Italian Wars

New Book: “The Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529 (Critical Edition)”

We are proud to announce the publication of F.L. Taylor’s 1920 classic Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529 on the birth of Early Modern warfare during the Italian Wars. It is available to US readers here (international rights pending). Below is the editor’s preface:

The Italian Wars opened with the roar of French cannons that brought medieval walls crashing down, and closed with Spanish tercios standing triumphant on the battlefield. Over the span of just a few decades, a new style of warfare was born. The conflicts set in motion by Charles VIII’s invasion of Naples in 1494 made Italy the laboratory of Europe, where generals experimented in campaigns of unprecedented size and intensity. They learned to employ various arms, old and new, in innovative combinations, as fortification and siegecraft underwent rapid parallel evolution. By 1559, when the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis brought the wars to a close, the heavy cavalry which dominated medieval battlefields had ceded place to masses of well-drilled infantry.

Frederick L. Taylor’s classic study covers the first few decades of the Italian Wars, during which most of these changes took place. Already by 1529 it was apparent that any successful army had to combine handheld firearms with serried ranks of pikemen. This date also marks a shift in the scope of the wars: before it, fighting was largely confined to Italy; in the following decades, the Italian theater was subsumed to the larger Habsburg-Valois wars, continent-wide affairs that pitted massive coalitions against each other—a type of warfare that dominated Europe until the author’s day.

The Art of War in Italy was published in 1921 in the shadow of the Great War. Frederick L. Taylor was born in 1892 to a middle-class family in London, where he attended Hackney Downs School before matriculating at St. John’s College, Cambridge. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the war, whereupon he was recruited into the University and Public Schools Battalion of Kitchener’s New Army in September 1914 and served in France at the headquarters of the 18th UPS Royal Fusiliers. In June 1916 Taylor returned to England to attend officer training, commissioning as a second lieutenant in September that year. He was back at the front to command a platoon in the 17th Royal Fusiliers in the Battle of the Ancre from 13 to 18 November, the final action of the Battle of the Somme. Over the next year, he took part in the pursuit of the German Army to the Hindenburg Line and the ensuing Battle of Arras. For his actions there he was awarded the Military Cross, a second-level decoration. Taylor was wounded on fourth day of Germany’s 1918 spring offensive and returned to England, where he was discharged from the army with the rank of captain. He resumed his studies in Cambridge in the fall and spent the next several months writing his dissertation, which became The Art of War in Italy.

Taylor’s experience of the war was in some respects the culmination of the evolution he describes in Italy. The introduction of machine guns and modern artillery made warfare resemble something like siege warfare in the Renaissance. For all that Charles VIII’s cannons convinced some observers that castles were obsolete, rapid innovation brought the defense back up to rough parity with the offense. Fortifications were redesigned to minimize the impact of cannonballs and maximize the effectiveness of their own artillery, funneling assaulting infantry into deadly fire sacks. In response, siegecraft quickly developed into a deliberate and systematic process. Trenches were dug to provide a covered approach, artillery was pushed up to fortified positions, the walls were breached by bombardment or explosive mines, then gunfire covered the final infantry assault; barring the arrival of a relief army or the onset of winter, the odds for a well-equipped besieger were high.

Although the relative importance of field armies varied over the next four centuries, sieges remained a constant of warfare as artillery and fortification evolved through competition. World War I was the logical conclusion of this pattern, paired with the growth in army sizes that began in the Renaissance. The hundreds of miles of fortified lines on the Western Front were two massive, mutually-besieged fortresses, hopelessly blurring the distinction between siege and open-field battle. Even the particulars of the assault were similar: artillery bombardments of the defensive works followed by infantry charging out of the trenches and into the breach.

On 1 July 1916, the British detonated nineteen mines under German positions to initiate the Battle of the Somme. This explosion, the largest ever produced by man, was immediately followed by mortar fire and an infantry assault across the blast craters. The offensive made little headway in the teeth of a strong German defense, and the battle dragged out into a months-long ordeal. Taylor was not present for these early operations, but he was back at the front for the concluding phase of the battle where he fought near Beaumont-Hamel. This village was guarded by the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, a massive fortification which had been mined during the initial assault in July. The mine tunnel was reopened and exploded anew to commence the Battle of the Ancre on 13 November: once again the frontal assault failed to take the German redoubt, but the flanking actions, in which Taylor’s battalion participated, induced a German surrender.

Many of the details of the Battle of the Ancre reflected practices developed in 16th-century Italy. Taylor makes this connection explicit: he says of the explosive mine, an invention of the Renaissance, that “there is little difference between the mines of Pedro Navarro and those which have recently pitted the departments of northeastern France” (ch. 7). He also describes how attacking forces would often make secondary breaches in fortress walls to draw defenders away from the primary one—this is effectively what the 17th RF did by their actions on the flank of the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt.

In a more general sense too Taylor’s time mirrored the Renaissance. The increased firepower of both ages made warfare decidedly bloodier even as generals groped for effective ways to organize their armies around the new weapons. Renaissance commanders often won decisive victories using a mixture of new and old methods, which could lead them down blind alleys—in chapter 4, Taylor notes how the magnificent victory won by French cavalry at Marignano encouraged Francis I to disastrously over-rely on them.

To the extent that The Art of War in Italy reveals the author’s thoughts on his own time, Taylor resembles his subjects in grasping the fundamental problem of his own age without necessarily seeing the way ahead. In chapter 6 he states: “To a modern commander a relentless hunting of a retreating enemy is the one excuse for overtaxing the strength of his own men.” He may well have been thinking of his own experience pursuing the German army to the Hindenburg Line in February 1917, when the British slogged through winter conditions on bad roads, struggling to maintain contact with the enemy. Despite these heroic efforts, their quarry managed to occupy new positions in good order, and the deadlock resumed. The great challenge of the Western Front was in effectively pursuing the enemy—exploiting breakthroughs in the enemy lines was far more difficult than the breakthrough itself, however bloody that might be. The exponential growth in firepower brought a corresponding growth in logistical demands, and armies supplied by carts and horses were slowed to a crawl when they moved past their railheads. This problem would only be solved with trucks and tanks, which only appeared at the end of the war in a limited, tactical capacity. It is interesting, then, that Taylor regarded warfare in his own day as fundamentally similar to what was born in the Renaissance, not as the great rupture that we ordinarily consider it—he says of Gonsalvo de Cordova, for example, that his operations “bear the stamp of sound modern strategy.”

Any discussion of the Renaissance is liable to exaggerate its break with the past, and Taylor’s artful sketch of the major developments is occasionally too neat. He takes a somewhat simplistic view of medieval warfare, following Charles Oman’s monumental but dated The Art of War in the Middle Ages, which downplays the sophistication of armies in preceding centuries. Yet he is also correct in emphasizing how many changes occurred in a very short period. He notes, for instance, the continued preponderance of heavy cavalry well into the Italian Wars, and shows how it was only the massed fire of trained arquebusiers that truly displaced them, mythology surrounding the English longbow or Swiss pike notwithstanding. The Swiss contribution lay less in their weapons than in the rigorous close-order drill they developed to employ them: this facilitated the later effective employment of handheld firearms in coordination with other arms, exemplified by the Spanish tercio. Against this, French dominance in the defining arms of both the Middle Ages (heavy cavalry) and the Renaissance (artillery) was insufficient to secure victory. Wars of the future were to be decided not by technology or superior forces, but by the intelligent combination of all arms.

This increasing complexity of war demanded in turn the institutionalization of military knowledge, abetted by the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance. Men such as Guicciardini, Machiavelli, and Giovio were both curious observers and active participants in the affairs of their time, playing important roles in the events they describe. But if the Renaissance was both the revival of classical learning and the birth of something new, the changes in warfare leaned decidedly toward the latter. Tactics and formations were improved by the rigor of battlefield trial-and-error, not the airy theorizing of a Machiavelli. For all that humanists compared Swiss pike battalions to the Macedonian phalanx, or claimed ancient inspiration for modern battles, their true value was in documenting the changes of their time. There is an uncanny parallel between Taylor, who compared his own wartime experience to the campaigns of the Italian Wars, and his subjects, who described their own revolutionary age through the lens of antiquity. The Art of War in Italy gives us a view not just of Renaissance warfare as it existed, but as it was seen at the time, myths and misperceptions included.

F.L. Taylor’s book remains, over a century after it was written, one of the best single-volume surveys of the birth of early modern warfare. It is accessible to the layman, interesting to the professional, and useful to specialists in adjacent fields. The Italian Wars had such a profound effect on the course of European history that many disciplines can profit from studying them. For the student of medieval warfare, they put late medieval infantry developments in perspective, showing by way of contrast the continued relative importance of the cavalry. For the political scientist, they reveal the origins of a new European order, which saw Habsburg domination of the continent and encirclement of France for the next two centuries. For scholars of the Italian Renaissance, these events form the grand backdrop to the grand finale. The study of the Italian Wars help us understand the humanists and the political machinations they wrote about, the princes who financed artists and armies, and the sack of Rome which brought the High Renaissance to a close.

As important a work as The Art of War in Italy was, Taylor himself had enough of both war and the academy. Just months after submitting his dissertation, he became a novice at St. Augustine’s Abbey at Ramsgate, taking the monastic name Adrian. He would spend the rest of his life there, becoming headmaster of the abbey school in 1924 and abbot a decade later. Dom Adrian Taylor died in 1961.

You can purchase The Art of War in Italy by clicking below:

Art of War in Italy