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The Hero of Italy: Odoardo Farnese, Duke of Parma, his Soldiers, and his Subjects in the Thirty Years’ War
by gregory hanlon
oxford university press, 256 pages, $99

One could be forgiven for thinking that Gregory Hanlon’s The Hero of Italy: Odoardo Farnese, Duke of Parma, his Soldiers, and his Subjects in the Thirty Years’ War is titled backwards. The peevish, heavyset Duke of Parma, a minor French ally in the war against the Habsburgs, is certainly the protagonist of Hanlon’s book, but this is neither a biography nor a particularly compelling case for his heroism. Rather, it is an examination of Parma’s two years in the war, and its effects on the broad swath of people under Odoardo’s rule, command, or occupation.

The conflict claimed the lives of millions. In some German states, more than half the population was lost, more often to famine or plague than in battle. Rooted in the unsatisfactory Peace of Augsburg that ended the wars of the Reformation, it would churn for three full decades from 1618 to 1648. The Peace of Westphalia that concluded it redrew Europe’s borders, recognized Calvinism as a branch of the faith, and extended toleration to Catholic and Protestant minorities on an unprecedented scale. It was, moreover, the last major war of religion on the Continent; when the guns fell silent, modern Europe had already begun to emerge.

Despite all of which, there has been no masterwork on the Thirty Years’ War in Italy, on the scale of Peter H. Wilson’s treatment of Germany. This, according to Hanlon, is “astonishing, given its status as the most important event in Italian history between the Council of Trent and the French Revolution,” and one of his primary reasons for writing. At the same time, too few of the sources have been collected, and too little primary analysis done, for such a synthesis to be feasible. Hanlon’s book focuses on a few years in a relatively minor state, in the hope that it will open the door to further research on the topic.

This gap stems from the deplorable state of military history in continental Europe, which has evidently been stagnant for half a century. The military buff, a familiar type in Anglophonic countries, is regarded with suspicion in nations that have known foreign occupation or the yoke of a dictator. There is a lingering instinct that the study of war and warfare is a preemptive apology for the next conflict, as it often was in the twentieth century. The resulting taboo against such pursuits has limited research on military matters in Italy, with the result that many relevant sources remain untouched.

The immediate impetus for writing was an encounter with Parma’s company rosters. The Archivio di Stato contains about seventy, providing personal information about 13,000 soldiers, including nearly the entire force assembled in 1635. It appears to be the most complete set of company rosters in Europe from before the eighteenth century, and gives not only the soldiers’ names, but their ages, appearances, hometowns, and, in most cases, what became of them. Hanlon writes that after a few minutes with these sources he was “ready to drop all other projects and write this book.”

The first chapter provides us with a history of Farnese rule in Parma, which was less than a century old at the time Odoardo joined the war. The first Farnese duke was a papal bastard, given the duchy by his father. The foreign, ill-born dynasty was not popular. One duke was assassinated at Piacenza; a plot against another led to the “Gran Giustizia of 1612,” vividly described by Hanlon, when eleven highborn conspirators were publicly executed. After 1612, the Farnese were able to maintain control, if not always loyalty, in their domains.

The remainder of the book intersperses the plot of Odoardo’s military adventure with a wealth of social-historical information. We learn, for instance, that soldiers often signed up in handfuls. Their loyalty was to each other, not to the prince: They would quarter together, take meals together, and, often, desert together.

Desertion, it seems, was a reality of life more than battle was. Large engagements of entire armies were rare in Italy; a skirmish that killed a few dozen men was on the bloody side. By contrast, Odoardo lost half his army to desertion before he reached his allies’ camp, some 1,500 men in total. Deserters would often be recruited by the other side, and some crossed the lines repeatedly in search of signing bonuses.

There is also extensive discussion of the financial and logistical elements of maintaining an army. Soldiers were very rarely paid all that they were promised, and never promptly. Commanders often had to pay their units’ costs from their personal funds, trusting their princes to repay them after the war.

Once in enemy territory, soldiers would “forage” the local farmlands for food; for cavalrymen, this was the primary duty on campaign. Towns were forced to supply enemy troops, under threat of destruction. This was often preferable to supplying allied troops, because the enemy would generally leave more quickly.

The drain on agricultural resources, and the flight of many peasants to the cities for protection, made famine a serious threat. Quartered soldiers and refugees packed into walled cities increased the incidence of plague. When the smoke cleared in Parma in 1637, far more people, soldier and civilian, had died of disease or starvation than had been killed in battle.

All of this is mixed with the colorfully human side of the story, where we see Odoardo squabbling over precedence with the French commander while besieging Valenza, or being fêted by the Parisian court. There is a lengthy treatment of his wife’s regency in his absence, and a riveting account of the Battle of Tornavento, a remarkably large engagement by Italian-front standards.

The book is dense, in more than one sense of the word. It is information-dense, to be sure. Nearly every sentence seems like a gloss for another entire book. Often this is because it is—Hanlon’s scholarship is prodigious—but not always. There is, for instance, a casual listing of Duke Odoardo’s retinue, including his dwarf. This character is nowhere else discussed, and if it was customary for Italian potentates to retain dwarves in their service, no explanation of this is offered.

It is also simply dense writing. Great, long lists of attrition and casualty information, which would be better served by a table, are presented as text. Calculations best left in an appendix become the stuff of chapters, or long lists of names tied to some action or other are presented, never to be touched again. A few pages of after-matter could very easily rectify this problem, making the book both shorter and easier to read in the process.

It is also worth noting that, for all the very detailed descriptions of orders of battle, fortifications, and troop movements, particularly at Valenza and Tornavento, not a single battlefield map is presented. The accounts are consequently difficult to follow.

Hanlon’s style is quite distinctive. He is fond of describing the Duke of Parma as a “youngster” or a “lad,” and he includes details of great interest but oblique relevance, like the provision of cheese graters for Odoardo’s soldiers. He also slips seamlessly between spellings of the same name in different languages, without ever specifying that he’s doing so—Cremona Visdomini/Vicedomini and Giulio Mazzarini/Jules Mazarin, for instance. While I enjoy the colorful picture that results, this is perhaps more confusing than it needs to be.

Perhaps the most serious critique of this work is that the author seems unsure whether he is writing a narrative or a social history. Certainly the story affords room for both, or a reasonable synthesis of the two, but Hanlon tends to move from one extreme to the other with little warning.

This book would be immensely valuable even if it did nothing more than introduce the Parman sources to a wider audience, but its thoughtful consideration by someone who has forgotten more Italian history than most of us will ever learn makes it essential for the field. It is not, to put it bluntly, a text for the average reader. Certainly it is worthwhile reading for academics, who are its target demographic; military and Italian history buffs will also find much in it to appreciate. Casual readers may be better off waiting for the Italian front’s great synthesis, for which Hanlon is paving the way.

Brian Hoefling writes from Boston.

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