Italy was now half foreign: southern Italy was Spain’s; northwestern Italy from Genoa through Milan to the outskirts of Cremona was in the power of France; the minor principalities accepted French influence; only Venice and the papacy were comparatively independent, and they were intermittently at war for the cities of the Romagna. Venice longed for additional mainland markets and resources to replace those lost to the Turks or threatened by Atlantic routes to India; she took advantage of Alexander’s death, and Caesar Borgia’s illness, to seize Faenza, Ravenna, and Rimini; Julius II proposed to recapture them. In 1504 he persuaded Louis and Maximilian to stop their unchristian quarreling and join him in attacking Venice and dividing among them the Venetian possessions on the mainland.8 Maximilian’s spirit was willing, but his treasury was weak, and nothing came of the plot. Julius kept on trying.
On December 10, 1508, a grand conspiracy was hatched against Venice at Cambrai. The Emperor Maximilian joined it because Venice had taken from imperial control Goriza, Trieste, Pordenone, and Fiume, because Venice ignored his imperial rights in Verona and Padua, and because Venice had refused him and his little army free passage toward Rome for the papal coronation upon which he had set his heart. Louis XII joined the League because disputes had arisen between France and Venice as to the division of northern Italy. Ferdinand of Spain joined it because Venice insisted on retaining Brindisi, Otranto, and other Apulian ports which for centuries had been part of the Kingdom of Naples, but had been seized by Venice during Naples’ troubles in 1495. Julius joined the League (1509) because Venice not only refused to evacuate the Romagna, but made no secret of her ambition to acquire Ferrara—an acknowledged papal fief. The European powers now planned to absorb all the mainland holdings of Venice: Spain would recover her cities on the Adriatic; the Pope would regain the Romagna; Maximilian would get Padua, Vicenza, Treviso, Friuli, and Verona; Louis would receive Bergamo, Brescia, Crema, Cremona, and the valley of the Adda River. Had the plan succeeded, Italy would have ceased to exist; France and Germany would have reached down to the Po, Spain almost up to the Tiber; the Papal States would have been hemmed in helplessly; and the Venetian bulwark against the Turks would have been destroyed. In this crisis no Italian state offered Venice aid; she had provoked almost all of them by her rapacity; indeed, Ferrara, reasonably suspicious of her, joined the League. The noble Gonzalo, rudely retired by Ferdinand, offered his services as general to Venice; the Senate dared not accept, for its sole hope of survival lay in detaching one ally after another from the League.
Venice deserved sympathy now only because she stood alone against overwhelming power, and because her loyal rich and her conscripted poor alike fought with incredible pertinacity to a Pyrrhic victory. The Senate offered to restore Faenza and Rimini to the papacy, but the angry Julius responded with a blast of excommunication, and sent his troops to recapture the Romagna cities while the French advance compelled Venice to concentrate her forces in Lombardy. At Agnadello the French defeated the Venetians in one of the bloodiest battles of the Renaissance (May 14, 1509); six thousand men died there on that day. The desperate Signory recalled its remaining troops to Venice, allowed the French to occupy all Lombardy, evacuated Apulia and the Romagna, confessed to Verona, Vicenza, and Padua that she could no longer defend them, and gave them full freedom to surrender to the Emperor or resist him as they chose. Maximilian came down with the largest army—some 36,000 men—yet seen in those parts, and laid siege to Padua. The surrounding peasantry made all the trouble they could for his men; the Paduans fought with a bravery that attested the good government they had enjoyed under Venice. Maximilian, impatient and always pinched for funds, left in disgust for the Tirol; Julius suddenly ordered his troops to withdraw from the siege; Padua and Vicenza voluntarily returned to Venetian control. Louis XII, having obtained his share of the spoils, disbanded his army.
Julius had by this time realized that the full victory of the League would be a defeat for the papacy, since it would leave the popes at the mercy of northern powers among whom the Reformation was already beginning to find voice. When Venice again offered him all that he could ask, he, “vowing that he would ne’er consent, consented” (1510). Having reclaimed what he considered to be the just property of the Church, he was free to turn the fury of his spirit against the French who, controlling both Lombardy and Tuscany, were now unpleasant neighbors of the Papal States. At Mirándola he vowed never to shave till he had driven the French from Italy; so grew the majestic beard of Raphael’s portrait. Now the Pope gave to Italy, too late, a stirring motto, Fuori i barbari!—”Out with the barbarians!” In October, 1511, he formed a “League of Holy Union” with Venice and Spain; soon he won to it Switzerland and England. By the end of January, 1512, Venice had recaptured Brescia and Bergamo with the joyful co-operation of the inhabitants. France kept most of her troops at home to meet possible invasion from England and Spain.
One French force remained in Italy, under the command of a dashing and courtly youth of twenty-two years. Resenting inaction, Gaston de Foix led this army first to the relief of besieged Bologna, then to defeat the Venetians at Isola della Scala, then to retake Brescia, finally to win a brilliant but costly victory at Ravenna (April 11, 1512). Nearly 20,000 corpses fertilized that battlefield; and Gaston himself, fighting in the front, received mortal wounds.
Julius repaired with negotiation what had been lost by arms. He persuaded Maximilian to sign a truce with Venice, to join the Union against France, and to recall the 4000 German troops that had been part of the French army. On his urging, the Swiss marched down into Lombardy with 20,000 men. The French forces, decimated by victory and the loss of their German contingent, fell back before a converging mass of Swiss, Venetian, and Spanish soldiery, and retreated to the Alps, leaving ineffectual garrisons in Brescia, Cremona, Milan, and Genoa. Out of apparently complete disaster the “Holy Union” had in two months after the battle of Ravenna, through papal diplomacy, driven the French from Italian soil; and Julius was hailed as the liberator of Italy.
At the Congress of Mantua (August, 1512) the victors divided the spoils. On the insistence of Julius, Milan was given to Massimiliano Sforza, Lodovico’s sort; Switzerland received Lugano and the territory at the head of Lago Maggiore; Florence was forced to restore the Medici; the Pope regained all the Papal States won by the Borgias, and besides acquired Parma, Piacenza, Modena, and Reggio; only Ferrara still eluded the pontifical grasp. But Julius left many problems to his successor. He had not really driven out the foreigners: the Swiss held Milan as a guard for Sforza, the Emperor claimed Vicenza and Verona as his reward, and Ferdinand the Catholic, wiliest bargainer of them all, had consolidated the power of Spain in southern Italy. Only French power seemed finished in Italy. Louis XII sent another army to take Milan, out it was defeated by the Swiss at Novara with the loss of eight thousand Frenchmen (June Ó, 1513). When Louis died (1515), nothing remained of his once extensive Italian empire except a precarious foothold at Genoa.
But Francis I proposed to recapture it all. Moreover (Brantôme assures us), he had heard that Signora Clerice of Milan was the most beautiful woman in Italy, and he desired her consumingly.9 In August, 1515, he led over a new Alpine pass 40,000 men—the largest army yet seen in these campaigns. The Swiss came out to meet it; at Marignano, a few miles from Milan, a furious battle raged for two days (September 13–14, 1515); Francis himself fought like a Roland, and was knighted on the spot by the Chevalier de Bayard; the Swiss left 13,000 dead on the field; they and Sforza abandoned Milan, and the city became again a French prize.
The councilors of Leo X, vacillating, asked Machiavelli’s advice. He warned against neutrality between King and Emperor, on the ground that the papacy would be as helpless before the victor as if it had taken part; and he recommended an entente with France as the lesser of two evils.10 Leo so ordered; and on December 11, 1515, Francis and the Pope met at Bologna to arrange terms of concord. The Swiss signed a similar peace with France; the Spaniards retired to Naples; the Emperor, foiled again, surrendered Verona to Venice. So ended (1516) the wars of the League of Cambrai, in which the partners had changed as in a dance, and the last condition of affairs was essentially as the first, and nothing had been decided except that Italy was to be the battlefield on which the great powers would fight duel after duel for the mastery of Europe. The papacy yielded Parma and Piacenza to France; Venice rewon her possessions in northern Italy, but was financially exhausted. Italy was devastated; but art and literature continued to flourish, whether by the stimulus of tragic events, or by the impetus of a prosperous past. The worst was yet to come.