Chapter 7

The Conquest of Naples


OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, Charles VIII was seen to adhere to his side of the bargain. On January 19, 1495, Burchard noted, "the Sala Regia in the Vatican was prepared in the traditional way for the public consistory in which the King of France would take his solemn oath of obedience." When everything was ready, the pope asked Burchard to inform the king, "whom we found beside the fire in his room, wearing his doublet and his boots still not laced." On being told that his presence was requested, the king, wiser than before, replied that he still "had to dress, and when he had done so, he intended to hear mass in St. Peter's, and then to dine and that after this he would come to His Holiness." When the cardinals, who were to escort Charles VIII to the Sala Regia, arrived at his rooms, they found him still at table and were forced to wait, seated on the window seats. He further delayed by insisting that Burchard repeat again and again the order of the ceremony, and it was some two hours before the royal party finally arrived.

In the magnificent setting of the Sala Regia, designed specifically for the reception of kings and emperors, or their ambassadors, Charles VIII addressed the pope: "Most Holy Father," he intoned, "I have come to render homage and reverence to Your Holiness in the same way as my predecessors the Kings of France have done." On January 28, when Charles VIII took leave of Alexander VI, they parted in sincere amity or, as Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere thought, in abject surrender on the part of the king. The master of ceremonies described their parting:

King and Pope remained closeted together for a short time, and were then joined by Cesare Borgia for a further quarter of an hour after which His Majesty was escorted by the Pope and his cardinals as far as the passage leading to the upper apartments of the palace. There the King knelt down, bareheaded, and the Pope, removing his own cap, kissed him, but refused quite firmly to allow the King to smother his feet with kisses, which His Majesty seemed to want to do. The King then departed.

Leaving with Charles VIII, to accompany the king to Naples in the guise of a papal legate, though in reality a hostage for Alexander VI's good behaviour, was Cesare. He kept the king waiting while he returned briefly to his apartments: "At last Cesare appeared, wearing his cardinal's hat, and, with His Holiness's permission, mounted his horse beside the King. To His Majesty he presented six exceedingly beautiful horses, which stood ready at hand with bridles but no saddles, and then both the King and Cesare departed."

That evening a courier arrived with news for Alexander VI that King Alfonso II had fled from Naples—"out of sheer cowardice," commented the contemporary French chronicler Philippe de Commynes—loading four galleys with treasure in order, so the letter reported, to sail to Sicily and then to Spain, to recruit forces against the French.

The following evening, January 29, came the news that, in fact, Alfonso II, who had only been crowned by the pope's nephew the cardinal of Monreale just nine months before, had now abdicated in favour of his son, Ferrante II, who had, on his father's orders, contracted marriage to Isabella of Aragon, his father's sister, "that he had ridden through Naples where he had received oaths of homage from all," and that he had set free all those nobles imprisoned by Ferrante I and Alfonso II, except for those known to be associated with the French, and these he had executed.

On January 30 couriers arrived with even more dramatic news from Naples, this time concerning Cesare. As Burchard recorded:

On Friday 30 January the Pope was informed that the Cardinal of Valence, disguised as a royal footman, had escaped from the French King's court at Velletri. It was indeed true. The Cardinal had spent the night in the house of Antonio Florès, auditor of the Rota, where he had gone immediately on his arrival in Rome. When he had left the city in the company of the King he had taken nineteen pack animals with him, all richly caparisoned and so it seemed, laden with objects of value, but only two of these horses, in fact, carried plate and other costly items. On the first day of their journey, while the King and the Cardinal were riding towards Marino, these two horses lagged behind the rest and that evening returned to Rome. The Cardinal's servants had declared to the French court officials that the animals had been captured and stripped of their loads. The other seventeen arrived at the court and after the Cardinal's flight, the chests had been opened and were found to be empty. Well, at least that is what I was told, but I think it was not true.

When he learned of Cesare's disappearance, Charles VIII was furious. "All Italians are filthy dogs," he was quoted as having said, "and the Holy Father is as bad as the worst of them." The king suspected that Alexander VI knew very well where his son was and that he had been told beforehand of Cesare's attempt to escape as soon as opportunity offered. The pope did, however, send his secretary to Charles VIII with his sincere apologies for his son's behaviour.

By the middle of February, Charles VIII had entered Capua, where, so it was said, strange portents had appeared. "One night as he slept in his chamber," reported Burchard, "he was woken twice by a dreadful voice; he opened a chest which was in his room to find a banner standing erect and, in his terror, made a vow that he would not return to France without having taken the Holy Land and reconquered the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem; he also promised to build and endow a chapel in Naples in honour of the Holy Ghost."

Charles VIII entered Naples on February 22, slipping quietly into the city to lodge in the Castel Capuano, because the three other royal castles, including Castel Nuovo, remained in the hands of troops loyal to Ferrante II. As a French chronicler observed: "On Sunday, after he had enjoyed an excellent dinner, [the king] put on his robes of state and, with joy not rancour entered the city in pomp, thus displaying his power there, although he did not have a proper entry on that day." Guicciardini reported the view of the populace: "The reputation of the last two kings was so odious among all the people and almost all the nobles, and there was much eagerness for the French regime."

Charles VIII was intent upon enjoying himself in Naples. The city was, he declared, "an earthly paradise." He was certainly, "as one of the most lascivious men in France," finding plenty of opportunity to indulge his "fondness for copulation" and of "changing his dishes" so that "once he had had a woman, he cared no more about her, taking his pleasure with fresh ones." His soldiers were equally lascivious, and having made themselves hated in Rome, they now became detested in Naples, despite the welcome they had first received. As Guicciardini commented:

The natural arrogance of the French, exacerbated by the ease of their victory, as a result of which they had a highly esteemed opinion of themselves and no respect whatever for any Italian. They seized lodgings in Naples and in other parts of the kingdom with insolence and violence and wherever their troops were quartered they were hated; everywhere they treated their hosts so badly that the friendly welcome with which they had been received was now changed into burning hatred.

The French were "stupid, dirty and dissolute people," another Italian observer decided, and he added:

They were constantly after women.... Their table manners were disgusting.... Whenever one of them entered the house of a Neapolitan, they always took the best rooms and sent the master of the house to sleep in the worst. They stole wine and grain and sold them at the market. They raped the women, then robbed them, pulling the rings from their fingers, and, if any woman resisted, they would cut off her fingers to get at the rings.... Even so, they spend much time in church praying.

The arrival of the French, moreover, coincided with the first dramatic epidemic of syphilis, which was known as the "morbo gallico"or "mal francese" by the Italians, and as "le mal de Napoli" by the French. This foul venereal disease—"so horrible that it ought to be mentioned as one of the gravest calamities," wrote Guicciardini—arrived in Europe in 1494, probably brought to Europe from the West Indies or America by Christopher Columbus's sailors. It soon spread, and the doctors, confronting the disease for the first time, were perplexed; indeed, as Guicciardini noted, "they often applied inappropriate remedies, many of which were harmful and frequently inflamed the infection." In Rome it was so virulent that seventeen members of Alexander VI's family and court, including Cesare, had to be treated for it within a period of two months.

For almost two months after he escaped from the French court at Velletri, nothing reliable was heard about Cesare; and then he reappeared once more, as a deus ex machina, in Rome, where, with his customary skill in such matters, he set about organizing an attack upon the Swiss troops who had been left behind in the city when the French army marched south for Naples. The troops were attacked in the piazza in front of St. Peter's by a large body of Spaniards who killed over twenty of them and wounded several more.

Some said afterwards that all these violent acts were ordered by Cesare Borgia [commented Burchard] because these Swiss soldiers were in the service of the French and, with violence and without cause, had sacked and plundered the home of his mother, robbing her of 800 ducats and other valuable possessions.

Certainly, Cesare had already acquired a reputation for never forgiving what he took to be a wrong and for savagely punishing anyone who crossed him in any way; and having escaped from Charles VIII's custody, he was now considering ways in which he might harm the French king.

Despite the spread of syphilis, the ill discipline of his troops, and the need to get back to France before an emerging alliance of Italian states, headed by Alexander VI, could march against him, Charles VIII was reluctantly obliged to turn his back on the pleasures of Naples. It was not, however, until the end of the third week in May 1495 that he began the long march north. He arrived in Rome four days later, expecting to be able to have an audience with Alexander VI, who he hoped would give formal recognition of his conquest of Naples and invest him as king, but he found only Cardinal Antoniotto Pallavicini, who had been left in charge of the city. The wily pope had removed himself, together with nineteen cardinals, over four thousand troops, and the entire papal court, first to Orvieto and then, when the French king threatened to find him there, on to Perugia and out of harm's way.

Meanwhile, the forces of the Holy League were massing in Lombardy to attack the French as they made for the Alpine passes. By the end of June, the returning army had crossed the Apennines, but on July 6 their march was brought to a sudden halt at Fornovo, by the banks of the river Taro, where they encountered the mercenary troops of the Holy League under the command of Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua. The battle was fierce but brief, lasting less than one hour, with little chance for the French to use their invincible artillery; the French lost just two hundred men; the Holy League counted over three thousand dead. "The palm of victory was generally awarded to the French," wrote Guicciardini, "because of the great difference in the number of casualties" and "because they had won free passage to advance, which was the reason that the battle had been fought."

However, since he was left in possession of the field and had captured part of the French baggage train—which included a piece of the Holy Cross, a sacred thorn, a limb of St. Denis, the blessed Virgin's vest, and a book depicting naked women "painted at various times and places ... with sketches of intercourse and lasciviousness in each city"—the Marquis of Mantua claimed the victory. The poets at his court in Mantua celebrated the success of his venture in epic verse and prose, and the marquis, for his part, began building a votive chapel in the city, commissioning his court painter, Andrea Mantegna, to paint his Madonna della Vittoria (now in the Louvre), with himself in armour kneeling at the feet of the Virgin, flanked on either side by the warrior saints St. Michael the Archangel and St. George.

But the French army, though battered, weary, and ill, was still a powerful force and had not been beaten. Accompanied by mules, one to every two men, loaded with treasure, it moved unimpeded toward the Alps and reached France in safety. The Italians were shocked by the realization that, for all their virtues, talents, wealth, past glory, and experience, they had been unable to withstand the ruthless men from the north, and Alexander VI, so proud of his stamina and prone to comparing his strength to that of the bull on the Borgia coat-of-arms, had been unable to withstand the might of a foreign king.

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