Wars of Italy

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Wars of Italy

The Wars of Italy—a series of conflicts between 1494 and 1559 for control of the Italian peninsula—involved much of Renaissance Europe. France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire* took part, along with the papacy*, Venice, Florence, and Naples and mercenaries* from Switzerland and Germany. The wars ended with Spain in firm control over much of Italy.

The deaths of several Italian rulers in the early 1490s left Italy with little political leadership. In 1494 the duke of Milan invited King Charles VIII of France to come to Italy to establish order and support the duke's rule in Milan. Charles hoped to seize the kingdom of Naples, which he claimed as an heir of an earlier Neapolitan dynasty. Although the French army moved easily through Italy and took Naples, it was forced to withdraw in 1495.

In 1499 the French king Louis XII led another invasion. This time the French won both Naples and Milan, another city claimed by the French monarchy. Then Spain entered the contest for Italy. A series of battles between French and Spanish forces during the early 1500s brought Naples under Spanish control. In the following years the French lost Milan but regained it in 1515 with an important victory at Ravenna. But French control of Milan was short-lived.

In 1516 King Charles I became Spain's new king. He was also heir to the Habsburg dynasty, which ruled Spain as well as the Holy Roman Empire. Using artillery and small arms effectively, Charles's army of Spanish and imperial troops triumphed over the French and their Swiss mercenaries in 1522. Three years later at the Battle of Pavia, imperial forces again defeated the French and took the French king Francis I prisoner. Then in 1527, a combination of Spanish, Italian, and mercenary troops in the emperor's service sacked* Rome. Florence, too, had to submit to the emperor and accept the return of the Medici.

In 1530 the pope crowned Charles I as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the city of Bologna. For all practical purposes this ended the wars and left much of Italy under the rule of Charles V and Spain. But more battles took place after 1530, including those at the Italian town of Ceresole in 1544 and at the French town of St. Quentin in 1557. Italians also made a few additional efforts to throw off Spanish rule. The city of Siena expelled the Spanish troops stationed there in 1552 and asked the French for help. However, Spain reconquered the city and gave it to its ally, Cosimo I de' Medici, the ruler of Florence. Pope Paul IV began a war against Spain in 1556, but this too ended in failure.

The wars ended officially in 1559 with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis. When the conflicts began, Italy had consisted of five major powers—Florence, Venice, Naples, Milan, and the papacy. By 1559 Milan and Naples had become part of the Spanish empire, Venice had been reduced to a minor power, and Florence was largely under Spanish influence. The years of fighting not only destroyed Italian independence, they also devastated the countryside.

Scholars have cited many reasons for the wars and for Italy's failure to maintain its independence. The Renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini argued that political intrigue by Italian rulers and the papacy led to Italy's fall. Others point out that many Italians were not loyal to their leaders, who often exploited* them or allowed the nobles to exploit them. Indeed, when Charles VIII of France left Milan in 1495, many Italians were genuinely sorry to see him go. In addition, political division weakened all the major Italian states except Venice. The desire for stability also led Italians to accept foreign military intervention if it promised to bring peace and quiet.

(See alsoItaly. )

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* mercenary

hired soldier

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* sack

to loot a captured city

* exploit

to take advantage of; to make productive use of