Battle of Ravenna Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

French and Spanish/papal forces engaged in a major battle at Ravenna during the second French invasion of Italy. Ravenna marked the first effective use of cannon as field artillery. The French were victorious, but they suffered heavy casualties and soon were forced to withdraw from Italy.

Summary of Event

The Battle of Ravenna was a major episode in the French invasions of Italy Italy;French invasions of , which began in 1494 when Charles VIII occupied the Italian kingdom of Naples. Spain’s Ferdinand II intervened, joining Pope Alexander VI’s Holy League Holy League alongside Germany and Milan. Louis XII, Charles’s successor, made good his claim to the duchy of Milan during the second French invasion in 1499. However, the election of Pope Julius II in 1503 brought to power someone determined to rid Italy of foreign powers, beginning with the French, whom he regarded as the most dangerous. Through patient diplomacy, Julius reestablished the Holy League in 1510. The league’s second incarnation consisted of Spain, England, and Venice, as well as a group of Swiss mercenary troops. Ravenna, Battle of (1512) Gaston de Foix Cardona, Ramon de Navarro, Pedro Julius II Louis XII Ferdinand II (1452-1516) Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Louis XII (king of France) Julius II Foix, Gaston de Cardona, Ramon de Navarro, Pedro

Fighting began when Julius’s army occupied several towns in the duchy of Ferrara, a French ally. The French response to this provocation was limited, until Louis XII appointed his nephew, Gaston de Foix, the duke of Nemours, as commander of the French army in Italy. Gaston had just turned twenty-two years old when he arrived in Italy to take command in December, 1511. His youthful energy electrified the French forces, and he immediately took the offensive against the enemy. Disregarding the tradition that battles were fought only in summer, he marched his men through the snows of January to relieve French-occupied Bologna, under siege by a Spanish/papal army, and then double-timed his own army to surprise and defeat Venetian forces at Brescia Brescia, Battle of (1512) on February 19, 1512.

Aware that reinforcements were on their way to him, Ramon de Cardona, the Spanish commander of the Holy League’s forces, retreated southward. De Foix, eager to engage the league before their reinforcements arrived, quickly besieged Ravenna, a major city in the Papal States. Cardona had no choice but to attempt to break the siege with his existing forces. His army consisted of some sixteen thousand men—fourteen thousand foot soldiers and two thousand men-at-arms (knights). Seven thousand of his soldiers came from the papal army; the rest were Spaniards.

Employing tactics that had been successful for the Spanish since 1495, Cardona established a defensive position with his left flank on the Ronco River and surrounded his position with entrenchments designed by the noted military engineer, Pedro Navarro. He had about thirty heavy cannon, which were distributed across the front of his army. Navarro also had two hundred small artillery pieces mounted on carts, which could be moved wherever they were needed during the battle. Cardona then waited for the French to attack, knowing that the lack of supplies would force de Foix either to retreat or come to him to fight.

De Foix’s response demonstrated that medieval values still had a hold over fighting men of the early sixteenth century. He sent a formal invitation to battle to Cardona, who accepted it with equal formality. On Easter Sunday, April 11, 1512, de Foix, leaving two thousand men in the siege lines around Ravenna to prevent its garrison from aiding Cardona, moved the rest of his army to give battle. It consisted of about twenty-one thousand men. His infantry forces included seven thousand Frenchmen, seventy-five hundred German mercenaries, and five thousand Italians. His fifteen hundred cavalrymen were mostly French men-at-arms, still regarded as the best fighting men in Europe. The French had fifty-five cannon.

Arriving before the Spanish/papal lines, de Foix placed his men in a large semicircular formation, with the cavalry forming the wings on either end and the infantry in the center. He kept six hundred men-at-arms in reserve behind the center. Cardona made no effort to impede their march, although they had to cross a bridge a short distance from his lines. His experience in several battles with the French since 1495 convinced him that they would move immediately to the attack against even entrenched positions: The élan of the French noblemen required them to attack the enemy without hesitation, regardless of how well entrenched he was. Cardona, therefore, preferred to keep his men in their positions and wait for the French to attack. His battle plan was based on the assumption that they would.

Although de Foix had no experience in fighting Spanish forces, he instinctively recognized that little good could come from assaulting Cardona’s well-defended lines. Despite grumbling from his men, who regarded it as a point of honor to attack immediately, he had high enough standing with his troops to keep them in check. By 10:00 a.m. the French had approached to within 200 yards of the enemy trenches. De Foix moved the infantry in his center forward a few paces to simulate an attack, which drew fire from Cardona’s guns. Much to Cardona’s surprise, the French infantry halted well short of his trenches, and no other forces pressed forward. Instead, the French artillery opened fire.

For about two hours, the cannon exchanged fire directed largely toward the large blocks of infantrymen in both armies. It was the first sustained cannonade in history. The mobile gun carts also scored heavily on the French. Casualties on both sides mounted rapidly. Especially hard hit were the captains of the infantry companies, who stood resplendent in bright clothes in front of their men. Two captains, drinking a toast to their men, were killed with one cannonball.

It was unheard of before this battle for soldiers to take fire for so long a period of time without charging or retreating, a situation much more characteristic of eighteenth century battles than those of the Renaissance. Thus, neither captain achieved the outcome that each both desired and expected: Cardona wanted de Foix’s forces to charge the entrenched Spanish lines, and de Foix wanted Cardona’s to leave their trenches and charge the French. The stalemate continued until a French officer, perhaps de Foix himself, conceived of a brilliant tactical maneuver: Several cannon were brought around to the flank of the Holy League’s lines and began to fire diagonally into them. This enfilading fire soon inflicted severe casualties, and, realizing that his men would not remain in place much longer, Cardona ordered them to charge the French lines. The bitter hand-to-hand fighting that ensued was going to Cardona’s advantage, when the French cavalry, which had driven off its counterpart in the league’s army, charged into the rear of the league’s infantry and forced it to collapse in disorder.

Late in the battle, de Foix was killed. One report had it that he was killed while rallying the French infantry to hold its position. Another report, widely accepted largely because it came from the highly respected Sieur de Bayard, “the knight without reproach,” claimed de Foix was killed by a company of Spanish infantrymen while leading a band of cavalrymen in pursuit of the defeated enemy. Bayard claimed that the Spaniards shouted at de Foix to let them retreat unharmed, since the French had already won the day, but he persisted in pursuing them and was killed.

Regardless of which version of de Foix’s death is true, the loss of their young commander proved to be a blow to the French that outweighed any advantage their victory gained them. They had been badly battered and had suffered heavy casualties, perhaps as many as forty-five hundred dead, although the league’s forces lost at least twice that number. Jacques de La Palise, de Foix’s replacement, was not the sort of person to risk marching to Rome and arresting Julius II as a false pope, as Louis XII had ordered de Foix to do. Instead, he moved his battered army back to Milan, pursued by the reinvigorated league army, and then retreated to France.

Most of the places controlled by the French fell into enemy hands by the end of 1512. Milan surrendered to the Swiss. Julius II, who frantically had been preparing to flee Rome when he heard of the league’s defeat at Ravenna, emerged more powerful than ever. He excommunicated Louis XII and encouraged Henry VIII of England, Ferdinand of Aragon, and the Swiss to invade France. Julius’s death in February, 1513, took the glue out of the Holy League, however, and Louis made peace with his foes with no further loss of territory.


Besides serving as an excellent example of a pyrrhic victory, the Battle of Ravenna was an important step in the development of gunpowder artillery as a field weapon. Military;Italy The potential of cannon as a field weapon was well demonstrated by the French success in using cannon to force Ramon de Cardona’s forces to abandon their entrenched lines and make an unsuccessful charge at the French. The death of Gaston de Foix prevented the French from deposing Pope Julius II, which, had it happened, might have dramatically changed the religious history of the era, perhaps even preventing the Reformation from occurring. The French withdrawal from Italy after Ravenna caused them to lose Milan, which in turn led to the third French invasion of Italy and the Battle of Marignano in 1515.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baumgartner, Frederic. Louis XII. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Places the battle in the context of the reign of the French king.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bridge, John. History of France from the Death of Louis XI. Vol. 4. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1978. A detailed account of the events leading to the battle, the battle itself, and its consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Bert. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Stresses the innovative character of the battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, Mack. Renaissance and Reformation France. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Provides a discussion of the impact of the battle on French politics and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oman, Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1937. The most complete description of the battle from a tactical point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Christine. Julius II: The Warrior Pope. London: Blackwell, 1997. Places the battle in the context of the pope’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Frederick. The Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973. Places the battle in the context of Italian military practice during the Renaissance.

Apr. 9, 1454: Peace of Lodi

1481-1499: Ludovico Sforza Rules Milan

Sept., 1494-Oct., 1495: Charles VIII of France Invades Italy

1499: Louis XII of France Seizes Milan

1500: Roman Jubilee

Sept. 13-14, 1515: Battle of Marignano

Aug. 18, 1516: Concordat of Bologna

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

Feb., 1525: Battle of Pavia

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis

Categories: History