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
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.
With the addition of Venice to their team, France was able to hold on to Milan. France being able to withstand the Holy League was a huge blow to the power of the Papacy. First, the fight for land and power made many devout Christians simply disgusted with the power-hungry Pope. Making it worse, the loss, and the willingness of Venice to play turncoat, proved the Pope was no longer in command.
Four Years' War and More
Throughout all these conflicts, Spain and France kept a close eye on one another; each making sure the other wasn't getting too far ahead in the race for Italian and European dominance. When Charles V, King of Spain from the Habsburg Dynasty, was selected to also be the new Holy Roman Emperor, France had had enough. Making matters even more infuriating for France, Charles V was also the king of Austria and the Netherlands. War soon ensued.
Liking the idea of France suffering, England joined the Spanish team. The Pope also fought with Spain in what came to be known as the Four Years' War. This is where things start to get very, very hairy. After several devastating losses, France turned the game completely upside down by stealing the Pope and England from Spain's side. France, England, and Rome then formed the League of Cognac to fight against Spain.
When the Habsburg Charles V of Spain heard that he had been betrayed, he attacked and conquered the Papal State of Rome. This move devastated the power of the Papal State, causing the Pope himself to run for his life. Witnessing the devastation of Rome, France decided to back down, giving Spain's Habsburg Dynasty predominance in Italy.
The Wars Conclude
This leads us to the last stage of the Italian Wars, the Habsburg-Valois War. Once again, France's ruling house, known as the Valois, tried to regain its holdings in Italy. Perhaps getting tired of being betrayed by fellow Europeans, France turned to the Ottoman Empire of modern-day Turkey for help. For this one, Spain and England fought together and were able to repel the French/Ottoman forces. Although France made several attempts to unseat Spain from Italy, they were unsuccessful. When the Habsburg and Valois fighting finally ceased, most of Italy was firmly under the control of Habsburg Spain, thus ending the Italian Wars.
With many twists and turns, the Italian Wars were a fight between much of Europe over the control of Italy. Like a convoluted game, European powers made and broke alliances at every turn. As Europe fought over Italy, perhaps the greatest loser was the Papacy. Not only did Rome fall to Spain, but the Pope was forced to flee for his life, proving once and for all that the office of the Pope had lost its political esteem.
Although much of Europe was involved in the Italian wars, the two biggest players were France and Spain, each of whom wanted to keep the other from winning the game of European dominance. Although France put up a great fight, in the end, the Spanish flag waved over most of Italy.
After completing this lesson, you might have the ability to:
- Summarize the key battles of the Italian Wars
- Explain the alliances and strategies of the Italian Wars as well as what ultimately happened to the Pope as a result of the wars
- Describe the key players and their involvement in the Italian Wars