The Cause and Effects of The Italian Wars

During the latter half of the 15th Century the Holy Roman Empire had began to lose its control over the Italian Peninsula dividing Italy up into a number of small republics: Dalmatia, Florence, Genoa, Istria, Lucca, Milan, Modena, Naples, Savoy, The Roman Papacy, Sardinia, Sicily, Siena and Venice. It was during this period of a broken Italy that a number of wars caused by fraught relationships between the families of Habsburg and Valois, expansionist foreign policies of France, Florence, Spain and Venice and fears of a European superpower rising up to dominate all of Europe, took place over control of the newly founded republics. These wars characterised the end of 15th Century Italy and the start of 16th Century Italy before they subsided allowing the Emperor Charles V to unite a number of them under a reforming Holy Roman Empire and also helped the continental spread of the Italian Renaissance.

One of the factors behind the Italian wars was the breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire during the late 15th Century. Once the Emperor had lost his power over the Italian peninsula the independent republics that were left behind had little power of their own, were politically unstable and held inadequate resources in order to maintain independence. Thus making it easier for neighbouring countries, eager to boost their glory, power and wealth to move in and dominate Italy. Ferdinand Trastámara (Ferdinand II of Aragon) used this period of political instability to pursue his claim to the republics of Naples, which being a Castilian possession belonged to his wife Isabella of Castile, and Sicily by way of strategic manoeuvres giving him a significant deal of influence over the Italian Peninsula. On one occasion, during 1494, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, invited the French King Charles Valois (Charles VIII) to pursue his claim to the republic of Naples, a claim that could be traced back as far as the 13th Century, in order to dampen the rising fear of Spanish dominance over Italy. Naples at the time was currently being held at the time by Ferdinand II of Aragon, who refused to simply hand over control of Naples on account of some long-standing claim the Valois family had. Ferdinand turned to military force to secure his hold over his seat at Naples thus starting the Franco-Italian Wars, which resulted in Charles’ defeat after he came up against strong resistance from the League of Venice made up of Milan, Naples, the Papacy and Venice, the league was also backed by the Holy Roman Empire. As the Holy Roman Empire during this time was reigned over by Emperor Maximillion Habsburg (Maximillion I), the conflict helped fuel the long-standing Habsburg-Valois rivalry.

Machiavelli in ‘The Prince’ claimed “A ruler should have no other objective and no other concern, nor occupy himself with anything else except war and its methods and practises, for this pertains to those who rule” [1] Machiavelli meant by this that war and expansionism were the means by which those in power held power as failure to indulge in such “methods and practises” [2]would be perceived as cowardly and weak thereby making them more susceptible to invasion from enemies. This could have held some truth in the sense that the Habsburg-Valois rivalry wasn’t about expanding their empires but ensuring that each looked brave in front of the other so as to avoid conflict, it was misfortune that Italy was the arena for the two families to show their strength. Whether Machiavelli was right or not it was the Habsburg-Valois rivalry that played a crucial part in the continuance of the Italian wars between 1494 and 1518 since the Valois were scared that a growing Habsburg Empire would pose a threat to the Valois Empire of France and vice versa, so each tried to stop the other from gaining too much too quickly by trying to expand their own empires. In 1499 the French King Louis Valois (Louis XII) contracted a marriage with Duke Ludovico Sforza’s daughter in order to secure his claim to possession of Milan, a claim that dated back to 1387 when the Duke of Milan’s daughter Valentina Visconti married a French Duke. A successful acquisition of Milan would have helped the house of Valois break the ‘Habsburg circle’ that was beginning to wrap itself round the French Empire choking all plans for further expansion the Valois had, it also brought about rising fears that a surrounding Habsburg influence would bring about a Habsburg invasion on Valois soil.

Italy also suffered from internal tensions from the years following 1440 as Florence and Venice became expanding their borders, status and economic power triggering conflict with surrounding enclaves. This helped to prove the claims made by Machiavelli and Romenzo Valla who in 1440 claimed “wars are embarked on for desire of glory and for the hope of booty”[3]. These tensions were worsened after the Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia was anointed as Pope following Alexander VI, since Alexander was accused of carving up the Papacy in order to salvage a small kingdom so his family could have some security. Under Medici rule Florence had managed to become one of the richest republics in Italy making it noticed by the greedy eyes of the Valois family who planned to destabilise Florence’s political stability by offering aid to the enclaves that Florence oppressed during the Florentine expansion, this encouraged the people of the enclaves to rebel against Medici rule starting the Florentine revolution in 1492 weakening the political strength of Florence making it easier for external forces to invade Florence. Just as Florence’s increasing power gained it unwanted attention from France, Venice’s success had similar effect. In a bid to stop Venice expanding further east, and as an attempt to bolster its treasury, the Ottoman Turks began took interest in Venice. During 1497 Venice bribed the Ottoman Turks to invade Venice in order to remain safe from Valois dominance and involvement in the Habsburg-Valois dispute. Internal difficulties increased after 1504 when Ferdinand successfully seized Naples. The surrounding republics fell into unrest as they struggled to maintain their independence instead of surrender their will over to Spanish dominance. Charles VIII played on this by forming an alliance with Ludovico Sforza so that Charles had a free passage for his troops to march down to Naples in order to remove Ferdinand and bring Naples under Valois rule. Florence put up no resistance to Charles as it was undergoing rebellion against the Medici, nor did the Papacy after Charles had scared Pope Alexander VI into using the Papacy as a free passage.

The attempted expansion of the French-Valois Empire by Charles VIII brought about the collapse of the house of Medici, thanks to Charles’ influence over the people of Florence, allowing Florence to reshape its governmental makeup, basing it on a Venetian model with help from Savonarola. This helped turn Florence embrace the Renaissance as it blossomed into a more liberal state than it had been under the oppressive regime of the Medici family. Italy as a whole suffered huge losses of wealth, military forces, power and natural resources damaging its self-sufficiency which was vital if the republics were to maintain their independence. This brought about the inevitable outcome of the republics giving their freedoms over to dominance under the Emperor Charles V, which added Italy to the Holy Roman Empire and later the Spanish-Habsburg Empire when Charles V gained control of the throne of Spain after Ferdinand’s death in 1516. Although this was not entirely bad since it gave Italy the much needed protection from the religious wars that were to take place in the years following 1559, it was this protection that allowed Venice to increase her power and wealth throughout the Renaissance period so that by 1596 it had become one of the most powerful and most liberal states (although as Shakespeare portrayed in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ this liberalism allowed you freedom so long as you were not of Jewish faith) in Europe and also a keystone in the development of the Italian Renaissance, which was to be spread right across the continent due to the movement of merchant caravans along the Silk Road in the east and then moving through Venice in order to reach France, Germany and Spain.

The Italian wars had a large effect on the shape of the Spanish-Habsburg empire since the fall of Pavia in 1525 forced France to relinquish her claims to all of the Italian republics and also her Burgundian inheritance bringing a significant blow to the French Empire and the moral of the French people. This resulting in helping the Spanish-Habsburg Empire expand and by 1530 it held the Italian republics of, Florence, Genoa, Istria, Milan, Modena, Naples, Savoy and Siena, which were held right up until 1700 when the house of Habsburg crumbled, possibly due to overexpansion which had placed a strain on the Spanish economy since Ferdinand II of Aragon’s campaign against Naples had cost the total sum of eighty-eight million maravedís with his later campaigns in 1504 costing a further three-hundred and sixty-six maravedís[4]. The total economic cost of the Italian Wars to Spain came to 454 million maravedís, since the national treasury was only worth three-hundred and eighteen million maravedís[5] by 1504 it left Spain with a national debt of a hundred and thirty-six million maravedís. Having control over such a large number of possessions aided the Spanish-Habsburg Empire require the status of ‘superpower’ and following the death of King Ferdinand of Spain (previously Ferdinand II of Aragon) in 1516 the Emperor Charles V was able to claim the throne of Spain giving him control over the Spanish-Habsburg Empire and the Holy Roman Empire posing a great threat to all of the other European powers giving the Habsburgs the necessary geographical capabilities and power to begin overseas expansion, however Charles V found the control of such a wide empire difficult and with a large Spanish debt to clear and the Lutheran Reformation occurring right in the heart of his empire he saw his power begin to breakdown loosening his grip over some of his possessions such as the German principalities.

There were also some indirect effects of The Italian Wars, one of these indirect effect, mostly in response to the Emperor Charles V’s increasing power, was the construction of the League of Cognac; made up of Florence, Milan, the Papacy and Venice; uniting the remaining republics against a common enemy bringing some stability to a divided Italy, whilst continuing the on-going Habsburg-Valois rivalry. A second indirect effect of the Italian Wars, again caused by the large expansion movement of Emperor Charles V, was the spread of Renaissance culture from Florence and Venice across the rest of Europe via merchants, diplomats and troops moving around the ‘united’ Empires of Spain, the Habsburg family and the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Charles V. The Renaissance movement, which affected the way Europe, saw fashion, art and culture was also able to spread through to France via the failed expansion attempts of Valois expansion by Kings Charles VIII and Louis XII and merchants coming in through Venice from the east via the Silk Road and the Ottoman Empire.

To conclude the Italian Wars were caused by rivalry between the Habsburg family of Austria and the Valois family of France who used Italy as the scene for their expansionist policies in order to display their power to the other, in similar fashion as peacocks would display their plumage to others in order to drive away completion for a mate. This was not helped by the breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire in the latter half of the 15th century, since it was the Holy Emperor who held control over Italy, leaving it fragmented and easy for invasion from its neighbours. The wars over the Italian republics did have some beneficial effects as they ensured the continental spread of the Renaissance, brought down the Medici family in Florence allowing it to flourish as one Italy’s greater powers. The wars also saw a fall of the Valois Empire whilst aided the rise of the Habsburg Empire which went on to dominate a vast amount of Europe.


  • R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991
  • J Hale (edited by D S Chambers, C H Clough & M E Mallett), War, Culture and Society in Renaissance Venice, The Hambledon Press, 1993
  • J Hale, War and Society in Renaissance Europe 1450-1620, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985
  • P Helm, History of Europe 1450-1660, The Chaucer Press Ltd, 1966


  • R Finley, The Immortal Republic: The Myth of Venice during the Italian Wars (1494- 1530), The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol 30, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 931-944
  • M Fontaine, For the Good of the City: The Bishop and the Ruling Elite in Tridentine Modena, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 29-43


[1] Pg.79, R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991

[2] Pg.79, R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991

[3] Pg.22, J Hale, War and Society in Renaissance Europe 1450-1620, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985

[4] Pg.91, R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991

[5] Pg.89, R Bonney, The European Dynastic States 1494-1660, Oxford University Press, 1991


Posted on April 1, 2011, in historical and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. It was a pretty good summary of the Italian Wars. And I see that you researched a lot, but with all respect Would you please do one more informal and easy to understand? I had some trouble with all the names and everything… I think it would be maybe easier if it had like the name of the King and were he is from for example so we can guide better. But other than that Thank You for the information! Sincerely, JustMe

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