- The Black Bands of Giovanni: Infantry and Diplomacy during the Italian Wars (1526–1528)
The Black Bands of Giovanni offers a fascinating exploration of Renaissance political and military history. Instead of focusing on the infamous condottiere and military adventurer Giovanni de' Medici, Maurizio Arfaioli provides an in-depth analysis of his Black Bands—the infantry units whose mourning clothes eventually made their former commander renowned in historiography as 'Giovanni delle Bande Nere'. The book traces the history of the Black Bands' service in the armies of the League of Cognac, a French-led alliance that opposed Emperor Charles V's growing influence in Italy from 1526 to 1528.
Throughout this study, Arfaioli uses a rich body of manuscript sources to expose the military activities of the Black Bands and their delicate political relationship with the Florentine Republic during a key phase of the Italian Wars in the 1520s. The political and administrative correspondence between Florentine commissioners operating with the Black Bands and the Council of Ten that managed military matters for the Republic, conserved in the Archivio di Stato di Firenze, offers a unique window onto the experiences of the captains and soldiers of the Black Bands, but also onto the dynamics of Renaissance Italian warfare.
Arfaioli's use of Florentine, Venetian, Mantuan, and Spanish correspondence in conjunction with contemporary military treatises challenges many of the assumptions made by previous historians, who have overrelied on the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini. The author carefully excavates evidence of the ways in which Renaissance military entrepreneurs negotiated contracts, recruited troops, obtained weapons, provided food, and managed military forces—opening new perspectives on the techniques and practices of warfare during the Italian Wars. [End Page 492]
Although Arfaioli's study is primarily military, he never loses sight of broader social and political contexts in which military entrepreneurs and their troops operated. Following an introductory section on Renaissance warfare, the book develops a detailed analytic narrative of the formation of the League of Cognac's army and its invasion of the kingdom of Naples. Throughout this narrative, the author uses the Black Bands' contradictory roles in Florentine defense and in League offensive operations to reveal the complexities of war in Renaissance Italy. While the captains of the Black Bands formed a semiautonomous union to protect their interests, the units became caught in a political struggle between the fledgling Florentine Republic and their new military entrepreneur, the Perugian Orazio Baglioni—who eventually gained control of the Black Bands and led them to join the League of Cognac's main army in its campaign to take Naples from Imperialist forces. The final section of the book analyzes the social, political, and medical factors that produced the disastrous failure of the League army's siege of Naples in 1528, and the dissolution of the Black Bands.
One of the real strengths of this work is its contribution of bringing a Florentine perspective into the study of early modern military history. In order to do this, the author sidesteps the famous Military Revolution debate, avoids delving into French sources, and leaves certain military and naval details to a series of appendices. Instead, the book demonstrates that during this dramatic phase of the Italian Wars, the fate of the newly restored Florentine Republic hung in the hands of the Black Bands.
The bands represented the military might of the Republic, even though Giovanni had created them and his Medici kin were unsure allies of Florence at this historical moment. While the Florentine government succeeded at first in keeping war far from its territory, Florence ultimately failed to protect itself by using its military power or political negotiations. Lurking behind Arfaioli's narrative is the 1529–30 siege of Florence that would bring to an end the Florentine Republic and usher in a long period of Medici rule.