Italian Wars of 1494–1559

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Italian Wars of 1494–1559


wars between France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire (with the intervention of other states) for control of Italy, as well as for hegemony in Europe. The Italian Wars were fought primarily on the territory of Italy.

The political fragmentation of Italy and quarrels between the Italian states made it easier for the major powers to realize their aggressive designs. After the death of the king of Naples, Ferdinand I, in January 1494, the French king Charles VIII asserted his claim as heir of the house of Anjou (a collateral line of the French royal house) to the Kingdom of Naples, which had been taken from the Angevins by the house of Aragon in the mid-15th century. In the autumn of 1494, Charles VIII crossed the Alps with a powerful army that included a large detachment of Swiss mercenaries. He moved toward Naples, having enlisted the active support of Ludovico il Moro, duke of Milan. (Ludovico, who was quarreling with the house of Aragon in Naples, hoped to consolidate his position as ruler of Milan with the help of the French troops.) Venice and Pope Alexander VI maintained a position of friendly neutrality toward France.

Encountering no serious opposition from the northern and central Italian states, the French king passed through Rome and, having been invested by the pope in the Kingdom of Naples (January 1495), he seized Naples in February 1495. The pillage of the city by the French army and the institution of new requisitions aroused the indignation of the Neapolitans, and Charles VIII found himself threatened by a general uprising. In addition, the Italian states, which were frightened by the success of the French, changed their policies. To expel the French from Italy the Holy League (or League of Venice), which consisted of Venice, Milan, and the papacy, was created in March 1495. Emperor Maximilian I and the Spanish king Ferdinand II of Aragon aligned themselves with the league. Fearing that he would be cut off from France, Charles VIII abandoned Naples in May 1495 and retreated to the north with most of his troops. A battle against the army of the Holy League took place on July 6, 1495, near Fornovo. The French troops managed to break through and return to their homeland (October 1495). After the remaining French garrisons in Italy had been defeated several times by Spanish troops, France signed a surrender and removed all her troops from the territory of the Kingdom of Naples (December 1496).

However, peace did not come to Italy: the invasion by the French king had aroused the expansionist tendencies of some of the Italian states—above all, the papacy. A series of internal wars flared up, the biggest of which was the war between Pisa and Florence, which broke out in 1494. Besides, France had not renounced its aggressive plans. Louis XII, successor to Charles VIII, who had died in 1498, undertook a campaign in Italy in 1499, hoping to conquer the Duchy of Milan. (Louis XII based his claim to the duchy on his being the grandson of Valentina Visconti, whose family had ruled Milan until 1447.) Before invading Italy the French king reached an agreement on military aid with Venice and Florence and one on neutrality with the emperor and the pope. (The latter considered France a source of support in his struggle with the Italian states.) Having defeated the Milanese troops in a number of battles between 1499 and 1500, Louis XII seized the Duchy of Milan and took possession of all of Lombardy.

Meeting in 1500 in Granada, representatives of France and Spain concluded a secret treaty on the partition of the Kingdom of Naples. Between 1501 and 1502, French and Spanish troops conquered the kingdom; however, in the spring of 1503 a conflict broke out between France and Spain over disputed areas. In a battle at the Garigliano River (Dec. 29, 1503), Spanish troops routed the French. France was forced to renounce her claim to the Kingdom of Naples, which became a possession of the Spanish crown under the Treaty of Blois (1504). Thus, in the initial period of the Italian Wars two of the biggest states in Italy—the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples—were seized.

The only Italian state that profited from the wars was Venice, which received substantial territory in Lombardy and Naples, as well as a number of Apulian ports after the fall of Milan. However, Venetian pretensions to hegemony in Italy began to threaten the interests of not only France and Spain but also the other Italian states. In December 1508 the anti-Venetian League of Cambrai was formed by the pope, the Holy Roman Empire, France, and Spain. A number of Italian states, including Florence, Ferrara, and Mantua, joined the league. In April 1509 the pope imposed an interdict on the Venetian Republic, and in the spring of 1509, France began military operations against Venice. Shortly thereafter, having scored a major victory over Venice at Agnadello on May 14, 1509, France seized Venetian possessions in Lombardy. In June 1509 the emperor’s troops occupied Verona, Vicenza, and Padua. (The Venetians soon managed to reconquer Padua.) Venice managed to destroy the coalition by making treaties with Spain and with the papacy, satisfying the former by renouncing all claims to southern Italy and the latter, by returning the towns in Romagna that had been taken by Venetian forces. At the cost of a great effort, Venice recovered a significant part of its possessions. But its strength proved to have been sapped. After the war with the League of Cambrai, Venetian policy was primarily concerned with defending the territorial integrity of the state.

The strengthening of France’s positions in northwestern Italy led to a reorientation among the warring powers. Under the aegis of Pope Julius II a new Holy League was formed in October 1511, with the aim of expelling the French from Italy. Venice, Spain, England, and the Swiss cantons became allies of the pope. A number of Italian states, such as Modena and Ferrara, took the side of France, but Florence maintained strict neutrality. Despite their victory in the battle of Ravenna (Apr. 11, 1512) the French, having sustained tremendous losses, were forced to give up Lombardy during 1512. (Anti-French uprisings in the towns of Lombardy and in Genoa also prompted this move.) The authority of the Sforzas was restored in Milan, and the Medicis returned to power in Florence. In November 1512, Emperor Maximilian I joined the Holy League. In the spring of 1513, Venice, having changed its orientation, concluded in Blois a treaty with France on the conquest and partition of northern Italy. Military operations were again launched on Italian territory in May 1513. At the end of 1513, France signed a truce with Spain and in August 1514 in London, a peace with England.

Francis I, who ascended the French throne in 1515, reopened the Italian Wars. French troops supported by Venetians defeated the Swiss mercenaries of the duke of Milan at Marignano on Sept. 13–14, 1515. France recovered Milan and Pavia, and Venice reestablished control over Bergamo and Brescia. In November 1516 the French king signed a treaty (the Perpetual Peace) with the Swiss cantons. By the Treaty of Noyon, which was signed by the French and Spanish kings in August 1516, France’s right to Milan and Spain’s right to Naples were recognized.

After the election of the Spanish king Charles I as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (Charles V) in 1519, a new phase in the Italian Wars opened. The Holy Roman Empire, which incorporated a large part of Europe, formed a ring around France, endangering its territorial integrity. Territories in northern Italy that were controlled by France were the only gap in communications between Charles V’s northern and southern possessions. Thus, possession of Milan became extremely important for France, whereas Charles V had to expel the French from northern Italy in order to unite his possessions. In 1521, Charles V concluded a secret treaty with Pope Leo X concerning the restoration of the Sforzas in Milan. In the same year military operations were reopened in Italy. The French army, which included Swiss mercenaries, suffered a major defeat at the hands of imperial troops in April 1522 at Bicocca. On Feb. 24, 1525, the French army was routed at Pavia, and the king of France was captured and sent to Madrid. Under the Treaty of Madrid (1526), Francis I yielded the duchies of Milan and Burgundy to Charles V. However, upon his return to France, the French king renounced the treaty, even though his sons were still being held as hostages in Italy. For the purpose of expelling the imperial troops from northern Italy, France, Pope Clement VII, Venice, Florence, and the Duke of Milan, supported by England, formed the League of Cognac in May 1526. The military operations of the league were extremely indecisive. In 1527 the imperial army (one of whose commanders was Charles, duke of Bourbon and constable of France, a French traitor) advanced through Milan toward Rome, pillaging and devastating everything along its route. In May imperial troops seized and sacked Rome and took the pope prisoner.

France tried to continue the war. In the summer of 1527, French troops took Milan and Pavia, and in 1528 they conquered a substantial part of the Kingdom of Naples. However, France failed to consolidate its successes. The pope entered into separate negotiations with the emperor, in whose favor he renounced claim to the towns of Piacenza, Parma, and Modena, and to whom he was obliged to pay a ransom. The Treaty of Barcelona was concluded by the pope and the emperor in June 1529. Abandoned by its Italian allies, France concluded a peace with the emperor at Cambrai in August 1529, under which France retained Burgundy but gave up Flanders and Artois and renounced its Italian claims. Francis I agreed to marry the sister of Charles V, and the emperor returned the French king’s sons to their father in return for a ransom. The Kingdom of Naples was declared a Spanish possession, and the other Italian states were subjugated in one way or another to the emperor. In February 1530, Charles V was solemnly crowned king of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor in Bologna.

The Italian Wars reopened in 1536 after the occupation of Milan by imperial troops upon the death of Duke F. Sforza. French troops occupied Piedmont and Savoy. In 1538, with Pope Paul III playing the role of mediator, a ten-year truce was concluded between France and the Holy Roman Empire at Nice. The murder on the territory of the Duchy of Milan of two French envoys who were on their way to see the sultan became the pretext for the next war (1542–44). Francis I formed an alliance with the duke of Cleves, the kings of Denmark and Sweden, and the Turkish sultan; the king of England sided with the emperor. In 1543 a Franco-Turkish force took Nice, and in April 1544, French troops scored a brilliant victory over imperial forces at Ceresole. At the same time, imperial and English troops encroached upon the territory of France. The Peace of Crépy (September 1544), which was signed by the emperor and the French king, reiterated the terms of the Treaty of Cambrai (1529) regarding the territorial claims of both sovereigns. In addition, both sides promised to free the territories seized by them since 1536, and they reached an agreement on joint operations against the “infidels” (Turks). Peace between France and England was concluded in 1546 at Ardres.

The French kings, however, had not renounced their expansionist plans. Wars between France and the Holy Roman Empire broke out again in Italy. In 1547 the duke of Parma (son of Pope Paul III) was murdered, and the Duchy of Parma was occupied by imperial forces. The pope, attempting to establish on the ducal throne his nephew, a member of the Farnese family, appealed to the French king for assistance. This action served as the cause for military operations between French and imperial troops in 1551 at the walls of Parma and Mirándola. In 1553, with the assistance of the Turkish fleet, France seized Corsica from Genoa, which was a dependency of the Spanish Hapsburgs. With military support from France, Siena won its independence in 1552, expelling the Spanish from the city’s territory. In 1554 B. Monluc’s French garrison defended Siena, which was besieged by Spanish-Florentine forces. However, the French were forced to surrender the city in April 1555. In March 1555, French troops occupied Cásale Monferrato in Piedmont. In February 1556 the king of France and the emperor concluded a truce at the Abbey of Vaucelles. (Under the truce, France was to retain Piedmont and Corsica.)

In the same year, however, Pope Paul IV, who was on hostile terms with Charles V, received from the French king the promise of troops for the purpose of expelling the Spanish from Italy. A French army led by Francis, the duke of Guise, advanced toward Naples in 1557. To counterbalance the French intervention in Italy, the Spanish king Philip II (in whose favor Charles V had renounced Spain, the Netherlands, and his Italian possessions) dispatched from the southern Netherlands to French territory a Spanish army under the Duke of Savoy, whose possessions had been occupied by the French. Paris was in danger. Routed in a battle at St. Quentin in August 1557, the French were compelled to abandon their Italian campaign. The French reconquest of Calais from the English (allies of Philip II) did not change the situation. Their finances exhausted, France and Spain were compelled to conclude the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, which marked the end of French expansion in Italy, strengthened Spanish rule over the northern and southern parts of the peninsula, and reinforced the political fragmentation of Italy.

To some extent, the Italian Wars played a role in the development of the art of war: for the first time, manual firearms and artillery were widely used.


Dokumenty po istorii vneshnei politiki Frantsii, 1547–1548. Moscow-Leningrad, 1963.


Istoriia Italii, vol. 1, chapter 10. Moscow, 1970.
Lemonnier, H. Les Guerres d’Italie. Paris, 1903.
Romier, L. Les Origines politiques des guerres de religion, vols. 1–2. Paris, 1913–14.
Fueter, E. Geschichte des europäischen Staatensystem von 1492 bis 1559. Munich, 1919.
Ercole, F. Da Carlo VIII a Carlo V. Florence, 1932.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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