The Political Collapse



RECALL the situation of Italy in 1494. The city-states had grown through the rise of a middle class enriched by the development and management of commerce and industry. They had lost their communal freedom through the inability of semidemocratic governments to maintain order amid the feuds of families and the conflicts of classes. Their economy remained local in structure even while their fleets and products reached out to distant ports. They competed with one another more bitterly than with foreign states; they offered no concerted resistance to the expansion of French, German, and Spanish commerce into regions once dominated by Italy. Though Italy gave birth to the man who rediscovered America, it was Spain that financed him; trade followed in his wake, gold accompanied his return; the Atlantic nations flourished, and the Mediterranean ceased to be the favored home of the white man’s economic life. Portugal was sending ships around Africa to India and China, avoiding Moslem hindrances in the Near and Middle East; even the Germans were shipping through the mouths of the Rhine rather than over the Alps to Italy. Countries that had for a century bought Italian woolen products were now making their own; nations that had paid interest to Italian bankers were nursing their own financiers. Tithes, annates, Peter’s Pence, indulgence payments, and pilgrims’ coins were now the chief economic contribution of transalpine Europe to Italy; and soon a third of Europe would divert that flow. In this generation when the stored-up wealth of Italy raised her cities to their supreme brilliance and art, Italy was economically doomed.

She was also politically doomed. While she remained divided into warring economies and states, the development of a national economy was compelling and financing, in other European societies, the transition from feudal principalities to the monarchical state. France unified herself under Louis XI, reducing her barons to courtiers and her burghers to patriots; Spain unified herself by wedding Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castile, and conquering Granada, and cementing religious unity with blood; England unified herself under Henry VII; and though Germany was almost as fragmentary as Italy, it acknowledged one king and emperor, and occasionally gave him money and soldiers to make war upon one or another of the Italian states. England, France, Spain, and Germany raised national armies out of their own people, and their aristocracies provided cavalry and leadership; the Italian cities had small forces of mercenaries inspired only by plunder, led by purchasable condottieri, and prejudiced against sustaining mortal injuries. It needed only one engagement to reveal to Europe the defenselessness of Italy.

Half the courts of Europe now seethed with diplomatic intrigue as to which should seize the plum. France claimed the first right, and with many reasons. Giangaleazzo Visconti had given his daughter Valentina in marriage (1387) to Louis, first Duke of Orléans, and, as the price of this comforting connection with a royal family, had recognized her right, and the right of her male issue, to succeed to the duchy of Milan in case his own direct male line should fail; which it did when Filippo Maria Visconti died (1447). His son-in-law, Francesco Sforza, then took Milan by right of his wife Bianca, Filippo Maria’s daughter; but Charles, Duke of Orléans, claimed Milan as Valentina’s son, denounced the Sforzas as usurpers, and proclaimed his resolve, when opportunity should offer, to appropriate the Italian principality.

Moreover, said the French, Charles, Duke of Anjou, had received the Kingdom of Naples from Pope Urban IV (1266) as reward for defending the papacy against the Hohenstaufen kings; Joanna II had bequeathed the Kingdom to René of Anjou (1435); Alfonso I of Aragon had claimed it through her temporary adoption of him as her son, and had by force established the house of Aragon on the Neapolitan throne. René tried and failed to recapture the kingdom; his legal right to it passed at his death to Louis XI, King of France; and in 1482 Sixtus IV, at odds with Naples, invited Louis to come and conquer Naples, “which,” said the Pope, “belongs to him.” About this time Venice, hard pressed in war by a league of Italian states, called in desperation to Louis to attack either Naples or Milan, preferably both. Louis was busy unifying France; but his son Charles VIII inherited his claim to Naples, listened to the Angevin-Neapolitan exiles at his court, noted that the crown of Naples was joined to that of Sicily, which carried with it the crown of Jerusalem; he conceived, or was sold, the grandiose idea of capturing Naples and Sicily, getting himself crowned King of Jerusalem, and then leading a crusade against the Turks. In 1489 Innocent VIII, quarreling with Naples, offered the Kingdom to Charles if he would come and take it. Alexander VI (1494) forbade Charles, on pain of excommunication, to cross the Alps; but Alexander’s enemy, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere—who later, as Julius II, would war to drive the French from Italy—came to Charles at Lyons, and urged him to invade Italy and depose Alexander. Savonarola added another invitation, hoping that Charles would depose Piero de’ Medici in Florence and Alexander in Rome; and many Florentines accepted the friar’s lead. Finally, Lodovico of Milan, fearing attack from Naples, offered Charles unimpeded passage through the territory of Milan whenever Charles should undertake a campaign against Naples.

So encouraged by half of Italy, Charles prepared to invade. To protect his flanks he ceded Artois and Franche-Comté to Maximilian of Austria, and Roussillon and Cerdagne to Ferdinand of Spain, and paid a large sum to Henry VII for renouncing English claims on Brittany. In March, 1494, he assembled his army at Lyons: 18,000 cavalry, 22,000 infantry. A fleet was sent to keep Genoa safe for France; on September 8 it recaptured Rapallo from a Neapolitan force that had landed there; and the unrestrained bloodiness of this first encounter shocked an Italy accustomed to reasonable slaughter. In that month Charles and his army crossed the Alps, and paused at Asti. Lodovico of Milan and Ercole of Ferrara went there to meet him, and Lodovico lent him funds. Charles disrupted the schedule by getting smallpox. Recovering, he led his troops through the Milanese into Tuscany. The Florentine frontier fortresses at Sarzana and Pietrasanta might have resisted him, but Piero de’ Medici came in person to surrender them, along with Pisa and Livorno. On November 17 Charles and half his army paraded through Florence; the populace admired the unprecedented cavalcade, grumbled at petty thefts by the soldiery, but noted with relief that they refrained from rape. In December Charles moved on toward Rome.

We have already looked at the meeting of King and Pope from Alexander’s point of view. Charles behaved with moderation: he asked only a free passage through Latium for his army, the custody of the papal prisoner Djem (who might be used as a pretender and ally in a campaign against the Turks), and Caesar Borgia’s company as a hostage. Alexander agreed; the army marched south (January 25, 1495), Borgia soon escaped, and Alexander was free to reform the lines of his diplomacy.

On February 22 Charles entered Naples in unresisted triumph, beneath a canopy of cloth of gold borne by four Neapolitan nobles, and acclaimed by the cheers of the populace. He showed his appreciation by reducing taxes and pardoning those who had opposed his coming; and at the request of the barons who ruled the hinterland he recognized the institution of slavery. Thinking himself secure, he relaxed to enjoy the climate and scenery; he wrote enthusiastically to the duke of Bourbon describing the gardens amid which he now lived, lacking only an Eve to be paradise; he marveled at the architecture, sculpture, and painting in the city, and planned to take a selection of Italian artists with him to France; meanwhile he dispatched to France a shipment of stolen art. Naples so charmed him that he forgot about Jerusalem and his crusade.

While he dallied in Naples, and his army enjoyed the women of the streets and the stews and caught or spread the “French disease,” trouble was organizing behind him. The Neapolitan nobles, instead of being rewarded for helping depose their king, were in many cases deprived of their estates for the benefit of former Angevin possessors, or to pay Charles’s debts to his servitors; all state offices were given to Frenchmen, and nothing could be obtained from them except by bribes offensively exceeding Neapolitan custom; the occupying army added insult to injury by their open contempt of the Italian people; in a few months the French had worn out their welcome, and earned a hatred that waited in fierce patience for a chance to expel the invaders.

On March 31, 1495, the resilient Alexander, the repentant Lodovico, the angry Ferdinand, the jealous Maximilian, the cautious Senate of Venice joined in a league for the united defense of Italy. King Charles, parading through Naples with a scepter in one hand and a ball—presumably the globe—in the other, took a month to realize that the new alliance was raising an army against him. On May 21 he left Naples in charge of his cousin the Count of Montpensier, and led half his army northward. At Fornovo, on the River Taro in the territory of Parma, his 10,000 troops found their passage blocked by an allied army of 40,000 men led by Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. There, on July 5, 1495, came the first real test of French vs. Italian arms and tactics. Gonzaga, though he himself fought bravely, mismanaged his forces, so that only half of them took part; the Italians were not mentally prepared to fight warriors who gave no quarter, and many of them fled; the Chevalier de Bayard, a lad of twenty, offered his men an inspiring example of reckless courage, and even the King fought valiantly. The battle was indecisive; both sides claimed victory; the French lost their baggage train, but remained masters of the field; and during the night they marched unimpeded to Asti, where Louis, third Duke of Orléans, awaited them with reinforcements. In October Charles, with damaged repute but a whole skin, was back in France.

The territorial results of the invasion were slight. Gonzalo, the “Great Captain,” drove the French out of Naples and Calabria, and restored the Aragonese dynasty in the person of Federigo III (1496). The indirect results of the invasion were endless. It proved the superiority of a national army to mercenary troops. The Swiss mercenaries were a temporary exception; armed with pikes eighteen feet long, and formed in solid battalions that presented a discouraging “hedgehog” to advancing cavalry, they were destined to many victories; but soon, at Marignano (1515), the invincibility of this revived Macedonian phalanx would be ended by improved artillery. It was probably in this war that cannon were first placed on carriages that allowed them to be readily manipulated for direction and range;2 these carriages were drawn by horses, not (as hitherto in Italy) by oxen; and the French brought into action, says Guicciardini, such a number of “field pieces and battering cannon as Italy had never seen before.”3 The French knights, descendants of Froissart’s heroes, fought magnificently at Fornovo; but the knights too would soon yield to cannon. In the Middle Ages the arts of defense had outrun the means of attack, and had discouraged war; now attack was gaining on defense, and war became bloodier. The wars of Italy had heretofore hardly engaged the people, and had afflicted their fields rather than their lives; now they were to see all Italy ravaged and incarnadined. The Swiss learned in this year of war how fertile were the plains of Lombardy; they would hereafter invade them repeatedly. The French learned that Italy was divided into fragments that awaited a conqueror. Charles VIII lost himself in amours, and almost ceased to think of Naples, but his cousin and heir was of sterner stuff. Louis XII would try again.

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