There exists no large, general work on the Italian Wars - one is being published in 2004 (Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe by Michael E Mallett). This makes researching it a rather fragmented affair, although as much of the motivation for the powers involved was actually focused outside the peninsula, this node is actually heavily involved in describing the state of Early Modern Europe as a whole. The chronology of events in this node, as well as some primary sources, are taken from Adrian Roberts' contribution to John Lotherington's excellent Years of Renewal: European History 1470-1600. Most of the scholarship for this period is based on Francesco Guicciardini's History of Italy, which he wrote in 1537.
The wars began in 1494, but our history shall stretch back forty years earlier. It was in 1454 that the Peace of Lodi was signed, bringing into existence the Italian League. The Italians had already been innovating in the field of diplomacy - they had developed the idea of ambassadors who took up residence in foreign states, a practice that would eventually be carried to mainland Europe through that great unifier, Ferdinand of Aragon. Italy was not at this time - or for a great time yet - a unified nation, and it was split into many different duchies and territories, and the rightful heirs did not often inherit their titles. Milan was ruled by mercenary families which it had once employed.
Almost no state was safe from its neighbours, and the Italian League was an attempt to maintain internal stability and prosperity through a coalition of Milan, Florence and Naples. The coalition would deal firmly with any of the smaller states which were looking to expand through violent means. While the League managed to keep peace in Italy, it was not a solution to the peninsula's problems. Arguably, it was the League which forced Italian states to look for a greater power in Western Europe which they could call upon to help them. Once the gates into Italy were opened to the West, they were never shut.
Italy was, as a whole, very prosperous at this time. Italian bankers were famed throughout Europe for their wealth, and as the homeland of the Papacy, Italy was viewed as the heartland of Christendom. The situation was in many ways grave, however - the League merely suppressed emotions which wanted to lash out but found themselves unable to, and as such it never managed to pull itself together in the face of foreign attack. The Ottoman Empire (a great naval power, especially when compared to the fleets of Christendom at the time) captured a Neapolitan port in 1480, and no help was sent from the other powers.
It is almost surprising that other European powers did not intervene sooner to grab their share of the wealth of Italy, but they had their own internal problems to deal with - the War of the Roses in England, the Hundreds' Years War between England and France, and La Reconquista in Spain.
The crisis of 1494 began with the death of Lorenzo de Medici (of the great banking family), who had been the main influence holding the Italian League together. As has been noted, Milan was incredibly unstable, and things began to boil over as the mercenary family that ruled it - the Sforzas - offended the ruling family of Naples1. Before long it looked inevitable that a Neapolitan army would march into Milan, and most probably sweep all before it. The regent and power behind the throne in Milan, Lodovico Sforza, looked around for someone powerful to defend him.
And this is where it all started to go wrong. Charles VIII of France had a claim to Naples through his paternal grandmother in the House of Anjou, and he inherited a chivalric ideal which meant it was almost his duty to assert his claim. France's problems in the West were coming to an end as well. Louis XI had succeeded in annexing Brittany2, and the English had been driven out of all of France apart from Calais. It was to the French that Milan turned.
Despite his apparent physical weakness and limited intelligence, Charles VIII dreamed of using Italy as a base to drive back the infidel Turk from Europe, and stop his snapping at the heels of Christendom. So Charles set about devoting the resources of France to this foreign undertaking, and set about the task of placating his neighbours. The provinces of Roussillon and Cerdagne were returned to Aragon, Henry VII of England was brought off with the Treaty of Etaples3 and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I was given The Free County of Burgundy and Artois. Charles had turned back the clock, squandering the gains of Louis XI on a hope of gains that were by no means secure. His contemporaries and modern historians unite in condemning him.
Charles' army of 25,000 crossed the Alps in 1494 (a crossing to inspire fear in the hearts of Italians, as Hannibal's once did) He smashed into Florence (then ally of his enemy, Naples) and his artillery proved irresistible to their thin walls. The frontier fortress of Fivizzano was broken open within hours, and the men therein massacred. Such savagery was unknown to the Italians, who were used to war as more of a show than something involving actual death... and so most of the Florentine cities capitulated. Rome capitulated and the Pope fled, giving Charles control of a number of his fortresses. Naples fell in much a similar way to Florence, and the city itself was entered in early 1495.
The inability of the Italians to wage war with a foreign power, as well as their political weakness, was now open for all to see. Italy would not know peace for a long time yet.
On the Iberian peninsula, Ferdinand of Aragon plotted the demise of French rule in Naples. King Ferrantino, the ruler of Naples before the French moved in, was his illegitimate cousin and brother-in-law. More importantly, control of Naples would give the French more control over the Mediteranean, frustrating Ferdinand's ambitions in the area. Emperor Maximilian I, sat in Austria, was worried by France's expansive policy. Last of all, the Papacy and other Italian states were fearful of how easily Charles had disembered them.
In 1495, these powers formed a coalition known as the Holy League and met Charles in the center of Italy. The coalition was largely unsuccessful and Charles defeated it, but afterwards he decided to retreat back across the Alps rather than pressing his advantage. In his absence another force, led by a Spanish commander and King Ferrantino, drove the French from Naples amidst a popular uprising against their occupation. Charles died in 1498 before he could return for another battle.
Charles' legacy to France was meagre and dissapointing. His erratic and fanciful character has been largely blamed for his actions - he surrended the great lands of his father in the hope of realized unrealistic ambitions. He had fallen prey to the Early Modern ideal of one ruler who would unite the Continent and beat back the Ottoman Turk, sparking off new crusades into the Holy Land. His successor was much wiser, but nontheless he also fell prey to the temptations of Italy.
Louis XII was the last Valois King of France to come from the Orleanist branch of the family - he was Duke of Orleans and an erstwhile rebel against Charles VIII. He had been imprisoned between 1487-90, and after the King felt he was able to place trust in him once more he had led troops in the first invasions of Italy. He came to the throne when Charles died childless; known as Father of the People for his domestic successes, he met little more success than Charles on Italian soil.
Once again, French intervention in Italy was invited from within. Alexander VI, one of the most corrupt and secular Popes of the Renaissance, was desperate to extend the influence of his family, the Borgia. Alexander's main aim was in carving out territory for his illegitimate son, Cesare Borgia, in Central Italy. French support would be pivotal in obtaining this, and so Cesare began his career as papal legate (the official representative of the Pope) in France. He allied himself with Louis XII, handing him a papal dispensation for his marriage to the barren Jeanne so he could marry the widow of Charles VIII, Duchess of Brittany. Cesare was married to Charlotte d'Albret, a princess of Navarre, and received the title of Duke of Valence, as well as the promise of assistance in carving out a territory in Italy.
Louis XII had inherited the claim to Naples and Milan (through his grandmother, who was the daughter of a past Duke of Milan.) So he entered Milan in 1499, forcing the ruler Lodovico Sforza to flee to the Holy Roman Empire, where he was entertained by Maximilian I. He returned to Milan a year later with 10,000 Swiss mercenaries, but his army surrended rather than fight their fellow Swiss mercenaries in the French army! Sforza was captured and packed off to a French chateau, where he spent the rest of his life.
Louis, showing the qualities which made him wiser than his predecessor, made diplomatic moves with regard to Naples rather than executing an outright invasion. The French negotiated with the Spanish and it was agreed that Naples would be partitioned down the middle - Ferdinand of Aragon neglected to inform the King of Naples, Federigo, of the plan, and when he found out he was furious. He appealed to Louis XII for support after he was deposed, and Louis created him Duke of Anjou and allowed him to remain in France. Against this background of turmoil in Naples, Pope Alexander IV took the opportunity to slay more of his enemies.
However, Louis was not satisfied for long - after only two years he attempted to seize Southern Naples by force. Cordoba, the Spanish commanders and one of the great generals of the 16th Century, managed to not only beat the French back, but go on to conquer th city of Naples itself (which was in the French half), and smash the French armies. Louis was forced to sign the Treaty of Blois in which he renounced his claim to Naples. Spain was always going to be the key player in Southern Italy because it could supply its troops from Sicily - France, on the other hand, had no such easy lines of communication or logistics. France was now forced to focus on the North, and the next Pope, Julius II, was keen to continue the wars in Italy.
Like his predecessor, Pope Julius II was more concerned with political and military ambitions than ecclesiastical ones. His target was Venice, who occupied a number of cities in the Romagna which he coveted, as well as Bologna and Perugia. The latter two were liberated by 1506, and in 1508 the League of Cambrai was formed against Venice. The League consisted of Louis XII, Ferdinand of Aragon, Maximilian I, and Julius II. The only battle was between Louis and the Venetian army in 1509, whereby the Venetian army was routed and Ferdinand moved in to consolidate his power by occupying cities in the South. The Pope got back his territories in the Romagna and turned his eyes to the Kingdom of Ferrara. Ferrara was ruled by puppet Dukes of the French, and so alliances quickly changed.
The next coalition consisted of Henry VIII of England, Ferdinand of Aragon, Venice and the Papacy against France. The arrival of a French general to rival Cordoba, Gaston de Foix, transformed the situation and gave the French the upper hand. They soon occupied all of Northern Italy, but the brilliant young general was killed by Spanish and Papal troops as they tried to lift the siege of Ravenna. The French still won this battle, but they were soon confounded by a Swiss army and an army sent by the Emperor Maximilian. Neither of these powers were keen to see French hegemony in the region. A joint coalition drove France back across the Alps, although Julius II only achieved this at the cost of the occupation of Italy by yet more foreign powers. Louis XII died in 1515 and was succeeded by Francois I. In the same year, Charles V inherited a unified Spain, and the Habsburg-Valois wars began.
~ Notes ~
1. The exact reasons are not terribly important, but went something like this: The Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, was married to the granddaughter of the King of Naples, Isabella of Naples. The power-behind-the-throne in Milan was Lodovico Sforza, who offended Isabella with personal insults. Isabella sent complaints back to her homeland, where her father, Alfonso decided to use it as a pretext for war.
2. The English under Henry VII had backed a rebellion in Brittany, fearing French hegemony of the channel. They failed in this endeavour, but it soon came to not matter much anyway - the French cared too much about Italy for the next half-century to cause England any trouble.
3. As well as granting the English King £12,000 a year for 15 years, it came with the promise that France would not harbour English rebels. Henry, who was experiencing the wind-down of the War of the Roses, was glad to have these destabilizing nuisances denied another free port. Furthermore, the money was paid in full.