Italy was a real mess during the fifteenth century. That makes it really useful for anyone following the current U.S. political (and the world) scene. Read along as we explore history, and see how politicians can apply the lessons that the ancient Italians have taught us.
In the late 1300s wealth began to pour into Italian cities from the Silk Road, with exotic imports from India and China mixing with ample goods from around the Mediterranean. These were passed along to the wealthy citizens of Europe, at cost, with only a small shipping and handling fee added. It turns out the shipping and handling business is worth a fortune.
New materials and techniques collided in a great orgy of creativity, spawning an advancing wave of art and beauty that would inspire humanity for 500 years. It officially ended when they built the Seattle King Dome in 1976. It takes a special kind of person to look upon the wondrous architecture of past eras from all over the world and manage to create the soul-sucking concrete monstrosities popularized in the 1970s. That’s Communists and Boomers for you, though.
Some Italians had mighty treasure troves at their disposal. We’re talking Scrooge McDuck levels of wealth. Like ol’ Scrooge, they would bathe in their swag, but instead of dollars, it was florins, and instead of swimming pools, it was the Adriatic Sea. Particularly if the oligarch in question lived in Venice.
Italians were already proud of their particular area of Italy, but with all the wealth they found many new and expensive ways to show off that pride. Venetians made the best glass, Florentine artists made the best marble statues, and the architects of Pisa created the best towers. This was an era of excess. Jealous city-states played a political game of one-upsmanship. If you lived in Sienna you’d, say, sneak into a rival town and knock over their tower. This would humiliate your rival, and your city could then celebrate their humiliation. On some occasions this activity resulted in a draw.
The Princes in charge of each city were very concerned. They invested in security firms to protect their honor. If the security firm could also, say, break into your rival city and pull the giant porcelain plug keeping the ocean at bay, the members of the team would get a resounding bonus and laughs all around.
These security firms were made up of professional Italian mercenary bands called condottieri. The wealthy nobles and oligarchs in charge didn’t trust regular people to carry weapons. Regular people, excelling at picking up crates and moving them onto boats, could hurt themselves. Professional soldiers trusted in the same thing the oligarchs did: the almighty florin.
The early stages worked well. This was before the truly fabulous wealth rolled in during the later 1400s. Your mercenary band would go out and meet the mercenary band your rival city had sent to break your city’s marble blocks. The Pope paid by the pound. Smaller marble pieces meant smaller statues. There was a lot at stake. People would kill for it. And they did.
It wasn’t like there was a fight every day, though; and like soldiers of today there was a lot of down time. Officers would study battles and analyze not only their own tactics, but the tactics of their enemy. They had to. Insurance premiums were destroying them financially, so anything they could do that would lead to lower premiums was worth investigating. Over time, condottieri fighting formations grew more sophisticated, involving exact movements of infantry and careful timing of cavalry to lay traps, conduct feints, and make spectacular surprise charges at their foes. They no longer fought to honor the home city’s glass beads, but because they simply loved the tactics of the thing. The art of war, if you will.
Condottieri would talk to each other after their battles (like you do) and share tips and insights. They were true professionals, like sports celebrities today. By this time they were barely afloat. Insurance premiums were making Obamacare-like price leaps, and training costs for replacement soldiers were even worse. It didn’t take a genius to point out that the real trick was in the maneuvers and tactics. And since everyone could recognize when they were about to get harvested like grapes, why not just skip that phase; conduct an organized, honorable surrender; ransom off the prisoners to the losing prince, and get on with the important business of cavorting with the wenches in the camp retinue?
This whole process evolved over the next century. Condottieri had fancy uniforms and fancy banners and flowing, colorful tents (which were also fancy). Their retinues employed portage experts who were tired of pulling crates off boats. It seemed much more glamorous to push them onto carts, instead.
There was no need for entrenchments. Nobody would sally forth from their camp to confront the enemy, nor would the enemy attempt to raid your baggage. There was no fighting at night. Somebody could get hurt, and besides, everyone needed to be well-rested for the battle the next day. War was seasonal. Why prepare for winter combat? Horses can’t charge well in the snow and mud. The fine uniforms weren’t meant to get bloody. Have you priced the replacement cost of gold braid?
Crowds would come out and watch the battle, as they do football games today. Some condottieri were famous: the Russell Wilsons and Tom Bradys of their day. One year the Venetian Glass, led by Captain Wilson, took on the heavily-favored Genoa Spice, led by General Brady. It was all supposed to be over by noon, but the Glass had been incredibly strategic and crafty and it was approaching dinner time and darkness would soon set in. Something had to happen. The battle conditions were turning dangerous. In a desperate surprise move, Captain Wilson fired a cannon but the ball was intercepted by a particularly stupid crate-handler two yards from General Brady’s head. The Spice won the battle. Not that Glass fans are still bitter about it today, or anything.
Eventually, the Italian city-states were conquered. In 1494 the French rolled over the Italian Alps because they had filed complaint after complaint about broken, missing, and plagued trade goods which nobody could help them resolve. The Italian city-states assembled a host of condottieri bands to face the enemy. They easily outmaneuvered the French troops, who were poor and unsophisticated soldiers and were too stupid to realize they had been outflanked and would soon be deader than FBI Director James Comey’s career. They didn’t recognize that an honorable surrender was in order. Instead, they stupidly charged and punched and trampled and cut. The condottieri manuals hadn’t covered who would be deemed the winner if one soldier was stabbed repeatedly in the throat with a bayonet. We have the advantage of hindsight, and now know the answer to that question.
This was an unexpected and shocking development for the remaining mercenaries. They surrendered in short order. They were good at it. They had practiced it countless times. Italian wealth would soon be siphoned away where it could be spent at Waterloo, 300 years later. That, however, is a different post.
The condottieri didn’t particularly care about the cities or politicians or people they fought for. Why would they? Next week they’d be paid by the same people they’d tried so hard to defeat today. They did care about the fight, however, and really cared about the money.
Republicans are the condottieri of our time. They dress like soldiers and they march like soldiers and they shoot like soldiers, but they aren’t soldiers. Voters give politicians their jobs, but they don’t pay politicians their salaries. Those are paid by oligarchs who’ve mastered the art of legal bribery. Democrats, by the way, are condottieri, too.
All this time everyone thought that Republicans were just phenomenally bad at the great game of politics. Problems could be fixed, voters surmised, if smart ones could be elected. Voters had misdiagnosed the problem, though.
How well could a football team play if a couple of wide receivers, linemen, and most of their linebackers played for the other team? That turns out to be a real problem in the Republican party. Donald Trump has exposed them. At least, he’ll get the credit for it.
He doesn’t deserve it, because Trump is just a symbol of voter rage at how badly our politicians have messed with our lives. He was the man in the crowd who voiced concerns that real Americans share. He knew the real game being played, because he’d been forced to play it. He might take this opportunity and forge himself into a historic figure. I’m hoping he can do that. We’ll know more on November 8.
That rage isn’t going anywhere, though, regardless of who wins the election.
Make no mistake, the Great Election of 2016 is historic. The first true internet candidate emerged, and a new media arose along with it. The new media, this alt-media, consists of individuals doing the job our fourth estate used to pretend to do. Every citizen is now a reporter. Every citizen is now a fact-checker. Every citizen is now a commentator. We’re the French. We’re too stupid to be good soldiers or realize how resoundingly we’ve been defeated.
What do you think will happen next?
The Spork Speaks — Tempest in a Teardrop — tempestinateardrop.com