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Renaissance Developments and War in Sixteenth Century Italy

Updated on May 31, 2013

The Renaissance had a major affect on all aspects of life and society in Europe in the Sixteenth century. Nowhere was this more true than Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the creation place of many of the symbols we have come to associate with it. Saying that all aspects of life and society were affected is no overstatement, especially when warfare and military institutions are considered. With the spread of gunpowder, militaries around the world were already going through a major revolution. But the Renaissance was also significant in changing the military in Italy. The revival of humanism and classical thinking reintroduced much of the knowledge the ancient Greeks and Romans had of warfare, as well as reintroduced many of the methods of organization and military philosophy. The curiosity and study of nature also played a major role in changing the military, as thinkers like Leonardo Da Vinci observed the world and incorporated it into his designs. Finally, the study of man and traditional methods of fighting done by the polymaths of the day provided even more observations and ideas to revolutionize warfare.

After the Dark Ages, much of the classical literature and knowledge was rediscovered and became an important field of study. One major aspect of classical society that was adopted was the militia. The ancient Greeks, though not specifically a militia system, used citizens as their main defense force, with training carried out by the military, and each citizen providing his own weapons. The Italians also utilized this strategy, due to the fact that they lacked any large standing army in most cases. When mercenaries could not be hired quickly enough to defend a city, the citizens would be called up on to provided their own weapons in defense of the city. These militias were capable soldiers because of the recent spreading of scholarly study by many groups of people within society, known as humanism

Humanism was the spread of literature, poetry, logic and the classics within society, and had its major start in Renaissance Italy. With this came the rise of literacy among a wider range of societal classes. This enabled the spread of all sorts of knowledge, but especially military knowledge. “From the 1550s, books covered every aspect of warfare”, and thus allowed any one to educate themselves on the proper way to engage in war and become better soldiers. Every man was able to be become proficient in many types of weapons as well as learn the various formations, making it incredibly easy to build a citizen army in a moments notice if a city came under attack. This increase in military knowledge also allowed for a larger class of professional soldiers, as well as military scholars to form, with war being “referred to as an 'art' in the modern sense”. This was the start of a rapidly growing field of study in military studies, that spread to the the rest of Europe and even saw the creation of the first military academies only a century or so later.

The Renaissance in Italy saw the first major movement of curiosity in the natural world and the human body. Leonardo Da Vinci was the undisputed leader of this movement, with extensive studies in virtually every subject. His Notebooks have pages upon pages of drawings of animals and humans, as well as a plethora of inventions. In many of these you can see how he incorporated his observations into the designs, such as his tank, modeled after a turtle, and his flying machines with wings like a bird. While these inventions were never actually constructed, they show the method used by the thinkers of the time to design new military technologies.

The study of the human body was, though, very useful in inventions that were actually created. Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man was his masterpiece study of the human body and its proportions. By studying the human body, he was able to develop a number of ideas to be used for infantry including “handguns with protective shields, crossbows and swords incorporating tiny gun barrels, repeating-shot arquebuses, a combination bow and pike”. Along with the advent of gunpowder, the new studies in humans allowed for more effective military technologies, as well as increase the death toll.

The Renaissance was an immensely altering event in European society, especially in the militaries of the Italian city states and the sciences of war. The developments made here were the precursors to the intense changes in warfare that occurred over the next several centuries. While the end of the Dark Ages may have brought learning and knowledge back to society, it also provided the necessary advancement to create even more horribles ways to wage war.


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