Aidan Harte is a writer and sculptor. His fantasy novels Irenicon and The Warring States are published by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus. Spira Mirabilis, the conclusion of the trilogy, will be out in 2014. He studied in the Florence Academy of Art. His sculpture can be seen in Sol Art Gallery in Dublin and The sculpture Company in London. He works in the classical tradition informed by the early 20th century expressionists. He directed the IFTA winning, BAFTA nominated kids’ TV show, Skunk Fu, seen on BBC and Cartoon Network.

Soldiers of Misfortune

by Aidan Harte

For all the ignominy lately heaped on bankers, the blighters get things done. Without their innovations, their risk-taking, their credit, 14th century Italy could not have been at once politically fragmented, plague-ridden, war-racked and stinking rich.

If that wealth had a home it was Florence, and if Florence’s vaunting pride had a shape it was the swollen masonry dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, so large that it covered “with its shadow all the Tuscan people.” No less wonderful is the Basilica’s shadowy interior. After you’ve lit a candle, and finished laughing at Vasari’s puerile rendering of the Last Judgment, you may stop to admire the impressive trompe l’oeil fresco by that eccentric pioneer of perspective, Paolo Uccello. And what august personage does Uccello’s fresco commemorate? The Madonna? John, the city’s patron saint? Perhaps a pious scion of the local dynasties that bankrolled this joint? No, the person so prominently honoured in the Basilica is not even Italian and – Santa Maria! – he’s a mercenary.

This doughty gentleman, John Hawkwood, is the inspiration behind John Acuto, the general of the Hawk’s Company who wreak such bloody havoc in Irenicon. My book is set in Etruria, an Italy with an alternative history. The real Hawkwood was the self-declared prince of those free-booting mercenary armies that plagued 14th century Italy, the condottieri. It means “contractor”, which rather gives the game away. They weren’t soldiers, they were business men. (Italian journalists still use the term to flatter captains of industry.) This bluff Essex man who became a power broker in the Italian crucible was no fool – unlike the leaders who allowed a foreign soldier to hold sway in their land. But perhaps we shouldn’t judge them harshly. Italy was then a libertarian free-for-all in which every conceivable mode of governance was being tried in some corner. It was also a time of perpetual war – no wonder they outsourced it.

Mainland Europe was enduring the prolonged birth pangs of the Hundred Years War. Italy may have had no dog in this fight between England and France, but the fight had dogs to spare. And once let slip, it proved impossibly to get them back on the leash. Fecund Italy, with its limitless wealth and chronic instability, was too tempting a prize for men like John Hawkwood. It’s no riddle why the mercenaries flooded Italy. The riddle is why were they lionised for doing so? You see, Hawkwood’s not the only one. Bartolomeo Colleoni is another mercenary lavishly commemorated. This lucky dog has an exquisite equestrian statue in Venice, a city notable for its dearth of public statuary. We’re inured to statues of generals in our city centres, but it is very odd to commemorate soldiers of fortune. Can you imagine it today? Politicians never stop yapping about their love the troops, yet you never see bumper stickers saying Support our Mercenaries.

Machiavelli is one of those unlucky thinkers reborn as a guru for promotion-seeking executives, but what he says on liberty remains relevant. As a champion of republicanism, he had little time for condottieri. Without citizen armies, he predicted, Italy’s remaining republics would lapse into tyranny. And he was right. A few centuries after Hawkwood and his cohorts entered Italy, despots ruled from Sicily to Milan. Machiavelli, with typical acuity, didn’t blame the condottieri for the coming calamity. They were only following the money. He blamed the unimaginative rulers who used a convenient weapon instead of the right one.

When I began Irenicon in the late 2000s, mercenaries were nearly as unpopular as bankers are today. The media was luxuriating in one of its periodic fits of morality about Private Military Companies. The bête noir were the slobs unlucky enough to be brand leaders at that moment: Blackwater. The Bond villain name helped. They were the scapegoats. We pilloried them so that we didn’t have to interrogate the conditions that called them into existence. Piling on to PMCs was an easy way of expressing our disquiet with industrialised war without, you know, doing anything about it. We were skilfully managed – instructed to celebrate these soldiers and, if we must, to spit at these ones- and we did as we were told. The hypocritical furore passed. Blackwater has a jolly new name (Academi), and as far as is practical, robots are doing our killing for us.

A couple of years back I visited Washington DC. On the way to ogle the pentagon, I did what everyone on the subway does, ignoring the people around me and staring at the advertisements. Instead of selling car insurance and college loans, the posters were for helicopters, missile systems, and submarines. I realised that war may be hell, but it’s also a hell of a business opportunity. I also realised that the people selling these death-dealing engines weren’t wicked. They were just following the money. Who can blame them? That’s what got John Hawkwood his plum spot in the Basilica.

For unpopular rulers, condottieri were convenient weapons. All those frescos and statues celebrating mercenaries date from that brief summer when those rulers were still under the delusion that a perpetual war can be waged cheaply. One day soon, perhaps, our own beloved leaders will discover the same problem with robots that Italy city-states discovered with condottieri: they’re swell, so long as no one else has them.

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