Jost Amman's Vision of Pike-and-Shot Artillery
Art from the early modern military revolution
During the “Italian Wars,” a French army under the Duke de Guise inflicted a decisive defeat on a superior Holy Roman force near the town of Renty in 1554. Through terrain knowledge and disciplined marching, they outflanked and routed the army of Emperor Charles V, ensuring that Verdun would remain French. On the winning side, this now-forgotten victory featured a famous pair of future antagonists: Protestant Gaspard de Saulx, sieur de Tavannes, and Catholic Gaspard II de Coligny, Seigneur de Châtillon. The former would become Marshall of France, the latter Admiral of France, fighting on opposite sides during the French Wars of Religion. Barely documented in its own time, this battle has become a tiny blip on the radar of contemporary historiography regarding the period.
Sometime more than a decade after the battle, a Zurich-born, German-speaking engraver named Jost Amman created the scene above, which hangs today in a German castle. It is unlikely that this image resembles the actual battleground near Renty, much less the battle itself, except perhaps in the barest outline of water features and troop dispositions gleaned from eyewitnesses or participants. Amman was skilled at detail, and his other war scenes show remarkable realism, but this is probably an idealized vision of how battles were fought at the time rather than a realistic depiction of a particular battle.
To me, this makes his engraving far more interesting than the actual Battle of Renty.
The cannons are my key interest. They are everywhere in this engraving. Indeed, there are scholars who assure us this is too many, that so much firepower brought to bear at once was impossible at the time. Perhaps they are right, but this does not reduce my interest at all. Some of these guns are firing at units directly in front of them, straight into opposing files of men, while other pieces send enfilading fire at angles through the formation ranks. According to Michael Roberts, father of the military revolution hypothesis, this “light artillery” approach was not invented until almost a century later, when Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (he says) invented everything we associate with modern combat.
A whole long generation of historians — Geoffrey Parker, Jan Glete, Jeremy Black et al — had to spend its energy refuting Roberts to establish that Gustavus Adolphus was merely building on what worked for other commanders. A French king, Charles VIII, had already standardized his artillery well before the Battle of Renty, which I suppose explains why the cannons on the left side of the illustration appear to be a bit less fancy than the ones on the right. Imagine yourself preparing powder charges for a limited range of gun calibers versus a vast hodgepodge, and you can begin to understand the problem that explains why some kings suffered defeat while others carried day after day.
French guns were the best in the world when the 16th Century dawned, and the French used them the same way cannons have always been used in field battle: to attrit, and hopefully break up, large formations of enemy soldiers so they become vulnerable to infantry or cavalry attack. In this sense, the horse-drawn cannon is an echo of the Bronze Age chariot with its compound bow-armed rider. Jost created this scene during an infantry revolution, when armored cavalry took second place to dense infantry formations armed with long pikes. As observed in this scene, lots of armor was still being worn on European battlefields; this is why the pike squares are flanked by columns of harquebusiers wielding smaller, one-man cannons, the very first mass production firearms. It would take a century for the effectiveness of large and small gunpowder arms to make steel armor completely disappear from the scene, turning it into extra weight on the march that could not really protect the wearer.
Note the long poles with burning match cords that gunners used to fire their charges. Cannons were still quite a new technology, prone to explode on occasion, so a little extra reach must have given the gunners at least some illusion of safety in an insanely dangerous occupation. They are depicted alone, for the assistant gunners have been left out of the engraving, perhaps for the sake of visual simplicity. Cannons are crew-served weapons, however, so I do wish he had included matrosses (assistant gunners) in the scene.
At the time Amman etched this, artillery was an occupation for civilian contractors whose loyalty often stayed with their guns. Reports from the era suggest that, when overrun by the enemy, artillerists of the period would sometimes simply turn their guns around and switch sides, expecting prompt pay at the regular time. It took a few more decades for the gunners to wear uniforms and become subject to regular military discipline under the direct authority of states, but artillery left behind its beginnings in the mercenary trade to become the first professionalized branch of arms.
Artists and artillerists had a natural affinity during the 1500s. You can see this when you read the works of Francis Malthus, Niccolo Tartaglia, or any of the writers in this formative century of the printing press who wrote about artillery. Both professions worked with the recovered techniques of perspective and geometry, the one to create realistic scenes and the other to aim cannonballs accurately. Drafting — of trace italienne fortifications, or the flight paths of cannonballs — was the order of the age. I like to think that Jost Amman spent time watching artillerists train and talking to them about their work. I intend to look deeper into his biography, including the provenance of this piece, in hopes of finding some link between the man and the subject of his art.