The Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe - Book Review

By Anne Maltempi

The Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe written by historians Michael Mallet and Christine Shaw provides a predominantly chronologically structured military and political history of the Italian Wars. Concerned with demonstrating the importance of the Italian Wars, Mallet and Shaw negated the arguments of contemporaries Guicciardini and Machiavelli’s accounts which blame Italian political and diplomatic failures for the French invasion in 1494; instead, Mallet and Shaw point to a series of complex political, social, and technological events complicating the narrative put forth by the early modern Italian humanists.

Mallet and Shaw’s central arguments were that the Italian Wars reshaped Italy as well as the rest of Europe militarily, culturally, and politically; additionally, a key point they emphasized was the contestation of Spanish power in Italy arguing against the historiographical body of literature which propagated narratives of the tyrannical Spanish power dominating Italy under the “pax hispanica.” Furthermore, Mallet and Shaw suggested the contingency of Spanish power through the whole of Europe in demonstrating how well Spanish forces contended with the others involved in the Italian Wars particularly those of the French.

The book is divided into ten chapters, with a source base consisting of several national archives—those of Venice, Lucca, Florence, and Simancas—as well as the variety of secondary academic sources, and primary documents from the period. The first five chapters provided the bulk of the context for the subsequent sections including key players in the Wars such as the Charles V, Julius II, Louis XII, King Ferdinand of Naples, along with military commanders, noble families, among many others.

The scholars also went into detail in this section about the claims both France and Spain had on the Kingdom of Naples, and the complicated relationships formed between each key player with the Duchy of Milan, Venice, and the Papacy. Additionally, the book goes into great detail describing the critical battles of the Italian Wars such as the Battles of Ravenna and the Battle of Pavia. The book also contains several incredibly useful maps which help illustrate some of the battles for readers, as well as provide general geographic information for readers. However, thematic chapters six and seven provided a welcomed break from the narrative barrage of names, principalities, and dates which overwhelmingly occupied the first five chapters.

Chapters six and seven focused specifically the technological advances of warfare, for which, Mallet and Shaw explained the Italian Wars served as a testing ground. Here the Mallet and Shaw discussed the innovations such as advances in gunpowder weaponry, the building of fortresses styled in the trace italienne, and the importance of infantry. Not to mention the growing size of military infantry that was occurring in this period. Eventually, only larger city-states would be able to maintain such forces. This growth in army size contributed to the establishment of the professionalized military, which would have broader implications for the coming years.

The last few chapters of the book are predominantly a political-historical narrative which centers on the end of the wars with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, and the legacies. For example, Mallet and Shaw argued throughout these final chapters that— aside from the fact that the “victory” of Spain was an unforeseen event—that the Italian Wars were not expected to come to a definitive close with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, since there was a general lack of resolution to the Wars with the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529. According to Mallet and Shaw’s account, it was the French had to turn their attention inward at the outbreak of religious civil wars within their nation which caused the Italian Wars to come to a close. Chapter ten, in particular, focuses specifically on the legacies of the Italian Wars.

According to Mallet and Shaw, some of these included the ability to test and create new military technologies which established the foundations for a professionalized army, the expansion of Italian Renaissance and humanist culture to the whole of Europe, and the original implementation of Spanish power in Italian territories. The application of Spanish power in Italy was a complicated process in itself. As Mallet and Shaw explained, some territories transitioned more easily than others. Nevertheless, the transition was tenuous at best. Mallet and Shaw stated “Italians need not have perceived the power of the Spanish empire as overwhelming and inescapable.

The Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State, and Society in Early Modern Europe provided an excellent and complete narrative of the Italian Wars and the effects they had on Italy and the whole of Europe. While the structure of the book was unpleasant, with the block of context at its inception, the synthesis provided is clear and accessible given the overwhelming amount of information provided. Perhaps the structure could have been altered to create a less monotonous start. However, for anyone who is new to the history of the Italian Wars, and how they revolutionized early modern Europe, this is the book to read.