Italian Wars (1494–1559)

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ITALIAN WARS (14941559)

ITALIAN WARS (14941559). Renaissance Italy lacked a strong institutional framework that enjoyed a broad consensus. The medieval wars pitting proponents of imperial supremacy (the Ghibellines) against those who advocated papal supremacy (the Guelfs) were fought to a stalemate. Neither the emperor nor the pope enjoyed much real power over the mosaic of city-republics, territorial principalities, or fiefs in central and northern Italy. In the kingdom of Naples, which was theoretically a fief of the church, control passed from a French (Angevin) dynasty to one linked to Aragón without much interference from the rest of Italy. Much internecine warfare wracked the peninsula, as aristocrats fought each other for primacy in their respective cities, as larger towns conquered their rural hinterlands, and as the larger territorial states attempted to absorb the smaller ones around them. The Peace of Lodi in 1454 inaugurated an era of relative peace for forty years, but it did not extinguish the various pretexts of territorial ambition, dynastic ambition, or autonomist sentiment that could engulf Italy in new large-scale hostilities.


The entry into Italy of the French king's army in his quest to make good his claims to the throne of Naples in 1494 ignited many simultaneous conflicts. The French king Charles VIII (ruled 14831498) was assisted by the "tyrant" of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (ruled 14941499), who was losing his grip on power in Lombardy. Florence swept the Medici out of power and restored a real republic, but it needed French support to survive, and subject cities rebelled against it. The Aragonese Pope Alexander VI Borgia (reigned 14921503) had no army able to oppose the French, so the great force of Charles VIII advanced to Naples virtually unopposed and chased away the local branch of the Aragonese dynasty. But within a year the pope, the Republic of Venice, the duke of Mantua, King Ferdinand of Aragón (monarch in Sicily; ruled 14681516), and the Emperor Maximilian I (ruled 14931519) drew together and threatened to bottle up the French king's army in southern Italy. Only a fighting retreat in 1495 allowed Charles VIII to regain France, and his Neapolitan regime collapsed behind him.

His successor Louis XII (ruled 14981515) launched a new army into Italy in 1500, this time laying claim to Milan as well as Naples. With Genoese and Venetian help, the French army quickly seized most of northwest Italy, but the king would not rest on this success. By secret treaty with Ferdinand of Aragón, he agreed to split the kingdom of Naples between the two of them. Fighting soon broke out between Spaniards and French over their respective shares, and the latter were driven out. The new spoiler was now Venice, exploiting tensions everywhere in order to extend its hold in the Adriatic basin. A new alliance of Aragón, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the pope crushed Venetian ambitions in 1509. But Venice allied with the pope, with Ferdinand, with the Swiss cantons, and with the emperor to expel the French from Milan soon after. By the end of 1512, the French were ejected from Italy a second time.

Francis I (ruled 15151547), successor to Louis XII, sent a fresh army in 1515 to occupy Milan and its territory. This time the pope, and even the new king of Aragón, Charles I, recognized the French king's conquest, but the French position deteriorated rapidly as Charles became king of Spain in 1516 and then Holy Roman emperor in Germany in 1519. As Emperor Charles V, the young Habsburg monarch and his allies expelled the French from Milan in 1521 and defeated renewed attempts to recapture it. In 1525 Francis I was captured at the battle of Pavia. The wars were far from over, but this turn in the fighting marked the onset of a new and durable phase of Habsburg ascendancy in Europe.


The union of large territories under the sway of a single monarch was a dynastic accident, but Charles was able to harness the wealth of Spain, the Low Countries, the German principalities, and almost half of Italy to keep the French at bay. Soon he would be king in Mexico and Hungary as well. In each of these realms he inherited monumental problems, but after each crisis he appeared more powerful than ever. In 1527 a new French league against him came apart after an imperial army besieged and sacked Rome itself, an event whose impact on the people of Rome and on European public opinion was catastrophic. Genoa, with its fleet and its commerce, swung over to Charles in 1528. The emperor then supported the restoration of the Medici as absolute princes in Florence. After a brief truce, French armies occupied Savoy and most of Piedmont in an attempt to reconquer Milan. Intermittent campaigning in Italy and over half of Europe could not break the stalemate, however. The new French king Henry II (ruled 15471559) would not let Italy out of his sights. France intervened in Parma in 1551 to expel papal forces there and in 1552 backed a Sienese uprising against its imperial garrison; in 1555 France supported the extremist Pope Paul IV (15551559), who called for Spain's removal from Naples, and yet again a French army descended on the peninsula to occupy the territory. But Habsburg armies won victories everywhere in those years, until France consented to the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559.

The Italian Wars were but one theater in a continental struggle involving most of western Europe, with France and the Habsburg territories constituting the eternal adversaries. The 1559 treaty might only have been a truce had not religious divisions led to a French civil war that lasted intermittently for three generations. Habsburg territorial ascendancy in Italy was complete, with the conquest of Milan, Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. The duke of Piedmont-Savoy, the princes of Mantua, Parma, Ferrara, and Florence, and the rich republic of Genoa were reduced to satellite status. Moreover, Charles (who retired in 1555) followed a policy of encouraging stability in the peninsula, allowing the minor princes to impose greater control over their subjects, and stifling any Protestant sentiment. The enduring legacy of these wars was a long Pax Hispanica that underlay the renewed prosperity and heightened influence of Italy in the world until the next great disruption after 1620.

See also Cateau-Cambrésis (1559) ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Italy ; Naples, Kingdom of ; Rome, Sack of


Hale J. R., and M. E. Mallett. The Military Organization of a Renaissance State: Venice c. 1400 to 1617. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1984.

Hall, Bert S. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology and Tactics. Baltimore, 1998.

Pepper, Simon, and Nicholas Adams. Firearms and Fortifications: Military Architecture and Siege Warfare in Sixteenth-Century Siena. Chicago, 1986.

Taylor, Frederick Lewis. The Art of War in Italy, 14941529. Westport, Conn., 1973.

Gregory Hanlon

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Italian Wars

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