The Itinerary of Charles VIII in Italy, 1494-1495
One of the most technologically forward-looking military expeditions in history was launched for the most retrograde of reasons. Fourteen ninety-four was a time of momentous change. Less than half a century had passed since the first printed book had appeared. The Moors and Jews had been expelled from Spain just two years before. Only a year before, an Italian sailor in Spanish employ named Columbus had returned from an overseas voyage claiming to have discovered a New World. Yet none of these events loomed as large at the time as the loss of Constantinople forty-one years earlier to the Turks. Byzantium, the bastion of Christianity in the East, had fallen to the Mohammedans! Any self-respecting Christian monarch felt a duty to take up arms. King Charles VIII of France had the means to act and the inclination to do so.
His kingdom had been greatly enlarged and substantially strengthened over the past half century. The English had been kicked out of Normandy and Guienne in 1453 at the end of the Hundred Years’ War. In subsequent decades, Armagnac, Burgundy, Provence, Anjou, and Brittany had been wrested from their feudal rulers and added to the crown domains. With France almost at its modern boundaries, Charles VIII presided over the most powerful nation in Europe at a time when the very concept of a “state” was just taking shape.
With his small stature, skinny body, large head, and massive nose, the twenty-four-year-old king hardly looked the part of a mighty monarch. His hands twitched nervously and he stuttered when he spoke. “In body as in mind,” wrote a contemporary chronicler, “he is of no great value.” He had so little education that he was unable to speak Latin, the language of civilized discourse, and he was able to sign his own name only with great difficulty. But he loved tales of chivalrous derring-do like Thomas Malory’s evocation of the Camelot legend, Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485. Charles longed to be another El Cid, Roland, or Charlemagne—a great hero who would smite the infidels and reclaim the Holy Land. He wanted to go on a Crusade.
The opportunity to act out his anachronistic dream presented itself early in 1494 when the king of Naples died. Charles VIII felt he had a dynastic claim to the throne and he decided to make good on it in order to seize an operating base for use against the Ottoman Empire. Italy was then at the height of the Renaissance. Riches from agriculture, manufacture, and trade—Italy was Europe’s gateway, via the Mediterranean, to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—created a class of wealthy businessmen and nobles who financed an outpouring of art the likes of which the world had never seen before or since. Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian: All were alive in the 1490s. They benefited from a loosening of religious restrictions that was savagely denounced by moralists such as the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola, who complained that Pope Alexander VI (one of the Borgia popes) was guilty of incest, murder, and corruption. Wallowing in decadent luxury, Italy let its defenses molder. This problem was compounded by the peninsula’s lack of unity. It was split into small states poised in carefully balanced equilibrium. The most powerful were the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, the Duchy of Milan, the Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Florence. In all of them, leading families such as the Borgias, Medicis, and Sforzas schemed for power and position with a bag of gold ducats in one hand and a dagger in the other. Seeking an ally against his rivals, the Duke of Milan invited Charles VIII into Italy, and the French king eagerly seized the opportunity.
In the fall of 1494, Charles led some 27,000 men across the Alps, bringing with him a new way of war. Since most Italians disdained military service, they had turned over the protection of their city-states to mercenary captains, the condottieri (contractors), whose paid followers, many of them foreigners, were grouped into compagnie (companies). They had some primitive cannons and arquebuses—a handheld firearm ignited with a burning match—but mostly they were mounted men-at-arms. Lacking much loyalty to their paymasters, and always acutely conscious that today’s enemies could be tomorrow’s employers, the condottieri evolved a style of warfare that was highly stylized and strikingly ineffectual. Machiavelli told the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a four-hour battle between two mercenary armies that resulted in only one man dying—and that happened when he fell off his horse and suffocated in the mud.
Charles VIII’s forces fought with a brutality and determination altogether alien to Italy. Most of his soldiers were French, and they were part of one of the first national armies in Europe since the days of the Roman legions. Slightly fewer than half were traditional cavalrymen carrying lances and swords and protected by bulky suits of plate armor. The rest were a combination of French crossbowmen and archers along with Swiss pikemen, then the most feared mercenaries on the continent. The Swiss had revived Alexander the Great’s phalanx, and with their eighteen-foot pikes arrayed in a hedgehog formation they had repeatedly bested the knights on horseback who had ruled European battlefields for a millennium. But it was not the Swiss pikemen or the French bowmen that made Charles’s army so formidable. It was his artillery.
Cannons had been introduced into Europe more than a century before, probably from China. They had already played a notable role in piercing castle walls, but early artillery had not been terribly effective. It consisted of giant bombards woven out of iron hoops, often so big and unwieldy that it had to be assembled at the siege site and could barely be moved. At first the ammunition consisted of arrowlike projectiles, then stone balls that tended to shatter on impact. Loading one of these contraptions was so difficult that firing three rounds in a single day was considered quite a feat.
France led the way in the development of better artillery in the 1400s. Royal cannon makers, borrowing from techniques used to cast church bells, began to make lighter and more mobile guns out of molded bronze. On the sides, around the center of gravity, they added small handles known as trunnions that allowed the guns to be mounted on two-wheeled wooden carriages. Thus deployed, cannons could be traversed right or left, up or down, with relative ease. They could also be transported from spot to spot more quickly because French gun carriages were hitched to swift horses, not to the plodding oxen used for artillery in Italy.
Along with these better cannons came better propellant and ammunition. Gunpowder, a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal that had first been introduced to Europe in the thirteenth century, became more concentrated and reliable in the fifteenth century through a process of “corning,” in which flakes were first mixed with a little liquid and then dried and cut up. The extra explosive force of corned powder was used to spit out solid iron cannonballs that traveled farther and hit harder than the stone shot of old. By the 1490s, smoothbore, muzzle-loading artillery had essentially reached the shape it would assume for the next 350 years—but only in a few parts of Europe. The Italians were still relying on antiquated siege pieces and outdated castles. They were not prepared to face an army with such advanced weaponry and such ferocity in using it.
The Neapolitans first got a taste of what was in store for them in October 1494 when they sent an army north to launch a preemptive attack on the French invaders who were massing around Milan. The Neapolitans were occupying the castle at Mordano when they came into contact with Charles VIII’s legions. They might have expected to hold out for weeks, months, even years, but they had not reckoned with the power of Charles’s three-dozen-odd guns, which breached the fortress walls (or possibly its gate) in three hours. The Frenchmen rushed inside and slaughtered all the occupants. Then they moved into Tuscany, capturing a series of frontier fortresses with shocking ease. Piero de Medici, ruler of Florence, was so terrified that he gave up power and allowed Charles VIII to enter his city uncontested. The French then walked into Rome before proceeding on to the largest Italian state, the Kingdom of Naples. Their way was barred by the fortress at Monte San Giovanni, which had once withstood a siege of seven years’ duration. Charles’s cannons breached its walls within eight hours, allowing his troops to slay everyone inside. More than seven hundred Neapolitans died, including women and children, compared to only ten Frenchmen. A contemporary marveled at the impact of French cannon: “They were planted against the walls of a town with such speed, the space between each shot was so little, and the balls flew so quickly, and were impelled with such force, that as much execution was done in a few hours, as formerly, in Italy, in the like number of days.”
King Alfonso II of Naples, knowing he could not withstand this onslaught, abdicated his throne. On February 22, 1495, Charles entered Naples—then one of the biggest cities in Europe, with a population of about 150,000—beneath a canopy of gold cloth borne by four Neapolitan noblemen.
Within less than six months, Charles had marched the length and breadth of Italy, brushing aside resistance wherever he went. The speed and power of his artillery, the discipline of his troops, and the savagery with which they were employed—all left the Italians awestruck. Their days of sheltering behind old-fashioned castle walls had ended in a crash of shattered masonry. Contemporaries saw 1494 as a momentous year, much as subsequent generations were to regard 1789, 1914, or 1939.
Not even the setbacks subsequently suffered by li franzisi (the French) could dispel the lasting impression they had made. The French army was chased out of Italy in the summer of 1495 by a coalition of Italian states buttressed by the might (and military technology) of newly unified Spain. Charles never got a chance to fight for the Holy Land. Within three years, he was dead—killed, stupidly enough, when he cracked his outsize cranium against a low doorjamb in one of his palaces.
But Charles’s invasion had left a lasting legacy—and not only by spreading all over Italy the malady that would become known as syphilis (the French called it “the Italian disease” or “the Neapolitan disease,” while to the Italians it was “the French disease”). The French incursion triggered a sixty-year contest for hegemony in Italy pitting France against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, the House of Valois against the House of Habsburg. The Habsburgs eventually prevailed in the first major coalition war in modern European history, thanks to the efficient Spanish army organized in massive formations of musketeers and pikemen known as tercios. The French suffered for not having adopted handheld firearms as readily as they did cannons.
The events of 1494–95 may not have made France a long-term winner, but they definitely left Italy a long-term loser. City-states could flourish in the days of edged weapons but not in the Gunpowder Age. Having failed to develop polities big enough, complex enough, and rich enough to deploy advanced gunpowder armies, the Italians lost control of their own destiny and would not become a unified nation for almost four centuries. In the meantime, their countryside was ravaged by foreign armies, their cities sacked by drunken soldiers. (Italians’ persistent, if perhaps unfair, reputation for being poor soldiers—so at odds with the glory of the Roman legions—dates back to these dark days.) Within a few years, Italians like Niccolò Machiavelli were speaking nostalgically about the pre-1494 world as a lost golden age.
Writing in the 1520s, Francesco Guicciardini, a Florentine politician and historian who was a friend of Machiavelli’s, recalled how ineffectual combat had been before the French came: “When war broke out, the sides were so evenly balanced, the military methods so slow and the artillery so primitive, that the capture of a castle took up almost a whole campaign. Wars lasted a very long time, and battles ended with very few or no deaths.”
All that changed with the arrival of Charles VIII. “The French came upon all this like a sudden tempest which turns everything upside down….” Guicciardini continued. “Wars became sudden and violent, conquering and capturing a state in less time than it used to take to occupy a village; cities were reduced with great speed, in a matter of days and hours rather than months; battles became savage and bloody in the extreme. In fact states now began to be saved or ruined, lost and captured, not according to the plans made in a study as formerly but by feat of arms in the field.”