What Were The Great Italian Wars?

Monument to Pope Julius II at the San Francesco Basilica in Ascoli Piceno, Italy. Editorial credit: Vincenzo De Bernardo / Shutterstock.com
Monument to Pope Julius II at the San Francesco Basilica in Ascoli Piceno, Italy. Editorial credit: Vincenzo De Bernardo / Shutterstock.com

The Great Italian Wars have been given many names before. These names include the Italian Wars, the Great Wars of Italy, the Renaissance Wars, and even the Habsburg–Valois Wars. All refer to a sequence of conflicts that took place between 1494 and 1459. The parties that were involved in the conflicts included the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, the Ottoman Empire, and some influential countries from Europe like Spain and France.

8. First Italian War or King Charles VIII's War (1494–1498)

This war started when Milan’s Ludovico Sforza sought out France’s Charles VIII with a proposal of an alliance against Venice. Upon the death of Naples’s Ferdinand I, France invaded Italy with 25,000 men including 8,000 mercenaries. Charles tore through Italy until he reached Naples where the famed "sack of Naples" happened. The French killed everyone in the fort during the sack. Consequently, northern Italian cities formed an alliance, the League of Venice, to oppose the French. Even Milan was part of the league. The two met in Fornovo in 1495 where the French were deemed to be the victorious party. France sowed the seeds for future wars as it showed that Italian cities were rich and weak.

7. Second Italian War or King Louis XII's War (1499–1504)

Louis XII took over France after Charles died and then went ahead and took Milan from Sforza in 1499. All this began when the Holy Roman Empire invaded Italy to resolve Florence and Pisa’s ongoing conflict. After Florence was defeated by the empire, they sought out the French to aid them in retaking Pisa. With 27,000 men, Louis invaded Italy in 1499 and neutralized all resistance until he took over Milan. Florence approached Louis and demanded his help in retaking Pisa even though Florence remained neutral during France’s invasion. Eventually, France tried to help Florence retake Pisa but failed. Louis decided to ally with the Spanish to take and divide Naples which was the beginning of the end for Louis as he lost key battles and eventually his share of Naples to Spain.

6. War of the League of Cambrai (1508–1516)

Pope Julius II was afraid of Venice and its growing power. Louis XII of France, Emperor Maximilian of the holy empire, and Naples’s Ferdinand also had issues with Venice. The Pope formed the League of Cambrai with Spain, France, and others in order to deal with Venice. In 1509, the league failed to defeat Venice's army in Agnadello. The Pope allied with Venice to deal with France after relations broke down. The Holy War the pope proclaimed on France eventually defeated the French in Milan. However, after the death of the pope and Louis XII, Francis I took over France and allied with Venice in order to defeat the Holy League which was leaderless. In 1516, all of northern Italy was under France and Venice.

5. Italian War of 1521–1526

Just when Francis I was to be named the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles of Spain took the title. Relations soured between the two and war began brewing. When Francis was ready to attack Charles, the pope withdrew his support and allied with Charles instead. A succession of events ultimately concluded with Francis losing Milan to Charles in 1521 and the restoration of a Sforza. The Spanish’s arquebusier methods were too much for the French. Francis then led his army to take Lombardy but failed and was captured in 1525 at Pavia. His imprisonment led to an unlikely alliance between France and the Ottomans which led to his release in 1526 after he signed the Treaty of Madrid where he gave up claims to Italy, Burgundy, and Flanders.

4. War of the League of Cognac (1526–1530)

Afraid of the Empire, Pope Clement VII assembled the League of Cognac to deal with Charles. The league wanted to take advantage of discontent among the empire soldiers. Among the league members was Francis I hoping to take back Milan. A timed threat from the emperor’s army commander that he would use Colonna and Siena against the pope should he ally with the French made the pope withdraw his forces. The withdrawal coincided with the arrival of the French forces and the league was in disarray. Venice, another league member, had also suffered heavy losses in other battles and refused to participate further. Ultimately, France left Italy, the pope was captured, Florence was once again under a Medici, and Venice made peace with Charles (all under the Treaty of Cambrai).

3. Italian War of 1536–1538

After the above treaty, Charles headed to Italy to cement his hold. However, Sforza died in 1535 and had no heirs leaving a vacuum which was promptly filled by a representative from Charles. Francis was livid when Milan went to Philip’s son and vowed to take it back. Francis also came close to admitting Louis’s mistake in letting the Spanish have a part of Naples. In 1536, 27,000 French troops invaded Milan but failed in the attempt but captured Turin. Charles tried to take Turin but was rebuffed by Francis and his Ottoman allies which led to the signing of the Treaty of Nice leaving Turin under Francis.

2. Italian War of 1542–1546

Milan was the reason for war when Francis allied with the Ottomans again. Even then, Francis failed to go further than Lombardy. A series of events happened in Florence when the duke was assassinated by a distance cousin. The ensuing revolt in Florence saw Francis allying with factions against the assassin. In turn, Spain allied with the faction of the assassin and defeated the French and their allies in 1544. Spain then allied with England and almost took Paris but were uncoordinated and rebuffed. Had the two been more committed and dedicated in their joint attacks, they may very well have taken France.

1. Italian War of 1551–1559

After Francis died in 1547, his son Henry II took over and went to war with Charles over Italy but the invasion was stopped in 1553 in Tuscany. Charles abdicated his two titles in 1556; the Empire to Ferdinand I (his brother) and Spain to Phillip (his son). While weaker after the division, Phillip managed to defeat the French with the help of Savoy in 1157 at St. Quentin. England’s involvement in 1557 led to the French capturing Calais and other Spanish towns. Henry completely gave up in 1558 after signing the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis. Effectively, the treaty stated that France's Henry II have up any and all claims he may have had over Italy.


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