The battle of Ravenna (11 April 1512) was a French victory over a Spanish army that might have helped secure a French victory over the forces of the Holy League if the young French commander, Gaston de Foix, duke of Nemours, hadn't been killed late in the day. The battle is often said to have been the first major battle to be decided by artillery.
In 1508 Pope Julius II had formed the League of Cambrai, an alliance that included Emperor Maximilian, Louis XII of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon and that was aimed against the power of Venice. The resulting War of the League of Cambrai saw the Venetians lose many of their recent mainland conquests, but by 1510 the Pope was alarmed by the rise in French power in Italy, and he began work on the formation of a new Holy League, this time aimed at expelling the French from Italy. Venice was first to join the Holy League, followed by Spain in the autumn of 1511. The Swiss also supported the league, although their aim was to install their own candidate as Duke of Milan.
The war began with a series of inconclusive campaigns. Two Papal offensives in 1510 ended in failure as did a French attack on Bologna. Early in 1511 the Pope captured Mirandola, but it fell to the French a few months later. In May 1511 Bologna also fell to the French, but the French were now under pressure from two sides, with large Swiss armies threatening Milan and a Spanish and Imperial army under Raymond of Cardona, Viceroy of Naples threatening Bologna.
The French position was briefly revived by the new Governor of Milan, the young Gaston de Foix, duke of Nemours, a nephew of Louis XII. He defeated a Swiss invasion of Milan late in 1511, and then went onto the offensive. Early in 1512 he conducted a rapid march to Bologna, which forced Cardona to lift the siege.
Foix then moved against the Venetians, defeating their army at Isola della Scala before storming Brescia in February 1512. Foix realised that he needed to force the Spanish and Papal forces into accepting battle, and so his next move was to besiege Ravenna.
This move succeeded. A sizable Spanish-Papal army under Cardona approached Ravenna from the south and set up camp. Foix issued a formal challenge, and Cardona accepted, probably confident that his troops could easily defend their strong fortifications.
In 1511 Ravenna was contained between the Rivers Ronco and Montone, with the rivers joining to the east of the city. Foix's main camp was positioned between the two rivers, facing the main land wall of the city. The Spanish camped a little further to the south, on the opposite side of the Ronco.
The French had around 23,000 men in total, including 8000 French and Italian troops, 5,000 Gascons, between 5,000 and 8,500 German mercenaries and 54 guns. Amongst the French commanders was Pierre Terrail, seigneur of Bayard, who had rushed from Brescia to be present at the battle.
The French force included a contingent led by Duke Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara, whose artillery would play a major part in the battle.
The Spanish had around 16,000 men and 30 gins in the relief army, while there were another 5,000 men in Ravenna. Many of the Spanish troops were veterans from the army of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (El Gran Capitán). Their light cavalry and mounted arquebusiers were commanded by Francesco d'Avalos, Marquis of Pescara. Also present on the Spanish side was Giuliano de Medici, later Pope Clement VII and Giovanni de Medici, later Pope Leo X.
The Spanish took up a position with their backs to the unfordable Ronco River and their front protected by entrenchments created by Pedro Navarro, a highly experienced Spanish engineer, and also by at least thirty war wagons and some of their guns. The Spanish and Italian infantry was in front, behind and in the entrenchments. The cavalry formed a line near the river, with the lighter cavalry on the flanks and the men-at-arms in the centre.
On the night of 10-11 April the French were allowed to build a pontoon bridge over the Ronco and cross the river to the Spanish bank. Foix then arrayed his army in a horseshoe facing the Spanish positions.
The French placed their light cavalry at the extreme ends of their line. Next came the artillery, with the French guns on the right and Ferrarese guns on the left. The gap was filled by the infantry, with the Gascon foot on the right, then the Landsknecht, with the French foot and men-at-arms close to the centre of the line and the Italian foot on the left,
The battle began with an artillery duel that lasted for several hours. At first the French infantry and Spanish cavalry were worst hit, while the Spanish infantry were protected by their entrenchments. This changed when Duke Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara moved his artillery into a position from where it could hit the Spanish trenches.
Eventually the artillery bombardment was too much for the Spanish cavalry, and the horsemen made a spontaneous and thus badly organised attack on the French lines. They were intercepted and defeated by the French cavalry, and chased off the field.
With the cavalry out of the way Gaston de Foix launched an infantry assault on the Spanish lines. This began an hour-long melee at the entrenchments, in which both sides suffered heavy losses.
The deadlock was broken by two French blows. First Foix sent two guns back across the Ronco under the command of Yves d'Alegre. They opened fire on the rear of the Spanish infantry. Soon after this the French cavalry returned to the battlefield and attacked the Spanish infantry from the rear (the combat in the trenches have dragged them forward, creating a gap by the river).
The Spanish and their Italian allies broke under this double blow and began to try and retreat to the south. The Italian units are said to have collapsed during the retreat, but the Spanish maintained better discipline.
The French victory was marred by the death of Foix during the last phase of the battle. He led his cavalry against a unit of Spanish infantry that was retreating across a causeway, and was killed in the fighting (as was d'Alegre).
The French lost around 4,500 dead and the same wounded during the battle, many of the losses amongst their landscknechts.
The Spanish lost 9,000 dead and an unknown number of wounded. Amongst the prisoners was Francesco d'Avalos, Marquis of Pescara, who was later ransomed and rejoined the Spanish army, Pedro Navarro, the engineer, who wasn't ransomed and ended up joining the French, Giovanni de Medici and Fabrizio Colonna, an experienced Italian condottieri. Amongst the dead were eleven of the twelve colonels commanding Spanish infantry units.
The loss of Gaston de Foix meant that the French victory lost all meaning. He was succeeded by Marshal Jacques de la Palice, who lacked Foix's energy. He wasted most of the year and was eventually forced to retreat back into Lombardy and then even further back towards the Alps. Milan fell to the Swiss, who made Massimiliano Sforze duke, although the castle remained in French hands. The French returned in 1513, but were defeated at Novara (6 June 1513) and had to retreat back out of Italy.