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Giovanni de Medici ‘s Black Band was a disciplined killing machine

Posted in Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about mercenaries originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

The Landsnecht's cannon, picture, image, illustration

As the Black Bands advanced the Landsknechts’ cannon thundered forth, by Graham Coton

It was a foul February night. The only sounds to be heard were the relentless drumming of rain; the jingle of horses’ harnesses and the muttered curses of the men as they slipped in the mud. It was 1524 and the French army was retreating across the Alps. And it was afraid. Afraid of the man it called the Grand Devil. Afraid of Giovanni de Medici and his Black Bands.
Francis I, King of France, had sent his men into Italy against the armies of the Pope and of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. At first victorious, they had gradually lost the initiative and now Francis’s enemies, aided by Venice and other Italian city-states and by mercenary forces, were driving them back to France.

Foremost among the mercenaries was Giovanni de Medici. Young, debonair and audacious, his feats in the service of pope and emperor had quickly made him famous throughout Italy. His army owed its strange title to Giovanni’s grief at the death of his patron, Pope Leo X. He had ordered his men to wear black bands of mourning. His enemies, however, claimed that the hearts of his men were as black as the bands they wore.

As the French retreated, the Black Bands harried them tirelessly, giving them no respite. The Black Bands were well-equipped with firearms and used them to good effect. In one skirmish the French commander, Admiral Bonnivet was wounded by a gun and the retreat thrown into greater disorder as a result. But others were learning to use firearms with equal skill – as Giovanni was one day to discover to his cost.

As well as equipping his men with the most advanced weapons, Giovanni ruled them with iron discipline, not the least in matters of personal cleanliness. This was no mere fad. The French army had been ravaged by plague and Giovanni did not want his own force to be devastated in the same way.

He decided that the disease had spread among the French because of their lack of hygiene. In consequence, he ordered his men to be particularly careful about washing themselves and their clothes and in keeping their caps and billets clean and free from contamination. His men were spared infection and his precautions were imitated elsewhere.

The men themselves were Italians and Albanians. Giovanni would use no others. He favoured Albanians particularly, because they understood Arab horses. Giovanni realised that a good supply of these light, agile beasts was essential to the success of his army as a striking force and he spared no pains to acquire Arab horses and to ensure that they were properly cared for.

Although he was always keen to improve the efficiency of his force, Giovanni was not greatly impressed with military theory, unless it stood up to vigorous testing. He was nevertheless impressed with the treatise on the art of war written by Niccolo Machiavelli, better known as the author of The Prince, the guide to autocratic rule which was so popular in the sixteenth and subsequent centuries.

One day, Machiavelli visited Giovanni and was invited to inspect the Black Bands. Giovanni went further and urged his guest to try out some of his theories on the 3,000 men assembled before him. Machiavelli accepted eagerly but in two hours had succeeded in reducing the whole parade to the utmost confusion. A few concise orders from Giovanni quickly sorted things out, but he had made his point and Machiavelli was quick to take it. Tactics on paper were one thing; the deployment of men in the field was something entirely different.

Giovanni and his army were never more needed than in 1526, when a change of alliance found the Pope and the King of France on one side and the Emperor Charles V on the other.

Charles, however, had a new force at his command – landsknechts. Although himself a staunch Roman Catholic and opposed to the Reformation, Charles was prepared to use the services of German mercenary soldiers of Lutheran beliefs, the landsknechts.

For these men, war against the Pope and Italy was not simply a business venture, as it was for other mercenaries; it was a holy war, a crusade.

Armed with firearms, halberds, broadswords and pikes, they tramped across the Alps in great hob-nailed boots, seemingly gigantic in their quilted jackets and breeches, striking terror into the Italian armies, except the Black Bands.

Giovanni and his men soon found themselves the sole defenders of Italy against the German invaders. Giovanni decided that he could not risk a head-on collision with them so he used his men in the way they knew best, hit-and-run attacks, guerilla raids, relentless harrying and harassment.

But although he had some success, Giovanni had at length to face the Germans; in November he had to prevent them crossing the River Po. When the two forces approached each other, Giovanni discovered to his horror that another Italian leader had not only defected to the Germans but had presented them with a battery of cannon.

As the Black Bands advanced, the landsknechts’ cannon thundered forth. Their gunners were inexperienced and hit only one man on the Italian side. But that was enough. For the injured man was Giovanni himself and, as he fell, his men lost heart and retreated.

His thigh smashed, Giovanni was taken on a jolting journey along icy roads to the nearest town. There the surgeon amputated the limb. Giovanni did not survive the operation – he had scarcely believed that he would. But as death approached and he grew numb to the pain, his old spirit returned and he declared that if he continued to improve in this way, he would soon teach the landsknechts how to fight.

These were almost his last words. When he died, two centuries of Italian mercenary warfare died with him. The days of the great Italian mercenary-leaders, the condottiere, were over. A new race, the German landsknechts, had taken over and were to dominate mercenary warfare in the coming century, when battles were no longer a matter of hand-to-hand fighting but of accurate fire-power.

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