The Twighlight of a Military Tradition: Italian Aristocrats and European Conflict, 1560-1800.
On the wall of the garden of the Officers' Club in Verona, located within the city's fourteenth-century Castelvecchio, is a splendid Baroque funerary monument to the soldier Alexander, duke of Wemyss. For years, over coffee after lunch, I wondered how it was that a Scottish aristocrat had come to pursue a military career in northern Italy, and why it was that an Austrian army stationed in northern Italy would find a need to look so far to recruit its commanders. Gregory Hanlon has now answered my post-prandial inquiries. Italian nobles, it turns out, were increasingly disinclined to take up arms, just as Italian states gradually got out of the business of waging war. Elsewhere in Europe, military command remained an aristocratic preserve well into the nineteenth century and beyond, but Italy went against the grain. Foreign armies that occupied and/or tried to expand in Italy had to bring their own officers with them, or import outsiders such as the duke of Wemyss; natives weren't interested in the work.
The subject of the "progressive estrangement of Italian society from martial pursuits" (p. 1) is well worth pursuing. Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is becoming better known, thanks to a small but hard-working band of historians from several countries, but the basic narrative remains foreign even to specialists in the field. Italian military history of the period is even more obscure, as studies of high culture have predominated at the expense of the traditional political-military narrative--I could not, off the top of my head, recall what the War of Castro was all about or who fought it. Nor is this a minor topic, the spasmodic rumblings of decayed and inert states: the War of the Mantuan Succession involved the armies of France, Piedmont, Venice and the Empire (and nearly the fleets of Holland and England), and engaged thousands of troops for the better part of two decades. It is a real service to the English-speaking world, then, that Hanlon has filled a large lacuna. But he has aspired to more than that, to examine the cultural ramifications of the Italian detachment from military pursuits: "What effect did demilitarization have on the dynamics of Italian society, for military careers carry a baggage of cultural assumptions about social discipline, order and efficiency, technical progress and other 'virtues'?" (p. 2).
That is the plan of the book as sketched in the introduction, but the actual book offers something more and something less. Moving well beyond the theme of aristocratic demilitarization, Hanlon provides a complete military history of Italy in the later sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, with thorough explorations of the militaries of Spain, Austria and France as these operated in Italy or employed Italians abroad. The concern with a decreasing native aristocratic presence in the Italian military is ever-present, but it is only a minor theme in what is, in fact, a thorough political-diplomatic-military treatment. The book is both topical and narrative: along with exhaustive accounts of campaigns and protracted wars, it has extended discussions of military recruitment, training, organization, weapons, and finance. Sensibly, Hanlon does not attempt a conventional survey, with a basically uniform treatment of successive time periods. Rather, he concentrates on topical aspects of Italy's military history as those facets were most important: sea warfare in the sixteenth century, land wars after 1618, Venice's overseas ventures in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Austrian army (and Italians' employ in it) after 1660, the transformation of Piedmont (an exception to the pattern of demilitarization) in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and so forth. The net effect is a series of linked essays on early modern military history, with an emphasis on Italy and a subemphasis on Italian elites.
The cultural history of the early modern Italian military, by contrast, is relegated to a single and sketchy--albeit suggestive--chapter at the end. Hanlon raises a number of topics that relate to the role of military activities in the aristocratic value system--pageantry and ritual, neo-chivalric codes, military colleges and academies, jousting and mock battles, the conspicuous display of quasi-martial skills, the significance of uniforms--but cannot develop them very far. In like fashion, while he can demonstrate why Italian nobles suffered decreasing opportunities for military employment abroad (Spanish bankruptcy, Germanic hostility), he offers little explanation why, in sharp contrast to the experience of their brethren elsewhere, they ceased soldiering in their own armies. Still, such silences may be part of his intention. Working with a mass of antiquarian literature and secondary studies, as well as three prosopographical encyclopedias compiled in the Fascist era that gather accounts of thousands of Italians in the military, Hanlon made a bold but probably sensible decision to eschew primary research and to write a "pre-enquiry," a heuristic survey that can be confirmed, modified or refuted by future research (pp. 3,357). The first task would be to get the basic chronology down, and that he has done admirably; it may be enough only to indicate directions for future examination of cultural issues.
In sum, the book is greatly informative and should provoke considerable work along the lines that Hanlon indicates. It is a model of secondary research, and is also pleasantly written. I must, however, enter one fierce objection. The map on p. 17, after an original drawn up by a Spaniard, takes cartographic liberties of an egregiously nationalistic sort. I leave it to millions of French to protest that their Mediterranean frontage has been reduced to two ports and a few miles of coast, while that of Spain has been elongated beyond measure. For myself, I am outraged that the Adriatic has simply been eliminated, with the Dalmatian coast extending straight across (sic) to Monte Gargano. Venice has suffered much at the hands of her erstwhile friends; that she should be casually written off the map, after having povided the lion's share of forces to the Spanish-led fleet at the battle of Lepanto, is an act of unconscionable ingratitude.
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|Author:||Grubb, James S.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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