The Italian Wars and Weakening of Papal Authority

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  • 0:05 Description of the…
  • 2:06 First and Second Italian Wars
  • 3:24 War of League of…
  • 4:54 Four Years' War and More
  • 6:19 The Wars Conclude
  • 7:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will discuss the Italian Wars and their effects on the Papacy and the political landscape of Italy. It will also highlight the power struggle between France and Spain, which dominated much of 16th century Europe.

Description of the Italian Wars

When I was growing up, my family loved to play Monopoly. My dad was especially good at it. He'd wheel and deal with whomever he needed. One move, he'd be your ally, trading a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card for Ventnor Avenue. The next move, he'd be conspiring with your sister to send your poor thimble straight to the poorhouse. When it came to the game, my normally great dad turned into a scoundrel, scheming, conniving, and cajoling to get his hands on Boardwalk and Park Place.

Oddly, this is exactly how most of Europe acted during the 15th and 16th centuries. Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Italian city-states all played a huge game of Monopoly known to history as the Italian Wars. In this game of real-estate conquest, Italy stood as Boardwalk and Park Place combined.

The Italian Wars were a series of wars fought over the city-states of Italy. At the opening of the Wars, some of the prominent Italian city-states, or Italy's sovereign cities and their surrounding territories, were Venice, Florence, Naples, Sicily, and the Papal State of Rome. With much of Europe involved, these wars waged from the late 15th to the mid-16th century. Although they started out with many players who all changed sides and traded alliances, they soon degraded into a power struggle between France and Spain.

In order to make sense of these wars, historians divide them into several sections. Although confusing at best, we're going to discuss a few of the well-known stages in detail. They are the First and Second Italian Wars, Wars of the League of Cambrai and the Holy League, and the Four Years' War. As we dive into each of these wars, we'll take a look at their main players and what they did to the political landscape of Italy. We'll also discuss how they weakened the office of the Pope, otherwise known as the Papacy.

First and Second Italian Wars

The First Italian War began when the Duke of Milan allowed King Charles VIII of France to pass through his lands on his way to conquer Naples. This move caused Venice, the Papal State, the Holy Roman Empire, and Spain to rise up against France. For those of you wondering, the Holy Roman Empire pretty much encompassed the modern-day areas of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Northern Italy. Even against all these enemies, France was initially successful. However, the game changed when the Spanish war hero Cordova rose to defend Naples and defeated France at the Battle of Fornova.

A few years later, France tried again in the Second Italian War. This time, the new French king, Louis XII, got crafty and asked Ferdinand I of Spain to join his side with the promise that the two of them could divide Naples among each other. Working together, their campaign against Naples was a success. Not surprisingly, France and Spain couldn't agree on how to divide the plunder. Fortunately for Spain, they still had their hero, Cordova. In a short time, Naples was under Spanish rule and France was left with only Milan.

A map of the nations included in the Holy Roman Empire
Holy Roman Empire Map

War of the League of Cambrai and the Holy League

During the years following the Second Italian War, the Papal State of Rome, ruled by the Pope, decided to get in on the game. In a shrewd move, Pope Julius invited the Holy Roman Empire to attack Venice. When the Holy Roman Empire couldn't get the job done, the Pope turned to France and Spain. These players, along with the Holy Roman Empire, created the League of Cambrai. Knowing they were outnumbered, Venice made a deal with the Pope by surrendering some of their territory to the Papal State, which is exactly what the Pope had wanted all along.

Shortly after this, the Pope got worried about France's holdings in Italy, namely Milan. In another shrewd move, he rallied Venice (yes, the area he had just trounced), Spain, Britain, and the Holy Roman Empire to take on France. Their alliance came to be known as the Holy League. For a short time, the Holy League had France on the run; however, France flipped the game by convincing Venice to switch sides.

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