Italy at the end of the Middle Ages is known in France for having transmitted to us the Renaissance, following wars in Italy of Charles VIII, Louis XII and especially François Ier. But in detail, we too often ignore a complex situation, resulting from municipal system and some division of Italy, but also foreign influences like the Empire and Spain. To understand the wars in Italy and the political issues of the 16th century, we must therefore go back in time.
The evolution of the municipal system
It is important never to forget the context of tensions (and often wars) between Italy and the Holy Germanic Empire, but also the papacy, between more generally guelphs (supporters of the Pope, and opponents of the imperial presence in Italy) and ghibellines (favorable to the Germanic emperor). But also, one must not lose sight within the Italian cities of the rivalries between nobles and popolo (non-noble citizens of the city, divided between "rich" and "poor"), between bourgeoisie and nobility of the middle ages. All these elements lead to an evolution of the system of communes in the beginning of the 13th century, a system which becomes more complex as the cities prosper. Colleges of consuls give way to larger assemblies, and the emergence of the podesta (a magistrate foreign to the city has a limited mandate to exercise power, particularly judicial) supposed to promote a popolo often idealized (because in fact very divided). The second half of the 13th century then saw the gradual takeover of the popolo on the consular system, and even on the podesta.
The policy of Frederick II in Italy
The first half of the 13th century is, in Italy and in the Empire, that of Frederick II Hohenstaufen. Let us leave aside the once Norman Sicily and focus on peninsular Italy. The emperor, while enjoying the support of the Church, finds himself condemned (and even excommunicated) by the latter, despite the success of his admittedly original crusade.
Tensions, of varying intensity, continued despite the changes of pope (Honorius III, Gregory IX, Innocent IV) and the conflict resumed with the Lombard municipalities. Frederick II had to settle his problems in the Empire as much as in northern Italy (where he defeated the Lombard League in 1237), and the struggles became more radical. The election as pope of Innocent IV does not help matters, as he refuses to compromise with Frederick II, and the conflict continues throughout the 1240s. The death of the emperor in 1250 is far from resolving matters.
The loss of influence of the Empire and the Pope in Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries
After Emperor Frederick II died, Gibelinism was not lost in Italy. Rather, it was the divisions between the heirs of Frederick II, as well as the quarrels for the imperial title, that weakened the Empire party. Yet Manfred (one of the sons of Frederick II) tried for a moment to oppose Rome, but was defeated when the papacy won the support of Charles of Anjou and the Tuscan bankers. He died at the Battle of Benevento in 1266, and with it the imperial influence over Italy declined sharply, as did that of the scattered Ghibellines. The attempts of Henry VII and Louis of Bavaria in the 14th century made little difference, and instead added to the confusion and instability.
This does not mean that the papacy comes out stronger; in fact, Charles of Anjou intends to take advantage of the windfall and is greedy; the popes must then appeal to supports like that of the emperor Rudolf of Habsburg, without real success. If in 1282, the Angevin danger disappeared following the Sicilian Vespers, the papacy failed to reaffirm its authority, as attested by the attack against Boniface VIII (September 7, 1303) and especially the departure of Clement V for Avignon in 1309. Robert d'Anjou's support in the early 14th century was temporary, and even became rather inconvenient.
The emergence of the urban seigniory (13th-14th)
The beneficiaries of the simultaneous weakening of imperial and papal influence in Italy are the lords of the mainly urban cities. The appearance of these urban lordships dates back to the middle of the 13th century, in central and northern Italy, mainly because of the instability of the Italian cities during this period. This instability is mainly due to social and economic conflicts, aggravated by the increase of the population in the towns and territories of these municipalities. Tensions are visible within the municipalities, but also between Italian cities (without forgetting the ever-present context of the Guelph / Ghibelline opposition).
This is how characters emerge to whom the cities begin to resort to solve the problems and remedy the weaknesses of the too "democratic" (and therefore weak and unstable) system of the communes. Their influence is primarily political, but also economic, as these men often rely on substantial land wealth. Little by little, the heads of these real dynasties obtained municipal offices (like the podestate) and transformed the city system. Among these families which gave birth to urban seigneuries, we can cite the Este de Ferrare, the Della Scala of Verona, the Visconti of Milan, all towards the end of the 13th century, or the Gonzaga of Mantua in the first half of the 14th century. . Soon, the municipal office is attributed for life and hereditary ...
The evolution of Italian seigneuries (14th-15th centuries)
These lords nevertheless seek additional legitimacy and logically turn to the Pope or the Emperor. Some of them then obtained the title of vicar (imperial or pontifical), such as Cangrande I della Scala of Verona, in 1311 (imperial vicar). Then at the end of the 14th century and in the 15th century, it was the truly seigneurial titles of duke and marquis that were claimed, either from the emperor or from the pope: thus, in 1395, Gian Galeazzo Visconti bought Wenceslas the transformation of the Milanese vicariate into a duchy for 100,000 florins; Borso d´Este was Duke of Ferrara in 1471 thanks to Pope Paul II; Federico de Montefeltro was made Duke of Urbino by Sixtus IV in 1475 ...
The seigneuries are above all present in central Italy and in the Po plain. Initially relatively numerous, they saw the influence of the more powerful of the lords begin to prevail over the smaller. The families which manage to pull out of the game during the 14th century and still remain, for the most part, active in the 15th century, are those of the Visconti, the Gonzague or the Este.
The emergence of urban oligarchies
The weakening of the municipal system and of Germanic and Roman influence not only led to the emergence of urban lordships. Indeed, in some municipalities, the republican system resists a little longer, to transform into an oligarchy. This is the case in Venice, Genoa, and Florence for example, despite the case of the "crypto-seigneury" of the Medici in the 15th century.
It is in fact the interests of the merchants on the one hand (in Genoa and Venice), and on the other hand of the Pope (in the municipalities of the pontifical state, such as Lucca, Siena or Bologna) which make it possible to limit the influence large families or "providential" men, and to maintain a non-seigneurial system for a time. However, this does not prevent the emergence of oligarchies (the most famous of which remains that of Venice) and the end of communal republics.
The conflicts of the 14th century and the expansion of the seigneuries
The 14th century was decisive in the political transformation of Italy: the loss of influence of the papacy (with the schism) and of the Empire, the internal consolidation of the lordships, the Angevin difficulties in southern Italy and in Sicily, the rivalries between Venice and Genoa cause instability and ambitions. To this must be added the economic difficulties, in particular for Florence.
The first example of this policy of expansion of the seigneuries concerns the Visconti. They take power in Milan in 1329 with Azzone (son of Galeazzo Visconti and Béatrice d'Este), submit the Scaligers with the peace of Venice in 1339, then under Giovanni practice a more skilful and less frontal policy, with matrimonial alliances and commercial, while always increasing the territory of the seigneury and not hesitating to oppose the Pope. In 1378 Gian Galeazzo came to power (married to the daughter of the King of France John II the Good, Isabelle) who, at the end of the 1380s, attacked the Veneto and confronted Florence. He is then considered as a "tyrant" (especially by the Florentines), against whom one tries to set up leagues and heterogeneous alliances. Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who became Duke of Milan, seemed all-powerful until the beginning of the 15th century: he enjoyed the support of the Pope and the King of Naples, and only Florence really (and in vain) tried to resist.
The latter also saw a period of change in the transition between the 14th and 15th centuries. The economic crisis of the 1360s weakened the oligarchy which had seized the city in the course of the 14th century, after the failure of the seigneury of Gautier de Brienne. In addition, conflict is open with the Pope ten years later (the "Eight Saints" war), which further weakens the city and increases instability; Then began the revolt of the Ciompi (employees and wool workers) between 1378 and 1382, which then culminated with the rivalry between the Albizzi and the Medici, the first outgoing victors - for a time - at the dawn of the 15th century.
At the same time, the conflict intensified between Genoa and Venice, and the latter implemented its policy of expansion and "dry land".
The situation in the 15th century, until the peace of Lodi (1454)
It took the death of the "tyrant" Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1402 for the situation to stabilize for a time. This bodes well for Florence, which benefited from it in the early years of the 15th century (Pisa conquered in 1406 for example). The Florentine city then fell, during the 1430s, into the hands of the Medici, who set up a “crypto-lordship” with Cosimo I (or Como).
The Duchy of Milan for its part recovered fairly quickly from the death of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, despite the seizure of power from the Sforza from 1450. Florence and Venice then had to ally themselves to counter Milan, and the war was without thank you, both against the Visconti and against the Sforza afterwards. Genoa, for its part, saw its power diminish and now appealed for outside help, that of the King of France in particular. Further south, in the kingdom of Naples, the conflict between Aragonese and Angevins marked the victory of the former during the 1440s.
The beginning of the 1450s brought a redefinition of alliances: Venice allied itself with Aragon, the Marquis de Montferrat and Savoy; the Milan of the Sforza accords with the Florence of the Medici, the Marquis of Mantua and Bologna. It was Cosimo de Medici the leader of this league, and he even obtained the support of the King of France Charles VII in 1452, the beginnings of foreign interventions in the peninsula. Despite attempts at mediation by the emperor and the pope, the conflict broke out and culminated in 1453, when Venice was further weakened by the Ottoman advance in the eastern Mediterranean (capture of Constantinople).
It is finally the growing danger weighing on Venice and on the Christian West (the Turks), and that of foreign interventions which lead the city of Po and its Milanese rival to sign the peace of Lodi on April 9, 1454. The year Florence and the Papal States in turn sign the treaty, for the creation of a Italian League for the Peace, Tranquility of Italy and the Defense of the Holy Christian Faith.
The failure of the Lodi peace: towards the wars in Italy
Tranquility is short-lived on the peninsula; there is an endemic state of war, favored by the power of the condottieres (warlords), very ambitious like Sigismondo Malatesta, who fights Alfonso I of Naples and Federico da Montefeltro (who becomes Duke of Urbino, as we have seen) seen above, in 1475).
During the second half of the 15th century, the Italian States experienced internal changes, such as in Milan (with the advent of Ludovic le More in 1480) and Florence (with the revolt of the Pazzi against the Medici in 1478), while the Este of Ferrara or the Gonzagas of Mantua manage to maintain themselves at least until the 1480s.
It is precisely this decade that marks the most important turning point, despite the recurring problems in Naples in the years 1450-1460 between Angevins and Aragonese. With Laurent the Magnificent, Florence maintains her alliance with Milan and gets closer to the Pope after having crushed the Pazzi. But it is above all the War of Ferrara (1482-1484) which shows the obsolete nature of the Peace of Lodi: nephew of Sixtus IV, Girolamo Riario wants to enlarge his possessions to the detriment of the Duchy of Ferrara; it is supported by the Pope and Venice, which effectively breaks the agreement of 1455. The League helps Hercules I of Este, and the Pope must conclude the truce (under pressure from the emperor), while Venice finds itself alone against Milan, Florence, Mantua, Bologna, Urbino and Naples. Peace was finally signed in Bagnolo in August 1484, but Lodi's dream fizzled out.
As the 1490s begin, the precarious balance established by the Peace of Lodi no longer exists. If the Italian cities have succeeded in constituting themselves into powerful regional states, they still remain at the mercy of foreign ambitions, and in particular French ones, as the wars in Italy will show.
- JP. Delumeau, I. Heullant-Donat, Italy of the Middle Ages (5th-15th century), Hachette-Carré History, 2005.
- F. Brizay, Italy in modern times, Belin, 2007.
- F. Leading, Italy of the municipalities (1100-1350), Belin, 2005
- E. Crouzet-Pavan, Italian Renaissance (1380-1500), A. Colin, 2007.