Book Review of The Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe

Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw. The Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe. Modern Wars in Perspective series. Harlow, England: Pearson, 2012. ISBN 978-0-582-05758-6. Maps. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxi, 367. $49.60.

Originally posted in Military History (26 July 2012)

The Italian Wars (1494-1559) changed the political landscape of the Italian Peninsula in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  The Italian states, including Milan, Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples, that had dominated Renaissance Italy were invaded and controlled by the foreign leaders and armies of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire during a series of eight wars.  These conflicts began with a French invasion of Italy in 1494 and ended with Spanish dominance in Italy in 1559.  During this sixty-five year period the Italian Wars brought major shifts in the balance of power in Italy and Europe, military organization, and diplomatic practice.  Despite the importance of these conflicts, the Italian Wars have surprisingly lacked a comprehensive study in the English language that examines these political, diplomatic and military issues.

Dr Michael Mallett, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Warwick and a distinguished historian of fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy, began this much needed study of the Italian Wars in the outstanding Modern Wars in Perspective series.  He is the author of The Borgias: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Dynasty (1969), Mercenaries and Their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy (1974), and co-author (along with John R. Hale) of The Military Organization of a Renaissance State: Venice, c.1400 to 1617 (1984).  Unfortunately, Mallett became ill and died before he could turn his extensive research on the Italian Wars into a complete study.  After his death, Dr Christine Shaw, a Research Fellow at Swansea University, used Mallett’s notes, along with her own research to complete the work.  Shaw is known for her work that includes Julius II: The Warrior Pope (1993) and (as editor) Italy and the European Powers: The Impact of War, 1500-1530 (2006).

This study depicts the politics, diplomacy, and conduct of war during the Italian Wars.  It is well-written and organized.  The book is based on primary and secondary works.  Mallett and Shaw depict Italian politics and combinations of alliances of the numerous Italian states in the complex series of Italian wars involving the great powers of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, along with involvement by England, Scotland, and even the Ottoman Empire.  The authors explore the Italian conflicts from the opening dispute between Charles VIII of France and Ferdinand of Aragon over hereditary control of the Duchy of Milan and Kingdom of Naples in the late fifteenth century; to the creation of various alliances between the great powers and Italian states to prevent one power’s domination over the Italian Peninsula; to the various wars between Francis I of France and the Emperor Charles V, including the dramatic battle of Pavia (1525) and sack of Rome (1527); to the various temporary peace settlements, and finally Philip II of Spain’s defeat of France and control of most of Italy, including Milan and Naples, in the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559.

Mallett wrote the two chapters that might interest students and scholars of military history the most.  In “The Transformation of War” the author discusses military weapons and the balance of arms, the impact of gunpowder weapons, fortifications and siegecraft, the rise of professional standing armies, military training and skills, tactics and strategy, leadership, the war at sea, and the experience of war.  In this chapter he stresses the rising value of infantry over cavalry in the Italian Wars, noting the effectiveness of Swiss and German pike infantry as well as massed Spanish arquebusiers.  He points out the creation of small, professional standing armies that were supplemented by militias and mercenary forces.  The author describes infantry tactics and weapons, along with the employment of artillery.  Contrary to what many believe, Mallett argues that “the French artillery did not make a great contribution to Charles VIII’s successful march through Italy in 1494-95” (p.182).  He goes further to say that: “In the last resort, guns [artillery] contributed more to a shift towards defence than to one towards blitzkrieg.  The majority of guns manufactured and employed by the European powers were sited in defensive works, on the walls of towns and castles, guarding routes, all encouraging the development of bastions and earthwork emplacements” (p.183). He stresses that the construction of the new style of fortifications, the so-called trace italienne, were being built before the French invasion in 1494.  In the second chapter, “The Resources of War,” Mallett explores the resources and logistics of the armies involved in the Italian Wars.  He discusses the recruitment and mobilization of infantry and cavalry units, military ordinances involving the muster and control of armies, billeting and supply of the armies, pay, naval resources, and the cost of war.

The Italian Wars consist of a complex, at times confusing, puzzle of political issues, alliances, and military actions by numerous actors and states.  Shaw expertly handles these issues.  However, a novice to the Italian Wars may find it difficult to follow her narrative at times.  She frequently fails to cite dates (the year) of particular events, which if included, would make it easier for readers to follow her narrative and arguments.  A chronology of major events would have been extremely beneficial.

The Italian Wars, 1494-1559 is highly recommended to students and scholars interested in the politics, diplomacy, and warfare of Early Modern Europe.  The study fills a void for a comprehensive study of the Italian Wars in the historiography of warfare, and will be an important study for years to come.  For those individuals interested in reading more about the Italian Wars, there are many scholarly journal articles, essays, and monographs on different aspects of the politics and diplomacy of the era.  But, there are few military studies.  These studies include the influential Frederick L. Taylor, The Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529 (1921), Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century (1937), Simon Pepper and Nicholas Adams, Firearms and Fortifications: Military Architecture and Siege Warfare in Sixteenth-Century Sienna (1986), David Abulafia (editor), The French Descent into Renaissance Italy, 1494-1495 (1995), David Nicolle, Fornovo, 1495: France’s Bloody Fighting Retreat (1996), Angus Konstam, Pavia, 1525: The Climax of the Italian Wars (1996), as well as Maurizio Arfaioli, The Black Bands of Giovanni: Infantry and Diplomacy during the Italian Wars (1526-1528) (2005).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
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