The republics and duchies of Renaisssance Italy were uniquely
placed to foster a cultural revolution.
Blessed with natural resources,
situated at the heart of European trade, wealthy and peaceful,
the conditions were ripe for a creative explosion.
Such conditions were evidently worth fighting for. Early modern Italy was repeatedly ripped to shreds by war and terror.
The peninsula became the battleground of Europe, and the jewel in the crown for European royal dynasties. It was not until the
19th century that the people of Italy would find the strength to unite in independent nationhood.
For most of the Middle Ages, the Italian peninsula was the playground of rival ruling dynasties, who paid mercenaries to fight
set-piece battles where the outcome was often settled before the first blow was even exchanged.
By the end of the 15th century, the stakes were raised and Italy became the centre of a European turf war. The King of France,
no longer troubled by the Hundred Years War with England, looked greedily to his fertile Italian neighbours.
Ambitious statesmen like the Dukes of Milan wanted to join the grand European political stage and used the security of their
lands as the basis for their own political ambition.
Suddenly, control of the Italian peninsula had become the ultimate prize for a whole generation of European princes. In 1494,
Charles VIII of France invaded across the Alps, and unleashed 50-years of total war. It was a war which would leave a permanent
scar on the psyche of Italy.
Charles crossed the Alps with 50,000 highly trained troops, laid waste to Northern Italy and marched into Florence on November 17, 1494.
In his wake came the forces of the Duke of Milan, and the Holy Roman Emperor. By 1508, the Pope launched a military campaign to seize
Italy for himself. The Kings of France, England and Spain were embroiled in decades of double-dealing and backstabbing to secure control
of Italy, the so-called “fulcrum of Europe”.
For the next two generations of Italians this meant almost continual war. Unlike the theatrical battles of the Middle Ages, these were
brutal on-going campaigns against trained killers from France, Germany and Spain. Ill-equipped peasants stood no chance against soldiers
raised in the killing fields of Northern Europe. A trail of destruction soon spread from Venice in the North to Pavia in the West and
Naples in the South.
The Medici played their part in the ruin of Italy. In 1512, Giovanni de'Medici supervised the Sack of Prato. It was a bloodbath,
as papal troops destroyed an entire town. Giovanni delle Bande Nere, father of Cosimo I, received a fatal wound at the battle of
Borgoforte, near Mantua, and held the candle as his own leg was amputated.
In 1527, Pope Clement VII had made an enemy of every European head of state. He was trapped in Rome when it was razed by German
and Spanish troops. The Pope narrowly escaped death when a musket ball flew past his head as he fled through the corridors of the Vatican.
Some have compared the Italy of 1494 with Europe in 1914. A sense of foreboding hung in the air. Violence was always imminent and
once started, could not be stopped. The effects would be felt for centuries.
After the wars of the 1500s, Italian princes never again stood shoulder to shoulder with their equals in Europe, as Lorenzo de'Medici
had done. The peninsula, despite its natural wealth, became the play-thing of powerful European dynasties for the next 400-years.
Italian art no longer reflected natural beauty and philosophical ideals. Led by Michelangelo, artists caught in the maelstrom of war
now captured violence, drama and tragedy. Ravaged Italian cities lost their commercial edge, allowing their northern competitors to
Once the dust finally settled it was clear that nothing would ever be the same again.
- The Republic
- Italy at War
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