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

Below is the editor’s preface to F.L. Taylor’s 1920 classic Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529, published September 2020. It describes the birth of Early Modern warfare during the Italian Wars, and is available to US readers here (international rights pending).

The Italian Wars, which opened with the roar of French cannons knocking down the medieval fortress walls and closed with well-disciplined Spanish tercios standing triumphant on the battlefield, witnessed the birth of modern European warfare. Between Charles VIII’s invasion of 1494 and the 1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, European armies were completely transformed from cavalry-heavy feudal levies to professional forces of well-drilled infantry.

Frederick L. Taylor’s superb 1920 essay covers the first three decades of the wars, during which the bulk of these crucial changes took place. A rapid succession of large-scale battles gave generals the chance to experiment with new techniques and learn from their failures, turning Italy into the military laboratory of Europe. They employed the separate arms, old and new, in various combinations and tactical schemes, using heavy cavalry, carefully-drilled pike squares, gunpowder-armed infantry, mobile field artillery, and newly-introduced light cavalry to different effects. Fortress designs and siege techniques meanwhile evolved in mutual competition as heavy cannons proved not to be the invincible offensive weapons they first appeared.

Although different nations maintained distinct fighting styles, by 1529 it was apparent that any successful army had to be built around infantry formations combining pike and shot, with the other arms playing a supporting role. This date neatly divides the Italian Wars in half: before this time, fighting was largely confined to Italy. In the following decades, the wars expanded into much larger, continent-wide affairs that pitted massive coalitions against each other, a type of war that would dominate Europe up to the author’s day.

Frederick L. Taylor published his classic study in 1921, in the shadow of the Great War. He was born in 1892 to a middle-class family in London, where he attended Hackney Downs School before going off to St. John’s College, Cambridge. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war: 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, and was commissioned 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 fought in the ensuing Battle of Arras. For his actions there he was awarded the Military Cross, a second-level decoration which gave him the right to suffix his name with the initials “M.C.” Taylor was wounded on fourth day of Germany’s 1918 spring offensive and returned to England, where he was discharged from the army at the rank of captain. He resumed his studies in Cambridge in the fall, spending the next several months writing his dissertation, which became The Art of War in Italy.

Taylor’s experience of the war was in some ways 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 (such as Machiavelli) 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 that guaranteed success to the attacking general, so long as he could keep his army in the field and pay the cost. Trenches were dug to provide a covered approach, the walls were breached by bombardment or explosive mines, then artillery fire covered the final infantry assault; only relieving armies, enemy harassment of supply lines, and the approach of winter made the venture uncertain.

For the next three hundred years, warfare fell into a pattern dominated by the back-and-forth of siege and defense rather than maneuver in the open field. The threat that uncaptured fortresses posed to supply lines made offensives deep into enemy territory difficult, exceptions such as Gustavus Adolphus or Napoleon notwithstanding, causing most generals to prefer a strategy of positional warfare. World War I was the logical conclusion of this pattern: hundreds of miles of fortified lines were nothing if not 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 in history up to that point, 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 innovation 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.” In his chapter on siegecraft, 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 by 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 experience during the pursuit of the German army to the Hindenburg Line in February 1917, in which the British slogged through winter conditions on bad roads, struggling to maintain contact with the enemy. Despite these heroic efforts, the Germans managed to retrench in good order and the deadlock was renewed. 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 could 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 saw the style of warfare born in the Renaissance as fundamentally similar to that of his own day—he says of Gonzalvo de Cordoba, for example, that his operations “bear the stamp of sound modern strategy”, setting the standard for the emerging style of warfare. Any discussion of the Renaissance is liable to exaggerate its break with the past, and it is tempting to read a simplistic scheme of “medieval” and “modern” warfare in The Art of War in Italy. He does occasionally oversimplify the former, following the errors of Charles Oman’s monumental but dated The Art of War in the Middle Ages—for instance when he claims that earlier armies did not use reserves and lacked any finer level of tactical control.

Elsewhere, however, Taylor is much more sensitive to both the continuities and the genuine breaks with the past. He rightly emphasizes 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, he demonstrates, revolutionized warfare not with their pike formations per se, but by developing rigorous close-order drill. The discipline that this brought to the infantry as a whole allowed the effective employment of handheld gunpowder weapons in coordination with the other arms, exemplified by the Spanish tercio. Against this, French superiority in the defining arms of both the Middle Ages (heavy cavalry) and the Renaissance (artillery) was insufficient to win lasting victory. The deciding factor of the period was not technology or even great skill in individual arms, but the intelligent combination of all arms.

This increasing complexity of war demanded in turn the institutionalization of military knowledge, which was aided by another fortuitous development: 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, and played important roles in the events they describe. If the Renaissance was both the revival of classical scholarship and the birth of something entirely new, however, 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 the humanists compared Swiss pike battalions to the Macedonian phalanx or drew comparisons between ancient battles and contemporary ones, their true value was in documenting the changes of their time for a wide audience. The Art of War in Italy gives us a view not just of Renaissance warfare as it was, but as it was seen at the time, myths and misperceptions included.

F.L. Taylor’s book remains, 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 and interesting to the professional, while being 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 understanding them. For the student of medieval warfare, they put late medieval infantry developments in proper perspective, showing by way of contrast the continued relative importance of the cavalry. They are important for the political scientist too: just as pike-and-shot formations dominated European battlefields for the following century and a half, the Italian Wars brought about an international order that lasted just as long. Spanish victories led to Habsburg domination of the continent and encirclement of France until the reign of Louis XIV. Finally, these events provided the grand backdrop to the Italian Renaissance itself. The study of the Italian Wars helps 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 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.

I wish to thank Tom Bekers for his help with this edition. He is a relative of Taylor’s, and generously provided invaluable details on his life and wartime experience drawn from family records and archival research. He is currently working on a biography of Taylor.

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

Art of War in Italy