Women at War

In the course of my reading over the last few weeks I have become used to the occasional account of women in sieges helping to repair fortifications or forage for food (for example at the siege of Pavia in 1524-5), or frequent tales of women in sacks throwing rocks onto soldiers from the upper floors of their homes. I have also read about the noblewomen Caterina Sforza, who in 1499-1500 defended her fortress at Forlì against the attack of Cesare Borgia, and drew complimentary remarks from Francesco Guicciardini, Niccolò Machiavelli and others (indeed, in 1499 Biagio Buonaccorsi asked his friend Machiavelli, then in Forlì, to send him her portrait).[1] The aristocratic Alda Pia is said to have fought hard in defense of Brescia in 1512 and I hope to track down her letters at some point, while Isabella d’Este has left an account of her life-saving activities during the sack of Rome in 1527 in her letters. However, in contrast to women in the Thirty Years’ War, which has sometimes been described as an early form of ‘total war’ involving large numbers of civilians, I have found very little discussion of women in the Italian Wars.

I was therefore very intrigued to find the following entry for 11 July 1500 in the Modenese chronicle of Jacopino De’ Bianchi detto de’ Lancellotti, where he writes of the French and Spanish troops then at Pisa, adding that ‘there was also a number of the most skilful women wearing boots, sacked up, wearing little cuirasses on their backs, holding lances and hooks that had a long point and one to cut. These women are very handy, and all the men and women stay together with great fervour and have put all their goods together so that nothing is wanted by anyone, and with great care it is provided for them. There are also races, many valiant women, and one woman who killed fourteen Frenchmen. It is said that in all the battles that they fight together four or five thousand French have died.’[2] This is exactly the sort of thing, if true (or even a rumour), that I would expect many Italians to mention in chronicles and letters, but this is the first such reference to armoured and armed women that I have come across.

It might once have been thought that this passage was the insinuation of an Italian observer wearied of war and seeking to present the barbarian enemy as effeminate and disordered. Indeed, Machiavelli noted in his Discorsi (3.36, 1-3), following Livy, that the Gauls had ardour but no discipline which is why ‘the French have been, and still are, looked upon in the beginning of a battle as more than men, and afterwards as less than women.’ Or it could be an exaggerated description of the women who formed such an important part of the ‘campaign community’ as wives, prostitutes, traders, pillagers, and ancillary workers. They were sometimes described in northern sources as comprising ranks subject to military law and discipline, and they were represented with kit-bags, staffs, and other accoutrements (see image). What was the role of women in warfare?

Women often appear as a passive, excluded, or victimised and anonymised mass in chronicles and other sources. Gratian excluded pilgrims, clerics, monks, women and the unarmed poor from violence.[3] Canon 22 of the Third Lateran Council of the Church (1179) also granted some protection and was included in canon law.[4] The thirteenth-century treatise of canon law De Treuga et Pace (Of Truces and Peace) provided a further list of those groups of persons (together with their animals and property) secured against war: clerics, monks, friars, other religious, pilgrims, travellers, merchants, and peasants cultivating the soil (to be distinguished from the peasants in the army of a feudal lord). These groups may have been classed as non-combatants by reason of their function in society, while others like women and children were presumed to be non-combatants due to their inability to bear arms, or were considered protected by the chivalric code and practice.[5]

In reality, the line between combatant and non-combatant was often unclear (as I shall explore in a later post) and the theoretical protection of women often violently breached or suspended under the rules of war. Women and girls of every condition were considered spoils of war by sacking troops, and indeed during the Italian Wars armies reportedly used the threat of harming women as way of bringing a town into submission.[6] There are rare examples of women (and young children) exempted by prior agreement from massacre, for example at the French sack of Monte San Giovanni in 1495, or at the siege and bombardment of Orvieto in 1497.[7] There are far more accounts of women raped in their own homes, women and girls raped in the churches where they had fled for safety, and nuns raped in their convents, as well as numerous vaguely reported ‘cruelties’ against women.[8] One Roman chronicler of events at Capua in 1501 claimed that ‘all the women were debauched like whores (sbordellate)’.[9] Francesco Guicciardini’s (much later) account of the same sack puts a more literal gloss on the event: ‘[M]any of these women were sold afterwards at Rome for very low prices … [and] many of the women who had escaped the first assault having taken refuge in a tower, Duke Valentino [Cesare Borgia] … wanted to see all of them; and went there accompanied by no other men than his own gentlemen and guard, and after diligently considering them, kept forty of the most beautiful for himself.’[10]

In war, as in peace, women clearly had a key role in maintaining public honour. Therefore, the shaming of a town involved the dishonouring of its women just as pleas for mercy and salvation from a bloody sack were often communicated by children and women sent out by a town in pitiable processions. It was reported that some women, presumably to save their honour, preferred to kill themselves and their children in ditches as they fled the sack of Udine in 1509.[11] Similar actions by women were recorded during the sack of Molfetta in 1529 and one chronicler remarked that a woman who threw herself from her house to avoid rape by soldiers was a ‘more than Roman’ example of chastity.[12] Of course, this ideal of feminine virtue appealed to many historians who often mentioned well-known classical counterparts. In his account of the sack and massacre at Capua in 1501 the historian Sigismondo dei Conti praised (unusually by name) a certain Lucrezia, virgin daughter of Domizio and Samaritana of Syracuse, chaste wife and widow, who threw herself into the river Volturno rather than endure the brutality of the attackers. The women of Capua were not inferior to the Milesian virgins, he said, and indeed surpassed even the ancient Roman Lucretia who did not wish to outlive the offense to her chastity.[13]

A number of chroniclers also reported a latter-day massacre of innocents as babies were torn from breasts and murdered, or foundlings thrown from windows.[14] Indeed, some images of the Massacre of the Innocents are set in the contemporary world.[15] Altobello Melone’s Massacre of the Innocents (c.1518) in contemporary setting and dress may be compared with Alessandro Bonvicino Moretto’s canvas on the same subject which was recognizably set in the piazza della loggia of Brescia, and was probably meant to recall the frenzied murder of innocent civilians witnessed in the city two decades earlier by the commissioners of the canvas.[16] Renaissance representations of Judith beheading the Assyrian general who threatened her city with destruction have been related to the defence of liberty and I wonder if some may also be related to the sieges and sacks of the Italian Wars.

Women might be used to move soldiers to mercy, as was attempted at the siege of San Leo, near Urbino, in 1503 when ‘were led into the court all or part of the women who had at San Leo sons, husbands, brothers, or relations with the intention of taking them to San Leo, to see if by this route, by showing them to [the troops], they would be able to gain the territory …’.[17] However, women’s legal status as non-combatants also meant that during a siege they might be expelled as ‘useless mouths’. The Mantuan ambassador in Milan reported that those expelled from besieged Novara in 1495 were mostly women and children who became prey to the fierce stradiot troops in the Venetian army, and were reduced to begging in the camp of the besiegers.[18]

These women, and others displaced by war, may have joined the ‘campaign community’ (sometimes described with a pejorative edge as ‘camp followers’) in order to protect themselves from harm or to gain a living. The physician Alessandro Benedetti mentions King Charles VIII’s well-ordered baggage train and ‘the host of women he kept at the top of the hill’ at the Battle of Fornovo (1495). He goes on to note that as soon as troops begin to plunder the train ‘on every side the ground was strewn with bundles of cheaper wares which the avarice of the first soldiers had scornfully abandoned to servants, camp-followers, and peasants in favor of better booty.’[19] According to Giuliano Fantaguzzi, a chronicler in Cesena, when Cesare Borgia’s army passed through town around the time of the taking of Imola and Forlì during 1499-1500 it consisted of seven thousand infantry (fanti), one thousand venturini, five hundred Spanish, over a three and a half thousand horsemen and artillery, and two hundred women. Many of these women were workers and pillagers subject to military discipline but benefiting from a plundering army, but some may have been armed, experienced and even ‘valiant’ in war.[20]

In fact, as Frédérique Verrier has shown, women did fight in the defence of their towns and were sometimes organised in military fashion during the course of a siege, as at Pisa in 1499-1509 and Siena in 1553-5. This role could be seen as an extension of their role as protector of the domestic hearth and was mentioned by contemporary chroniclers. The passage I recently came across, then, probably refers to these women but gives them a much more conventionally martial aspect than suggested by the other sources.



Anonymous. ‘Diario delle cose di Urbino’. Ed. Federico Madiai. Archivio Storico per Le Marche e per L’Umbria, eds. M. Faloci Pulignani, G. Mazzatinti, and M. Santoni. Vol. 3: 423-64. Foligno: Presso La Direzione, 1886

Anonymous. Diario Ferrarese dall’anno 1409 sino al 1502 di autori incerti. Ed. Giuseppe Pardi. In Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 24, part 7. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1928-33

Atkinson, James B. and David Sices (trans. and ed.) Machiavelli and his Friends: Their Personal Correspondence. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996

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

Burchard, Johann. Liber notarum ab anno MCCCCLXXXIII usque ad annum MDVI, ed. Enrico Celani. In Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 32, ch. 1. Città di Castello: S. Lapi, 1906

Carteggio degli oratori mantovani alla corte sforzesca (1450-1500). Vol. 15 (1495-1498). Ed. Antonella Grati and Arturo Pacini. Rome: Pisana, 2003

Cerretani, Bartolomeo. Ricordi. Ed. Giuliana Berti. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1993

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

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

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

Guicciardini, Francesco. Storia d’Italia, ed. Costantino Panigada. X vols. Bari: Laterza, 1929-

The History of Italy, trans. and ed. Sidney Alexander. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969

Marinello, Giuseppe. ‘Presa, e sacco della città di Molfetta successa l’anno del signore 1529’. In K. Pelliccia (ed.), Raccolta di varie croniche, diarj ed altri opuscoli, così Italiani, come Latini, appartenenti alla storia del Regno di Napoli, 4: 369-92. Naples: Bernardo Perger, 1782

Parenti, Piero di Marco. Storia Fiorentina. Ed. Andrea Matucci. 2 vols. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1994, 2005

Portoveneri, Giovanni. ‘Memoriale’. Archivio Storico Italiano, 6.2 (1845): 281-360

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

Sanudo, Marin. Venice, Cità Excelentissima: Selections from the Renaissance diaries of Marin Sanudo. Ed. Patricia H. Labalme and Laura Sanguineti White. Trans. Linda L. Carroll. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008

I diarii di Marino Sanuto, eds. Rinaldo Fulin, Federico Stefani, Nicolò Barozzi, Guglielmo Berchet, and Marco Allegri, facsimile reprint, 58 vols. Bologna: Forni, 1969-70

Tedallini, Sebastiano di Branca. Diario romano. Ed. P. Piccolomini. In Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 23, ch. 3. Città di Castello: S. Lapi, 1907

Vaglienti, Piero. Storia dei suoi tempi, 1492-1514. Ed. Giuliana Berti, Michele Luzzati, and Ezio Tongiorgi. Pisa: Nistri-Lischi and Pacini, 1982


Allmand, Christopher. ‘War and the Non-Combatant in the Middle Ages’. In Maurice Keen (ed.), Medieval Warfare: A History, 253-72. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

Begni Redona, Pier Virgilio. Alessandro Bonvicino Il Moretto da Brescia. Brescia: La scuola, 1988

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

Hacker, Barton C. ‘Women and Military Institutions in Early Modern Europe: A Reconnaissance.’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 6.4 (1981): 643-71

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

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

Neher, Gabriele. ‘Moretto and Romanino: Religious Painting in Brescia 1510-1550; Identity in the Shadow of la Serenissima.’ Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Warwick, 2000

Rublack, Ulinka. ‘Wench and Maiden: Women, War and the Pictorial Function of the Feminine in German Cities in the Early Modern Period.’ Trans. Pamela Selwyn. History Workshop Journal, 44 (1997): 1-21

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

Thornton, Dora. ‘An allegory of the Sack of Rome by Giulio da Urbino’, Apollo, 151 (June 1999): 11-18

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] Guicciardini, History of Italy, 152; Machiavelli, Prince, ch. 20; Atkinson and Sices, Machiavelli, 19.

[2] ‘Et oltra li homini pixani et spagnoli li avevane quantità di done prudentissime con borzachini in pede et insachate suxe et anche con coracine indosso con lance in man e con grafii che avevano punta longa et una da taiare. Le quale done si ernae molto utile, e tuti maschi e femine tenivane inseme con grando frevore et avevane posto tuta la roba in comune che non manchavo a nesuna persona et con granda diligentia li era provisto. Et oltra che li fussi molti corsi li era quantità de done valente e vene che li fu tale dona che amazò quatordexi françoxi et fu dite che in tute le bataie che fecene inseme che fu morto de diti françoxi chi 4000 et altri 5000’. De’Bianchi, Cronaca, 198.

[3] ‘This is as close as he came to upholding some kind of non-combatant immunity.’ Russell, Just War, 70 (citing C. 24 q. 3 cc. 22-5).

[4] Ibid., 186 (citing Compilatio Prima 1.24.2, and Gregorian Decretals X 1.34.2).

[5] Allmand, ‘War and the Non-combatant in the Middle Ages’, 254-7.

[6] Portoveneri, ‘Memoriale’, 347-8.

[7] Anon., Diario Ferrarese, 141; Tommaso di Silvestro, Diario, 74.

[8] Burchard, Liber notarum, 1: 293 (Capua, 1501); Priuli, Diarii, 1: 243 (Forlì, 1500), 2: 158-59 (Capua, 1501), 4: 196-7 (Udine, 1509); Guicciardini, History of Italy, 385 (Rome, 1527).

[9] Sebastiano di Branca Tedallini, Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, 3: 295.

[10] Guicciardini, History of Italy, 161.

[11] Bowd, Venice’s Most Loyal City, 208; Priuli, Diarii, 4: 197 (Udine, 1509); Guicciardini, History of Italy, 161; Parenti, Storia, 2: 465-6; Cerretani, Ricordi, 27; Vaglienti, Storia, 138.

[12] Marinello da Molfetta, ‘Presa, e sacco’, 387 (women throw stones down on sackers), 388 (an example of chastity ‘più che Romana’).

[13] Dei Conti, Storie, 2: 239-40. See Plutarch, Moralia, 249b-d and Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 15.10 (on the Milesian virgins); and Livy, 1.57-60 (on Lucretia).

[14] Priuli, Diarii, 4: 253 (Monselice, 1509), 393 (Fiume, 1509); Sanudo, Venice, Cità Excelentissima, 184 (a translation of an eyewitness account of the sack of Rome given in Venice on 20 May 1527 in Sanudo, Diarii, 45: col. 167).

[15] Hale, Artists and Warfare, 27, 236-7.

[16] Ibid., 238, fig. 300; Begni Redona, Alessandro Bonvicino, 252-256; Neher, ‘Moretto and Romanino’, 75-77. The potter Giulio da Urbino produced a dish thought to represent an allegory of the sack of Rome which included a figure taken from Marco Dente’s print of the Massacre of the Innocents after Baccio Bandinelli: Thornton, ‘Allegory of the Sack of Rome’.

[17] ‘Alli 5 furono condotte in corte tutte o parte delle donne che avevano in S. Leo figliuoli, o mariti, o fratelli, o parenti con intenzione di menarle in S. Leo, per vedere se per questa strada, col mostrarle loro, avessero potuto ottenere la terra, la qual ritenzione era seguita anco per tutto; onde ciascuno stava di moltissima voglia.’ Anon., ‘Diario delle cose d’Urbino’, 440.

[18] Grati and Pacini, Carteggio, 130.

[19] Benedetti, Diaria, 97, 107.

[20] Fantaguzzi, Caos, 1: 189-90.

Stephen Bowd’s Research Blog

Between September 2016 and August 2017 I was a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow working on a book about the mass murder of non-combatants during the Italian Wars (1494-1559). The Italian Wars were marked by regular occurrences of violence against non-combatants. The sacking of the wealthy towns of Italy by troops was often accompanied by mass murder and contemporary estimates for fatalities range from a few dozen to many thousands. Despite its impact on the historical record the origins, dynamics, and memory of such violence has not received sustained and focused examination by scholars (except in the case of the sack of Rome in 1527). This project, which will be published as Renaissance Mass murder: Civilians and Soldiers During the Italian Wars (OUP, 2018), will provide the first analytical overview of mass murder during the Italian Wars and will examine what drove both soldiers and non-combatants towards violence which often horrified contemporaries but which could also be justified by the customs and demands of warfare and honour.

Fiction in the Archives?

Let me begin with an archival text: ‘If all of the subjects of your serenity had persevered with constant faith, as I Girolamo Cavechia your most passionate citizen of Verona has done, I believe that the affairs of this most illustrious domain would have had, and achieved a better outcome.’ (‘Se tutti li subditi de vostra serenita havesseno perseverando ne la constante fede, como ho fatto io hieronimo Cavechia sviseratissimo citadin vostro di Verona, credo che le cosse de questo illustrissimo dominio hariano havuto et consequito meglior exito’).[1] With these immodest words the rather bumptious Cavechia immediately came to life on the page of his appeal to the powerful Venetian Council of Ten in July 1517 which five hundred years later I discovered interleaved with the minutes of the Ten’s deliberazioni held in the city’s Archivio di Stato.

A gripping tale of espionage and escape during the Italian Wars followed. Cavechia stated that he had risked his life and property (‘faculta’) in various encounters in the past few years. He had aided one ‘Lutio Malvezo’ by sending spies to him but on being discovered was threatened with hanging. After escaping imprisonment in Trent by paying 50 ducats Cavechia passed information from Venice to the condottiero Alvise Avogadro, whose disastrous conspiracy against French rule in the Venetian city of Brescia precipitated a bloody sack there in 1512. Cavechia then discovered that all of his goods worth more than 300 ducats had been ‘sachizato’ and that he was still at risk of being hanged. In flight for his life his horse died under him and he was imprisoned and again threatened with hanging for his espionage activities. ‘[D]estiuto et ruinato’, his house burned down and possessions ruined, he now threw himself at the feet of the Ten who almost unanimously decided to grant him 50 ducats for his troubles.

This vivid story, and dozens more contained in supplications from ordinary men and women preserved in the files of the Ten, brings home in the most startling and personal way the human cost of the Italian Wars which devastated Venetian territory during 1509-17. These appeals were fashioned at a time when peace had just returned and scores were being violently settled across the mainland empire,[2] and they offer a valuable insight into the experiences of individuals who are often overlooked in the sweeping narratives of war, but also suggest how they constructed ‘ego-documents’ with an aim to receiving compensation.[3]

Like Cavechia, many supplicants naturally emphasised their service to the state. There was the appeal of Sebastiano Gabino who braved danger during the siege of Padua and was secretly sent out of the city by the proveditore as an ‘explorator’ to spy on the enemy.[4] Then there was the story of Andrea Rosso who served as secretary to the state for eighteen years in Hungary, Poland, France (twice), Spain (twice), England, Burgundy, Naples, and Rome. He also spent three years in Milan with the proveditori generali in campo Andrea Gritti, Paolo Capello, and Andrea Loredan and it was during this period of service that he was assaulted three times by the enemy ‘with his total ruin’. In Brescia he was taken prisoner with Gritti and held in prison in Milan for 5 months and paid a fine of 120 ducats, while his brother served in the defence of Brescia as a soldier.[5]

Rosso’s successful appeal to the Ten mentioned the need to support his sisters, and some of the other supplications come from women and girls widowed and orphaned by the wars, or include portraits of pathetic indignity likely to move the grave Venetian councillors. For example, in her appeal Laura Berardo described how her father learnt of the siege of Padua while in Pisa and returned to defend the city at his own expense by building banks, bastions and other fortifications. He refused to abandon the city and ultimately lost his life and goods during the ‘strage’ and ‘disordini’ of the Venetian recapture and sack of the city, leaving Laura orphaned. For this service to the honour, glory, and utility of Venice the Ten granted her 50 ducats towards a dowry.[6] The widow, son and brother of one Serafino da Bergamo ‘who so many times with great danger and with the noose at his throat’ (‘[q]uale tante et tante volte con tanti pericoli, et con el lacio ala gola’) sweated in service to Venice in France and was killed by a Milanese while captain at Rovigo also expatiated on their poverty. Their appeal speaks pathetically of two sons left in poverty in Bergamo and the widow being ‘many times sacked and left in nothing but a shirt’ (‘piu volte sacchegiata et lassatola in sola camisa’) by the Spanish and Germans.[7] A similar image of a ‘plundered … nude’ wife and six children led away was evoked by Girolamo Malipiero, a patrician serving the state at Cologna. Enemy troops left Verona and assaulted Girolamo ‘cum gran furia’, but he managed to hole up in the castle with his family and his brother before he was betrayed, stripped of his possessions, and imprisoned for forty-four months. Failing to move the Ten with his first supplication a second appeal gave greater details of his debts (including some to the fondaco dei tedeschi), the expenses of provisioning his troops, and described the enemy now assaulting him ‘cum grandissima furia’, before concluding that he and his family would now be forced to beg and in this way lose their ‘nobility’ as patricians. This canny appeal to social shame and solidarity worked and the Ten agreed to help him.[8]

Like the French pardons examined by Natalie Zemon Davis or the tales of contemporaries told by Francesco Vettori the supplications in the Venetian archives should not be dismissed as mere fictions, or even as histories largely concocted by notaries and other officials.[9] Further research into such documents will reveal the governing narrative structures and traditions of such documents. Certainly, some echoes of contemporary reports of war may be heard in them (for example, the ‘gran furia’ of the enemy mentioned by Girolamo Malipiero). In Cavechia’s adventures we may also detect echoes of the ‘books of battles’ pouring of Venetian presses at the beginning of the sixteenth century and the chivalric extravagances of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, which was first published in 1516.[10] As Lauro Martines has pointed out these works, and the experimental poetry, novelle, and other literary productions of these years reflect a literary and cultural crisis on the peninsula after 1494 closely linked to the political and social upheavals of the Italian Wars.[11]

Finally, there is one instance where these worlds may collide. In February 1518 ‘Zuan da Dressano’, or Dr Giovanni Trissino of Vicenza, submitted an appeal to the Ten stating that when the imperial army was encamped at Padua in 1509 he feared that he would be sacked by the barbarians who daily came into Vicenza ‘comettendo molti Insulti’, and menacing death and sack. He therefore thought it advisable to move to Mantua and then Ferrara, and he now wished to return home.[12] The family name was unlikely to find favour in Venice: Giangiorgio Trissino had been banished from Vicenza because of his support for the imperialists and was now on a campaign of ingratiation with the Venetian authorities, which included an oration directed towards the doge. He was also the author of an important work of tragedy and reflections on the Italian language which may be said to be central to the reordering of Italian cultural landscape as the supplications were to the reestablishment of order in the Veneto after the disruptions of war.[13]

I look forward to more such ‘fictions’ in my research as I try to reconstruct the murderous violence of sacks of cities from the point of view of the civilians who endured and survived.

[1] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 39, no. 321 (29 July 1517).

[2] For cases of score settling see, for example, the case of a Brescian man ‘assassinato & morto’ by ‘XXV armati Incogniti’, and two further cases of murder including the death of the ‘ambador [sic]’ of the town of Orzinuovi to Venice. In the latter case Jacomo de Modesto of Orzinuovi and an accomplice stabbed the aptly named Dr Infelice Zanucha, who was returning to Brescia from Venice, nine times and threw his body in a ditch: Archivio di Stato, Venice, Senato terra, Deliberazioni, reg. 19, fols. 106r, 127r (pencil foliation, 3 July, 8 Oct. 1516). Another murder at the hands of twelve men is recorded in Archivio di Stato, Venice, Senato terra, Deliberazioni, reg. 20, fols. 26v-27r (pencil foliation, 14 May 1517).

[3] Mary Fulbrook and Ulinka Rublack, ‘In Relation: The ‘Social Self’ and Ego-Documents’, German History, 28.3 (2010): 263-72.

[4] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 40, no. 211 (14 Jan. 1517 [more Veneto = 1518]).

[5] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 39, no. 130 (28 May 1517).

[6] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 39, no. 320 (13 Oct. 1513 [sic]).

[7] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 40, no. 167 (23 Dec. 1517).

[8] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 39, no. 89 (4 April 1517); ibid., no. 110 (12 May 1517).

[9] Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).

[10] Rosa Salzberg, Ephemeral City: Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 100-01.

[11] Lauro Martines, Strong Words: Writing and Social Strain in the Italian Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), ch. 11.

[12] Archivio di Stato, Venice, Consiglio dei Dieci, Deliberazioni, parti miste, filza 40, no. 244 (12 Feb. 1517 [more Veneto = 1518]).

[13] Giangiorgio Trissino, La Sophonisba, li Retratti, Epistola, Oracion al serenissimo principe di Vinegia (n.p., n.d. [Toscolano: Paganini, c.1524]).

Counting the Dead

The Italian Wars were marked by regular and bloody episodes of mass murder lasting from a day to several weeks and given a variety of names by Italian contemporaries including ‘strage’, ‘sacco’, ‘stracio’, or ‘destrutione’.[1] The sack of Fivizzano (1494) was followed by the sacks of Forlì (in 1500), Capua (1501), Arezzo (1502), Padua, Monselice, Fiume, Feltre (all in 1509), Vicenza (1510), Udine (1509 and 1511), Ravenna, Brescia, Lonigo, and Prato (1512), Genoa (1522), Pavia, Rome (1527), and Molfetta (1529), to name just some of the best recorded incidents.

Contemporary evidence for the numbers killed in these sacks is probably as unreliable as it is for fatalities in battle, discussed recently by John Gagné in an article on ‘Counting the Dead’, or other massacres and offers a range of figures from the suspiciously precise 2125 deaths at Capua to the almost certainly inflated number of 20,000 deaths at Brescia and ‘more than 40,000’ at Rome.[2] In the case of the sack of Rome, for which the evidence is most abundant, estimates of deaths were also made for specific incidents and separate figures were sometimes given for civilians and for Italian troops as opposed to ‘our enemies’. Early reports of the sack reaching Venice put the number of those ‘torn to pieces’ at 4000, subsequently rising to 14,000 or 15,000 Romans in addition to 3000 or 4000 ‘enemies’ in other accounts.[3]

To complicate matters further, these figures might also include the number of those killed in events preceding and succeeding the sack. For example, the sack of Capua was preceded by four days of bombardment, while the sack of Rome was followed by a plague which may have killed around 5000 imperial troops alone within two months.[4] Furthermore, reaching a solid conclusion about the proportion of the population killed in sacks is also hampered by the difficulty of estimating urban populations during such unsettled times. For example, Rome’s population of about 55,000 was swollen by refugees, while Brescia’s population of around 50,000 was probably depleted as many citizens fled to the surrounding countryside, or were expelled by the French during the first years of occupation after 1509.[5]

By comparison ‘approximately 2000 Huguenots’ were killed in Paris (population c. 275,000) during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572).[6] The ‘holocaust of Antwerp’ (1576) resulted in the deaths of 8,000 out of a population of 80,000, in one modern estimate.[7] The sack of Magdeburg (1631) involved the ‘annihilation of a city of 20,000’ in the view of one recent historian.[8]

In the course of this project I will be faced with an array of numbers, probably exaggerated, and will have to think of ways of obtaining more accurate figures for the dead. One possibility may be offered by studies of local burial records, for example those held by mendicant orders which I looked at for an earlier study, or the evidence of mass graves (like that of Towton in 1461, which has been excavated) and so I would welcome comments from archaeologists. I do wonder how the victims of these massacres were buried: were they put into mass graves or claimed by their families and properly buried?

[1] For example, anon., Opera nova del stato di Milano e sacco di Genoa, el stracio de Pavia e de Rimino e destrutione de Roma con molte altre gentilezze cose nove (n.p., 1528).

[2] Silvestro Guarino, ‘Diario’, in Alessio Aurelio Pelliccia (ed.), Raccolta di varie croniche, diarj ed altri opuscoli, così Italiani, come Latini, appartenenti alla storia del Regno di Napoli (Naples, 1780-82), 1. 209-47 (at 239); Marin Sanudo, I diarii di Marino Sanuto, ed. Rinaldo Fulin, Federico Stefani, Nicolò Barozzi, Guglielmo Berchet, and Marco Allegri. 58 vols (Venice: Fratelli Visentini, 1879-1903. Facsimile repr., Bologna: Forni, 1969-1970), 13: col. 517 (Brescia), 45: col. 122 (Rome). The figure of 15,000 dead at Brescia is given by Andrea Mocenigo, La Guerra di Cambrai fatta a’ tempi nostri in Italia, trans. Andrea Arrivabene (First published in 1525. Venice, 1562), fol. 77r. See also John Gagné, ‘Counting the Dead: Traditions of Enumeration and the Italian Wars’, Renaissance Quarterly, 67.3 (2014): 791-840.

[3] Sanudo, Diarii, 45: cols 86, 166. Other early estimates varied between 3,000 and 4,000: ibid., cols 90, 92.

[4] An imperial commander, Georg Kirchmair, quoted in André Chastel, Sack of Rome, 1527, trans. Beth Archer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 91. One of the interlocutors in Alfonso Valdés’ 1527 pro-imperial dialogue on the sack of Rome suggests that this is an exaggeration and that no more than 4000 died: Alfonso de Valdés and the Sack of Rome: Dialogue of Lactancio and an Archdeacon, trans. John E. Longhurst, with Raymond R. MacCurdy (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1952), 59 (and see ibid., nn. 6, 7 for other estimates).

[5] For the populations of Rome and Brescia see Egmont Lee (ed.), Descriptio Urbis: The Roman Census of 1527 (Rome: Bulzoni, 1985), and Stephen D. Bowd,Venice’s Most Loyal City: Civic Identity in Renaissance Brescia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 18. On refugees in Rome see Marcello Alberini, Il sacco di Roma del MDXXVII: studi e documenti. 1. I ricordi, ed. Domenico Orano (Rome: Forzani, 1901), 279.

[6] Mack P. Holt, The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 94.

[7] Geoffrey Parker, The Dutch Revolt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 23, 178 (quotation).

[8] Idem (ed.), The Thirty Years’ War (2nd edn. London: Routledge, 1997), 112-13.