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The peace of Lodi: 1454 - 1494

During the 15th century the Italian mainland is increasingly dominated by five great powers - Venice, Milan, Florence, the Papal States and Naples. None has the capacity to defeat all the others. A balance of power is in the interests of all. It is largely achieved after 1454, when Venice and Milan resolve their long-standing differences in a treaty signed at Lodi.

Their example inspires others. Later in the same year Florence forms a defensive league with both Milan and Venice. Early in 1455 the pope and the king of Naples join an alliance, sometimes referred to as the Italian League, in which all five pledge mutual non-aggression.


The peace holds surprisingly well, given Italy's past record of permanent warfare. There are a few notable transgressions, such as pope Sixtus IV's acquiescence in the assassination attempt on Lorenzo de' Medici and the subsequent attack on Florence by Naples, also sponsored by the pope. And there is frequent tension between Milan at the northern extreme of the peninsula and Naples in the south. The return of chaos to Italy, from 1494, is partly a result of this hostility. The duke of Milan urges the king of France, Charles VIII, to enter Italy and to press his Angevin claim to the kingdom of Naples. The young French king needs little encouragement.


Charles VIII crosses the Alps in September 1494 with a massive army of 30,000 men. They pass peacefully through the territory of Milan and no doubt expect to do the same through Florence's Tuscan lands. France's quarrel is only with Naples.

But Florence has been recently identified as an ally of Naples. Sensing a crisis, the young Piero de' Medici imitates his father's famous act of personal diplomacy (his visit in 1479 to the king of Naples). Without informing the signoria, the official government of Florence, Piero makes his way to the camp of the French king.


In this encounter between two inexperienced young rulers, both in their early twenties, the Frenchman has the better of the bargain. Charles VIII emphasizes that all he wants is an assurance of Florence's good will, but adds that a convincing token of this would be the delivery into French hands of several key castles together with the ports of Pisa and Livorno. The records suggest that the French are astonished when Piero agrees.

So, when they hear of it, are the signoria in Florence. They protest that Piero has no authority to cede these Florentine possesssions, but it is too late. The French enter Florence and occupy Pisa (glad to be rid of the Florentine yoke) before moving on south.


Charles VIII and his army reach Rome on the last day of 1494. Pope Alexander VI, powerless to resist them, takes shelter in the Castel Sant' Angelo. On February 22, still unopposed, the French enter Naples. Two months later, on May 12, Charles is crowned king in his new city.

But in his inexperience he has left his line of withdrawal undefended. During March the pope and the other main Italian powers (except Florence) form the League of Venice against the intruder. As Charles withdraws north he is confronted at Fornovo, in July, by an army of the League (also sometimes known as the Holy League). The battle is confused and indecisive. Charles and his army escape to safety in France.


Charles has left French garrisons in Naples, but they soon lose the kingdom again to the Aragonese. Nevertheless Charles is preparing a new expedition to Naples when he dies, as the result of an accident at Amboise, in 1498.

This Neapolitan adventure, fruitless though it is, gives the kings of France a taste for campaigning in Italy. They briefly recover part of the kingdom of Naples in 1501-3. But their ambitions focus increasingly on northern Italy - which becomes in the early 16th century an almost permanent international battleground.


Italian realignment: 1508-1540

A series of shifting alliances, often brokered by the papacy and ending in inconclusive battles, redraws the map of Italy during the first decades of the 16th century.

Between the league of Cambrai (1508) and the treaty of Cambrai (1529), the territories of Milan, Venice, the papal states and Naples grow or shrink, and abruptly suffer changes of allegiance, according to the temporary effects of battles such as Agnadello (1509), Marignano (1515), Pavia (1525) and the sack of Rome by imperial troops in 1527.


The eventual result of all this mayhem is disaster for France and triumph for Spain. In 1529, in the treaty of Cambrai, Francis I renounces all French rights in Milan and Naples. From 1540 Milan is directly annexed to the Spanish crown; the duchy remains a Spanish possession until the War of the Spanish Succession, after which it is transferred (in 1713) to the Austrian branch of the Habsburg family.

Naples is ruled as a Spanish viceroyalty. It too goes to the Austrian Habsburgs in 1713 - but unlike Milan it subsequently reverts to Spain (at the end of the War of the Polish Succession, in 1738).


Among the Italian players in this board game, the Medici are among those who gain - being restored, with Spanish support, to their rule in Florence. Venice, an early loser when alone against all the others in 1508, later recovers most of its territory and retains its independence.

The papacy, responsible for the scheming alliances which foster so much of the conflict, appears to receive its just deserts in the sack of Rome in 1527. But it too emerges much strengthened a decade or two later. Once the Catholic Reformation is under way, Rome and Spain - allies in spiritual severity - are well equipped to exercise strict control over the entire peninsula apart from republican Venice.


The partition of Italy settled upon in the mid-16th century remains the basic pattern for more than 200 years, though the regions of Milan, Naples and Sicily continue to be pawns in Europe's conflicts. The War of the Spanish Succession somewhat alters the alignment. Until 1700 the Spanish Habsburgs dominate the peninsula. Thereafter, with a new dynasty on the Spanish throne, the quarrel is between Spanish Bourbons and Austrian Habsburgs. The eventual resolution, after the peace of Vienna (1738), is that Spain has Naples and Sicily while Austria rules northern Italy.

In spite of these upheavals Italy in the 18th century is a sleepy place, with Venice a pleasantly decadent offshore island - until the dramatic arrival of Napoleon in 1796.


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