War and its legend

Florence Alazard plunges into the world of war XVIe century through the portrait of Giovanni de' Medici, who became a legendary character after his death: John of the Black Bands. This biography weaves, with caution and clarity, the portrait of an Italy scarred by war.

How to describe a world as tormented as that of the Italian wars? This is the biographical genre that Florence Alazard chose to depict a world of which she is one of the best specialists in France. The Italian Wars were a series of conflicts between the great European monarchies for possession of the peninsula. In these conflicts, the Italians are not inactive and fight themselves, generally on one side or the other. Giovanni de Medici, condottiere of the illustrious Florentine family, is an ideal case study to serve as a window into this world of war. Already recognized during his lifetime as one of the most coveted soldiers, he also became, after his death and the accession of his son Côme to the head of the Duchy of Florence, the founding father of the dynasty which reigned in Tuscany until 1727.

It is logical that Florence Alazard approaches with this John of the Black Bands the journey of the condottieri, but also the impact of their reputation when it comes to writing their history. In addition to the convincing use of the biographical genre, Florence Alazard shows the reader what precautions are necessary when dealing with sources, in addition to offering him the portrait of an era, the Italian wars, and of a social group, that of the military elites of the Renaissance.

Life and death of a condottire

Gian Paolo Pace, Portrait of John of the Black Bands, 1545, Florence, Uffizi

Giovanni de Medici (1498-1526) came from a collateral branch of the Medici through his father and from the Milanese Sforza family through his mother, Caterina. Born under the sign of the Italian wars, after his mother was chased from Forl then held prisoner in Rome by Alexander VI and Caesar Borgia, little Giovanni grew up in Florence, in the first palace of the Medici. Little is known about his education, except that it contributed to his reputation: from childhood, Giovanni preferred fighting to letters. He compensates for his weak taste for study by multiplying his escapades and by quickly showing a pronounced taste for military matters.

The arrival to power of Pope Medici Lon condotta, that is to say a contract making him the commander of a mercenary troop. From 1517, he distinguished himself during the war of Urbino against the Della Rovere, as defender of the interests of Lorenzo de Medici, the father of Catherine de Medici. From then on, he served in turn in the Pope's armies, then in the French camp when he considered that the Pope was not rewarding him fairly. Giovanni knows how to position himself, taking advantage of his reputation to negotiate the terms of a juicy contract, for example when he is poached by François Ier with significant advantages. The story of the integration of Giovanni and his bands which only wear the black color after his death, adding the legend allows Florence Alazard to highlight the composite dimension of the armies of the XVIe century. The 30,000 men who followed Francis Ier Pavia (February 1525) are not only not French (or few, let's say), but they are under the orders of generals who serve the king of France out of interest.

Giovanni serves the one who promises him constant battles. He is from all the Italian countryside. Of all the campaigns, but not of all the battles: wounded in the leg a few days earlier during a skirmish, he notably missed the call of Pavia (February 1525), where he was to fight for the king of France. For many weeks, he was treated by a Jewish doctor, until he got back on his horse. The following year, while the troops of the League tried to stem the advance of the imperial armies in the peninsula (this was the campaign which resulted in the sack of Rome), he was wounded at the gates of Mantua. Brought to the Gonzaga palace, he died a few days later of septicemia, after the amputation of his leg.

A book serving a new history of the Italian wars

Portrait of Giovanni Slab Bande Nere, attributed to Carlo Portelli – Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The life story of Giovanni de Medici serves as a history of the Italian wars, renewed thanks to the contributions of several research teams in recent years. This military history is not that of great battles, relatively rare although very bloody, but of a daily war, made up of skirmishes and harassment. Giovanni de Medici specializes in less than chivalrous practices, which aim to prevent the adversary from gaining a foothold, steal his supplies, force him to change course. The black bands are mercenaries, not knights. They are more lightly armed, and their horses, devoid of armor, are made to appear and disappear quickly. Their war is hard and does not stop with the arrival of the cold; it is mobile, is practiced around the body of the weapons which are stationed, upstream of their arrival or their pursuit. Is it, however, the fruit of a military revolution?? It is difficult not to find there the practices of the Hundred Years' War, the Crusades or Mediterranean piracy. The novelty would be more the introduction of artillery, which makes this strategy even more effective.

Florence Alazard's book is also an opportunity to return to the role of women in this world of military elites. They are the ones who manage the supply of their spouses with clothing and supplies of all types. They write to them to maintain their influence despite the months of absence in the campaign. They suffer the full brunt of their escapades, like Maria Salviati, who finds herself in Florence alone after the exile of Giovanni, guilty of murder. Widowed, they must ensure the future of their children, or even find themselves, like Caterina Sforza Forl, defenders of besieged fortresses. These women of the Italian elites are thus essential links in political and military life, at least because they materially support those who lead it.

From this laborious life, they still have the possibility of confiding in their husband in their letters, which allows Florence Alazard to question the use of emotions in the feminine epistolary of the Renaissance, in line with recent work led by Susan Broomhall in particular, also past silently by the author. Thus Maria Salviati does not fail to describe her constant worry, knowing her husband is at war, but also knowing he is with other men, with other women. These other women also wrote Giovanni or his sidekick, Artin, this time to pine for the absence of the condottire. The feminine world thus seems, paradoxically, very busy but suspended from the comings and goings of men. Giovanni, for his part, does not take their expectations into account: war above all.

A sensitive portrait, between truths and legends

The work addresses the uses and image of Giovanni de Medici after his death with great rigor: historiography becomes a source, as the author explains in the introduction. But it does not stop at historiography and the beautiful pages on the place of Giovanni de Medici in cinema, mainly Italian, can be particularly appreciated by readers from all backgrounds. The study of this image is political when it comes to studying the recovery by fascism; but it also testifies to the evolution of representations of this world of the Italian wars outside the writings of historians. Cinema is an all the more interesting source as it allows the author to perfect one of her analytical perspectives, that of psycho-history.

several times in fact, she seeks to understand the psyche of a character who is, to say the least, complex, that the reader of the XXIe could easily be described as virilist. Giovanni de Medici is violent, which is why he was seized as a model to follow by fascist ideology. The finesse of analysis of Florence Alazard's sources is not so much to underline this obvious fact as to show how much it did not achieve consensus among contemporaries. Baldassare Castiglione asks him several times not to violate the defeated populations. Likewise, the pope had to intervene several times to calm the ardor of his condottire. The women around him, led by his wife, reproach him for his harshness and the low regard he shows them. Giovanni is attentive to the comings and goings of the courtesans, and his exchanges with Artin testify to his violence towards women.

in this respect, the reliance on sources from the erotic literature of the period nuances a literature that is still too often summarized in Prince and at Courtier and finely synthesizes the results of recent research on the history of sexualities. Far from summarizing violence as a natural component of XVIe century, the author thus manages to highlight the strange place of this type of character: useful and dangerous, adored and feared, indispensable but versatile.

Besides what relates to academic disagreement on the use of the future and what looks like a typo (p. 49, in 1510-1512, Alexandre VI and Czar Borgia are long dead), John of the Black Bands is an excellent work, carefully written, which allows French specialists of the period to take up the history of the Medici of the XVIe century and for fans of the era to enter with finesse and precautions into this infinitely complex world of war. The application of Florence Alazard in the use of hagiographic sources and the unveiling of the conservation or lack of archival sources is particularly appreciated and could almost serve as a discourse on the method among students training in historical writing. Florence Alazard brilliantly shows that scientific writing can be lightened by academic burdens, without losing scientificity, quite the contrary.

The construction of the legend of Giovanni de Medici by the courtiers of his son Camus, led by Giovan Girolamo de Rossi, is well highlighted. We would perhaps only have appreciated a better contextualization of the discourse around the Italian freedomof which Giovanni de Medici was said to have been the defender, built in the 1540s and 1550s, while Camus de Medici presented itself as a credible alternative to imperial hegemony in the peninsula.

This new French biography of Giovanni de Medici (the last, written by Pierre Gauthiez, dated 1901) opens to the French readership a successful picture of the world of war, the Italian Renaissance and its aristocratic elites, in a rudimentary and accessible text , dense and effective: a formal and scientific success, which will satisfy specialists as much as a wider public.