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The Invasion of Italy by Charles VIII. of France

By John Addington Symonds (1840–1893)

From ‘History of the Renaissance in Italy’

WHAT was this beautiful land in the midst of which the French found themselves,—a land whose marble palaces were thronged with cut-throats in disguise, whose princes poisoned while they smiled, whose luxuriant meadows concealed fever, whose ladies carried disease upon their lips? To the captains and the soldiery of France, Italy already appeared a splendid and fascinating Circe, arrayed with charms, surrounded with illusions, hiding behind perfumed thickets her victims changed to brutes, and building the couch of her seduction on the bones of murdered men. Yet she was so beautiful that, halt as they might for a moment and gaze back with yearning on the Alps that they had crossed, they found themselves unable to resist her smile. Forward they must march through the garden of enchantment; henceforth taking the precaution to walk with drawn sword, and like Orlando in Morgana’s park, to stuff their casques with roses that they might not hear the siren’s voice too clearly. It was thus that Italy began the part she played through the Renaissance for the people of the North. ‘The White Devil of Italy’ is the title of one of Webster’s best tragedies. A white devil,—a radiant daughter of sin and death, holding in her hands the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and tempting the nations to eat,—this is how Italy struck the fancy of the men of the sixteenth century. She was feminine, and they were virile; but she could teach and they must learn. She gave them pleasure; they brought force. The fruit of her embraces with the nations was the spirit of modern culture, the genius of the age in which we live.

Two terrible calamities warned the Italians with what new enemies they had to deal. Twice at the commencement of the invasion did the French use the sword which they had drawn to intimidate the sorceress. These terror-striking examples were the massacres of the inhabitants of Rapallo on the Genoese Riviera, and of Fivizzano in Lunigiana. Soldiers and burghers, even prisoners and wounded men in the hospitals, were butchered, first by the Swiss and German guards, and afterwards by the French, who would not be outdone by them in energy. It was thus that the Italians, after a century of bloodless battles and parade campaigning, learned a new art of war, and witnessed the first act of those Apocalyptic tragedies which were destined to drown the peninsula with French, Spanish, German, Swiss, and native blood.

Meanwhile the French host had reached Parma; traversing, all through the golden autumn weather, those plains where mulberry and elm are married by festoons of vines above a billowy expanse of maize and corn. From Parma placed beneath the northern spurs of the Apennines, to Sarzana on the western coast of Italy, where the marbles of Carrara build their barrier against the Tyrrhene Sea, there leads a winding barren mountain pass. Charles took this route with his army, and arrived in the beginning of November before the walls of Sarzana. Meanwhile we may well ask what Piero de’ Medici had been doing, and how he had fulfilled his engagement with Alfonso. He had undertaken, it will be remembered, to hold the passes of the Apennines upon this side. To have embarrassed the French troops among those limestone mountains, thinly forested with pine and chestnut trees, and guarded here and there with ancient fortresses, would have been a matter of no difficulty. With like advantages, 2000 Swiss troops during their wars of independence would have laughed to scorn the whole forces of Burgundy and Austria. But Piero, a feeble and false tyrant, preoccupied with Florentine factions, afraid of Lucca, and disinclined to push forward into the territory of the Sforza, had as yet done nothing when the news arrived that Sarzana was on the point of capitulation. In this moment of peril he rode as fast as horses could carry him to the French camp, besought an interview with Charles, and then and there delivered up to him the keys of Sarzana and its citadel, together with those of Pietra Santa, Librafratte, Pisa, and Leghorn. Any one who has followed the sea-coast between Pisa and Sarzana can appreciate the enormous value of these concessions to the invader. They relieved him of the difficulty of forcing his way along a narrow belt of land, which is hemmed in on one side by the sea, and on the other by the highest and most abrupt mountain range in Italy. To have done this in the teeth of a resisting army and beneath the walls of hostile castles would have been all-but impossible. As it was, Piero cut the Gordian knot by his incredible cowardice, and for himself gained only ruin and dishonor. Charles, the foe against whom he had plotted with Alfonso and Alexander, laughed in his face, and marched at once into Pisa. The Florentines, whom he had hitherto engaged in an unpopular policy, now rose in fury, expelled him from the city, sacked his palace, and erased from their memory the name of Medici except for execration. The unsuccessful tyrant, who had proved a traitor to his allies, to his country, and to himself, saved his life by flying first to Bologna and thence to Venice, where he remained in a sort of polite captivity—safe, but a slave—until the Doge and his council saw which way affairs would tend.

On the 9th of November, Florence after a tyranny of fifty years, and Pisa after the servitude of a century, recovered their liberties, and were able to reconstitute republican governments. But the situation of the two States was very different. The Florentines had never lost the name of liberty, which in Italy at that period meant less the freedom of the inhabitants to exercise self-government than the independence of the city in relation to its neighbors. The Pisans on the other hand had been reduced to subjection by Florence; their civic life had been stifled, their pride wounded in the tenderest point of honor, their population decimated by proscription and exile. The great sin of Florence was the enslavement of Pisa; and Pisa in this moment of anarchy burned to obliterate her shame with bloodshed. The French, understanding none of the niceties of Italian politics, and ignorant that in giving freedom to Pisa they were robbing Florence of her rights, looked on with wonder at the citizens who tossed the lion of the tyrant town into the Arno, and took up arms against its officers. It is sad to witness this last spasm of the long-suppressed passion for liberty in the Pisans, while we know how soon they were reduced again to slavery by the selfish sister State, herself too thoroughly corrupt for liberty. The part of Charles—who espoused the cause of the Pisans with blundering carelessness, pretended to protect the new republic, and then abandoned it a few months later to its fate—provokes nothing but the languid contempt which all his acts inspire.

After the flight of Piero and the proclamation of Pisan liberty, the King of France was hailed as savior of the free Italian towns. Charles received a magnificent address from Savonarola, who proceeded to Pisa, and harangued him as the chosen vessel of the Lord and the deliverer of the Church from anarchy. At the same time the friar conveyed to the French King a courteous invitation from the Florentine republic to enter their city and enjoy their hospitality. Charles, after upsetting Piero de’ Medici with the nonchalance of a horseman in the tilting-yard, and restoring the freedom of Pisa for a caprice, remained as devoid of policy and as indifferent to the part assigned him by the prophet as he was before. He rode, armed at all points, into Florence on November 17th, and took up his residence in the palace of the Medici. Then he informed the elders of the city that he had come as conqueror and not as guest, and that he intended to reserve to himself the disposition of the State.

It was a dramatic moment. Florence, with the Arno flowing through her midst, and the hills around her gray with olive-trees, was then even more lovely than we see her now. The whole circuit of her walls remained, nor had their crown of towers been leveled yet to make resistance of invading force more easy. Brunelleschi’s dome and Giotto’s tower and Arnolfo’s Palazzo and the Loggie of Orcagna gave distinction to her streets and squares. Her churches were splendid with frescoes in their bloom, and with painted glass over which as yet the injury of but a few brief years had passed. Her palaces, that are as strong as castles, overflowed with a population cultivated, polished, elegant, refined, and haughty. This Florence, the city of scholars, artists, intellectual sybarites, and citizens in whom the blood of the old factions beat, found herself suddenly possessed as a prey of war by flaunting Gauls in their outlandish finery, plumed Germans, kilted Kelts, and particolored Swiss. On the other hand, these barbarians awoke in a terrestrial paradise of natural and æsthetic beauty. Which of us who has enjoyed the late gleams of autumn in Valdarno, but can picture to himself the revelation of the inner meaning of the world, incomprehensible yet soul-subduing, which then first dawned upon the Breton bowmen and the bulls of Uri? Their impulse no doubt was to pillage and possess the wealth before them, as a child pulls to pieces the wonderful flower that has surprised it on some mountain meadow. But in the very rudeness of desire they paid a homage to the new-found loveliness of which they had not dreamed before.

Charles here as elsewhere showed his imbecility. He had entered and laid hands on hospitable Florence like a foe. What would he now do with her?—reform the republic—legislate—impose a levy on the citizens, and lead them forth to battle? No. He asked for a huge sum of money, and began to bargain. The Florentine secretaries refused his terms. He insisted. Then Piero Capponi snatched the paper on which they were written, and tore it in pieces before his eyes. Charles cried, “I shall sound my trumpets.” Capponi answered, “We will ring our bells.” Beautiful as a dream is Florence; but her sombre streets, overshadowed by gigantic belfries and masked by grim brown palace fronts, contained a menace that the French King could not face. Let Capponi sound the tocsin, and each house would become a fortress, the streets would be barricaded with iron chains, every quarter would pour forth men by hundreds well versed in the arts of civic warfare. Charles gave way, covering with a bad joke the discomfiture he felt: Ah, Ciappon, Ciappon, voi siete un mal Ciappon! The secretaries beat down his terms. All he cared for was to get money. He agreed to content himself with 120,000 florins. A treaty was signed, and in two days he quitted Florence.

Hitherto Charles had met with no serious obstacle. His invasion had fallen like the rain from heaven; and like rain, as far as he was concerned, it ran away to waste. Lombardy and Tuscany, the two first scenes in the pageant displayed by Italy before the French army, had been left behind. Rome now lay before them, magnificent in desolation: not the Rome which the Farnesi and Chigi and Barberini have built up from the quarried ruins of amphitheatres and baths, but the Rome of the Middle Ages; the city crowned with relics of a pagan past, herself still pagan, and holding in her midst the modern Antichrist. The progress of the French was a continued triumph. They reached Siena on the second of December. The Duke of Urbino and the lords of Pesaro and Bologna laid down their arms at their approach. The Orsini opened their castles. Virginio, the captain-general of the Aragonese army and grand constable of the kingdom of Naples, hastened to win for himself favorable terms from the French sovereign. The Bagliono betook themselves to their own rancors in Perugia. The Duke of Calabria retreated. Italy seemed bent on proving that cowardice and selfishness and incapacity had conquered her. Viterbo was gained; the Ciminian heights were traversed; the Campagna, bounded by the Alban and the Sabine hills, with Rome a bluish cloud upon the lowlands of the Tiber, spread its solemn breadth of beauty at the invader’s feet. Not a blow had been struck when he reached the Porta del Popolo, upon the 31st of December, 1494. At three o’clock in the afternoon began the entry of the French army. It was nine at night before the last soldiers, under the flaring light of torches and flambeaux, defiled through the gates, and took their quarters in the streets of the Eternal City. The gigantic barbarians of the cantons, flaunting with plumes and emblazoned surcoats, the chivalry of France splendid with silk mantles and gilded corslets, the Scotch guard in their wild costume of kilt and philibeg, the scythe-like halberds of the German lanzknechts, the tangled elf-locks of stern-featured Bretons, stamped an ineffaceable impression on the people of the South. On this memorable occasion, as in a show upon some holiday, marched past before them specimens and vanguards of all those legioned races which were soon to be too well at home in every fair Italian dwelling-place. Nothing was wanting to complete the symbol of the coming doom but a representative of the grim, black, wiry infantry of Spain.