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).