The Annotated Prince - The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli with notes by Gene Gessert

Italian War of Louis XII

Louis XII
Louis XII who overreach in his invasion of Italy

With respect to Machiavelli’s thought, the important facts about the second Italian War are these.  

The first Italian invasion (that of Charles VIII) was aimed at Naples and had little effect on Italian power Politics, except to cause the downfall of the Medici regime in Florence.  That regime was replaced by a republic in which Machiavelli was Second Chancellor; and also made Florence a French ally.  Charles planned a second invasion to reconquer and this time hold Naples, but he died in April of 1498, before he could return to Italy.

Charles was succeeded by Louis Duke of Orléans (1462 -1515), who not only inherited Charles claim to Naples, but had a claim to Milan through his family’s connection to the Visconti.  Louis, reigning as Louis XII (1498 – 1515) promptly announced that he intended to press his claim to Milan.    

In contrast to his position during the first French invasion, Pope Alexander VI did not actively oppose Louis intentions.  Rather, he took advantage of an opportunity created by Louis’s accession to strike a bargain that would in one stroke advance three of his goals: securing the Romagna, suppressing the Roman Barons, and advancing the career of his son Cesare Borgia.  Alexander’s opportunity came about because Louis needed a divorce, which a sitting Pope was in a position to grant, so that he could marry Charles VIII’s widow Anne of Brittany and thus ensure that the province remained part of the French crown domains.

Alexander dispatched papal diplomats (including eventually Cesare himself to Louis’ court), and reached an agreement under the terms of which:

  • Cesare would gain (A) the Duchy of Valence, (B) Marriage with Charlotte d’Albert, the sister of the King of Navarre, and (C) French troops for his conquest of the Romagna. With Valance, Cesare acquired the title by which Niccolò often referred to him, Duke Valentino.
  • Louis would gain (A) his divorce (B) a Cardinal’s hat for a favorite counselor, George d’Amboise, (C) Cesare’s assistance in Louis’s planned invasion of Milan. This latter point arose from Cesare’s marriage contract.  Alexander did not agree to ally the Papal States with France against Milan [Mallet and Shaw, p 43].

In 1498, as war approached, Milan was ruled by Ludovico Sforza, who in the first Italian War, had collaborated with Charles VIII.  To its east, along the Po Valley was the Veneto, the mainland holdings of Venice, Milan’s traditional rival.  In February of that year, while Cesare Borgia was still in France, Louis XII reached an agreement for the partition of the Milanese territory [Meyer p287].  In return for the new territory Venice agreed to provide financial support and to launch a second front against Milan

For their part in the agreement, Machiavelli would judge Venice harshly. In his view, Venice should have made common cause with Milan to oppose a powerful foreigner, Louis.  The partition agreement isolated Milan and made its fall to the French inevitable.  Machiavelli put it this way:

“King Louis was brought into Italy by the ambition of the Venetians, who desired to obtain half the state of Lombardy by his intervention. I will not blame the course taken by the king, because, wishing to get a foothold in Italy, and having no friends there—seeing rather that every door was shut to him owing to the conduct of Charles—he was forced to accept those friendships which he could get, and he would have succeeded very quickly in his design if in other matters he had not made some mistakes. The king, however, having acquired Lombardy, regained at once the authority which Charles had lost: Genoa yielded; the Florentines became his friends; the Marquess of Mantua, the Duke of Ferrara, the Bentivogli, my lady of Forli, the Lords of Faenza, of Pesaro, of Rimini, of Camerino, of Piombino, the Lucchese, the Pisans, the Sienese—everybody made advances to him to become his friend. Then could the Venetians realize the rashness of the course taken by them, which, in order that they might secure two towns in Lombardy, had made the king master of two-thirds of Italy.”
The Prince, Chapter 3: “Concerning Mixed Principalities”

Machiavelli’s position was a minority view, but not an isolated one.  It was also shared by the Doge of Venice, who had unsuccessfully opposed the partition agreement.

Louis also made preparatory agreements to secure his frontiers with the Empire, England, Ferdinand and Isabella, among others, and reached an agreement to hire Swiss infantry.

On 15 July 1499, French troops, bolstered by the Swiss mercenaries, under the command of the Italian condottiero Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, invaded the territory of Milan [Mallett and Shaw p47].  Machiavelli considered the French practice of supplementing its forces with Swiss infantry a weakness that produced an inferior “mixed” army (Chapter 13).  This mixed force was, however, still vastly superior to the Italian opposition, which relied solely on mercenary troops.

While Louis carefully prepared for the invasion, Ludovico neglected both defensive and offensive preparations for war, and focused his efforts on diplomatic stratagems that often involved his offering large financial incentives.

The results formed part of Machiavelli’s political analysis:

French forces quickly overran Milan.  Ludovico fled to the protection of his father-in-law, the Emperor Maximillian.  He staged a counter offensive, but was quickly defeated in a battle at Novara.  Ludovico’s defeat, or at least the swiftness of it, was caused by the defection of his Swiss and German mercenaries.  He was captured, and ended his life in a French prison.  

Thus, “Francesco Sforza, through being martial, from a private person became Duke of Milan; and the sons, through avoiding the hardships and troubles of arms, from dukes became private persons.”
The Prince, Chapter 14 That Which Concerns a Prince on the Subject of the Art of War

Louis pushed on to Naples.  But Louis’ partition agreement with Ferdinand of Aragon did not hold.  Ferdinand’s forces quickly forced him from Naples.  Thus, in Naples, Louis was dominated by the very (powerful foreigner) that he himself had invited into the Kingdom. Machiavelli contended that Louis would have been better off to have restricted his efforts to holding Milan and to have left King Federigo on his thrown.

Instead, Louis “wishing to have the kingdom of Naples, divides it with the King of Spain, and where he was the prime arbiter in Italy he takes an associate, so that the ambitious of that country and the malcontents of his own should have somewhere to shelter; and whereas he could have left in the kingdom his own pensioner as king, he drove him out, to put one there who was able to drive him, Louis, out in turn.”

"The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can, and for this they will be praised not blamed; but when they cannot do so, yet wish to do so by any means, then there is folly and blame. Therefore, if France could have attacked Naples with her own forces she ought to have done so; if she could not, then she ought not to have divided it. And if the partition which she made with the Venetians in Lombardy was justified by the excuse that by it she got a foothold in Italy, this other partition merited blame, for it had not the excuse of that necessity."
The Prince, Chapter 3: “Concerning Mixed Principalities”