Renaissance Warfare: the source of its captivating powers

Twice or thrice a year I receive the same old question: “Why study Renaissance? Why do you prefer wars of 16th – 17th centuries to all other conflicts?” I’ve never had any troubles answering such queries. For me the question is rather “What’s not to love about Renaissance wars?”

(A little elucidation is in order. By Renaissance in military context I mean roughly the period from the start of the Italian wars to the end of the 30 Years’ War. Of course I know that such notion is not orthodox, but it’s not without sound reasons. The real Renaissance, the Italian one, involved profound and widely known changes in culture but it hadn’t had much effect on European warfare. Michael Mallett warned us from thinking of Italian warfare as of something isolated from the rest of Europe, but the rest of Europe definitely was isolated from many military after-effects of the Italian Renaissance. 

Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in his quest for the throne of Naples changed everything. European warfare became enriched with tactics, weapons and fortifications that stemmed from Renaissance ideas. A clockwork world came ticking after that fateful 1494. That’s why Renaissance wars follow after the true cultural Renaissance. Leonardo Da Vinci created many chef-d`oeuvres in 14th century, probably invented the wheel-lock near 1505, but wheel-lock pistols in hands of the Reiter mercenaries became the real bane of the armoured knights only 50 years later).

Ultimately I love Renaissance Warfare for two distinctive features: colourful armies and the scent of that fascinating era.

The first one is easy: armies of 16th century are awesome because they have the best things from both medieval and modern periods. Imagine charging knights in shining armour: lances down, plumes streaming in the wind… thick gunpowder smoke covers artillery batteries and musketeer companies… drums are beating the advance and steadfast infantry lines slwoly move forward, bristling with pikes… flags and standards unfurl to the sound of trumpets, so you can see all possible colours and all pious or bragging words… —  you’ve just imagined a 16th century battle. It’s honour against discipline, lances against pistols, swords against cannonballs. And “colourful” is literally said, because while uniforms are uncommon, dandy clothes and coats of arms still rule the battlefield, and chivalry still dwells in many hearts. However, there is also a dark side to the Renaissance wars. Bombardment of besieged cities, trenches filled with rainwater, fierce fighting in underground tunnels, scientifically calculated violence of new war machines — too many traits of Renaissance remind us about horrors to come, and looking into wars of 20th century we have to repeat old cliché: “War… war never changes”.

The spirit of the era is more difficult to explain. Basically, it’s the world in which Renaissance warfare took place and the impact  it made upon that world. 16th century is the time of many more extraordinary people than just Charles V, Francis I, Henry VIII, Philip II, Elizabeth I and their warlords. It is also the time of Erasmus and Paracelsus, Loyola and Calvin, Rafael and Palladio, Drake and Cortes, Caravaggio and Dürer, Titian and El Greco, Cervantes and Rabelais, Vesalius and Bacon, Galileo and Bruno and this list is just the tip of the iceberg.

This is also the time of explorers, scientists and conquistadors. Empires were destined to rise and fall, inventions were ready to be made, the great shift from medieval to the modern state has begun, as well as the shift from medieval to modern mind. World of the Renaissance centuries is an open one. Its map is still unrolled, Planet Earth still uncharted, European civilization still young and proud, standing on the verge of great discoveries, expansions and conflicts.

I don’t know if I’ve got it here, but that’s it. That’s why in Renaissance wars most of all I like the very fact that they were… well, wars of the Renaissance.


Filed under 16th century, Italy

8 responses to “Renaissance Warfare: the source of its captivating powers

  1. Very convincing, and you even managed to slip a Fallout quote into text about 16 century :))

  2. Pingback: Early Renaissance « Fifth room in the Fourth floor

  3. Pingback: Mysteries of battle | Sellswords, mercenaries and condottieri

  4. Pingback: “They shot at the skies”: soldiers and firearms of 16th century | Sellswords, mercenaries and condottieri

  5. Stuart Raperport

    Abraham Colorni is supposed to have invented in Ferrara, Italy a 10 chambered revolver towards the end of the 16th Century and have made 2000 of them for the Duke Alfonso d’Este.
    Any further info would be much appreciated.
    Stuart Raperport

    • It seems that this info mostly comes from his own claims. I wasn’t able to find any other firsthand account of such a big amount of unique guns. One or several guns is veritable for that time, but 2000… Probably it was his boasting.

  6. Max

    Your lists skips some minor players in society and art, like Suleyman the lawgiver, Luther, Kopernikus, Ivan the terrible, or Leonardo, Michelangelo, Macchiavelli and the Borgias… not to forget the more shady characters like Torquemada, the evasive Faust…

    Well, I really know what you mean with this entry :-)

  7. Stefano Cillo

    You sir explained perfectly the love we share for early modern conflicts. However I can’t help but feel the numberless cruelties these prodigious wars brought with them. The carelessness of these terrible States, sending their own people into the lungs of hell and those very soldiers living every day between pain and atrocities themselves commit should always remind us why “the most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war”. Thank you for all your enlightening articles!

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