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The Italian Wars, often referred to as the Great Italian Wars or the Great Wars of Italy and sometimes as the Habsburg-Valois Wars in historical works, were a series of conflicts from 1494 to 1559 that involved, at various times, most of the city-states of Italy, the Papal Statesmarker, most of the major states of Western Europe (France, Spainmarker, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and Scotland) as well as the Ottoman Empire. Originally arising from dynastic disputes over the Duchy of Milanmarker and the Kingdom of Naples, the wars rapidly became a general struggle for power and territory among their various participants, and were marked with an increasing degree of alliances, counter-alliances, and regular betrayals.


Following the Wars in Lombardy between Venice and Milan, which ended in 1454, Northern Italy had been largely at peace during the reigns of Cosimo de' Medici and Lorenzo de' Medici in Florencemarker, with the notable exception of the War of Ferrara in 1482-1484.

Spain had promised not to interfere with France's adventures in Italy in return for Roussillon and Cerdagnemarker, which were ceded to Spain under the Treaty of Barcelona of 1493.

The wars

Italy in 1494.

Italian War of 1494–98

Ludovico Sforza of Milanmarker, seeking an ally against the Republic of Venicemarker, encouraged Charles VIII of France to invade Italy, using the Angevin claim to the throne of Naplesmarker as a pretext. When Ferdinand I of Naples died in 1494, Charles invaded the peninsula with 25,000 men (including 8,000 Swiss mercenaries), possibly hoping to use Naples as a base for a crusade against the Turks. For several months, French forces moved through Italy virtually unopposed, since the condottieri armies of the Italian city-states were unable to resist them. Their sack of Naples finally provoked a reaction, however, and the League of Venice was formed against them, effectively cutting off Charles's army from France. Despite a tactical victory of French armies against the League at the battle of Fornovo, the formation of the League to his rear forced Charles to withdraw to France, Fornovo itself being merely a successful fighting withdrawal. After initial reverses, most notably the disastrous Battle of Seminara, Ferdinand II of Naples, with the able assistance of the Spanish general Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, reduced the French garrison in the Kingdom of Naples. Ludovico, having betrayed the French at Fornovo, retained his throne until 1499, when Charles's successor, Louis XII of France, invaded Lombardy and seized Milanmarker.

Italian War of 1499–1504

In 1500, Louis, having reached an agreement with Ferdinand I of Spain to divide Naples, marched south from Milan. By 1502, a combined French and Spanish force had seized control of the kingdom; disagreements about the terms of the partition led to a war between Louis and Ferdinand. By 1503 Louis, having been defeated at the Battle of Cerignolamarker and Battle of Garigliano, was forced to withdraw from Naples, which was left under the control of a Spanish viceroy, General de Córdoba.

War of the League of Cambrai

Meanwhile, Pope Julius II was more concerned with curbing the territorial expansion of the Republic of Venicemarker, and in 1508 formed the League of Cambrai, in which France, the Papacy, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire agreed to restrain the Venetians. Although the League destroyed much of the Venetian army at the Battle of Agnadello in 1509, it failed to capture Padua, and in 1510, Julius, now regarding France as a greater threat, left the League and allied himself with Venice. Following a year of fighting over the Romagnamarker, during which the Veneto-Papal alliance was repeatedly defeated, the Pope proclaimed a Holy League against the French; this rapidly grew to include England, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire.

French forces under Gaston de Foix inflicted an overwhelming defeat on a Spanish army at the Battle of Ravenna in 1512, but Foix was killed during the battle, and the French were forced to withdraw from Italy by an invasion of Milan by the Swissmarker, who reinstated Maximilian Sforza to the ducal throne. The victorious Holy League fell apart over the subject of dividing the spoils, and in 1513 Venice allied with France, agreeing to partition Lombardy between them.

Louis mounted another invasion of Milan, but was defeated at the battle of Novara, which was quickly followed by a series of Holy League victories against the Venetians at La Motta, the French at Guinegate, and the Scots at Flodden Fieldmarker. However, the death of Julius left the League without effective leadership, and when Louis' successor Francis I defeated the Swiss at Marignano in 1515, the League collapsed. By the treaties of Noyon and Brussels, the entirety of northern Italy was surrendered to France and Venice.

Italian War of 1521–26

The elevation of Charles of Spain to Holy Roman Emperor, a position that Francis had desired, led to a collapse of relations between France and the Habsburgs and provided Francis with a pretext for starting a general war. The French were outmatched by the Spanish arquebusier tactics, however, and suffered crippling defeats at Bicoccamarker and Sesia against Spanish troops under Fernando de Avalos. With Milan in Imperial hands, Francis personally led a French army into Lombardy in 1525, only to be defeated and captured at the battle of Pavia. Imprisoned in Madridmarker, Francis was forced to agree to extensive concessions of his Italian territories.

War of the League of Cognac

In 1526, Pope Clement VII, alarmed at the growing power of the Empire, formed the League of Cognac against Charles V, allying himself, the Republic of Venicemarker, Florencemarker, and a number of smaller Italian states with France. Venice, however, refused to contribute troops; with the withdrawal of French forces from Lombardy, Charles V proceeded to subdue Florence, and, in 1527, sack Rome itself. Clement was imprisoned by Imperial troops, and offered no further resistance to Charles V. With the conclusion of the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529, which formally removed Francis from the war, the League collapsed; Venice made peace with Charles V, while Florence was placed again under the Medici.

Italian War of 1536–38

The third war between Charles and Francis began with the death of Francesco Maria Sforza, the duke of Milanmarker. When Charles's son Phillip inherited the duchy, Francis invaded Italy, capturing Turinmarker, but failed to take Milan. In response, Charles invaded Provence, advancing to Aix-en-Provencemarker, but withdrew to Spain rather than attacking the heavily fortified town of Avignonmarker. The Truce of Nice ended the war, leaving Turin in French hands but effecting no significant changes to the map of Italy.

Italian War of 1542–46

Francis, allying himself with Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire, launched a final invasion of Italy. A Franco-Ottoman fleet captured the city of Nicemarker in August 1543, and laid siege to the citadel. The defenders were relieved within a month. Commanded by the Count d'Enghien, the French defeated an Imperial army at the Battle of Ceresolemarker in 1544, but failed to penetrate further into Lombardy. Charles V and Henry VIII of England then proceeded to invade northern France, seizing Boulognemarker and Soissonsmarker. A lack of cooperation between the Spanish and English armies, coupled with increasingly aggressive Ottoman attacks, led Charles to abandon these conquests, restoring the status quo once again.

Italian War of 1551–59

In 1551, Henry II of France, who had succeeded Francis to the throne, declared war against Charles with the intent of recapturing Italy and ensuring French, rather than Habsburg, domination of European affairs. An early offensive against Lorraine was successful, but the attempted French invasion of Tuscany in 1553 was defeated at the Battle of Marciano. Charles' abdication in 1556 split the Habsburg empire between Phillip II of Spain and Ferdinand I, and shifted the focus of the war to Flanders, where Phillip, in conjunction with Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, defeated the French at St. Quentin. England's entry into the war later that year led to the French capture of Calaismarker, and French armies plundered Spanish possessions in the Low Countries; but Henry was nonetheless forced to accept the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, in which he renounced any further claims to Italy.

Aftermath and impact

By the end of the wars in 1559, Habsburg Spain had been established as the premier power of Europe, to the detriment of Francemarker. The states of Italy, which had wielded power disproportionate to their size during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, were reduced to second-rate powers or destroyed entirely.

The Italian Wars had a number of consequences for the work and workplace of Leonardo da Vinci; his plans for a "Gran Cavallo" horse statue in 1495 were dropped when the seventy tons of bronze intended for the statue were instead cast into weapons to save Milanmarker. Later, following a chance encounter with Francis I after the Battle of Marignano, Leonardo agreed to move to France, where he spent his final years.

In France, Henry II was fatally wounded in a joust held during the celebrations of the peace. His death led to the accession of his 15-year-old son Francis II, who in turn soon died. The French monarchy was thrown into turmoil, which increased further with the outbreak of the French Wars of Religion in 1562.

Arms and armies

The wars saw the introduction of many significant advances in military technology and tactics, including field artillery, muskets, and combined arms tactics.


Infantry underwent profound developments during the Italian Wars, evolving from a primarily pike- and halberd-wielding force to a more flexible arrangement of arquebusiers, pikemen, and other troops. While the early part of the Wars continued to see landsknechts and Swiss mercenaries dominate, the Italian War of 1521 demonstrated the power of massed firearms, leading to their increasingly widespread adoption as the basis of all infantry formations.


Heavy cavalry—the final evolution of the fully-armored medieval knight—remained major players on the battlefields of the Italian Wars. Here, the French gendarmes were generally successful against other nations' mounted troops, owing significantly to their excellent horses.


The Italian Wars saw artillery—particularly field artillery—become an indispensable part of any first-rate army. Charles VIII, during his invasion of Italy, brought with him the first truly mobile siege train: culverins and bombard mounted on wheeled carriages, which could be deployed against an enemy stronghold immediately after arrival.

Military leadership

The armies of the Italian Wars were commanded by a wide variety of different leaders, from mercenaries and condottiere to nobles and kings.


Much of the fighting during the Italian Wars took place during sieges. Successive invasions forced Italymarker to adopt increasing levels of fortification, using such new developments as detached bastions, that could withstand sustained artillery fire.


The Italian Wars are one of the first major conflicts for which extensive contemporary accounts from people involved in the wars are available, owing largely to the presence of literate—and often extremely well-educated—commanders.


The naming of the component conflicts within the Italian Wars has never been standardized, varying among historians of the period. Some wars may be split or combined differently, causing ordinal numbering systems to be inconsistent among different sources. The wars may be referred to by their dates, or by the monarchs fighting them.

Contemporary accounts

A major contemporary account for the early portion of the Italian Wars is Francesco Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia (History of Italy), written during the conflict, and advantaged by the access Guicciardini had to Papal affairs.


  1. R. Ritchie, Historical Atlas of the Renaissance, 64


  • Arfaioli, Maurizio. The Black Bands of Giovanni: Infantry and Diplomacy During the Italian Wars (1526–1528). Pisa: Pisa University Press, Edizioni Plus, 2005. ISBN 88-8492-231-3.
  • Arnold, Thomas F. The Renaissance at War. Smithsonian History of Warfare, edited by John Keegan. New York: Smithsonian Books / Collins, 2006. ISBN 0-06-089195-5.
  • Baumgartner, Frederic J. Louis XII. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994. ISBN 0-312-12072-9.
  • Black, Jeremy. "Dynasty Forged by Fire." MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 18, no. 3 (Spring 2006): 34–43. .
  • ———. European Warfare, 1494–1660. Warfare and History, edited by Jeremy Black. London: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-27532-6.
  • Blockmans, Wim. Emperor Charles V, 1500–1558. Translated by Isola van den Hoven-Vardon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-340-73110-9.
  • Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Italy. Translated by Sydney Alexander. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-691-00800-0.
  • Hackett, Francis. Francis the First. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937.
  • Hall, Bert S. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8018-5531-4.
  • Knecht, Robert J. Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-521-57885-X.
  • Konstam, Angus. Pavia 1525: The Climax of the Italian Wars. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1996. ISBN 1-85532-504-7.
  • Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. ISBN 0-679-72197-5.
  • Oman, Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. London: Methuen & Co., 1937.
  • Phillips, Charles and Alan Axelrod. Encyclopedia of Wars. 3 vols. New York: Facts on File, 2005. ISBN 0-8160-2851-6.
  • Taylor, Frederick Lewis. The Art of War in Italy, 1494–1529. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973. ISBN 0-8371-5025-6.

Further reading

  • Boot, Max. War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today. New York: Gotham Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59240-222-4.
  • Du Bellay, Martin, Sieur de Langey. Mémoires de Martin et Guillaume du Bellay. Edited by V. L. Bourrilly and F. Vindry. 4 volumes. Paris: Société de l'histoire de France, 1908–19.
  • Giovio, Paolo. Pauli Iovii Opera. Volume 3, part 1, Historiarum sui temporis. Edited by D. Visconti. Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1957.
  • Lot, Ferdinand. Recherches sur les effectifs des armées françaises des guerres d'Italie aux guerres de religion, 1494–1562. Paris: École Pratique des Hautes Études, 1962.
  • Monluc, Blaise de. Commentaires. Edited by P. Courteault. 3 volumes. Paris: 1911–25. Translated by Charles Cotton as The Commentaries of Messire Blaize de Montluc (London: A. Clark, 1674).
  • ———. Military Memoirs: Blaise de Monluc, The Habsburg-Valois Wars, and the French Wars of Religion. Edited by Ian Roy. London: Longmans, 1971.
  • Saulx, Gaspard de, Seigneur de Tavanes. Mémoires de très noble et très illustre Gaspard de Saulx, seigneur de Tavanes, Mareschal de France, admiral des mers de Levant, Gouverneur de Provence, conseiller du Roy, et capitaine de cent hommes d'armes. Château de Lugny: Fourny, 1653.

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