘varghie’ from the wall of the church. Into this ditch were placed around 280 corpses feet first (‘tute cave pedi’), many on top of each other. In Bernardi’s judgment it took the cart twenty-four trips, conveying nine, ten, or twelve bodies at a time, to complete this job. He estimated that around eighty bodies were taken to the church of the Servites, twenty were taken to San Mercuriale, the church of the Carmine, Sant’Antonio, and other churches, to a total number of 450. Bernardi took some care to mention the names of some of the more prominent among the dead, including the French and he notes that Cesare Borgia placed his arms throughout the duomo.[14]

Much of what Harari says about military memoirs and their priorities is persuasive (and I will write about this in due course) but I think the differentiation of civilian and combatant burial practices is far less obvious than he suggests. I hope to build up a fuller picture of burial practices after such mass murder events when I go to the Italian archives, notably those containing the records of those Mendicant orders (who were usually present at funerals) and the confraternities like the battuti who had the job of collecting and preparing the dead for burial.

Of course, the comments of hostile chroniclers about the practices of the enemy cannot be fully trusted, but they do offer some insight into concerns about the burial of dead and at least indicate what was considered to be shameful. The bodies of both civilians and soldiers could be treated with all due care, when circumstances permitted, but at other times they were clearly an inconvenient problem (and a possible source of disease) that meant that they had to be thrown into mass graves with little ceremony or apparent care.

[1] Harari, Ultimate Experience, 35-112 (quoting title of ch. 3 at 95).

[2] Ibid., 101. See also idem, Renaissance Military Memoirs.

[3] Fiorato, Boylston, and Knüssel, Blood Red Roses, 147, 185-6.

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] Ibid., 99, 100-01.

[6] Benedetti, Diaria, 117.

[7] Ibid., 121.

[8] Cobelli, Cronache, 372. This is also alleged in De’ Bianchi, Cronaca, 135; Sanudo, Spedizione, 488-9; and Priuli, Diarii, 1: 28. In a letter to the duke of Urbino dated at Florence on 14 July 1495 Piero Vettori also relays this allegation, although with some hesitancy: ‘e’ Francesi, si dice (questo non vi dò per cosa certa), che missero tutti li loro morti in tre case, cacciaronvi fuoco e arsenle. Confessaronsi e communicaronsi. Ammazzarono tutti li loro prigioni, e tutti li feriti che non gli potevano seguitare; e andarono via due ore innanzi dì’. Canestrini and Desjardins, Négociations, 1: 625.

[9] Ricciardi, Ricordi, 59.

[10] Matarazzo, ‘Cronaca’, 68.

[11] Tommaso di Silvestro, Diario, 77.

[12] Bernardi, Cronache, 1.2: 279-82.

[13] ‘Per che veramente a mi parea, seconde che nara la sacra Scritura, tale cosa fuse simile a quile fanculine che fune morte per al nostre vere Redemptore, per essere lore state ferite in devarie mode; chi tagliata la testa, chi ferite nel so corpezine, chi braze, chi gambe, seconde la comudità de dite sove madre che li avea nele lore braze, che era gram numare l’une sopra l’altre per volerie tutavia apaiatarie.’ Ibid., 279.

[14] Compare the account given by a chronicler in Cesena: ‘E forono lì morti in ditta rocha 800 homini, de li quali ne fo sbarati asai per trarli li ducati inghiotitossi del corpo. Et per 3 giorni forono più volte amassati e smasati; et finalmente forono portati a sepellire con le cara, che forono 80 carra a 10 per carra, a Santa Croce, dove già per la guera delli Ordelaffi ne fo strati asai[i]ssimi. Cosa horenda e crudele, però che li denno la fede e fe.lli dessarmare e senza fare diffesa alcuna s’arenderno e subitto tutti furono amazati e spoiati nudi e sbarati e assasinati, che erano tutti valenti homini ‘taliani.’ Fantaguzzi, Caos, 196.



Benedetti, Alessandro. Diaria De Bello Carolino (Diary of the Caroline War), ed. and trans. Dorothy M. Schullian. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1967

Il fatto d’arme del Tarro fra i principi italiani, et Carlo ottavo re di Francia, insieme con l’assedio di Novara. Trans. Lodovico Domenichi. Venice: Gabriele Giolito de Ferrari, 1549

Canestrini, Giuseppe, and Abel Desjardins (ed.) Négociations diplomatiques de la Frances avec la Toscane. 6 vols. Paris: Imprimerie Impériale,1859-86

Cobelli, Leone. Cronache Forlivesi di Leone Cobelli dalla fondazione della città sino all’anno 1498. Ed. Giosuè Carducci and Enrico Frati. Bologna: Regia Tipografia, 1874

De’ Bianchi detto de’ Lancellotti, Jacopino. Cronaca Modenese. Parma: Pietro Fiaccadori, 1861

Fantaguzzi, Giuliano. Caos. Ed. Michele Andrea Pistocchi. 2 vols. Istituto storico italiano per il medio evo. Fonti per la storia dell’Italia medieval. Antiquitates, vol. 38. Rome: Pliniana, 2012

Matarazzo, Francesco. ‘Cronaca della Città di Perugia dal 1492 al 1503’. Archivio Storico Italiano, ser. 1, 16.2 (1851): 1-243

Priuli, Girolamo. I diarii di Girolamo Priuli [AA. 1499-1512], ed. Arturo Segrè (vol. 1) and Roberto Cessi (vols. 2 and 4), Rerum Italicarum Scriptores. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1933-41

Ricciardi, Francesco. Ricordi Storici. Ed. Alfredo Chiti. Pistoia: Alberto Pacinotti, 1934

Sanudo, Marin. La spedizione di Carlo VIII in Italia, ed. R. Fulin. Venice: M. Visentini, 1873

Tommaso di Silvestro. Diario. Ed. Luigi Fumi. In Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 15, part 5. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1922


Harari, Yuval Noah. Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History, and Identity, 1450-1600. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004

The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Fiorato, Veronica, and Anthea Boylston and Christopher Knüsel (eds). Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461. Revised edn. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007

Who were the civilians?

In Niccolò Machiavelli’s late comedy Clizia the unseen Clizia is described as the war booty of Bertram the Gascon, snatched at the age of five and brought back to Florence from Naples in the course of Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy during 1494-5. Machiavelli did not concoct an implausible scenario for his audience – according to every chronicler the rape, ransom, capture, and killing of girls and women by soldiers were regular occurrences during the Italian Wars.[1] It is true that the assembly of canon and civil laws that constituted ‘just war’ theory during the Middle Ages, supported by some Christian and chivalric notions, specified that certain groups (including women) were to be left unharmed during war. In practice, though, the ‘inhumane’ or ‘cruel’ acts (as some theorists put it) of soldiers against women and the unarmed did not vitiate the conflict so long as it rested on a just cause.[2]

There are signs that the horrors of the Hundred Years’ War and the Italian Wars began to shift the balance of attention from causes to conduct around 1500. For example, Philippe Contamine has argued that the concept of bonne guerre, by which non-combatants were spared and those who surrendered were not executed, was spreading from the second half of the fifteenth century and was implemented during the wars of the sixteenth century, including the Italian Wars.[3] The military manuals of the sixteenth century regularly emphasize the discipline and humanity towards the unarmed which soldiers should use, and some praise the adoption by captains of the political virtues of clemency and temperance.

Girolamo Garimberto, in his Il Capitano Generale (published in 1557), allowed that severe tactics could help to subdue rebellious territories. He himself witnessed this at Parma in 1551 when in place of an imperial siege in the name of Pope Julius III the territory was opened to the depredations of the city’s neighbouring enemies and eventually looked like ‘a true image of death’. He also described how it was sometimes necessary in siege conditions for the captain to use, or threaten to use cruelty to put terror (terrore) into the besieged. However, for Garimberto this was an excusable necessity provoked by the abuse of the captain’s ‘humanity’ (l’humanità) and vitiating any thought of clemency by interpreting the law ‘humanely’ (humanamente). It stood in sharp contrast to the case of the person who ‘merits the name of cruel, who by nature or by anger passes beyond the limits of legal severity in punishment, not by any necessity but by choice’. In this way, he argued, like the doctors who, when other medicine has failed, cut of a part of the body to prevent the spread of disease so the cruelty used by captains was to be praised for preventing the spread of obstinacy among the larger part of the people.

Garimberto went on to write that it was in fact more divine than human to show humanity and clemency and to spare the lives of others in a sack and avoid the destruction of a city, a nation, or people. Therefore, in conquering a territory the captain must ensure that it is not sacked and dishonoured on the point of victory for a pardon and clemency brought greater glory than vendetta and destruction and would be of greater utility and bring greater fruits. Indeed, those who were pardoned by the captain would always be his creditors unlike the victims of his vendetta. After all, those who witnessed the sack of their property, the rape of their wives, daughters, and sisters were filled with a spirit of fury and disdain, and would die in pursuit of vendetta. Moreover, allowing soldiers to sack a city would corrode the army’s discipline and he recalled the example of Prospero Colonna who protected Bergamo when the imperialists wished to sack it. [4]

Raymond de Fourquevaux, the author of the Instructions sur les faicts de guerre (first published in Paris in 1548 under the more prestigious name of the noble diplomat Guillaume du Bellay) also argued that the captain should avoid cruelty after a victory in battle, or after having taken a town by force:

But what thing is more inhumane than after having piled at the feet the ensigns of the enemy, sacked their camp, having broken up, put to flight, and undone their battles [sc. troops in battle array] in heat, yet to kill in cold blood those who did not die during combat? Or, after a breach has been forced, and killed those who defended it, still to cut up those who have surrendered? And the poor inhabitants, old and young, notwithstanding that they are unarmed and innocent? And, beyond this, to permit women and girls be forced and sometimes killed, the churches plundered and the sacred things stolen and turned to base uses? Truly, it is worse than cruelty.[5]

The commander was therefore supposed to refrain from ordering such acts except during battle when defenders were still in arms, although even they were to have the opportunity to lay down their weapons and be left untouched.[6]

Many of these concerns about excessive cruelty or inhumanity towards non-combatants are evident in medieval literature, and so I am wary of constructing a narrative of changing attitudes towards non-combatants during the Italian Wars akin to the civilizing process outlined by Norbert Elias (and criticized by a number of historians).[7] Like the attempt to apply the concept of ‘total war’ to the early modern period the sketching of such a narrative immediately raises questions about the definition of ‘civilian’ and the degree to which the civilian can be distinguished from the soldier in this period.

An analysis of the terms used by ancient and modern authors in English and Latin is a good place to start and can be revealing. The English word ‘civilian’, which I have often used in these posts as a neutral term, originally derived from the Old French adjective civilien (pertaining to a student or practitioner of Civil Law) and was a nineteenth-century creation with no pejorative meaning except when used oppositively such as when it was suggested in 1864 that ‘military men view any civilian interference with dislike’.[8] The term ‘non-combatant’ referring to a civilian in time of war, or to a member of the army or navy who did not fight (such as a surgeon or chaplain) originated around the same time, and again did not generally have a pejorative meaning.

By contrast, the Latin term imbellis could refer to those simply unsuited to warfare, including women and children,[9] to those not trained or ready for war,[10] but also to unwarlike animals such as the dove,[11] and frequently in a derogatory sense to those people not disposed to war or fighting, cowardly.[12] In this last case, one of the best-known examples is found in Horace’s Odes (III.2): ‘Tis sweet and glorious to die for the fatherland [dulce et decorum est pro patria mori]. Yet Death o’ertakes not less the runaway, nor spares the limbs and coward [imbellis] backs of faint-hearted youths’.[13] This negative sense was sometimes intended by Renaissance writers including Paolo Giovio who recounted pithily (in c. 1515) that once the French bombardment and assault of Gaeta (near Naples) began in 1495 ‘in every place the populace, bold in words but cowardly [imbellis] in deeds, and assaulted by sudden fear were cut to pieces cruelly’, and therefore some decided to open the gates and throw their arms on the ground before the French.[14] The historian Francesco Carpesani also applied it in this negative sense to the comments made by the French in 1503 about the unwarlike and cowardly nature of the Spanish and Italian troops.[15]

However, the Latin term which perhaps comes close to that of the modern sense of ‘civilian’ as an antonym of ‘soldier’ is ‘paganus’. For example, in a letter to the Emperor Trajan Pliny mentioned ‘milites et pagani’ as two groups that benefited from the humanity and justice of a particular unnamed soldier.[16] The Roman historian Tacitus described how restless and mutinous soldiers in winter quarters with the tribes of Treviri and Lingones, who had been punished harshly by Galba, were ‘demoralized by mixing with these civilian inhabitants [paganos]’.[17] In the fourth century Vegetius seemed to oppose ‘miles’ and ‘paganus’ in a similar fashion, noting in an aphorism popular with medieval and Renaissance readers of his popular text on military matters that ‘in battle, skill is of more benefit than strength; for, if skill in the use of arms is absent, a peasant [paganus] differs not at all from a soldier.’[18]

Even this term lacks the generally neutral sense of English ‘civilian’ or ‘non-combatant’, or even ‘inermis’ (unarmed), which Renaissance writers sometime employed. Tacitus had Antonius address his praetorians before a battle: ‘As for you, clowns [pagani] that you are, if you do not win today, what other general or other camp will take you in?’[19] The term was also applied derogatively in 1124 to the stipendiary knights of King Henry I’s household, who were described as ‘pagenses et gregarii’ (‘country bumpkins and mercenaries’).[20] The Neapolitan chronicler Giuliano Passero may have used the word in a more neutral way when he described how in November 1495 King Ferrante took Nocera from the ‘pagani’ by battle, and it was immediately put to ‘blood and fire’ with prisoners taken and goods sacked. The king issued an edict prohibiting violence against women and ordered that all should be honourably treated like sisters.[21]

Linguistic study can therefore offer some useful hints of the pejorative value which attached to non-combatants during the Italian Wars, and has been noted in Renaissance military memoirs. Further study of the writings of sixteenth-century just war theorists and the manuals of combat advice, for example, may also reveal how the web of meaning might have stretched to encompass as non-combatants those who would not fall into my modern category of civilian, and vice versa. This may reflect the fact that the meaning of civilian was highly contingent on circumstances, and that armies, companies, and soldiers were raised seasonally and did not constitute a permanent force in society. With the appearance of permanent armies and the specialization of functions during the sixteenth century it may be argued that society was more clearly demilitarised. This sharper demarcation of functions may have led to the emergence of a clearer and more stable categorization of civilian, one to be sharply distinguished from that of soldier who would no longer be considered, following Vegetius, merely a peasant trained up in arms.

Finally, research may also show whether concerns about ‘inhumanity’ (as Raymonde de Fourquevaux put it) towards the unarmed increased. Did the consideration of conduct in warfare over the cause of war grow? Returning to Garimberto the answer this question seems to be yes. As he wrote, not all methods (modi) of winning are honourable and a victory can be glorious or inglorious depending on the method used, or according to whether the war is just or unjust. The honourable and glorious means of winning is to shed as little blood as possible, while the inglorious and dishonourable victory involves much bloodshed. There is no doubt about victories in a just war, which being necessary to it are just and consequently praiseworthy; while those in an unjust war are unjust and infamous (infame). But just as some unjust wars have had as an end a victory acquired with prudence, and consequently worthy of praise, so the victories of some just and praiseworthy wars have been lacking in glory. He goes on to suggest that some bloody victories (vittoria insanguinata) are necessary, if not praiseworthy, such as when those defeated in battle and preserved by the captain’s clemency break faith and he is forced to become cruel. However, causing bloodshed simply for the love of bloodshed is to be condemned and there is greater glory, and a greater reputation to be gained by the captain, in pardoning and saving lives. Therefore, acting in the place of reason the captain must restrain the appetites of his soldiers (Bk 3, Ch. 8).



All classical texts are cited using editions published in the Loeb Classical Library.

Carpesani, Francesco. Commentaria Suorum Temporum (1476-1527). Ed. Giacomo Zarotti. Parma: La nazionale, 1975

Garimberto, Girolamo. Il Capitano Generale. Venice: Giordano Ziletti, 1557

Giovio, Paolo. Dell’Istorie del suo Tempo. Trans. Lodovico Domenichi. 2 vols. Venice: Giovan Maria Bonelli, 1560

Historiarum sui Temporis. Ed. Dante Visconti. 2 vols. In Paolo Giovio, Opera. Vols. 3-4. Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1957

Passero, Giuliano. Storie in forma di Giornali. Ed. Vincenzo Maria Altobelli. Naples: Vincenzo Orsino, 1785

Raymond de Forquevaux [Published under pseud. Guillaume du Bellay]. Instructions sur le faict de la Guerre. Paris: Michel Vascosan, 1548


Allmand, Christopher. The De Re Militari of Vegetius: The Reception, Transmission and Legacy of a Roman Text in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011

Cohn Jr., Samuel K. ‘Repression of Popular Revolt in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Italy’. In The Culture of Violence in Renaissance Italy: Proceedings of the International Conference; Georgetown University at Villa Le Balze, 3-4 May, 2010, ed. Samuel Kline Cohn Jr. and Fabrizio Ricciardelli, 99-120. Florence: Le Lettere, 2012

Contamine, Philippe. ‘The Growth of State Control. Practices of War, 1300-1800: Ransom and Booty.’ In idem (ed.), War and Competition between States, 163-93. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 2 vols. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978-81

The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Eric Dunning, Johan Goudsblom and Stephen Mennell. Revised edn. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2000

Charters, Erica, Eve Rosenhaft and Hannah Smith (eds), Civilians and War in Europe 1618-1815 (2012)

Johnson, James Turner. Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War: Religious and Secular Concepts, 1200-1740. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975

Kaeuper, Richard W. Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

Lynn, John. Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008

Russell, Frederick H. The Just War in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975

Strickland, Matthew. War and Chivalry: The Conduct and Perception of War in England and Normandy, 1066-1217. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996

Wilson, Peter H. ‘German Women and War, 1500-1800’. In Jeremy Black (ed.), Warfare in Europe 1650-1792, 45-78. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005 [First published in War in History, 3 [1996]: 127-60]

[1] For the period after 1618 see Charters, Rosenhaft and Smith, Civilians; Wilson, ‘German Women’.

[2] Johnson, Ideology, Reason; Russell, Just War; Kaeuper, Chivalry; Strickland, War.

[3] Contamine, ‘Growth of State’, 186.

[4] Garimberto, Capitano, 233-4, 285-90, 299-305.

[5] ‘Mais quelle chose est plus inhumaine, qu’apres avoir foullé auz piedz les Enseignes des ennemis, saccagé leur Camp, avoir rompues, mises en fuitte, et detrenchees leurs batailles sur la chaulde, achever encores d’occire a froid sang ceulx qui ne seront mortz durant le combat? Ou apres que l’on aura forcee une breche, et occiz ceulx que se seront mis en defense, detrencher encores ceulx qui se seront renduz? Et les paouvres habitans vielz et ieunes, nonobstant qu’ilz soient desarmez et innocens? Et en oultre, permettre que les femmes et les filles soient forcees, et aucuneffois occises, les temples pillez, et les choses sacrees ravies, et converties en villains usages? Veritablement c’est plus que cruaulté.’ Raymond de Forquevaux, Instructions, fol. 93v [recte, 92v].

[6] Ibid.

[7] On the violence and cruelty of the Middle Ages increasingly restrained by rules and states see Elias, Civilizing Process, 1: 191-217; 2: passim, but especially the synopsis in pt 4. Elias was careful to state that: ‘Our kind of behavior has grown out of that which we call uncivilized. But these concepts grasp the actual change too statically and coarsely. In reality, our terms “civilized” and “uncivilized” do not constitute an antithesis of the kind that exists between “good” and “bad,” but represent stages in a development which, moreover, is still continuing.’ Ibid., 59. He explicitly rejected the idea that medieval manners represented ‘the stage of “barbarism” or primitiveness”’ at ibid., 62, and he questioned the idea of ‘progress’, emphasizing that certain customs must not be viewed as a ‘lack of civilization’ but ‘as something that fitted the needs of these people and that seemed meaningful to them in exactly this form.’ Ibid., 68. He also asserted that: ‘The civilizing process does not follow a straight line.’ Ibid., 186. The preface to the 1968 reprint of his work also clarifies some of his views on the relationship between the ‘civilising process’ and ‘progress’. It was published in English translation in 2000: idem, Civilizing Process, 449-83. On the rise of at least one form of violence – cruel punishment and executions – in Italy after c.1390 see Cohn, ‘Repression’.

[8] However, the OED, which is my source here, records the (presumably short-lived) use of ‘civilianization’ in 1946 as a pejorative term applied to the replacement of members of the armed forces involved in administration by civilians.

[9] Livy, 28.23.2, on the ‘turbam feminarum puerorumque inbellem inermemque cives sui caederent’. Frontinus, Stratagems, 2.4.20 writes of the king of Scythians who ‘iussit a feminis puerisque et omni imbelli turba’ to take part in a ruse. At ibid., 3.9.3 he writes of the castellans of a town recalled from its defense ‘ab imbelli multitudine’ under the mistaken belief that the town had already been captured from the rear, and at ibid., 2.5.19 there is a reference to ‘imbelles’ as the non-combatant part of the population. In Vegetius, Epitoma, 240 (4.7) we find the following recommendation to prevent famine in a besieged town: ‘Inbellis quoque aetas ac sexus propter necessitate victus portis frequenter exclusa est, ne penuria opprimeret armatos a quibus moenia servabantur.’

[10] Livy, 23.46.11, on ‘peditem inbellem’ or ‘infantry unfit for war’; Frontinus, Stratagems, 3.10.1 on ‘Suessetanos quosdam ex auxiliaribus maxime imbelles’.

[11] Horace, Carmina, 4.4.31.

[12] Sallust, Jugurtha, 20.2, contrasting Jugurtha ‘acer, bellicosus’ with his victim Adherbal ‘quietus, inbellis’; Vergil, Georgics, 2.172, on Emperor Augustus driving the ‘imbellum … Indum’ or ‘craven Indian’ (sc. Eastern nations) from the hills of Rome; Livy, 21.16.3, contrasting the Roman impression of the fierce and warlike Carthaginians victorious at Saguntum with a Rome that seemed ‘desidem … atque imbellem’, or ‘torpid and unwarlike’; Livy, 26.2.11, contrasting the warlike Carthaginians with an army of Roman citizens ‘ignavi et inbelles inter hostes essent’; and Quintilian, Institutes, 7.1.43, ‘pro viro forti contra inbellem’, or ‘a war hero against a coward’.

[13] Horace, Carmina, 3.2.15, ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. / mors et fugacem persequitur virum, / nec parcit imbellis iuventae / poplitibus timidove tergo.’ Much more poetic is Jonathan Swift: ‘How blest is he, who for his country dies; / Since Death pursues the Coward as he flies. / The Youth, in vain, would fly from Fate’s Attack, / With trembling Knees, and terror at his Back; / Though Fear should lend him Pinions like the Wind, / Yet swifter Fate will seize him from behind’.

[14] ‘Passim ferox dictis populus, factis autem imbellis, et subito timore consternatus, crudelissime trucidatur’. Giovio, Historiarum, 1: 95.

[15] ‘Nam inter huiusmodi contumeliarum iactationes, audita est vox cuiusdam Galli plus aequo ferocientis et imbelliam ignaviamque Hispanis atque Italis eiusdem commilitii exprobantis. Quam indiginitatis notam minime ferendam rati Itali, misère communi nomine ad Gallos, qui renunciarent, quando imbelles ignavique a se haberentur, eorum praeiudicio cupere secum manu conserta per aequas bellatorum manus utri bello praestarent experiri.’ Carpesani, Commentaria, 87.

[16] Pliny, Epistulae ad Traianum, 10.86b(18).2.

[17] ‘unde seditiosa colloquia et inter paganos corruptior miles’. Tacitus, Historiae, 1.53.

[18] Vegetius, Epitome, 59 (2.23). ‘Postremo sciendum est in pugna usum amplius prodesse quam vires; nam si doctrina cesset armorum nihil paganus distat a milite.’ On medieval and Renaissance readers of Vegetius see Allmand, De Re Militari.

[19] ‘“Vos […] nisi vincitis, pagani, quis alius imperator, quae castra alia excipient?”’ Tacitus, Historiae, 3.24.

[20] Waleran de Meulan quoted by the twelfth-century chronicler Orderic Vitalis and quoted in Strickland, War, 288.

[21] ‘Alli 3 di novembre 1495 lo signore re Ferrante have pigliata Nocera delli pagani per forza de battaglia, e subito fo messa a sangue, e fuoco, e lo signore Re subito fece andare uno bando che a pena della vita non fosse persona nessuna, che facesse violentia alle donne; ma che ognuna fosse honorata come sorella, ma foro ben tutti sacchiati, e l’huomini puosti presuni.’ Passero, Istorie, 88. Passero goes on to describe how the king took the castle of Nocera three weeks later. Therefore, by referring to ‘pagani’ in the aforementioned passage he may have intended to draw a contrast between the inhabitants of the town and the troops in the castle: Passero, Storie, 89.

The Machiavellian Massacre

In the final chapter of his famous book The Prince (written in c. 1513, first printed in 1532) Niccolò Machiavelli gloomily evoked a contemporary Italy ‘more enslaved than the Hebrews, more servile than the Persians, more dispersed than the Athenians, without a head, without order, beaten despoiled, torn, pillaged, and having endured ruin of every sort.’ There may in the past, he wrote, have been men who thought themselves ordered by God to save Italy but they had been knocked back by fortune. Therefore, he continued, ‘left as if lifeless, she [i.e. Italy] awaits whoever it can be that will heal her wounds, and put an end to the sacking of Lombardy, to the taxes on the kingdom [of Naples] and on Tuscany, and cure her of the sores that have festered now for a long time. One may see how she prays God to send her someone to redeem her from these barbarous cruelties and insults.[1]

This female personification of Italy was not uncommon after two decades of French, German, Spanish and Swiss incursions into the peninsula (see, for example, the image of the 1513 medallion depicting a personified Italy assaulted by French fury which accompanies this post). It is an image that would certainly have reminded many readers forcefully of the rape of women by soldiers that always accompanied military conquest and the festering sores of syphilis which spread with the armies and was therefore called the French pox by Italians. Finally, this passage would also have brought to mind the massacres of civilians that could occur in the course of the sacking of Italian cities and the passage of troops.

In the same section of The Prince Machiavelli then seemed to offer some glimmer of hope for salvation. He addressed the Medici dedicatee of the work directly, claiming: ‘Nor may one see at present anyone in whom she can hope more than in your illustrious house, which with its fortune and virtue, supported by God and by the Church of which it is now prince [following the election of Pope Leo X Medici in 1513], can put itself at the head of this redemption.’ In fact, he wrote, God seemed now to favour them as much as He once favoured Moses, Cyrus and Theseus – the leaders who saved the Hebrews, Persians and Athenians. There is ‘great justice’ in the cause, he continued, and he quoted Livy to the effect that “for war is just to whom it is necessary, and arms are pious when there is no hope but in arms”. Moreover, he claimed that ‘extraordinary things without example’ had now been brought about by God: ‘the sea has opened; a cloud has escorted you along the way; the stone has poured forth water; here manna has rained; everything has concurred in your greatness.’[2]

These are exalted words indeed; the reality was rather less glorious. In fact, the ‘fortune’ of the Medici family was intimately connected with the bloody and inglorious sack of Prato by the Spanish forces of the Holy League which occurred at the end of August 1512, only a few months before Machiavelli wrote these words. The sack was a political disaster for the pro-French Soderini regime in Florence, which failed to defend the city from the Spanish troops and thereby helped to bring about the return of the Medici to rule after sixteen years of exile. Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici (later Leo X) wrote coolly to Pope Julius II, the bellicose head of the League, about how the Spanish had assaulted Prato with valour and had put the place to sack ‘not without some cruelty in killing, which was the least that could be done … The capture of Prato in such a sudden and cruel way, although it has displeased me, yet will have brought this benefit as an example and a terror to others.’[3] By contrast, the sack was a personal disaster for Machiavelli. He had been intimately connected with organisation of military affairs in Florence during the previous decade and the return of the Medici helped to force him out of office and into exile.[4]

Given the personal and political humiliation represented by the sack of Prato and prompted by Erica Benner’s recent new reading of The Prince it is tempting to read as ironic Machiavelli’s heady evocation of the providential ‘fortune and virtue’ of the Medici immediately after an account of the ‘barbarous cruelties and insults’ suffered by Italy and in which the Medici played no small part.[5] The reaction of the Florentine Bartolomeo Cerretani to the sack is perhaps instructive here; it provides a sense of the providential interpretation that the incident could provoke among Medici partisans. Cerretani provided an unusually emotional account of the sack and massacre at Prato at the end of his Storia Fiorentina (c. 1512):

And because Death you solicit me to mind at this point to gorge on the dead, and because you raging woman called Cruelty by mortals I see you first to enter into the wretched land to bathe, feast, and thrust yourself at your pleasure in this horrible day in the miserable blood of humanity, yet to satisfy you I have taken the pen with a trembling hand, with eyes filled with tears, with a mind surrounded by fear, with a heart in terror and amazement writing that the bright sun at such an hour covers its shining face and the tumultuous enemy ranks with unheard of fury enter hungry for the blood of plunder and supplies, men of Granada, circumcised marranos, and Jews.[6]

Cerretani described how even those who were unable to escape, threw down their arms, and kneeled with their arms crossed in mercy before the attackers were cruelly cut to pieces. The great church of Prato called the Pieve sheltered two hundred behind locked doors, and when the enemy entered they attacked a crucifix, killing the person who held it and lopping off one of Christ’s arms before massacring everyone and leaving a pool of blood to spread over the pavement. Similarly, every person who sought refuge in the church of the Vergine was killed, both women and the husbands and sons whom they embraced, as well in San Domenico, Sant’ Agostino, and other holy places. Cerretani went on to point out that in the rape of women and girls the soldiers of Italy and the Tuscans were more wicked and full of every vice than those of Granada.[7] In a few hours more than 4500 men died, with a few survivors including those protected in a secure part of the palace of the Medici legate or in the palace of Giuliano and Giulio de’Medici. His account dwelled on the inhumanity of the sack: ‘And if I have had to tell of the inhumanity and unheard of cruelty they would make you believe that the earth would open itself up in pity.’[8]

In stark contrast, Machiavelli’s surviving references to the sack of Prato involve a cool calculation of the weakness of the Florentine state. In a letter he possibly addressed to Isabella d’Este in Mantua, Machiavelli focused on the internal weakness of the Soderini regime much more than on any Medici ‘fortune’ or virtue’, or supposed providential purpose:

[N]ews of Prato’s capture arrived and of how the Spaniards, having broken through some of the walls, began to force the defenders back and to terrify them. So that, after slight resistance, they all fled and the Spaniards took possession of the city, put it to sack, and massacred the city’s population in a pitiable spectacle of calamity. In order to spare Your Ladyship cause for worry in your spirit, I shall not report on the details. I shall merely say that better than four thousand died; the remainder were captured and, through various means, were obliged to pay ransom. Nor did they spare the virgins cloistered in holy sites, which were all filled with acts of rape and pillage.[9]

In his description of the causes and effects of the sack here, Machiavelli avowed that he ‘did not want to interpolate any of those matters that might offend … as being lamentable and redundant.’[10] His letter may have been solicited by his unnamed noble correspondent through the offices of Giuliano de’ Medici himself and this may explain why it is largely concerned with the sack as a key moment in the Holy League’s attempt to oust the pro-French Soderini regime and install the Medici in power following their prolonged absence.[11]

In particular, Machiavelli did not fail to analyse the actions of his erstwhile employer, the gonfalonier Piero Soderini who had been determined to strengthen his position in Florence with regard to the Medici and therefore followed military advice to entrench the main body of the republic’s defending forces in Florence rather than Prato. He had likewise rejected the viceroy’s demand for his resignation so that a gonfalonier favourable to the League could be appointed. Soderini, as Machiavelli points out, also overestimated the weakness of the enemy and refused to pay the sum of money demanded by the commander of the League forces as they menaced Prato. As a consequence, the city was sacked and troops who had been left behind as a garrison displayed only ‘cowardice’ under assault.[12] Terrified by this display of power the Florentines finally ousted Soderini and the Medici, styled by Machiavelli as his ‘patroni’ and as the noble addressee’s ‘amici’, returned to power.[13]

In his Discourses (c. 1513-17) Machiavelli developed this analysis and cited the sack of Prato as an example of a moment when Florence was ‘disordered’ by ‘necessity’, when the ‘modes’ of politics failed to allow for popular discontent, and when the people’s pride in rejecting a Spanish accord and in following the French party led to disaster.[14] In the Art of War (c. 1519-20, first printed in 1521) Machiavelli also used the examples of sacks of cities during the Italian Wars to make a broader point about the weakness of Italian powers but, intriguingly, he omitted any reference to Prato. This omission deserves closer attention.

In the course of the dialogue, which unusually in Machiavelli’s output provides the Art of War with its structure, the figure of Fabrizio Colonna, an experienced condottiero or mercenary soldier, responds to a question about the cause for the modern neglect of military training. He argues that excellent captains have arisen in Europe when there were many competing rulers or empires that favoured virtue by necessity or by some other passion. This was the case in ancient times until Rome conquered the world and became the sole source of virtue. When Rome was corrupted a more virtuous people was able to prey upon it, but even when the empire was broken up by the barbarians this virtue was not reborn. One reason for this is that ‘today’s mode of living, on account of [lit. ‘with respect to’] the Christian religion, does not impose that necessity to defend oneself that there was in antiquity. For then men conquered in war were either killed or remained in perpetual slavery, where they led their lives miserably. Their conquered towns were either dissolved or, their goods taken, the inhabitants were driven out and sent dispersed throughout the world. So those overcome in war suffered every last misery.’ As a consequence, military excellence was maintained and honoured.

By contrast in the present day, Colonna says, because men only fear brief imprisonment and ransom in war, while rebellious cities are not demolished, men do not wish to submit to military orders and have little to fear, while weak cities defend themselves by siding with one or other of the unified powers who are victorious, while the rest live without fear of ‘ultimate ruin.’ Colonna’s response to the objection that since 1494 many towns have been put to sack and kingdoms lost, which should teach men to recover the ancient orders, is surprising. He says:

It is as you say; but if you note which towns have been put to sack, you will find that they are not the heads of states but among their members, as one sees that Tortona was sacked and not Milan, Capua and not Naples, Brescia and not Venice, Ravenna and not Rome. These examples do not make whoever governs change their presupposition. Indeed, it makes them stay more in their opinion of being able to buy themselves back with ransoms; and because of this they do not want to undergo the exertions of the training for war, since, on the one hand, it seems to them unnecessary and, on the other hand, a tangle they do not understand.

Those others, whom he deems ‘servants’, should be afraid but have no power to remedy matters, while the governments of Milan, Naples, Venice, and Rome (the ‘latter princes’) have either lost their states and cannot remedy the problem, or prefer to ‘remain without any hardship by fortune and not by their own virtue’, allowing fortune to govern them who are so weak in virtue.[15]

Prato’s omission in the list of sacked cities is curious given that it represented one of those sacked towns that were ‘members’ rather than ‘heads of states’. Perhaps it was omitted because Machiavelli wished to imply that the Medici regime which returned in its wake in 1512 had in fact learned the hard lessons of war – a conclusion supported by the ostentatious praise he directs their way in The Prince. Or perhaps Prato’s shadowy presence was implied by the setting of the dialogue, in the shade of the Rucellai gardens which were located by the Florentine gate that led to Prato.[16] With this omission was Machiavelli simply tactful by necessity in a book published in Florence during his lifetime – one of the few of his works to appear in this way? Or did Machiavelli believe that the Florentines, and indeed Italians generally, might learn the lesson of that sack and renew their modes with a political settlement that encouraged greatness and virtue? Certainly, it is worth noting that in 1521, when the work was published, the Medici were inviting suggestions for the organisation of Florentine government from Machiavelli and others, while a papal-imperial alliance seemed poised to drive the French out of Italy for good. Perhaps, like Chinese premier Zhou Enlai on the effects of the French revolution, Machiavelli was hinting that it was still ‘too early to say’ what the outcome of 1512 would be for Florence, or indeed for Italy.

[1] Machiavelli, Prince, 102 (Ch. 26). The unnamed men ‘ordered by God’ may be identified with Cesare Borgia of Girolamo Savonarola: Benner, Machiavelli’s Prince, 307.

[2] Machiavelli, Prince, 102-3 (Ch. 26).

[3] ‘Hanno messo la terra a sacco non senza qualche crudelità de occisione, de la quale non si è possuto far meno … La presa di Prato così subita et cruda, quantunque io ne habbia preso dispiacere, pure harà portato seco questo bene che sarà exemplo et terrore a li altri.’ Summary of letter dated near Prato, 29 August 1512, in Sanudo, Diarii, 15: 29.

[4] Bayley, War, 276-84.

[5] For an ironic reading of this chapter see Benner, Machiavelli’s Prince, 305-12.

[6] ‘E perché tu mortte mi solleciti al volere im questo puntto satiartti di mortti, e tu donna eferata da’ mortali chiamata crudelttà ti vegho la prima a entrare nella meschina terra per bagnartti e satiartti et fichartti a tuo piacere in questo horrendo g[i]orno nel misero sanghue humano, e però per contentarvi ho preso la penna colla tremantte mano cogl’ochi pieni di lacrime colla mente circunvolta nel timore col core terrefatto et sbighotito schrivendo che il sole chiaro in tale ora si coperse la lucida faccia e la nimica schiera tumultuosa con inaldita furia entrò dentro afamati di sanghue di roba et di vituaglie, homini di Granata marrani circuncisi et g[i]udei.’ Cerretani, Storia, 440. On the lessons of Prato see idem, Dialogo, 28-33, 36-7.

[7] Idem, Storia, 440.

[8] ‘Et s’io havessi a ddire le inhumanità et inaldite crudeltà vi si fec[i]ono chredo che la terra per pieta s’aprirebbe.’ Ibid., 441. Compare idem, Ricordi, 278-9.

[9] Atkinson and Sices, Machiavelli, 214-17 (quotation at 215-16); Machiavelli, Opere, ed. Gaeta, 354-60 (passage quoted at 357).

[10] Atkinson and Sices, Machiavelli, 217; Machiavelli, Opere, ed. Gaeta, 360.

[11] Richardson, ‘Lettera’.

[12] Atkinson and Sices, Machiavelli, 216.

[13] Ibid., 214; Machiavelli, Opere, ed. Gaeta, 354.

[14] Machiavelli, Discourses, 11, 25, 120, 194 (1.2.1; 1.7.4; 1.59.1; 2.27.3).

[15] Machiavelli, Art, 58-61 (2.284-316).

[16] Machiavelli, Art, xvi, 8 (1.8).



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