Quill Instead of Sword

Francesco Tesini, La fortificatione gvardia, difesa et espugnatione delle fortesse.

Printed in Venice in 1630 by Antonio Bariletti and Fratelli al Segno del Mondo (text of 1624, printed by Evangelista Deuchino)

When studying Europe’s history, we realise that peace was rather an exception, while armed conflicts were the rule. People suffered regularly from the fact that their noble sovereigns were fighting with other aristocrats over fiefs and territories resulting in their home being burned by marauding soldiers. Today we prevent this from happening mainly by using diplomatic means, back then the motto was: precautions are to be taken during peaceful times, preferably by building modern fortifications. But that wasn’t easy. In 1624, Italian military architect Francesco Tesini wrote a manual summarizing all the things that had to be taken into account. Thanks to outstanding expertise and modern illustrations, the book impressed so many people that it was reprinted for decades and quoted for centuries.

Siege scenes like this one are inspired by Tesini’s own experience: he had witnessed many battles of the major wars of Europe, from the Flemish Region to Piedmont, from Alsace to Bohemia.

Tesini: a Life on the Battlefield

If you are wondering at what time such a book was written, you only have to read the author’s introduction. In a rhetorical phrase of modesty, Francesco Tesini explains that he could – but does not – present a list of his own merits in the field of military architecture. Indeed, he does not need to as the brief outline of his career that he describes afterwards is enough to make the reader understand what his life has been about so far: war.

Tesini was born in Italy, probably around 1580. However, already by the age of 17 he took part in wars in foreign countries, namely in the Flemish Region. The Eighty Years’ War raged there, and Tesini apparently fought as soldier in it. Shortly afterwards, he worked on missions in Alsace and Bohemia, Salzburg, Swabia and Piedmont. During this time, he witnessed 18 sieges, was besieged four times and fought numerous skirmishes and battles, as they constantly occurred during the Thirty Years’ War. There’s a reason why Tesini mentions all this.

Soldier Tesini experienced first-hand how crucial the quality of a fortification could be during a war. Therefore, he had an advantage over many writers who published fine books on military architecture after receiving academic education but without having any “experiences regarding military architecture or knowledge of warfare” as he points out in the first sentence of his introduction. What he means is: they lack the practical experience that he, Tesini, had, even though he had probably never seen the inside of a university.

Moreover, Tesini substantiates his comprehensive and tested knowledge by outlining his positions: engineer of the King of Spain, captain of the Walloons, lieutenant general of the artillery of Emperor Rudolf II, five years in the service of the Duke of Bavaria and eventually working for the Serenissima. There, in Venice, he modernised the fortifications, which were to protect the lagoon city from attacks by sea and land.

From Sword to Quill

It probably isn’t just a rhetoric means when Tesini confesses that he has no experience with writing and has previously been a man of the sword, not the quill. His readers had to do without literary qualities, in return they received best practice advice. Tesini was a stroke of luck for fortress architects, because he was a man with a lot of practical experience and he knew exactly what he was writing about.

In a clear, military style Tesini systematically dealt with all issues an architect had to take into account when fortifying cities or military bases: the location and which materials were suitable for what purposes. But he talks about much more than the actual construction of fortifications. In Book Two, Tesini describes the characteristics of a good commander, how he should organise the guards and what he should do first when finding out about an imminent siege. Thus, Tesini takes us with him right into the warlike life of his time. He even included an alphabetical subject index enabling readers to look ad hoc for advice on a certain issue.

In addition to all this specialist knowledge, Tesini’s work fascinated its readers because of its illustrations. The Bolognese artist Odoardo Fialetti created engravings of impressive precision and overwhelming beauty. From a bird’s eye view we see modern star-shaped bastions covering the area in front of them with cannonballs, in front of the observer’s eye rural areas stretch out and are criss-crossed by walls with small garrisons, trenches and star-shaped batteries. By means of dramatic battle scenes, author and engraver illustrate how the besieged use the advantages of their military architecture. There are troops running through a breach in an outer wall only to find themselves facing a second, inner rampart, warships are navigating through a bay being under heavy battery fire from artificial offshore installations. These pictures transport us right into the battles of the 17th century, we hear the roar of battle, the thunder of cannons and the jangling of swords. By means of these illustrations, the work set a standard that inspired later authors. Books were no longer considered written works accompanied by a few pictures serving as a nice addition. By then, these illustrations were of such a high quality that their creators confidently placed them next to the text considering them to be equal supplements.

But there is something else that stands out regarding Fialetti’s illustrations. In spite of all the brutality and drama, the artist repeatedly added almost bucolic scenes featuring simple people at the margin of the engraving. One gets the impression that he and Tesini wanted to point out what, in their opinion, was the purpose of the warlike business of a military architect: protecting the people and their world, creating bulwarks against the fanatical destructiveness of war in order to contribute to a more peaceful world. Tesini’s farewell greeting in his preface addressed to his readers is in line with this idea: “Vivi felice”, meaning “Live happily”.

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You can download the entire work in PDF format at ETH Zurich.

A few years before Tesini, Daniel Specklin from Alsace published his manual on fortifications.