Rapallo beats Trafalgar 141 to 10. History and Glory of our Marina

(To Marina Militare)

Ugo Foscolo shouted, 22 January 1809, speaking in the classroom of the University of Pavia that today bears his name, his famous "Italians, I urge you to stories". It was the motto and principle of the Risorgimento: the invitation to a whole people to remember who it was, what it was and what it legitimately expected from Europe and the world, starting from the dignity of work and respect for the own culture and that of others.

That message was not lost. However, one wonders if, given Italy and the Italians, there is no need to do even the history of the Italian Navy.

Not that there is, of course, a rich historiography, the work of an important school of Italian authors active, since the fifties, on the initiative of their model and founder, the great Aldo Fraccaroli; but what is missing, objectively, is a widespread culture in this field. And it is precisely this limit that is the source, often and willingly, of serious political and cultural errors paid, over the last two centuries, with too much blood and too many resources.

As an example is worth more than a hundred speeches, here is a concrete case.

Everyone, or almost everyone, knows who the great English admiral Horace (Horace) Nelson was. Many know the naval battle of Trafalgar, if only for having crossed, perhaps on a school trip, Trafalgar Square in London. That success, achieved on 21 October 1805 by 27 British vessels against 33 similar enemy units, between French and Spanish, and ended with a sharp 18-0 for the British, ensured the United Kingdom naval superiority until the time of Waterloo, 10 years later, and the final fall and exile of Napoleon. Since Bonaparte redoubled the efforts and appropriations for the Navy the day after hearing the news of that defeat, the French, Italian, Belgian and Dutch shipyards set to work briskly. By 1814 the parity between the United Kingdom and the Napoleonic Empire was a done deal and according to plans, by 1820, Her Majesty's Royal Navy would be crushed by the sheer weight of numbers. Trafalgar therefore meant a 10-year period of breath destined to make a difference. We come to us now.

In the 1494, they teach scholastic history books, the king of France, Charles VIII, descended in Italy by invitation (and it was a big mistake) by the Milanese duke Ludovico il Moro, easily reaching Naples. Realizing, within a few months, of having made a bad deal, the Italian princes decided to join forces, the Moro included, but they had, among all, an inadequate army in terms of size and organization. Fortunately, the Italian Marines, constantly engaged in tough patrols during their centuries-long struggle against Barbary pirates, were of a very different kind of pasta. And it was the counter-insurance represented by the Navy that allowed the situation to be reversed.

With mathematical precision, the Genoese team, placed under the command of Francesco Spinola, attacked, 2 May 1495, in front of the Ligurian port of Rapallo, in the Levant, the French fleet commanded by the Sire de Miolans. It was a fierce naval battle that ended with the capture of all French ships followed by the liberation of the city and the surrender of de Miolans himself. This disaster was followed, shortly afterwards, by the capture, in the waters of Sestri Levante, of a convoy, coming from Naples, formed by 12 French sailing ships and finished in the mouth of the Ligurians following a successful intelligence operation. Three hundred women were freed, kidnapped in Campania by way of hostages, also putting their hands on a fantastic booty used, later, to build the sumptuous church of the Annunziata, in Genoa.  

The French, to whom the defeat burned, then and later, complained a lot about the lack of sportsmanship of the opponents who, in fact, did not leave de Miolans the time to go out calmly and to explain himself in battle, preferring if anything to force, dawn, the chain of access to the port and then attacking, immediately afterwards, the enemy team caught, in practice, as the transalpines themselves wrote later, danssexus-vêtements, ie in their underwear.

Charles VIII, as narrated by Guicciardini, thought, once the defeat had been learned, to order the Italians to return the ships, the crews and the unfortunate de Miolans on pain of unspecified slaughter, given that he had also lost the hostages. His generals, on the other hand, observed that the only thing to do at this point was to retreat quickly even though, unfortunately, only by land now, through that damn long, narrow peninsula, militarily full of trouble.

After losing, during the subsequent Battle of Fornovo of the 6 July 1495, the wagons, the loot and the royal treasure, the French continued their retreat returning, finally, for October, to their homeland after having left the bones in Italy, scattered by Naples to the Alps, more than 10% of their army.

Since then, and up until the 1636, the French fleet was never seen again, nor had any weight in the Mediterranean. 141 years of advantage for the benefit of Italy of the golden ages compared to Trafalgar's 10.

This is a forgotten fact in our school books (copied as they are in the French nineteenth-century manuals) and little known even in the ranks of the Navy. But in the end it's not that important. Italian sailors can afford to overlook certain things: they practice them every day and every night, for years and centuries (if not millennia) with every sea, based on those traditional ethical principles that represent the true "secret weapon" of the our Marina.