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The militia

In the autumn of 1504 Michelangelo was given the commission to paint a battle scene for the Palazzo della Signoria as a companion piece to Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari. The ideals of the citizen militia and the armed republic were at the heart of the civic humanist ideology. The Florentine Quattrocento humanists admired the ancient Roman republic, its military system, and its citizen-soldier army, based on the male citizen's obligation to render military service and his right to keep and bear arms. For the civic humanists the Roman self-armed citizen, civis armatus, was a paragon of patriotism, military virtue and love of liberty. Extremely critical about the Florentine republic's reliance on hired mercenary forces for its defence, they called for military reform and a return to old virtuous ways of the medieval commune.

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Back in the Dugento, Florence had waged their limited wars with indigenuos troops. At the turn of the Trecento, the city had been able to put into the field an army of 800 fully equipped militia cavalrymen and 6,000 or perhaps even 15,000 foot soldiers. But the days of the civic militia were numbered. In the course of the Trecento, Florence and other Italian city-republics came increasingly to depend on hired mercenaries companies - under the command of so called condottieri (from condotta, Italian for "contract").

The Italian condottieri have become the stuff of myth and legend. While it is true that their chief motivations were self-interest and financial gain, and that they on many occasioned changed sides and loyalties, it is equally true that some mercenary captains were recognized for their military valor and for their service to the republic. Two of them, the Englishman Sir John Hawkwood (c. 1320-94, or Giovanni Acuto as he was commonly known in Italy) and Niccolò da Tolentino (c. 1350-1435), were on their deaths given state funerals and commemorated with equestrian portraits in the Florentine Duomo.

The growth of the mercenary system did not mean that military service was completely abandoned. Throughout the Renaissance, native troops continued to fight alongside the hired professional soldiers. In times of external aggression the republic continued to avail itself of temporary troop levies for its defense by imposing a so called comando on the subject population, requiring them to provide one armed infantrymen for every household. Such gente comandata were used in the effort to reconquer Pisa in 1499 and played an important role in the ambitious attempt to overcome the Pisan defenses in 1505. However, the citizens of Florence itself, its merchants, bankers, craftsmen and other professional men, remained unarmed and continued to pay others for their xxx.

Many Florentine humanists were strongly critical of this practice. Inspired by the example of the ancient Roman militia, they argued that Florence ought to revive the military spirit of the past by returning to the civic militia of the medieval commune. In his Laudatio (1402-3), Leonardo Bruni celebrated Florence's military achievements with explicit reference to the city's Roman heritage and the military system of the Roman republic. Later, in De militia (1421), he advocated a return to a classically inspired citizen militia based on a combination of elements derived from the military systems envisaged by Greek philosophers like Plato and Hippodamus and Romulus's Roman militia.

The ideal of the armed citizen, civis armatus, reappears in Matteo Palmieri's dialogue Vita civile ("On the civil life," 1430-35). Palmieri devotes much space to the Roman military system, arguing that the ancient Romans had been so animated by their love of liberty that they had had "no other thing on their mind than the health and the augmentation of the republic." (126) Their internal unity and their virtuous customs had enabled them to defeat their enemies, extend their empire, and bring a great part of the world under their sway.

Later in the Quattrocento, Alamanno Rinuccini recalled in his De libertate ("On liberty", 1479) with nostalgy the good old days when Florentine citizens had been willing to give their blood in defence of their patria and its liberty:

Yet this same people once fought powerful republics and great tyrants. They defended their liberty with success, first by sacrifice of bood and second by expenditure of vast wealth. We know how boldly, with what might and military cunning they made war against their neighbors when they saw themselves invaded or when, goaded by injuries and excessive provocations, they crossed the orders of others. (Humanism and Liberty, p. 208)

These critical voices notwithstanding, the Florentine republic continued to rely on hired condottieri and their disloyal mercenary bands for its defence.

In the autumn of 1504 Michelangelo was given the commission to paint a battle scene for the Palazzo della Signoria as a companion piece to Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari.

Michelangelo: Battle of Cascina (part), 1505, Cartoon, Private collection

Contributing to the Quattrocento humanists' critical view of the mercenary system was their frustration over Florence's failure to expand its territory after the conquests of Pisa and Livorno at the beginning of the century. Following the unsuccessful attempt on Lucca in the 1430s, Florence took a predominantly defensive stance in the Italian power-game and concentrated its efforts on maintaining control over its subject cities.

In his Dialogue on the Government of Florence (1521-26), Franscesco Guicciardini has the elderly statesman Bernardo del Nero comment on this development and the Medici regime's responsibility for the decline of Florentine military virtue:

the Medici family, like all narrow regimes, always tried to prevent arms being possessed by the citizens and to extinguish all their virility. For this reason we have become very effeminate, and we also lack the courageousness of our forefathers. Anyone who has considered how different it is to wage war with one's own arms and to wage it with mercenary troops can judge how harmful this is to a republic. (1994, 34)

Bernardo's reproach echoes Machiavelli's attack on the mercenary system in chapters 12 and 13 of The Prince, the Discourses and The Art of War. It should also be seen in connection to Machiavelli's most ambitious military and political project during his time in office, the introduction of the new Florentine militia of 1506. >>>

Related themes: empire, greatness, virtue, patria, liberty



Daniel Waley: "There is no evidence that the Florence of 1300 was a city of soft, decadent businessmen who preferred to pay others to fight on their behalf." (1968, 99)



C.C. Bayley on the decline of the citizen militia in Florence: "The decline was occasioned by the harsh lessons learned on the field of battle, the fierce inner conflicts which divided the citizen body, the growing wealth of the community, and the pursuit of a policy of territorial expansion which increased the duration and burden of war." (1961, 3)



Leonardo da Vinci: The Battle of Anghiari (detail)


By the end of the twelfth century, the city of Volterra legislated against their citizens serving in foreign armies.



Cavallata - obligation in medieval times to keep a horse for service



During the war against Milan in 1424, the hired mercenary captain Niccolò Piccinino deserted with all his troops from Florence to Milan, bringing the republic to the brink of capitulation.



Sir John Hawkood - English condottiere, also known as Giovanni Acuto, in employment with the Florentine republic (Paolo Uccello, Funeral monument , Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, 1436)



Leonardo Bruni in De militia: "the aim of a soldier must be to acquire glory, not wealth."



Niccolò Machiavelli in the Discourses II.10: "not gold .. but good soldiers are the sinew of war; for gold is not sufficient to find good soldiers, but good soldiers are quite sufficient to find gold." (1996, 148)


Lodovico Alamanni on the decline of Florentine military virtue: "We owe our forefathers very little .." >>>



Jacopo Pontormo: Portrait of a Halberdier


Niccolò Machiavelli on own arms in The Prince: "I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces ..." >>>




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