I’ve been reading a bit of Italian history recently. Partly inspired by a trip to Venice, partly just because the patchwork renaissance world of advanced, somewhat independent city states intrigues me. Maybe I’ve played too much Europa Universalis, but those strategy video games kept coming to mind here. Caterina Sforza was born the daughter of the powerful Duke of Milan, but married a member of an up and coming papal family, and found herself helping him to govern the small towns of Forli and Imola. In an Italy increasingly under the sway of major powers, this would be playing the game on quite a difficult mode,
Girolamo Riario, the husband, was erratic and got himself involved in the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici. His uncle Pope Sixtus IV eventually passed away and Caterina (although pregnant) jumped into the news by occupying parts of Rome to push for a beneficial result in the papal election. Neither of these were particularly successful and Riario soon found himself assassinated, and Caterina besieged by enemies. She would again show a ruthless side by taking an aggressive line in the face of enemies holding her children hostage (there’s a famous quotation “here I have what’s needed to make others”). She would rule the towns for more than another decade, with another two marriages (her choices this time) before being defeated and captured by the infamous Cesare Borgia.
This book by art historian Elizabeth Lev tells that story very well. The writing generally flows very well. An exciting tale of an independent woman in the world of the Medicis and the Borgias. There are however small touches in the writing that I didn’t like – there was a tendency to suggest what Caterina may have been thinking, and to repeatedly point out that she was a strong woman (telling rather than showing). She also can’t resist going into (what feels like) unnecessary detail on some artworks of the time. The main plot is good enough to make up for those minor issues.
From what I understand (initially from Patrick Wyman) this is a seminal text. Picking up on an idea of Michael Roberts, adjusting it and responding to later criticism from the likes of Jeremy Black. The general premise is a simple one: armies fought in one way in the 14th and 15th century and another way in the 19th century – how did the change happen? In timing, Roberts initially suggested a period of “military revolution” between 1560 and 1660, here Parker expands that to a full three centuries (1500-1800). Some critiques discussed at the end of the book suggest two revolutions – one at the start and one towards the end of that period, leaving out the century in the middle.
Anyway … the idea. Gunpowder came in, it was great at knocking down walls – so new styles of fortifications developed (bastions, ravelins, trace italienne). These forts were hard to storm (and defend) with the old small elite military, they require many men and guns. Wars became more focused on sieges, less on battles – although battles when they did occur could be decisive. New developments in naval warfare occurred as the use of cannon on board ship changed technology and tactics. All of this required money, men and supplies – feeding into the admin revolutions that occurred in Tudor England, 16th Century France and elsewhere.
Parker does go beyond Europe. The Ottomans had the technology, but were unable or unwilling to bring in the tactical changes required. Native Americans and Africans found the new fortifications impossible to deal with with their own ways of warfare (even when they did have access to guns). India soon caught up and the Marathas gave the British a tough struggle. China and Japan however had already or quickly adjusted to gunpowder and new fortifications, and were never really put to the test by europeans.
Much of the book is essentially a series of facts, stories and pieces of evidence supporting or related to this topic. This being the popular end of Parker’s work, this doesn’t get too focused. In fact, it’s a bit of a mish mash of stuff. But for the non-specialist (like me!) there are interesting stuff. If I had to pick one, the unarmed but diplomatically protected Red Seal Ships of Japan were fascinating. The last chapter puts things together and discusses place and development of the idea within the field of history.
A long time ago, I posted on David Crowther’s History of England podcast. Since then Crowther has went from strength to strength, with at least another hundred episodes and two more centuries. He has also explored ways of expanding the podcast – with a patreon platform and additional members podcasts – though I think he does still record in his shed. I faded out of listening to it a year ago, as he reached the Tudors (a topic that has never really been close to my heart).
I’ve picked it up again in the last month or two and actually quite enjoyed the topic. Although Crowther still loved to quote from the Ladybird Book of kings and queens, Sellar and Yeatman, and Winston Churchill (though the latter mostly just to wheel out an impression), he really seems to have dug into the historiography on the Tudors. His coverage of Henry VII finds a surprisingly light and positive tone, different to many popular histories, and his coverage of Henry VIII finds him exploring academic opinion over time. It’s detailed without getting bogged down – very well done.
Tacking a different tack on the subject, I recently re-read John Julius Norwich’s Four Princes. A quadruple biography of Henry VIII, Charles V, Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent. Norwich is as opinionated as ever – writing offhand comments on topics that Crowther agonised over for episodes – but he is still a very entertaining writer. There may not really be much new material there, even the focus on the relationships between the princes and their effect on foreign policy, but the inclusion of Suleiman is a good touch. Norwich does show how the Ottomans could drive the politics of Europe that the other three fought to rule, and it feels good to have them in their proper place in a history of Europe.