Tuscan sojourn shows pitfalls of military operations

The family and I are spending a few weeks at a villa in rural Tuscany. Generations of artists hardly did justice to the Tuscan countryside. Ancient churches, towns, and fortifications abound. Art is everywhere. Michaelangelo was born about five miles from here. Also nearby is San Sepolcro, birthplace of the Renaissance fresco painter Piero della Francesca and home to many of his works.

The nearest town of any size is Anghiari, a picturesque, walled medieval town perched on a promontory above the Tiber Plain. Anghiari briefly made it into the history books in 1440, when armies from the city—states of Florence and Milan, competing for mastery over Tuscany, met on the plain below the city. Today signs proudly mark out the site of the encounter.

Leonardo da Vinci immortalized the Battle of Anghiari in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio (city hall), the edifice that now provides a backdrop to Michaelangelo's renowned statue of David. Niccolo Machiavelli, the hard—nosed thinker best known as the author of  The Prince, recorded the events in his History of Florence.
Machiavelli told a different story than had da Vinci. The Battle of Anghiari fell woefully short of its larger—than—life reputation. "Great confusion prevailed in the Florentine camp," noted Machiavelli, "for the ordinary negligence and want of discipline" that typified Florentine military operations were compounded by an utter lack of intelligence about the doings of the Milanese foe.

Even so, the clash proved strategically decisive for Florence, ensuring that Anghiari would remain in Florentine hands. It served as a reminder that even an inept army can —— almost despite itself —— achieve desirable political results.

What happened? The Florentine forces, joined by those of the Pope, had halted along the long, straight road connecting Anghiari with San Sepolcro. The Signoria —— the council of nobles in Florence —— had heard that Milan planned to avoid an engagement. Believing that he would win without fighting, Piccinino, the Florentine commander, likewise decided not to seek battle.

Egged on by Florentine exiles friendly towards Milan, Niccolo, the Milanese commander, meanwhile ordered his army into the vicinity of Anghiari. The two sides came upon each other by happenstance, drawn by the clouds of dust stirred by the movements of foot soldiers and cavalry. The Florentine forces overcame their initial confusion and prepared to meet the Milanese advance.

To make a long story short, both sides arrayed themselves strongly and ended up fighting over the bridge across the Tiber, in the shadow of the city walls. The two sides maneuvered for several hours, and the bridge changed hands several times. The Florentine army ended up in possession of the bridge —— and thus the city —— almost by default.

Not exactly the stuff of legend.

One measure of the battle's unseriousness: Machiavelli observed that, "in a battle which continued four hours, only one man died, and he, not from wounds inflicted by hostile weapons, or by any honorable means, but, having fallen from his horse, was trampled to death." The Battle of Anghiari, then, paid political dividends despite the fact that neither force inflicted much damage.

Neither side distinguished itself militarily. Indeed, the battle was a study in incompetence at the tactical level, providing "a striking example of the wretched state of military discipline in those times." Having defeated the Milanese forces before the clash at Anghiari, the Florentine commanders wanted "to pursue them, in order to make the victory complete." Not a single soldier obeyed this order. Instead they gave vent to their baser desires, plundering the nearby city of Arezzo.

They straggled back to the field at Anghiari, adding to the general chaos surrounding the Florentine operation.

The conduct of the Florentine troops was such that "the merest shadow of a regular army would easily and most justly have wrested from them the victory they had so undeservedly obtained." It was astonishing, declared Machiavelli, "that an army so constructed should have sufficient energy to obtain the victory or that any should be found so imbecile as to allow such a disorderly rabble to vanquish them."

What does all of this have to do with the contemporary U.S. military? Not much in any direct sense. The less—than—heroic clash on the plain of Anghiari does show that a military force lacking in martial virtue can overcome an equal or superior force. It's a lesson that's worth keeping in mind as the U.S. armed forces pursue "transformation" of their force structure and doctrine for future challenges.

It never hurts to look backward——even to an obscure battle in 15th—century Tuscany——before looking ahead.

James Holmes is a senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security and an adjunct professor at the Naval War College.