The Italian Wars were a series of conflicts from 1494 to 1559 that involved, at various times, most of the city-states of Italy, the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, France, Spain, Scotland, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and the Ottoman Empire. The wars were caused by dynastic disputes over the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, but they rapidly became a general struggle for power and territory among their various participants, and were marked by an increasing number of alliances, counter-alliances, and betrayals. The wars resulted in the Habsburg domination of Italy, with the Habsburgs controlling Milan, Sicily, and Naples at the end of the wars.


In 1492 the Reconquista in Spain was over, with the Muslims driven from their stronghold in Granada. The French monarchy was in search of further glory after having defeated England in the Hundred Years War. The Swiss pikemen had won respect with their dispatch of Charles the Bold's Burgundians in 1476. Many now needed work, and Charles VIII of France was only too happy to recruit them into his army. He was keen to revive the Angevin claim to the crown of Naples and Sicily. Pope Innocent VIII backed Charles, and Spain's king Ferdinand I agreed not to oppose him in return for a free rein in the Pyrenean provinces of Roussillon and Cerdagne. When, in 1494, King Ferrante I of Naples died, it seemed the moment Charles had been waiting for had come.


First Italian War (1494-1495)

When King Ferrante I of Naples died in January 1494, his son, Alfonso II, inherited the crow. Charles VIII saw this as an opportunity to advance his own Angevin claim on Naples by force. He was encouraged to do this by Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan, whose right to hold his own duchy was disputed by the new king Alfonso. One of the characteristics of the Italian Wars was to be the ever-shifting tangle of enemies and alliances that helped shape the unfolding action on the gruound. The conflict began when Charles invaded Italy in October 1494: his forces, 25,000 strong, nu,bered 8,000 Swiss pikemen. Now sweeping southward, Charles's soldiers encountered armies commanded by condottieri, mercenaries contracted to individual cities. Some attempted to fight back but Charles made short work of them, besieging cities and blasting at the walls and defenses with huge cannon. His soldiers massacred the people inside - after decades of low-level tussling by condottieri armies, often more interested in taking prisoners for ransom than killing, Italy was getting a taste of "total war". Charles's army carved its cruel way south: by February 1495, he was on the throne of Naples.

Second Italian War (1495)

Ludovico now realized that Charles had his own designs on the Duchy of Milan. Pope Alexander VI added his authority to Ludovico's calls for an alliance against French aggression. The League of Venice was formed, its main purpose to force the French into leaving Italy. Francesco II Gonzaga, a condottiere and also the Marquess of Mantua, was assigned to take command. In July 1495, his Italians fought the French to a standstill at Fornovo. Forced to retreat back to the safety of France, Charles's army survived.

Third Italian War (1499-1512)

Charles's successor, Louis XII, invaded Lombardy in 1499 and took Milan. He deposed Duke Ludovico and continued south, agreeing with Ferdinand I of Spain to share the Kingdom of Naples. Soon, though, the two had fallen out. In April 1503, Louis's army was routed at Cerignola. Spanish commander, Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, found his army outnumbered four-to-one, but his men had firearms. In 1512, Gaston de Foix's French force met the Spanish at the battle of Ravenna. With up to 8,000 Landsknechts at its core, de Foix's army prevailed.

Swiss Invasion of Italy (1512-1515)

The French never saw the benefit, however - the Swiss would soon invade Italy, taking Milan. The French returned the year after but were beaten at Novara, their Landsknechts coming off decidedly the worse against the Swiss pikemen. In keeping with a feud between Swiss and Landsknechts that went back several decades, the Swiss killed hundreds of the captured German landsknechts. 

At Marignano in 1515, Louis's successor, Francis I, found the answer to the pike formations in artillery and heavy cavalry. However, he first had to get his forces across the Alps. The best known passes were closely guarded and so Francis had new roads especially built across less frequented - and arduous - back routes. That done, he organized the transportation of his heavy artillery of 70 cannon. The fighting lasted 24 hours and cost up to 20,000 lives. The landsknechts did their work, as did Francis's cannon. The French emerged the victors and occupied northern Italy.

Fourth Italian War (1519-1525)

In 1519 Francis was furious when Charles I of Spain became Emperor Charles V, as Francis had coveted that position for himself. He decided again on an invasion of Italy - but Francis's pikemen and cavalry were once again mauled by the tercios at Bicocca in 1522 and Sesia in 1524. A fresh invasion in 1525 was brought to a halt at Pavia. Francis's cannon tore great gaps in the Imperial lines but had to cease fire as the French cavalry surged forward. As both sides' landsknechts engaged, the Spanish arquebusiers could fire at will. Francis, his horse killed beneath him, fought on but was captured. He was forced to agree to humiliating terms in the Treaty of Madrid in 1526.

Sack of Rome (1527)

Charles's troops soon fell apart. Funds to pay their wages ran out and, enraged, 30,000 men marched on Rome. Charles was noted for his Catholic piety, but the pro-French pope, Pope Clement VII, was wary of Imperial power. Some of Charles V's 14,000 landsknechts had Lutheran sympathies, and this added a note of religious enmity to the sack of Rome. In May 1527 his German and Spanish troops inflicted an orgy of destruction in which the pope was forced to shelter, a virtual prisoner, in Castel Sant' Angelo.

War of the League of Cognac (1526-30)

The League of Cognac, led by France and the Papal States, was formed to attempt the removal of Spanish and Holy Roman empire interests from Italy. Much use was made of mercenaries. Mutiny and desertion resulted when troops were not paid afterward. The sack of Rome was soon followed by the declaration of independence by the Florentine Republic, who fought against the Imperial faction. An Imperial army besieged the city for ten months in 1529, and Florence finally surrendered when it became apparent that outside assistance would not be arriving.

Fifth Italian War (1536-38)

The death of the Duke of Milan Francesco II Sforza triggered another round of conflict over the duchy. French troops captured Turin, but were unable to take Milan, while an Imperial incursion into France ended inconclusively. Peace was settled in 1538, with France conquering Piedmont and Savoy.

Sixth Italian War (1542-46)

Further disputes over Milan brought about war between France, now allied with the Ottoman Empire, and Spain, the Holy Roman empire, and various allies. The outcome was inconclusive, despite the vast expense of the war.

Seventh Italian War (1551-59)

The final round of the Italian Wars saw fighting in several corners of Europe, before bankruptcy and internal problems forced both France and Spain to accept a settlement. Despite this, Spain remained the dominant power in Italy at the end of the wars.