HIST 125: The Renaissance


The Italian Wars: lecture notes



    As we have seen, from 1454 to 1494 Italy had been at peace, thanks to the pan-Italian Peace of Lodi.  However, tensions among the five major powers and their allies were on the rise.

*       For example, within Milan there was growing unrest among the opponents of the Sforza, particularly since Giangaleazzo, who came to power in 1476, was just an infant.  His uncle, Ludovico (a.k.a. Il Moro), was the official, but inept, regent.  On top of that, Sforza Milan was immersed in family squabbles, thanks to their double alliance with the Neapolitan crown.

*       Venice, meanwhile, had thrown to the wind any façade of Christian abhorrence of commerce with the infidel, and was making a killing (pardon the pun) in trade.  Moreover, Venetians had set their imperialistic eyes on further expansion to the West, which could only come at the expense of Milan and Rome. 

*       Finally, the bubble of Italian peace broke in 1494, when King Ferrante of Aragon died, leaving his son, Alfonso in charge.  Alfonso had hated at home because he was cruel and corrupt, and he was hated abroad, particularly by the Sforza and their allies.

    Long story short, in 1494 the Sforza turn to King Charles VIII of France and offer a deal wherein Charles will receive Milanese safe passage through Italy, and Milan will be rid of Alfonso.  The plan backfired, and Italy was thrown into chaos for roughly 35 years.

    Notice that, although seemingly a matter between Milan and Naples, the Wars were soon out of their hands, and Italy became the battleground in which a pan-European balance of power would be decided.


The Major Players

    France: Charles VIII (invaded Italy in 1494), Louis XII (invaded in 1499), and Francis I (invaded in 1515 and 1524)

    Spain: first under King Ferdinand of Aragon (joined the Holy League in 1495), then under Charles V (the Holy Roman Emperor- who was also King of Spain- from 1519 onward).

    Milan: under the Sforza, particularly Ludovico

    Rome: There were four Popes involved in the Italian Wars: Alexander VI (the Borgia pope, involved from the beginning to his death in 1503), Julius II (became pope in 1503 and died in 1513), Leo X (the first Medici pope, was elected in 1513 and died in 1521; also significant because he was pope at the time of Luther); and Clement VI (elected in 1521).

    Florence: In the early part of the Italian Wars, the Medici ruler, Piero di Lorenzo (i.e. son of the Magnifico), was exiled from Florence because he not only allowed the French to pass through Florentine territory but actually gave Charles VIII very important towns (particularly Pisa, Florence’s major port town).  From 1494 to 1512 Florence was under the “Second Republic”, which was led by Piero Soderini and in which Machiavelli was a minor official.  In 1512, the Medici were restored under the auspices of the Spanish.


The Four Major Phases (Invasions)


I.       The First Invasion – 1494 – by Charles VIII of France (r. 1483-1499)



  1. Enmity between France and the Holy Roman Empire, most significantly due to a shaky balance of power.  Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor, from now on HRE) forces Charles VIII to surrender the Duchy of Burgundy, a particularly wealthy and productive territory, making Charles look inept and weak.
  2. Charles decides to regain his “honor” and redress the balance of power by pressing his (quite weak) dynastic claim to the throne of Naples.  There were other “fortuitous” reasons for Charles to invade Italy: personal glory (dispelling the notion that he was a military disaster), booty (both territory and fluid wealth), diverting his own noblemen from acts against the crown (i.e. the safety-valve argument of exporting violence and discord), and placing other powers in his debt (particularly Milan- helping with pesky familial matters).
  3. Charles’s excuse: he needed to make it to Naples, where he would launch a new crusade against the Turks (who, remember, had taken Constantinople a mere 40 years earlier).



  1. September 1494 – Charles crosses the Alps with the greatest array of military strength seen in Italy since the time of Hannibal (made up of French mounted knights, Swiss infantrymen, and Scottish long-bowmen – 30,000 strong)
  2. Charles actually takes Naples without a single battle: Milan had agreed to let him pass, which it soon came to regret, as the French take control of Milan as well; Florence caved in, giving Pisa and other strongholds in exchange for no French troops inside the city; and Naples’s defenses were flimsy at best.
  3. It took Charles 5 months to cross Italy, reaching Naples triumphantly.  He was welcomed by the Neapolitans, who thought of him as their savior from the corruption of the Neapolitan court.
  4. However, Charles was forced out of Italy very quickly, and by 1497 he was fully out.  Two things contributed to his flight: first, the Neapolitans realized the French were as corrupt as had been Alfonso’s court (if not worse, since they were confiscating Neapolitan land left and right and dividing it amongst themselves), so many riots and insurrections took place; second, five major powers (Papacy, Venice, Milan, Maximilian I, and Alfonso- who had Aragonese support) created an alliance in 1495 (The Holy League, aka League of Venice).  The sole purpose of the League was to force Charles out of Italy.  Faced with a local mess in Naples and the threat of being “penned in” with no escape route, Charles quickly backtracked.





  1. The immediate effects of the first invasion were few but deeply felt.  Of course, the most obvious outcome was the French defeat, which is most significant because it fired up later French attempts to “regain” their honor by capturing Italy once and for all.  Thus Italy was the scene of more than half a century of French offensives and Spanish counterinvasions, as well as frequent internal feuds that used foreign powers as powerful weapons against one another.
  2. The most significant outcome of the first invasion was perhaps the exile of the Medici in Florence, and the development of the Second Republic, which lasted officially from 1498 to 1512.  The Republic ran in very similar ways to pre-Medicean government (i.e. Florentines institutes a Great Council, a representative body which debated policy openly).  However, there were some very real differences, the most significant of which was the lack of moderation and balance with which Cosimo and Lorenzo had imbued Florentine policymaking.  The clearest example (and in part the cause) of this lack of moderation was the “reign” of Girolamo Savonarola (d. 1498), a Dominican friar and apocalyptic “prophet” who instilled a general sense of fear into Florentines.  Savonarola convinced Florentines that the invasion was a punishment from God for the city’s immorality and corruption, and lead to such things as the first Bonfire of the Vanities (in which even Botticelli threw some of his paintings!), an actual fire in which Florentines burned the Renaissance (or, at least, many of its best symbols).  Moreover, after the Pisa debacle and the Florentine uprising, the French king placed an embargo on Florentine cloth (i.e. Florence lost one of its greatest markets).  Faced with financial ruin and the possibility of a French invasion of the city, Florence surrendered to the French king.


II.     The Second Invasion – 1499 – by Louis XII of France (Charles VIII’s cousin, r. 1498-1515)



1.      Louis XII believed it was his destiny, as king, to triumph where his cousin had failed.  As a still feudal-thinking ruler, he thought he had been “born to fight.”  The irony is that Louis, although an effective and moderate king who believed in tax reform, had no real military prowess.

2.      Louis explained his own claim to Italy (remember, his predecessor had given up his claim when he ran without a fight) by pointing to his own, irrefutable dynastic relationship to Milan (pre-Sforza), as his grandmother had been one of the Visconti who ruled before the Sforza (who could now pretty much be ignored: Giangaleazzo had died and Ludovico was more interested in tournaments than in real politics and war).

3.      In this invasion, more of the Italian powers saw the possibility of advancing their own agendas if they sided with France.  For example, Alexander VI agreed to give Louis a divorce (so he could marry his cousin’s widow, and therefore keep all of Brittany within the French crown) in exchange for Louis’s help in solidifying the pope’s hold over the Romagna (Papal States).  Florence wasted no time in reminding the king of their own alliance to France, hoping to solidify their place within an Italy under French control.





1.      This invasion can be divided into two sections: the campaign for Milan and the campaign for Naples.  The campaign for Milan was short and decisive.  Louis took Milan quite easily, particularly since Ludovico’s ablest commanders defected to the French side.  Ludovico was forced to flee to Austria under imperial auspices, from where he tried, unsuccessfully, to mount an attack to retake the duchy.  He died in 1508. 

2.      Having secured Milan, Louis turned his attention to Naples.  Here the story becomes even stranger, as the Treaty of Granada (which was signed by Louis and Ferdinand of Aragon- of Ferdinand and Isabella fame- in 1500) allied France with Spain.  The plan was to conquer Naples and then divide it among the two powers (even though in theory it was Ferdinand who had the stronger claim to the throne which, after all, was part of his family’s extended holdings since 1435).  The Treaty was sanctioned by the pope (still Alexander VI), who in exchange for his sanction got extra territory in central Italy (the Emilia-Romagna).  The treaty lasted only two years, however, as both Louis and Ferdinand became rivals once again over the division of their Neapolitan spoils.  Ferdinand, backed by his extensive navy and the organizational abilities of his captains, expulsed Louis from southern Italy by early 1504.  In 1505, Louis renounced all further claims to Naples.

3.      Things, however, did not end there.  Remember, Louis XII still had control of Milan and its surrounding areas, as far south as Genoa.  Moreover, the rising tensions over Venetian expansion that I mentioned above finally came to a head in 1508, when the HRE, Maximilian I, lost two important cities in the Italian mainland (Fiume and Trieste) to the Venetians.  Into the fray comes Julius II, who had ascended to the Holy See in 1503, upon Alexander VI’s death.  Julius had three main goals: to consolidate the Papal States, to expulse the foreigners from Italy, and to reduce Venetian power.  Of the three, the most pressing seems to have been the latter, since Julius decided to ally himself with Maximilian I, Ferdinand of Aragon, and Louis XII (!) against Venice.  Thus the League of Cambrai came into being in 1508.  Soon, however, Julius realized that such an alliance furthered French interest at the cost of those of the papacy, and he decided to realign his priorities.  Nixing the League of Cambrai, Julius created the Second Holy League in 1510, siding with Maximilian and Ferdinand of Aragon to oust Louis not only from southern but also northern Italy.  Long and complicated story short, the Second Holy League defeated the French in 1512.



1.      Once again, the most obvious outcome was French defeat.  However, the longer-term consequences included:

2.      In Florence, the Medici returned to power, overthrowing the Second Republic (which, you will recall, had thrown its lot with France) with the help of Spanish arms.  Since Piero had died in 1503, his two brothers (Giovanni and Giuliano) – and later his son, Lorenzo – took over. (An interesting aside: it was during this battle that Machiavelli’s citizen militia collapsed; at the sight of the Spanish, the “Machiavellian” troops took flight it total disorder!).

3.      With Spanish support, the rise of the Medici went even further: in 1513 Giovanni was elected to the Holy See, becoming Pope Leo X.



III.             The Third Invasion – 1515 – by Francis I of France (Louis XII’s cousin, r. 1515-1544)



1.      As opposed to his immediate predecessors, Francis did not have a plausible claim upon Milan.  However, another incursion into Italy, if successful, promised wealth, power, and glory to both France and its new king (who, in feudal fashion, needed to prove himself).  In Francis’s eyes, no further justification was needed.  Of course, it did not hurt that his main enemies were in a weakened state: both Ferdinand of Aragon and Maximilian I were old and sick (died in 1516 and 1519 respectively), and their successor, Charles V, was only 16 when he came to the throne.



1.      In August 1515, Francis crossed the Alps with his best cavaliers and a large host of German mercenaries, supported by the greatest variety of artillery yet seen.  An important aside: on September, the French defeated the hitherto invincible Swiss pikemen, who for more than half a century had cornered European military prowess and strategy.  The immediate significance of this defeat was three-fold: first, it highlighted the weaknesses of infantry and thus revolutionized military strategy; second, it ended independent Swiss participation in Italian affairs; and third, the Swiss surrendered to the French control of the Simplon Pass, a strategic pass in the Alps – with two consequences, Francis became duke of Milan, and could protect the city from all intruders.

2.      Seeing Francis’s success in the battlefield, Leo X decided to fold early on, and signed the Concordat of Bologna, wherein the pope granted the French king the right to choose bishops and abbots in his territories (remember, popes have been fighting against that very thing for decades, if not centuries!)  He did all this in exchange for Francis’s promise not to disturb Medici rule in Florence (which, as pointed above, had been gained with Spanish, not French, support).



1.      By 1516 all of northern Italy was under direct or satellite control of France.


IV.             The Fourth Invasion – 1524 – once again, by Francis I



  1. Now, you might be asking: if Francis had control of all of Northern Italy, why would he need to invade the peninsula again in 1524?  The answer is complicated (much to our surprise, no?), but can be summarized as follows.  To begin, you have to remember the map of Europe which, geo-politically speaking, was about to change in 1519.  With the death of Maximilian I, the Spanish king, who also ruled the Netherlands, would become Holy Roman Emperor as well.  Effectively, a single enemy power, stronger than any in recent memory, would encircle (or strangle, as the French believed) France from all sides.  Therefore, Francis I, king of France, decided to put forth a claim to the Imperial crown (defensive or suicidal move?  The jury is still out, although clearly it was a grave mistake, as we shall see). 
  2. In his bid for the imperial crown, Francis almost bankrupted France and, as his attention was elsewhere, his power within Italy slowly corroded.  Charles V took advantage of this, promoting anti-French sentiments within Italy and, most importantly, countering Francis’s claim with one of his own upon the Duchy of Milan (which, as we discussed since the Middle Ages was “officially” a fief of the emperor anyways, but which Francis had decisively taken in 1515…).  What is most important to remember here is that Italy was no longer even the issue; it was merely the setting for what had become a pan-European Habsburg-Valois conflict, which would be resolved elsewhere (eventually).



  1. Francis crossed the Alps into Italy for the second time in 1524.  He takes his troops to Pavia, to which he laid siege.  Although it was clear early on that he would not succeed, Francis refused to lift the siege, and ended up with an exhausted and battered army. 
  2. A few months later, in 1525, Francis faced the imperial army at Pavia, where he was routed.  He was captured and taken to Spain, where he signed the Treaty of Madrid in 1526, agreeing to give up his claims on Italy. 
  3. Once Charles V released him (based solely on the promises Francis had made), Francis repudiated the treaty, and formed the League of Cognac with Pope Clement VII, Henry VIII of England, Venice, and Florence (all of which were as leery of Charles V’s ever-growing power).  The plan definitely backfired, because Charles, who was literally hurt by the Pope’s siding with France, in retaliation allowed his troops to enter Rome in 1527 and sack it (there is an alternative version, which exonerates Charles by pointing out that he had lost direct communication with his troops, who had not been paid and took it upon themselves to take payment in the form of booty from one of the richest cities in Christendom).  Either way, all of Europe was shocked.  Thus, the war effectively came to a crashing (again, pardon the pun) end.



  1. The war officially ended in 1529, with the ratifying of the Peace of Cambrai.  In it, Francis I renounced any and all claims on Italy.


Consequences of the Italian Wars

            For Italy:

    The Italian Wars had great consequences for Italy, and Europe as a whole.  For Italy, there where two major consequences:

1.      Spanish supremacy (direct or satellite) over all of Italy.  Spanish control was made official in the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis, which was signed between Spain and France in 1559.  This meant that all Italian cities, which had previously been mostly independent, lost ultimate say in their own affairs.  As is often the case with “territories”, Italian cities maintained local jurisdiction but lost control of their foreign policy.  Spanish control over Italian affairs lasted over two centuries.

2.      The decline of Italian cultural leadership.  Renaissance culture emigrated from Italy, both literally and figuratively.  That is, many artists and scholars sought refuge from the wars in other countries, particularly France and England.  Other factors also influence the “end” of the Renaissance in Italy, as we shall see, particularly the Papacy’s attempt to stem the tide of Protestantism by embarking in a Christiandom-wide repression of the “excesses” (of luxury and concupiscence, for which the belief in human dignity could perhaps be blamed) which arguably had characterized the Renaissance.


            For Europe as a Whole:

    As mentioned above, perhaps the most important consequence of the wars to Europe as a whole is that they served as an “excuse” for the greatest political conflict (not counting issues brought about by the Reformations) of the 16th century, i.e. the Habsburg-Valois enmity.

    The cultural decline of Italy meant the rise of other countries as THE centers of art, literature, and scholarly enterprise. Once again, however, we must consider that the Counter-Reformation maintained Rome as a center of cultural production, but one married ONLY to a Catholic agenda.  That is, the innovative and unique nature of Italian culture, many argue, became stymied.

    The development of a new literary genre, known as “reason of state”, first introduced by Machiavelli.  The new genre concentrated on the maintenance of the state, as the ultimate purveyor of order, at any cost – a differentiation of human morality and the morality of the state.