Julian Romane, The First & Second Italian Wars 1494-1504 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In this narrative history of the Italian Wars, Julian Romane promises a ‘chronicle of violence and passion, of ambition, achievement and death, of defeat and victory’. War, he argues, is a ‘drama of the human heart’. Yet, Romane acknowledges that this decade transformed Western warfare as military innovation integrated with the political-economies of Europe, providing the energy for future European expansion. Those are big boots to fill in under 240 pages.
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Romane’s narrative proceeds through small, subheaded sections that bring France and Italy into the mix and the ascension of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI – the Borgias run through this story like an irredeemably polluted river. Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 kicks off the action. We follow him down through Italy while the Holy League organised some opposition. When they did, the two sides met at Fornovo in 1495, a major French victory. Charles VIII died in 1498, probably poisoned, according to Romane. The French throne fell to Louis XII. The wars continued.
Then we meet Cesare Borgia, the ‘Prince of Foxes’. He became the spearhead of Louis XII and the Pope in a campaign known as the Impresa. Romane describes Cesare’s mastery of artillery, manoeuvre, and training a disciplined army in the siege of Ravaldino in January 1500. A second Impresa brought the fall of Faenza, and a third, Urbino. Meanwhile, Louis XII campaigned too. His aim was Naples, and Cesare joined him. The campaign included the infamous sack of Capua, and Naples quickly surrendered rather than face the same fate. Cesare next took on a condottieri revolt and won in the cruel manner that made his reputation. He would fall, however, through an act of poisoning that killed Pope Alexander VI and left Cesare weakened. The new Pope, Julius II, despised the Borgias, making life more difficult for Cesare.
Enter Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, the great Spanish captain. His Spanish army struck in 1503, defeating the French at Seminara and Cerignola, then he conquered Naples and defeated the French at Garigliano. That forced the French to seek terms, bringing the wars to a temporary halt. In the middle of this Romane follows the adventures of the chivalrous page turned minor noble Pierre Bayard, that Romane suggests was the last of his kind, an anachronism on the eve of a new form of war.
Romane leaves much of the background knowledge that would be useful for understanding his narrative for a series of appendices on sources, Italy in 1490, the growth of finance, the development of gunpowder, Pope Alexander VI’s place in Church history, and the curious use of poison in the Renaissance. This seems to this reviewer as indicative of disconnects that run through Romane’s book. Some of the text is well-written, particularly his illuminating character sketches and scenes, but they are not helped by an often passively written narrative that hinders its flow – his reliance on subheadings does not help with that. Romane does untangle a complicated story and he makes the events easy to follow, but it feels like an opportunity missed: Romane’s style turns something potentially great into something good. Readers new to the early Italian Wars, however, will find this a good place to begin and perhaps that was all Romane set out to do.