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The Black Bands of Giovanni: Infantry and Diplomacy during the Italian Wars (1526-1528).

Maurizio Arfaioli. The Black Bands of Giovanni: Infantry and Diplomacy during the Italian Wars (1526-1528).

Pisa: Edizioni Plus, 2005. xviii + 204 pp. append. illus. tbls. [euro]18. ISBN: 88-8492-231-3.

As the title suggests, this interesting little volume does not focus on the famous Florentine condottiere, Giovanni "of the Black Bands" de' Medici (1498-1526), but rather on the band of black-clad soldiers who were so highly regarded in their day that, according to Benedetto Varchi, King Henry VIII of England "never tired of praising them." The Black Bands fought for the King of France while Giovanni was still alive (he was captain general of infantry for the Holy League of Cognac), for Pope Clement VII (they were known as the "pope's devils") at Frisonone and in defense of Rome in 1527, and then for the Florentine Republic, taking part in the sieges of Naples (1528) and Florence (1529-30). The author provides some useful information about the composition and deployment of the Black Bands and, in so doing, sheds some light on what life must have been for members of a body of mercenary pike-and-shot infantrymen in sixteenth-century Italy.

It was the heavy cavalry who won the day in medieval battles, but by the time of the Italian Wars in the early decades of the 1500s, victory more often depended on skilled infantrymen, combining pikemen (equipped with pikes and other weapons such as halberds, half-pikes, swords, and bucklers) and shooters (equipped with arquebuses and falconets, or small cannon), and sometimes accompanied by light horsemen (Giovanni himself preferred Albanian stradioti mounted on small Turkish horses for his light cavalry). The Black Bands specialized in skirmish and assault tactics, and as such were perfectly suited for offensive operations, even though at least one of their employers, the Florentine Republic, would have been more comfortable with a defensive army (one record of 1527 indicates that of the 3,800 mercenaries being paid out of the Florentine treasury, 2,150 of them were arquebusiers, only 304 of them pikemen and other foot soldiers, along with more than 800 garzoni, or servants; these numbers suited an offensive army, while the republic's agents would have preferred a mix of two-thirds pikemen and one-third shooters, a "more orthodox ratio" for defense, not to mention fewer servants on the payroll). Thus there were issues between this mercenary army and its employer; negotiations took place between the captains of the Black Bands and the agents of the republic, and the resulting wealth of source material (detailed reports to the "Ten" by Lorenzo di Niccolo Martelli, the republic's commissario, and others, preserved in the Dieci di Balia fondo of the Florentine State Archives) has enabled Arfaioli to investigate this mercenary army and its interactions with its employer.

Along the way we are treated to some fascinating details. Giovanni "of the Black Bands" was fatally wounded in 1526 by a shot in the leg from a falconet which was the gift of the Duke of Ferrara to the imperial troops led by Frundsberg. While archival records provide the names of the captains of the companies within the Black Bands, very little can be known about individual soldiers, although we do learn that one of them, known as Cecchino del Piffero, was the brother of Benvenuto Cellini. And whatever else military and social historians might owe to the tales of early modern Italian soldiers recorded here--and the debt is significant--surely the one of most universal importance is the story of how Zabaglione was "invented" by the Perugian condottiere Giampaolo Baglioni!


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Author:Rainey, Ronald
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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