Maximilian, “King of the Romans”—i.e., of the Germans—provided an interlude. He fretted at the thought that his great enemy, France, should be strengthened, and outflank him, by capturing Italy; he had heard how rich and fair and weak that land was, not yet a country but only a peninsula. He too had claims on Italy; technically the cities of Lombardy were still imperial fiefs, and he, head of the Holy Roman Empire, might legally give them to whomever he wished; indeed, had not Lodovico bribed him, with florins and another Bianca, to confer upon him the duchy of Milan? Moreover, many Italians invited him: both Lodovico and Venice were appealing to him (1496) to enter Italy and help them resist a threatened repetition of the French assault. Maximilian came, with a handful of troops; Venetian subtlety persuaded him to attack Livorno, the final outlet of Florence on the Mediterranean, and so weaken a Florence still allied with France and always competing with Venice. Maximilian’s campaign failed through inadequate co-ordination and support, and he returned to Germany only slightly a wiser man (December, 1496).
In 1498 the Duke of Orléans became Louis XII. As the grandson of Valentina Visconti he had not forgotten the claims of his family to Milan; and as a cousin of Charles VIII he inherited the claims of the Anjous to Naples. On the day of his coronation he assumed, among others, the titles of Duke of Milan, King of Naples and Sicily, and Emperor of Jerusalem. To clear his path he renewed a treaty of peace with England, and concluded another with Spain. By promising her Cremona and the lands east of the Adda, he lured Venice into signing an alliance with him “for the purpose of making war in common upon the Duke of Milan, Lodovico Sforza, and against everyone save the Lord Pope of Rome, for the purpose of restoring to the Most Christian King… the duchy of Milan as his rightful and olden patrimony.”4 A month later (March, 1499) he made an agreement with the Swiss cantons to supply him with soldiers in return for an annual subsidy of 20,000 florins. In May he brought Alexander VI into the alliance by giving to Caesar Borgia a French bride of royal blood, the duchy of Valentinois, and a pledge of aid in reconquering the Papal States for the papacy. Lodovico felt helpless against such a coalition; he fled to Austria; in three weeks his duchy disappeared into the realms of Venice and France; on October 6, 1499, Louis entered Milan in triumph, welcomed by nearly all Italy except Naples.
Indeed, all Italy but Venice and Naples was now under French domination or influence. Mantua, Ferrara, and Bologna hastened to submit. Florence clung to her alliance with France as her only protection against Caesar Borgia. Ferdinand of Spain, though so closely kin to the Aragonese dynasty in Naples, entered into a secret compact at Granada (November 11, 1500) with the representatives of Louis, for the joint conquest of all Italy south of the Papal States. Alexander VI, needing French aid in reconquering these States, co-operated by issuing a bull that deposed Federigo III of Naples and confirmed the partition of the Kingdom between France and Spain.
In July, 1501, a French army under the Scot Stuart d’Aubigny, Caesar Borgia, and Lodovico’s traitorous favorite Francesco di San Severino marched through Italy to Capua, took and plundered it, and advanced upon Naples. Federigo, abandoned by all, yielded the city to the French in return for a comfortable refuge and annuity in France. Meanwhile el gran capitán, Gonzalo de Córdoba, won Calabria and Apulia for Ferdinand and Isabella; and Federigo’s son Ferrante, who surrendered Taranto after being promised his liberty by Gonzalo, was sent as a prisoner to Spain on Ferdinand’s demand. When the Spanish army came into contact with the French on the borders between Apulia and the Abruzzi, disputes arose over the boundary line between the two thefts; and to Alexander’s relief Spain and France went to war over the exact division of the spoils (July, 1502). “If the Lord had not put discord between France and Spain,” said the Pope to the Venetian ambassador, “where should we be?”5
For a time the fortunes of the new war favored the French. D’Aubigny’s forces overran almost all southern Italy, and Gonzalo shut up his troops in the fortified town of Barletta. There a medieval incident brightened a dismal war (February 13, 1503). Angered by the comment of a French officer that the Italians were an effeminate and dastardly people, the commander of an Italian regiment in the Spanish army challenged thirteen Frenchmen to fight thirteen Italians. It was agreed; the war was interrupted; and the hostile armies stood as spectators while the twenty-six combatants fought until all thirteen Frenchmen had been disabled by wounds and taken prisoner. Gonzalo, with the Spanish chivalry that often rivaled Spanish cruelty, paid from his own pocket the ransoms of the prisoners, and sent them back to their army.6
The incident restored the morale of the Great Captain’s troops; they issued from Barletta, defeated and dispersed the besiegers, and defeated the French again at Cerignola. On May 16, 1503, Gonzalo entered Naples unresisted, and was acclaimed by the populace, which can always be relied upon to applaud the victor. Louis XII sent another army against Gonzalo; he met it on the banks of the Garigliano, and routed it (December 29, 1503); in that rout Piero de’ Medici, fleeing with the French, was drowned. Gonzalo now laid siege to Gaeta, the last stronghold of the French in southern Italy. He offered them generous terms, which they soon accepted (January 1, 1504); and the fidelity with which he kept to these terms after the French had been disarmed led them—struck by so great a violation of precedents—to call him le gentil capitaine.7 By the treaty of Blois (1505) Louis saved a bit of face by assigning his Neapolitan rights to his relative Germaine de Foix, who was, however, to marry the widowed Ferdinand and bring Naples to him as her dowry. The crowns of Naples and Sicily were added to those already on Ferdinand’s insatiable head; and thereafter, till 1707, the Kingdom of Naples remained an appanage of Spain.