Charles VIII, attempting to seize control of southern Italy for use as a platform for war against the Ottoman Turks, lead the most powerful army in Europe at that time down through Italy, defeating one Italian province after another. The Italian states opposing this venture evolved into the League of Venice and at Fornovo brought the French juggernaut to a standstill. This battle would mark the beginning of gunpowder weaponry and the start of the bloody Italian wars. Alessandro Beneditti, in his Diaria de Bello Carolino (Diary of the Caroline War) gives one of the best accounts of this battle. Beneditti was a physician working for the Venetian forces and started his diary in May 1495, and a month later, was an eyewitness to this battle. This section covers chapters 29 to 60 of Book 1 of the Diaria de Bello Carolino.
29. On 27 June they moved camp in the direction of the valley through which the Frenchman would pass, and they halted at the village of Oppiano about three miles from Fornovo and eight miles from Parma, where there was scarcely any assurance concerning the arrival of the French. And so on 28 June they sent scouts ahead with orders to reconnoiter, and these learned from the natives that the forces of the French were approaching. Some pointed out that the number of the enemy being led through the valleys of the Apennines was about twenty thousand, others put it at only fifteen thousand, on the ground that a useless group of people-servants, camp-followers, a throng of women-and a great mass of baggage swelled the numbers of the enemy. But at the proper place I shall reckon the number of the Latins, whose soldiers were arriving every day.
30. And now King Charles reached the last pass of the valley and pitched camp beyond the summit of the mountain two miles from Fornovo. In the meantime the Venetian Senate, which was always wont to attend to religion in initiating its undertakings, decreed public supplications for the beginning of the struggle. Saintly men offered their vows continuously at the shrines, and nuns prayed in the churches that Almighty and All Merciful God might defend the Venetian Senate through the mediation of its protector St. Mark. After these religious rites various opinions were aired in the Senate. Some members, influenced by the incredible number of the enemy’s forces and their fear of them and the scarcity of all supplies, had put their hope in battle and urged that it would be easy to press upon the backs of those who were fleeing especially since soldiers are lured by love of gold and silver; others declared that the battle ought to be postponed and that the outcome of the war was dubious: the Frenchman if defeated lost only his army, but all Italy was plunged into the greatest peril if he was victorious. At length the opinion prevailed that the battle should be entrusted to fate.
31. Already the report had gone around that the Venetians would by no means fight with the French, and therefore Ercole, duke of Ferrara, had sent a letter to the King in which he declared that the Senate had as yet not authorized the Venetian proveditors to fight. He had great credence and authority with the King, since he had left his son as hostage, and he wanted the Frenchman to acquire the rule and become arbiter over all Italy. Nonetheless the Frenchman was filled with anxiety when he learned from spies that contrary to expectation the army of the Venetians had been assembled with tremendous speed and was increasing in numbers daily. The hunger of his soldiers and the meager fodder in the Apennines added to his anxiety, and he began to deliberate on flight, or peace, or a truce, since there was no fixed hope of reinforcements: the need for haste prevented the summoning of soldiers from France. He feared that divine justice might suddenly plunge down from the loftiest heights to the lowest depths that very fortune which earlier seemed to promise the entire world. And so as is wont to happen when a time of crisis draws near, his usual assurance changed to anxiety, his earlier daring to fear, his swollen pride to humility.
32. At length, when he saw that it was necessary to fight, he put all his trust in the courage of a few soldiers, in the strength of the Swabians, and in the wonderful mastery of his engines, and feigning hope on his countenance he seemed like a man entirely happy and of ready daring in arms. Yet he decided to seek for peace or a truce first with all his powers and with every device, and otherwise undergo the risk of war, and he reflected in particular, on the counsel of Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, that the victory would be readily assured if he brought over to his side the vacillating citizens of Parma, and that this could easily be done if the forces of the Venetians pitched their camp beyond the Taro. But on the contrary the Venetian proveditors, suspecting the loyalty of the people of Parma, took Oppiano and dashed the hopes of the Frenchman that the people of Parma might dare to desert. When the Frenchman heard of this he turned a mind which was fierce in other respects rather to suing for peace and sent a herald to the Venetian proveditors, Luca Pisani and Melchiorre Trevisan.
33. This messenger the French call in their own tongue heraut. He was admitted (other leaders were present also) wearing a blue linen mantle decorated with gold lilies; he stated that his King was no little astonished that the new army of the Venetian Senate had blockaded the roads: he had always been a friend of the Venetian state; everyone knew this, and he desired nothing else than the right to withdraw into France, and he wanted provisions for his army at a fair price. The herald was conducted to another room and the matter was considered, and I heard that when he was admitted again one proveditor said to him that they had no authority from the Senate to make peace or a truce, but that if he wished peace he should first lay down his arms and return Novara to their ally, Duke Lodovico, and restore the cities and towns of the Pope which he had taken by violence. The herald however replied that his King wanted free passage and that otherwise he would cross in blood over the dead bodies of the Italians. They were enraged at the French arrogance and said that they were willing to test this at once, and that he need not think all Latins unwarlike and effeminate, or that military courage had been blotted out over all Italy, or that the Florentines, and the Roman Pope, and King Alfonso and his son Ferdinand had been conquered by the bravery of the enemy: rather should it be reckoned that this happened by a trick of fortune.
34. The herald, who was no ignorant man, was dismissed after observing the army of the Venetians (this is indeed the usual practice), and he reported to the King what he had seen and heard, that vast forces of the Venetians were at hand awaiting battle with joyful spirits and ready to endure to the end rather than afford free passage. On hearing this, the King went on 4 July to the highest point of the mountain, and when he saw from it the vast forces of the Venetians, he exclaimed with a deep sigh that he had been deceived. But Gian Giacomo Trivulzio and Francesco Secco, together with the nobles, freely encouraged the spirits of the King, saying that he need not doubt that the enemy would be turned to flight by the royal name alone. And so when he saw that he had to fight, he decided to undergo the risk of battle and sent about forty soldiers ahead to reconnoiter.
35. A scout reported that the French were now approaching the camp of the Venetians; almost all the men sprang up eagerly to grasp their arms, and since they were swifter footed light-armed soldiers (who were called stratiotes) to about the number of six hundred were the first to go and meet the approaching enemy. The French with their leader were in the front and gave the appearance of an advancing army. These the Greek soldiers at once attacked unexpectedly, turning some to flight and killing others. The victorious stratiotes, exulting over the first clash, affixed the heads of the enemy to their light lances, entered camp, and were welcomed with great enthusiasm. One of them, so that he might not be seen returning from battle emptyhanded, cruelly cut off the bead of a priest of the area, a deed which was straightway lamented, and joined the ranks of the soldiers.
36. This success in a small sally indicated the outcome of the whole affair. Those who had fled struck fear into the King, and since he could not draw in his troops he halted on 5 July at the edge of the valley and reviewed the strength of all his forces. He selected thirteen hundred very brave armed horsemen, two thousand seven hundred arrow-bearing horsemen, six thousand Swabian and German foot soldiers armed with axes, hatchets, spears, and small missiles, four hundred arrow-bearing foot soldiers, two hundred light-armed soldiers, and forty-two artillery pieces constructed with incredible skill which hurl forth iron and lead balls of immense weight. In these he put his entire hope of safety and resolved not to await hunger longer, but to undergo the risk of battle.
37. The valley itself extends beyond Fornovo from a narrow passageway into the open plains with two hills on either side, to the right and to the left; the former direction is toward Oppiano, the latter toward Medesano, and the river Taro flows almost through the very middle of the plain. The Venetians, as we have already said, had taken their position on the right slope opposite the Parmesans. But when mass had been said the French Kingdecided on the advice of all his nobles to keep to the left in the direction of Medesano, a very well-protected place. On 6 July he ordered his soldiers first to care for their bodies and then to arm themselves. He intended indeed to pass through a very well-protected place, that is, along the slopes of the hill, which were rendered fully secure from passage of the enemy also by ditches, muddy depths, the river Taro, the height of the banks, and moreover the shrubs and thickets. Here the enemy could not arrive without great trouble, and even if they wanted to attack precipitately and obstinately they would be overcome and routed by their own weariness. This seemed a wise way of planning, that between these narrow passes they might safely await the Venetian enemy, who through some folly or rashness of mind had not leveled the ground where they were to fight. Some ascribe this lapse to the suddenness and confusion of the battle, others to the scarcity of mercenary soldiers, who had not yet come to the camp. In the opposing army there were farmers of Parma who knew the terrain. Likewise a great deal of rain had made the fields slippery and impassable for the cavalry.
38. Meanwhile the King drew up three enormous battle groups. He put Gian Giacomo Trivulzio in charge of the first, which consisted of three hundred horsemen, two hundred light-armed soldiers, and two thousand German foot soldiers equipped with spears, who were surrounded by men carrying small hand-machines and armed with axes and hatchets. After a short space Count Niccola of Pitigliano and Franceso Secco rode alone in front, the first one the prisoner, the second the leader, and they were talking with one another about the outcome of affairs. A little after them followed the second group, of which the King himself was in command. It consisted of six hundred horsemen, and this group the French call the real line of battle; it was conspicuous for its very lofty standard, and in it were all the mounted bowmen which I have enumerated and of the German foot soldiers the flower of almost all the troops of the King. After a like space came the last group, in which were four hundred horsemen and about a thousand foot soldiers. The rest of the spear-bearing foot soldiers made up one line or vast phalanx which advanced not far from the lines of the horsemen. Machines protected the first line from the front and the second toward the Taro, and they were drawn up properly and with such military discipline that nothing was out of the right order and neither soldier nor footman wandered off from the line.
39. The King himself was riding up to the lines with two cardinals close behind, and with as much eloquence as was possible among those who are untaught (for French princes neglect letters) he was urging on all his commanders and horsemen and foot soldiers to the battle. With his bold spirit entirely unbroken he incited each one by name, and the French, who regard their king with a certain wondrous reverence, straightway replied in these words: “All of us, alive or dead from our last effort, promise to bring you victory today before your very eyes.” Then the King gave orders that no one should stray from the line or desert his fellows for the sake of booty or turn back; he admonished them all to watch the standards, to remember the great and divine victory by which they had conquered a large part of Italy by their reputation alone and also the old courage by which they had subdued the peoples of the West, and to realize that fighting against them would be Italian soldiers who were mere tyros and a commander who was young and without experience in warfare. He pointed out that the soldiers of Duke Lodovico were unfit for war and that there was moreover no hope in flight but only in victory. “Moreover,” he added, “the spoils which you carry off with you from the enemy are yours; all gleam with gold and silver. I see that the Venetians carry nothing but arms.” At these words the horsemen made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, the Cimbrian foot soldiers kissed the ground, and then they all advanced in order. The trumpeters rode in their midst, encouraging the soldiers in the name of the King to aim at the throats and eyes of the enemy.
40. Meanwhile the commander Franceso Gonzaga with his colleague, his uncle Rodolfo, had set his camp in a very safe spot and fortified it with a rampart and ditch, although it was already secure in large part by its very nature because of the steep hill in the direction of the Taro; on hearing of the arrival of the French, and after mass had been said to All Merciful God, they were introduced into the room of the proveditors with all the leaders. And first Melchiorre Trevisan with the approval of his colleague said a few words in their midst. “Today,” he said, “O chiefs and good leaders, a sure victory has been prepared for us by All Merciful God and St. Mark, guardian of our city. A triumph is assured for you, Francesco Gonzaga, and for you other leaders, and to all the soldiers rich spoils have been offered. The French enemy who has not spared divine and human affairs labors under scarcity and hunger, as is usual in a blockade; he is weary from many marches and steep passes; surrounded on all sides by the enemy and without hope of aid, he has been so wholly forsaken by divine fate that after failing to find an occasion for flight under the preferred guise of truce he is plunged into utter desperation at events and will seek safety by the sword and make a way for himself by force. Even though we have mighty forces, the readier spirits of veteran soldiers and the fierce spirits of fresh soldiers, and each one is possessed of a longing for battle, there is nevertheless need of sagacity and military discipline, all of which things are also useless without obedience. Those huge spoils of the Neapolitan kingdom which he carries with him are yours if you overcome the French today in battle.”
41. At once joy pervaded the entire assembly. The leaders feared that the Venetian Senate might postpone the war. Then the commander Francesco Gonzaga said, “Good fathers, if the fates are propitious to us today, before you all I shall display to the Venetian Senate, or rather to all Italy, if not an example of military discipline, at least a proof of faith. Wherever the danger is greater, I shall leave the duty of commanding to my uncle here and will myself with javelin and sword and a chosen band cut a path among the enemy; neither the magnitude of the enterprise nor the utmost desperation of the French disturbs my spirit.”
42. Thereupon the ranks, their leaders, and the arrangement were determined. The entire force was divided into nine lines, according to the French practice, the purpose being to harass the first and middle line of the French by two Italian lines in closer fighting, so that they could not forget the last group and turn back; the commander himself and his uncle along with Ranuccio Farnese would thus attack the rear of the enemy on both sides, and when that group had been scattered those in front would easily be thrown into confusion by the fugitives, and the other lines, standing in readiness, would at once carry out the commands given them. The first line consisted of six hundred lightly armed Greek soldiers commanded by Pietro Duodo, who had been ordered to seize the highest point of the mountain from the rear, provoke the enemy, and throw them into disorder. The second was composed of 510 Italian mailed horsemen under Ranuccio Farnese and Luigi Avogadro; the third, a phalanx of infantry, numbered four thousand, with Gorlino of Ravenna and other leaders in charge. To this, so that it might not be far distant from the line of the commander, they assigned a place from which it might bring aid at once if those in front wavered. Count Bernardino Fortebraccio, together with Vincenzo Corso, Roberto Strozzi, Alessandro Beroaldo of Padua, Jacopo Savorgnan of Udine, the noble Luigi Valaresso, Marco of Martinengo, and the Counts Brandolini led the fourth group with 370 mailed horsemen, and he was ordered to attack also the last line of the French. And Count Giovanni Francesco of Caiazzo, together with Galeazzo and Antonio Maria Pallavicino, Annibale Bentivoglio of Bologna,and the son of Galeotto della Mirandola, received orders to attack the second line of the French with 580 mailed horsemen. Between these two lines two thousand foot soldiers were distributed. In the sixth line Alessandro Colleoni and Taddeo dalla Motella led 255 soldiers, and they had orders to assist wherever a wavering line needed help, and to take their stand accordingly a short distance away. Count Antonio of Urbino also was told to follow at a like distance. After him came the leaders Count Gianfrancesco of Gambara, Carlo Secco, Antonio Pio, Giovanni Riva of Verona and those from Anguillara, the noble Giovanni Gradenigo, Lazzaro of Rimini, Pietro Chieregato, Tuzio of Cyprus, and Filippo of Macedonia with 465 mailed horsemen. The last group of the mailed horsemen was commanded by Carlo of Pian di Meleto with Taliano of Carpi, Angelo of Sant’Angelo, and Jacopaccio of Venice, with 280 horsemen; his orders were to protect the camp, and Niccolo Savorgnan and a thousand footmen were with him. The ninth line consisted of light-armed horsemen, among whom were also soldiers equipped with scorpions; these totaled four hundred and were led by Giovanni Greco and Soncino Benzoni. In like manner the arrangement and method were fixed for the artillery.
43. Then, when the assembly had been adjourned and the soldiers were caring for their bodies, scouts announced the arrival of the enemy, asserting that three companies of them were not far distant. When this report had been carried throughout the camp, straightway the sound of trumpets aroused the soldiers to arms; they were eager to fight, and they took their stations at their horses, some still hungry, others refreshed, and the soldiers quickly fell into their companies. The Venetian proveditors awaited the outcome of the affair near the last ranks, so that if there was any need they might perform the duty of the general. But between themselves, since the result of the battle was dubious, they weighed the deadly peril for Italy and indeed for almost the whole world: if it happened that the King was defeated, he would lose only his army and his baggage, but if the army of the Venetians was lost, all Italy would at once approach her end. They agreed nonetheless that the impending battle must be fought.
44. In the meantime the French King was leading his troops over the hillside, and he kept the baggage train of the entire army, which was endless, wondrously compact and evenly spaced in spite of the fact that it was raining, and the host of women he kept at the top of the hill; the infantry and artillery surrounded the lines. And so as the Venetians approached the French were the first to hurl their artillery at the lines of the enemy, producing more fear and disorder in the ranks especially among the new recruits than they did destruction. Then the Venetians, who were unbelievably anxious to fight, raised a mighty shout through the lines as soon as they heard the signal of the trumpets; they were ordered to advance zealously in the ranks to which they had been assigned, and they attacked the forces of the enemy. Francesco Gonzaga along with Count Bernardino Fortebraccio and another company assaulted the last line, the Count of Caiazzo the middle one, all rushing at almost the same moment against the enemy who because they were confronted with a ditch, an inaccessible rampart, the river Taro, and the thickets and shrubbery which lay between, and because it was raining, scattered and rushed headlong against the ranks of their enemy in a vast assault. Some of the infantry followed quickly, but the cavalry almost alone completed the battle. Many fell, rolling in the muddy ditch, others did not cross the river, and some slid from the slippery rampart into the mire. Many, fearing the difficulties of the terrain, halted this side of the river, but those who had zealously entered upon the struggle were soon in disorder and, not governed by one command, wielded their swords in varied confusion; the slaughter increased on all sides, and the victors could not be distinguished from the vanquished.
45. Some of the Venetians broke ranks when the leaders were terrified and rushed against the enemy in their impatience at delay, displaying courage and bravery. Others were cramped by the narrow quarters and tried in vain to carry out their orders. Count Antonio of Urbino, leader of one line, failed to advance because of the difficulties of the terrain. The Venetians indeed fought with greater spirit, the French with greater industry, for a fear far from moderate had invaded their minds and the huge numbers of their enemy terrified them. The commander Francesco Gonzaga, acting more as soldier than general, pierced the chest of an enemy with a deadly javelin in the first charge, disturbed the ranks, and then fighting keenly with his sword penetrated with much slaughter inside the lines and returned to his men to replace his horse which had been hit. Then Rodolfo, though covered with blood, also encouraged the cavalry and infantry to fight and called upon the men in the name of their ancient courage. For the entire rear line of the French was wavering in fear, and wandering French and Latins joined in hand-to-hand struggle; they became so entangled and drew their swords so readily on both sides that no one could distinguish who was victor and who vanquished, and all were so massed together that arms beat upon arms.
46. Soon the baggage train was disturbed in a new onset by light-armed horsemen who had first compelled the French infantry to withdraw. Upon these followed Greek soldiers who had looked down upon the whole proceeding from the top of the hill and swooped down like eagles; butchering the enemy and also some of their own side they plundered the baggage train, and after them came a great many Latin foot soldiers who, contrary to military law, had left their ranks because of greed and were bent on destruction. So pillaging was vast and chaotic.
47. During this confusion Rodolfo Gonzaga, who had fought a memorable battle in the midst of the enemy lines, opened his helmet, was seriously wounded on the face, and straightway fell. Several of the French together overcame Ranuccio too after he had killed many. Although his company was scattered Count Bernardino Fortebraccio, a most zealous man, attacked the French line in a most unfavorable spot and with clear knowledge of the danger. Then the enemy by bringing together its wings trapped the disordered soldiers; they fought wounding one another, and the few were overcome by the many and killed. Some were bogged down in the swamp and slain there, some were confined by the rampart and river and drew back. The leader himself, when about to bring aid to Valaresso, who was fighting savagely, was surprised by several of the enemy and overwhelmed; with his helmet shattered he was severely wounded on the head by a hammer and fell in agony from his horse. The line over which Giovanni Francesco of Caiazzo had command was scattered by fear of missiles rather than by actual carnage. Only the leader and a few men zealously entered the battle, and in it perished Giovanni Piccinino, who was mindful of ancestral glory, and Galasso of Correggio; of the other horsemen fourteen were lost. The rest of the soldiers cast away lances and arms and lightened of this load disgracefully turned their backs and like sheep fled to Parma. A certain Carlo by the name of Ingrato kept shouting out that they were all being led to slaughter and that the commander was at fault. On every side the sky repeatedly flashed with fire and thundered with artillery and was filled with wails and cries. Iron, bronze, and lead balls sped hissing aloft, and these threw the ranks of cavalry and infantry into turmoil even without slaughter.
48. In the confusion of those who were fighting Count Niccold of Pitighano, who was in the van of the enemy ranks, found an opportunity and voluntarily surrendered himself to the Venetians. His arrival cheered the wavering spirits of many, and his encouragement strengthened the tottering lines. He was the first to report to the Venetian proveditors that the French were greatly terrified and would doubtless turn their backs, and that therefore those should pursue for whom it is not enough to rout the enemy and to be satisfied with flight alone. The infantry, which was arranged between the respective lines of cavalry and in which there were a great many from the Venetian populace, joined in the uncertain struggle. French and Venetian soldiers could not be distinguished from one another. Of the latter about two hundred led by Geronimo Genova, the only ones to sustain the battle in that sector, were lost. Their leader was wounded in the throat and a hand was rendered useless. Small artillery was of no effect on either side because the gunpowder had been drenched by rain. In the last line Jacopo Salerno of Verona was struck by a large ball. Another soldier stood uninjured on his feet after his horse had been killed under him.
49. None of the enemy risked fighting in single combat, but in greater numbers attacked single individuals and straightway returned to the standards. For there is no French line or infantry phalanx which joins battle without a standard; thus soldiers who have been scattered know where to return. A few of the Greeks fought, and among them Pietro Busichio and Niccolo of Nin were wounded; the rest plundered the baggage train. Many of the French, when they had lost their arms, offered in supplication rings, money, and necklaces and then returned to their own men.
50. The Venetian proveditors, riding toward the camp, forced back the fleeing soldiers whom excessive fear had made cowards even though no enemy was pursuing (for terror had taken possession of most of them) and reproached them severely for their vain anxiety; they pointed out that they themselves were unarmed and urged them to stop their flight and stay with them. Count Niccola Pitigliano continued to urge the squadrons to bring aid and kept shouting that they should not neglect so great and so providential an opportunity for victory: the French were defeated and put to flight if one squadron alone brought help. The leaders, fearing the risk, delayed and prolonged the battle. Meanwhile, with the fighting still keen, certain heads of the infantry, unworthy even to be named, reported to the proveditors whether through treachery or greed that the Italians were defeated in battle and that soldiers ought to be assembled at new salaries. Another likewise met Melchiorre Trevisan and urged him to save himself by fleeing. To him the proveditor replied on the instant that there was no need for victors to flee. “For even if we were conquered by the enemy,” he said, “it would be better to be slain in battle than to be executed by the Venetian Senate because we had been defeated.” Perhaps that one wanted the ruin of the army.
51. Meanwhile much blood was shed, nor was it allowed those who in fear or cowardice had begun fighting on the other side of the Taro to stop at this time. Gradually the French retreated as they fought over the slopes of the hill and the Venetians, though wounded, followed them. The commander Francesco Gonzaga, standing out above the others on a fresh horse, pulled his soldiers together again, and with a selected group pursued the enemy after killing a number of them, and pressing on with greater effort he captured the Bourbon bastard of royal blood and Marshal Miolans; other noble soldiers were taken by the Venetians and many were killed. The French King was distinguished from the others neither by his helmet nor by his arms, and much less in the height of his horse, lest he give incentive to the enemy to attack; instead he was hiding away as a humble soldier in the line, and he had removed his royal insignia, so that they would not betray him in battle. A lesser number of Venetians pursued the French who were finally yielding, and the latter straightway went off hastily to the hill opposite the camp of the Venetians, and at last, when the fighting had broken off of itself, the Latins returned to the lines of their allies, and then all betook themselves to camp.
52. This battle lasted for one hour, and during it many noble leaders perished; in the army of the French about a thousand were lost, but in the Italian about two thousand. Among the French likewise the servants and camp-followers who were killed increased the number of the slain. Of the nobles twelve perished, among them Varde Ariste, leader of the archers, Doyson and a seigneur from Chambly, both of high birth, one from Torcy and another from Candes who was very wealthy, and barons from Beon, Limerle, and Checy. The brother of the prince of Tours, captain of the King’s guard, was seriously wounded. The leader of the mounted archers, from Amplepuis, was blown to bits by artillery. These fought under evil omens. In addition to those I have mentioned the following were captured: the bastard son of the prince of Cheres, the royal bastard from Boulogne, a very rich seigneur from Bours, an exceedingly wealthy noble from Forez, and of our forces about two hundred horsemen. Where the lines of the enemy had been I saw ruinous slaughter of noble leaders both French and Italian. The former could be recognized by the unusual size of their shoes in comparison with the wonderful display of lightness even in the arms they bore; stirrups of the proper width to fit the shoes hung from the horses’ saddles, and so the horses gave equal evidence of the vast numbers of the French.
53. Of the Latins in addition to those I have mentioned above Vincenzo Corso perished of honorable wounds; likewise Roberto Strozzi and Alessandro Beroaldo were found together in the midst of enemy corpses. Pietro Maffei and Geronimo Recalco of Verona and Giovanni Malombra of Venice fell valorously within the lines of the enemy. These lay in a noble death before my eyes, and there was no blood, for the rain had bathed their gaping wounds. All lay prone, just as they had fought, body to body, and most of the wounds were in their throats, since they had contended more eagerly than carefully in the enemy’s midst and almost no one knew for which of the zealous warriors the battle was going well. It was difficult for the heavily armored Latin troops to bring assistance over the uneven defiles of the field, the shifting gravel of the river, and the inaccessible banks. The French, less encumbered and more lightly armed, hastened down the hill in a dense mass to help. But neither Frenchman nor Venetian wanted to continue the very bloody fight. However, the vast Venetian lines which stood immovable beyond the reach of the weapons, as if waiting for commands, struck fear into the French. Likewise the avarice of the Greek soldiers who were rushing forward to plunder had sapped their confidence in fighting.
54. In that battle countless baggage piles of the French, abounding in all riches, were lost; in them was found a great weight of silver and gold. Gems, necklaces, clothing, and the grandest furnishings of wealth were snatched by the Venetian soldiers, and that vast royal booty which the exulting King was carrying in triumph from the Neapolitan realm to France was divided among the Greeks and the Latin infantry. Indeed fortune heaped the hazards of an entire year upon this day, and as the soldiers continued their looting, on every side the ground was strewn with bundles of cheaper wares which the avarice of the first soldiers had scornfully abandoned to servants, camp-followers, and peasants in favor of better booty. And the tent of the King, equipped with every luxury and evidence of wealth, fell to the lowliest soldiers. In short, all the plunder on the following day was wickedly divided among the Greek allies, booty which was worth two hundred thousand ducats. Certain standards of the infantry leaders fell into the hands of the Venetians, and an almost countless number of horses and mules was brought into camp. Among the victors themselves during the course of the battle he was an enemy who had seized the more valuable plunder. With pickaxes they cut up silver vessels of wondrous craftsmanship. From the royal effects a table entirely of gold and silver was carried off together with bedroom chests containing the clothing, rugs, tapestries, and banquet vessels which the kings had accumulated in their long possession of power. There were also precious books from the holy chapel, a plaque inlaid with gems and deserving of reverence for its sacred relics, and rings loaded with jewels. In that plunder I saw a book in which were painted various nude images of his mistresses, differing in appearance and age as his lust and insane love had impelled him in each city; these pictures he carried with him as souvenirs.
55. Meanwhile after the French King had pitched camp he weighed a dubious plan to flee toward Asti, a route dangerous and long. He was disturbed by the fear that he might be shut off by the enemy on both sides, since so many cities, towns, and rivers lay between. But a truce was granted for burying the dead. The King straightway sent a herald who did not dare enter the camp without a Venetian trumpeter. He came under escort to the commander Francesco Gonzaga and the proveditors to request of them a truce of three days. These allowed reluctantly a stipulated cessation of hostilities only until noon of the following day.
56. Meanwhile the Latins and the French together were searching here and there, each one for those whom he knew, and were observing the customary truce for burial. I saw corpses of brave men protruding at intervals which had been despoiled by many; the Greek and Latin soldiers had been first and had removed the more precious ornaments even from those still living, and then crowds of native peasants who had watched the issue of the battle from the summits of the mountains carried off the armor, and finally groups of servants and camp-followers removed the underclothing and left naked everywhere soldiers who were dead or half-alive. Nor, if there was the least inducement, did violence and greed spare the horses’ bodies; I saw saddles, coverings, hides, and finally shoes of horses torn away, and I saw bundles of lances, some torn, others whole, innumerable darts, arrows, iron and bronze pikes and other instruments scattered over the ground. Very many wounded were found naked among the corpses, some begging aid, some half-dead. They were weakened by hunger and loss of blood and wearied by the heat of the sun and thirst; with tongues thrust out they begged for water. In this affair no form of cruelty seemed to be lacking. There were about 115 of these; some Frenchmen were mingled among them, begrimed with mud and blood and looking like slaves, and these without distinction were brought into the Venetian camp and attended by the surgeons at public expense. Some still breathed after hands and feet had been amputated, intestines collapsed, brains laid bare, so unyielding of life is nature. The river Taro carried very many corpses to the Po; the rest, more than twenty-five hundred, unburied and swollen by the heat of the sun and the rain, were left to wild beasts. Almost all of these had a piercing wound in the throat or on the face, but a few had been lacerated by artillery.
57. A great many French fell and perished at the first onrush, for they carry shorter javelins, wherefore they felt the first blows; however, the French seemed better suited to the sword, for as it is shorter, it is on that account considered better. Very many think that the French with a small band could have routed the Italians if they had dared advance freely, but the narrowness of the field refutes them. For by means of a compact line, because of the difficult terrain, they could not have harassed the Latins, and in like manner scattered over the defiles and the swamps, and subdued by hunger as they were, they could by no means have crushed five whole Venetian lines, nor did the narrow quarters permit the lines to be spread out more widely.
58. But the Count of Caiazzo, thinking the outcome indecisive and expecting a battle on the following day, had sent messengers repeatedly to the city of Colorno near the Po, where his sister had assembled the luggage which was in the stronghold, so that if the battle went poorly for the Latins he could advise her by letter and she could at once put all these riches into a skiff readied for this purpose. Nor on that night did he fail to write and inform her of events. A great many of his soldiers wished to flee that very day and not, as a new byword of the camp puts it, hunt the flushed-out fox. And so that evening when the Venetian proveditors had returned to camp and watches had been posted by the commander, they reported to the Senate concerning the outcome of the battle, and the letter, carried with incredible swiftness in regular relays by bearers stationed at equal intervals from one another, was given to the very wise Doge Agostino Barbarigo, and amid the greatest expectation on the part of the whole city, for all the citizens had flocked forth, it was read to the people in a very crowded Senate. The gist of it was that the army in close array had fought with the enemy; very many had perished on both sides and the army was at length saved. And they announced that the outcome of the present battle, in view of such a confused state of things, was not yet sufficiently clear to them, but that they would report everything in detail by a letter to follow. They were uncertain of victory partly because the soldiers had returned to their tents to divide the spoils, partly because the crowd which was unaccustomed to arms had turned to flight, and also because of the great confusion in camp. Since they did not yet know the losses of the enemy, they could scarcely indicate them.
59. Accordingly after the letter had been read, and especially because it gave no particulars, the Venetian Senate and the whole city thought that their fortunes had worsened and that the enterprise was in the greatest peril. A letter which came from Ferrara on the same day increased the suspicion of a very grim outcome, since it stated with pretended sorrow that the Venetians had been defeated in war. Lodovico, duke of Milan, had had almost the same report in a letter from the Count of Caiazzo, and his mind was greatly disturbed; he had sent a copy of this letter to the Senate. So the entire city was a prey to varied turmoil, until on the following day the Senate was informed in a detailed letter concerning the state of everything and revealed to all the victory of which they had despaired. The whole city was surprised and joyful when it realized that it had triumphed and recognized the extent of the plunder and the fear that had seized the enemy, who dared not fight but as suppliants sought now a truce, now peace. When this news had been duly received, thanks were given publicly by decree of the Senate to God and their defender St. Mark, and the citizens poured forth demonstrating every kind of joy.
60. Meanwhile the Frenchman called his leaders into conference and said, “Behold, nobles, after great slaughter and much bloodshed in this very cruel battle we have at length left the enemy behind us, yet we have been very unfortunate, for we have lost most of our baggage. Yet it was sufficient to have escaped so great peril with a small band. It would indeed have been the height of felicity if all had turned out well, but we must endure it if fortune has heaped on this one day all the evils of a whole year, a fortune which had been predicted to us as black, so that now, driven by hunger amid great danger, with glory and a kingdom and a triumph lost, with soldiers left behind in Puglia and Calabria, I must return home with a few forces. But in this one fact I rejoice, that our men fought with the utmost courage and true military discipline, and only a few of our nobles, and of the other soldiers not many, are missing, and even fewer are wounded. There is indeed nothing lasting under the heavens, and we must yield sometimes to fortune. The war with King Alfonso and his son we fought without bloodshed. But the Venetians have changed everything for us. This kingdom was not acquired for me, but for all of you; I enjoy a very extensive kingdom in a long succession. It remains to establish the whole army in safety with the greatest possible speed. But you, Trivulzio, proclaimed that the commander of the camp was a young man, or a boy, without military training. An evil boy he seemed to me on that day, but if the fight had taken place in the open he would have been far worse.”
This text was first published in Alessandro Beneditti, Diari de Bello Carolino (Diary of the Caroline War), trans. Dorothy M. Schullian (New York: Renaissance Society of America, 1967). We thank the Renaissance Society of America for their permission to republish this item.