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"The Horseshoe Nail": Structure and Contingency in Medieval and Renaissance Italy.

This essay considers the role of contingency in the history of late medieval and Renaissance Italy. Were there any events -- a birth, marriage, or death; a battle; a natural catastrophe -- that might have changed decisively the trajectory of Italian history? The Roman papacy is one institution whose history, replete with contingent events (1305, 1378, 1418, 1527) had a profound impact on Italian experience. The foreign invasions of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were the product of a cluster of historical accidents in France and Spain, which combined to create the most significant development in the early modern history of Italy.

The reference in the title of this paper to "the horseshoe nail" is from a poem by George Herbert:

For want of a nail the shoe is lost

For want of a shoe the horse is lost

For want of a horse the rider is lost

For want of a rider the battle is lost

For want of a battle the kingdom is lost

And all for the loss of a horseshoe nail. [1]

This passage emphasizes the crucial importance of contingency in human history: the view that chance and accident play as important a role as does structure. Those lines were published in 1640, at a moment in British history when contingency played a decisive role in the course of events on that island. One can cite the policy decisions of King Charles I, beginning with his determination to engage in battle with his Scottish subjects that led to the outbreak of the civil war, and ultimately, to his military defeat, to his execution and to the eventual establishment of a parliamentary form of government. Had Charles made different choices, an absolutist regime similar to those in France and Spain might well have been established in the British Isles. [2]

This scenario is an example of "virtual history" or "counterfactual history" that has achieved a certain vogue in current historiography. The particular appeal of this approach is its challenge to forms of historical determinism, whether of the providential variety (God's hand in human history), or the scientific brand (the Marxist version). Practitioners of "virtual history" have been predominantly British and American, who have traditionally given more weight to accident and contingency than have their continental colleagues, who have been more attracted to grand theories of historical development. "Virtual history" has found no place in Italian historiography, for a variety of reasons. Some Italian scholars would argue that it is very difficult to understand what did occur in their complex past, rather than complicate the task by looking at alternate scenarios. "The usual initial challenge to any kind of counterfactual theory," one historian has written, "has been the common-sense one that this is not the way things actually turned out, and therefore that speculation is pointless about how they might have turned out." [3] Like their continental brethren, Italians have long been attracted to forms of determinist history, whether of the providential kind practiced by some Catholic historians, or more commonly the model of Marxism or the Annales school, with its denial of human agency; its deprecation of the significance of "events" ("surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs," so Fernand Braudel has written); [4] and its emphasis upon structure and the longue duree. Benedetto Croce was as hostile to counterfactual history as any Marxist or Annaliste: "When judgment is brought to bear upon a fact," he wrote, "the fact is taken as it is and not as it otherwise might have been.... Historical necessity has to be affirmed and continually reaffirmed in order to exclude from history the "conditional," which has no rightful place there...." [5]

Although our discipline has a mandate to chart and explain change, we historians are much more comfortable with stability and continuity, and with the structures that promote those qualities. Every society possesses these normative systems which establish parameters, limits, constraints, and which act to impede change. For example, France's history has been neatly encapsulated by Tony Judt, who stresses "the sheer ancientness and unbroken continuity of France and the French state ... and the corresponding longevity of the habit of exercising authority and control from the center. "This is not merely a matter of political power," Judt adds, "the propensity of French rulers of all ideological persuasions to aggregate to themselves the maximum of sovereignty.... The urge to classify, to regulate everything, from trade and language to theater and food, is what links the public sphere of France with cultural and pedagogical practices" (51-52). In no other European society does the past weigh so heavily as it has d one, and continues to do, in Italy. The British historian J. M. Roberts has argued that the most fundamental quality of Italian history is its conservatism: "the sheer weight of the past, the inertia of custom and culture, the sloth and stagnation imposed by decaying but still formidable structures" (782).

A major difficulty confronting the historian seeking to explore the role of contingency in Italian history is the elusiveness of the subject. Pre-unification Italy, Edward Muir has written, "only existed ... as a peninsula and a dream, a dream that has been given more credit as an idea than it deserves, an idea far more ephemeral than the persistence of local and regional identities." The political fragmentation of the peninsula was the result of a series of invasions by land across the Alps and by sea from maritime invaders: Byzantine, Saracen, Norman, Angevin. With the possible exception of the Balkans, no European region is so diverse, with respect to geography and climate, political systems, economic and social organization, language and culture. The climate varies from Alpine glaciers to semi-tropical Sicily; the geography, from mountain uplands over 1000 meters to flat, marshy, fever-ridden plains. The rough, uneven terrain was an impediment to communication -- the network of Roman roads notwithstanding -- and contributed to the peninsula's fragmentation. In the northern and central regions, the rise of towns -- and their political creations, the communes -- had created a mosaic of autonomous units, some 200 by the early thirteenth century, within which intense particularist sentiments developed. Each community possessed its own distinctive pattern of political and social organization, its local saints and its dialects. In this chaotic and fragmented world, how then can one identify significant events whose outcome would resonate beyond the castle, the hamlet, or the town?

Though the idea of Italy as a distinct community with a common heritage and culture was embraced in these centuries by only a handful of intellectuals -- the poets Dante and Petrarch, the historians Biondo and Guicciardini -- there were bonds both material and emotional that linked together the peninsula's inhabitants and, to a degree, counterbalanced its fragmented structure. While the Latin language had been replaced by a cluster of regional dialects, it remained the standard mode of discourse of university education and of the professions of law, medicine, theology, and "humane letters." The principles of Roman law governed the administration of justice in every Italian court, whether secular or ecclesiastical. The Roman papacy's power and influence in Italy was based on its wealth, administrative structure, regulation of religious practices and beliefs, and of the social behavior of the laity. From the thirteenth century onward, mendicant friars spread out to every corner of the peninsula and the adjacent islands, establishing their convents and preaching their message. Italian towns, most of which traced their origins to Roman times, still retained the physical feature of those ancient sites. A native of Florence or Milan or Naples could travel to any other Italian city and feel immediately at home in that urban milieu: its buildings, its streets, its churches, its social and political structures, its economic activity, and its culture. The merchants who inhabited these towns formed a vast economic network, which embraced not only Italy but the entire Mediterranean basin. They were the most widely traveled and the most cosmopolitan segment of Italian society. Joining them on roads and on ships were pilgrims traveling to shrines and sanctuaries, soldiers seeking employment, and migratory workers who, like the merchants, became aware of belonging to a community larger than their native town or village.

Before beginning the search for contingent circumstances and events that influenced the course of Italian history in these centuries, I want to consider the decisive role of a few major figures in Italy's religious and cultural life. How, for example, would the peninsula's religious experience have been different if Francis of Assisi had died of pneumonia after stripping off his clothes and giving them to his father? Can one imagine how Italian culture would have developed if Dante had been seized and executed after his death sentence by vengeful Florentine Guelfs in 1302? What if Petrarch had succumbed to the plague in Avignon in 1348, instead of his beloved Laura? Then consider how the history of Renaissance art might have been very different if Giotto, or Masaccio, or Donatello, or Brunelleschi, or Leonardo da Vinci, or Michelangelo had died before reaching his teens, which was indeed the fate of forty percent of Italian children born in these years.

The Roman papacy is the only Italian institution that provides a focus for the peninsula's history in these centuries. The papacy's fortunes had a direct and immediate impact upon every region, and its vicissitudinous history can serve as a barometer for developments from the Alps to the shores of Sicily. Medieval popes were as preoccupied by concerns for their security as they were about expanding their authority over the Catholic church and clergy, and over lay society. The patrimony of St. Peter, that swath of territory stretching from the Adriatic coast southward to the Roman Campagna, was a key element in their defensive strategy; another was the establishment of a feudal bond with the Norman kingdom of the Two Sicilies. To guarantee the security and independence that they required to establish their claims to religious authority, and to defend themselves against the powerful Roman noble clans, the popes regularly turned to ultramontane rulers: first the Carolingians, then the German dynasties, and final ly the French Angevins. These incursions by foreign princes and their armies were profoundly destructive, and they did not always benefit the papacy. By the thirteenth century, popes were no longer chosen by German emperors, as they had been in the eleventh Century, nor were any occupants of the see of St. Peter murdered or imprisoned, as they had been in the tenth century. Though the papal link to Rome as the site of the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul was a crucial ingredient of their authority, medieval popes spent as much time outside of the Eternal City as within its walls. The papacy was always vulnerable to being captured and controlled by a local Italian dynasty or by a foreign power, as indeed happened during the Babylonian captivity in Avignon. The survival of the Roman papacy as an independent and autonomous institution was a fortuitous and unpredictable development; it was not preordained. [6]

In the middle decades of the thirteenth century, the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II sought to achieve what his predecessors over three centuries had failed to do: to gain permanent control over the Italian peninsula and its adjacent islands. Because of a dynastic marriage between Emperor Henry VI, his father, and Constance, the heiress to the Norman kingdom of Sicily, Frederick possessed a solid territorial base to pursue his goal. At Palermo he established his esoteric, multicultural court and there built the bureaucratic and military structure that so impressed Jacob Burckhardt. Against his implacable enemy, the Roman papacy, Frederick could muster, in Lombardy, German troops together with his Italian Ghibelline allies; and on the southern flank of the papal states, his Moslem mercenaries. Much of the Papal States was Intermittently occupied by imperial forces. But in 1244, Pope Innocent IV escaped from Frederick's clutches and took refuge in Lyon in France, from which he launched a fierce ideological ca mpaign against the emperor. And though Frederick's armies did win several battles against their Guelf enemies, the imperial cause lost the war. To maintain the support of his Ghibelline allies, the emperor was forced to make concessions, to alienate regalian rights. His empire was too unwieldy, its administrative structure too primitive, and its material resources too limited. The triumph of the papacy and its Guelf allies was, fundamentally, the victory of wealthy, urbanized, communal Italy (Lombardy, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria) over a feudal, rural, impoverished, and exploited Mezzogiorno. Frederick II was an intelligent, charismatic ruler, but his ambition was greater than his resources, and his grand vision of a German-Italian empire was a fantasy with no serious prospect of realization. His Regnum, Philip Jones has written, "was obsolescent, with nothing left, except momentarily in a few places, of administration, revenue or allegiance" (341). Though Frederick's heirs, his sons Conrad and Manfred an d his grandson Conradin, continued to fight for the Ghibelline cause after his death, they all failed, leaving their supporters, like Dante Alighieri, to dream of what might have been.

Frederick II was a European prince on the scale of a Charlemagne or a Napoleon, the ruler of an empire that stretched from the North Sea and the Baltic to Sicily and the kingdom of Jerusalem. For two centuries after his death, Italy was not seriously threatened by a foreign power, though its geography -- the porous Alps and its thousand-mile coastline -- rendered it extremely vulnerable to attack. A series of German princes -- Henry VII, Louis of Bavaria, Charles IV, Sigismund, Frederick III -- periodically crossed the Alps to be crowned emperor or to collect ransom from their Italian subjects, still legally under their overlordship. But the resources of these princes were too skimpy to threaten the municipal regimes, whether republics or signorie, that dominated the Lombard plain and the hilly terrain of the Romagna, Tuscany, and Umbria. These survived as vibrant and dynamic communities in an atmosphere of incessant conflict: rival factions, Montagues and Capulets in every town, and constant warfare between them. Politics in this environment were intensely parochial, focusing on quarrels between neighbors over boundaries, commercial disputes, the depredations of exiles and outlaws. Rarely were these city-states involved in relations, diplomatic or military, with regimes outside their own environment. The horizons of these townsmen, David Abulafia has written, "did not extend beyond the next range of hills" (1988, 368).

The Roman papacy had engineered the destruction of the Hohenstaufen dynasty by employing its spiritual weapons -- excommunication, interdict, and the deposition of Frederick II -- and by relying upon the resources of a temporal prince, Charles of Anjou, to whom Pope Innocent IV gave the kingdom of Naples. These successes seemed to justify the exalted claim for papal supremacy that found its most extreme formulation in Pope Boniface VIII's bull, Unam Sanctam. But there was a wide chasm between papal rhetoric and reality. The popes could nor rely upon the continuous support of their Angevin allies, nor of their feudal vassals, the kings of England, Scotland and Aragon. In Rome itself, they were often hostage to the whims of a fickle populace, and to the power struggles among Roman families. Much of papal history in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries can be understood as a series of desperate efforts by the popes to find security in a very dangerous environment. An article of faith among these princes of the church was the belief that the papacy's independence required a territorial base in central Italy.

The transfer of the papacy from Rome to Avignon was an historical accident, unplanned and unpremeditated, an improvisation that over time created a stable ecclesiastical structure with its grandiose palace, opulent court, and its efficient bureaucracy. There had been a precedent for a pope to leave Italy for the greater security of France; Pope Innocent IV had made the journey to escape from Frederick II in 1244. The humiliating maltreatment of Pope Boniface VIII by French agents and their Colonna allies was a warning to any pontiff that his exalted status was no guarantee of security in Rome or anywhere in the Papal States. Selected as a compromise candidate by a divided college of cardinals, the French pope Clement V chose to remain in France instead of venturing into the Italian maelstrom. There, for seventy years, a series of popes presided over a court that became, in effect, an appendage of the French crown. Over eighty percent of the cardinals appointed in those years were French, as was the curia1 bur eaucracy. That a French-controlled papacy did not become a permanent reality was due partly to the efforts by Avignonese popes to escape from the tutelage of their monarchs, and partly to the weakened condition of the French crown in its long struggle with English invaders. Even as they built their great palace as their headquarters in Avignon, the popes continued their efforts to regain control of papal territory in central Italy, the cost of which ate up the lion's share of their revenue. They remained captive to the notion that the papacy required a secure territorial base in Italy. Pope Urban V and his successor, Gregory XI, resisted the pressure of the French monarch, Charles V, to journey south to Italy, believing that their presence in Rome was a necessary precondition for the recovery of the Papal States.

King Charles V of France is usually credited with primary responsibility for the beginning of the Great Schism. His resentment over the election of an Italian pope, Urban VI, in 1378, which signified the permanent relocation of the papacy to Rome, prompted the defiance of thirteen cardinals who elected a rival pope, the Frenchman Clement VII. The Schism was the most prolonged and most serious crisis of the papacy, and its resolution, after four decades, in the election of a single pope, Martin V, was as fortuitous as its origins. The scandal of the Schism inspired a broad range of efforts at a resolution, but these were all resisted by the intransigent claimants to the Holy See, their cardinals and their entourages. In this bitter and prolonged struggle, the Roman popes could claim a majority of European states in their camp, but their Avignonese rivals enjoyed a more efficient administrative structure, already in place, and much larger revenues. Not for centuries had papal authority been so weak and discredi ted as in the four decades that spanned the Schism. To gain support for their cause, popes were prepared to surrender substantial portions of their territorial state. So, in 1379, the Avignonese pope, Clement VII, offered to create the principality of Adria out of papal lands for the French prince, Louis of Anjou. And in 1408, the Roman pontiff, Gregory XII, sold the entire papal dominion to King Ladislaus of Naples for 20,000 forms (Hay, 199-200).

The selection of a pope by the Council of Constance in 1418 was yet another fortuitous event, a radical breach with tradition with profound consequences for Italian and European history. No pontiff had ever been chosen by an ecumenical council. But if the method was revolutionary, the choice was very conventional: Oddo Colonna, Pope Martin V, a representative of the Roman nobility that for centuries had been deeply involved in papal politics. That choice defined the character of the papacy for the next four centuries; it became essentially an Italian institution. Had the Council chosen an ultramontane pope, he might have accepted the theory that an ecumenical council was the supreme authority of the church, superior to popes. Another possible scenario might have been the Council's failure to select a pope, which could have strengthened the trend toward the formation of national churches, already developing in France and England. Though still quite rare, some voices were advocating a system of multiple popes. A Florentine statesman, Gino Capponi, wrote in 1420 that "a divided church benefits our commune and our liberty." [7] Several decades later, Lorenzo de' Medici asserted that "there were definite advantages in having three and even four popes." [8] A spokesman for the University of Paris in the early fifteenth century argued that "little does it matter how many popes there are, two or three or ten or a dozen; each kingdom might as well have its own." [9] Had the fifteenth century witnessed the precocious formation of national churches, based on the Gallican model, the authority of the Roman papacy would have been dramatically diminished. The popes might still have been recognized as the spiritual head of the Catholic church, with the specific responsibility for protecting the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul. But they would no longer have exercised any control over ecclesiastical benefices, nor would they have had access to church revenues across the Alps. A decentralized church, a constellation of nationa l and regional churches, might seem implausible, but I would argue that this example of counterfactual history has much to recommend it. The European state was the product of a cluster of "contingent circumstances," as Karl Morrison has claimed, "a series of discontinuous idiosyncratic episodes." [10] I suggest that these characteristics apply equally to papal history in these years.

The history of the papacy after the Schism can indeed be described as "a series of discontinuous idiosyncratic episodes." In 1419, Pope Martin V was staying in Florence on his way to Rome when he heard boys in the street chanting: "Papa Martino non vale un quattrino" (Pope Martin is not worth a penny). [11] And indeed that pontiff enjoyed very little material support -- financial, military, diplomatic -- for restoring the authority and prestige of his office. The strategy that he developed, which was followed by his successors, was an ad hoc construction, pieced together in response to immediate problems and contingencies. Martin's first priority was the recovery of the Papal States, a daunting task that occupied most of his energy and resources. To blunt the challenge of conciliarism to papal authority, he negotiated concordats with ultramontane princes, giving them greater control over ecclesiastical appointments and revenue. During his and later pontificates, the papal bureaucracy was thoroughly italicized , as was, to a lesser degree, the college of cardinals. This process effectively guaranteed that future popes would be Italian, thus eliminating the possibility of locating the papacy outside of Rome. The conclave that elected Eugenius IV in 1431 consisted of six Italians and six ultramontane cardinals; participating in the election of Alexander VI in 1492 were twenty-three cardinals, all but one Italian. [12] This pattern would continue until the late twentieth century.

After conciliarism, the most serious threat to the papacy in these decades was its domination by a secular power. In the last years of the Schism, King Ladislaus of Naples had occupied Rome, and his forces controlled most of papal territory. He died prematurely in 1414 at the age of thirty-four, but had he lived, he might have been able to integrate the Neapolitan kingdom with the Papal States and thus controlled the southern half of the peninsula including Rome. A similar project was hatched in 1435 by King Alfonso of Aragon (eventually the ruler of the Neapolitan kingdom) and the lord of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti. These princes contracted an alliance that contemplated the partition of the Papal States between them (Fubini, 171-73). In the 1470s officials of the French monarchy and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, discussed the possibility of moving the papacy back across the Alps, the Holy See to be shared in turn between the French and the Germans. [13] At the end of the fifteenth century, the pr ospect of a dynasty gaining control of the papacy and its territory rose again during the pontificate of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI. His son Cesare's audacious campaign to wrest control of papal lands from their signori (witnessed and described by Machiavelli) would have laid the foundation for a territorial state controlled by the Borgia, and thus in a position to manipulate papal elections. Had Cesare not been seriously ill when Alexander died in the summer of 1503, he could have been able (so Machiavelli believed) to select his father's successor to the Holy See. [14] The Medici pope Leo X developed a similar strategy by integrating the administration and finances of papal territory with the Florentine state. Responding in 1517 to an alleged plot organized by a group of dissident cardinals, the pope executed the ringleader and created thirty-one new cardinals in a single day (Duffy, 148). But though Leo created the conditions for the election of his cousin Giulio as Pope Clement VII, the Medici strategy foundered in the crisis conditions following the French invasion. Even if an Italian dynasty had managed to gain control of papal territory and of the papacy itself, it is doubtful whether that state of affairs would have survived the post-invasion crisis. A more likely scenario would have been the absorption of the Papal States and control of the papacy by either the Hapsburg or the Valois dynasty.

The Roman papacy played an increasingly significant role in Italian politics after the end of the Schism, as it gradually recovered its ecclesiastical and temporal authority By mid-century it had become one of the five major regional states in the peninsula, a consortium that included the republics of Venice and Florence, the duchy of Milan and the kingdom of Naples. Pope Nicholas V had been instrumental in negotiating the peace of Lodi in 1454, which ended thirty years of almost continuous warfare, and in organizing the Italian League which obligated its members to seek peaceful solutions to their disputes. By promoting the idea of collective security, Nicholas sought to bring a measure of peace and stability to a war-ravaged peninsula. He was also motivated by the fear that (as one diplomat reported) "some Italian state ... being desperate, might call the French or some other nation down into Italy and that the fire will spread so much that no one will be able to put it out." [15] Nicholas was a realist who , in a conversation with Florentine ambassadors in 1454, remarked that "no peace could be forever, because the things of this world were not stable." But he did hope that peace would endure as long as Italian rulers behaved (in his words) "like two animals that after attacking and hurting each other, must just stare each other down without further action" (182). But the popes who succeeded this astute and prescient pontiff, notably Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, and Alexander VI, were less interested in maintaining peace in the peninsula and more concerned with promoting the aggrandizement of their families. Their willingness to engage in warfare with their rivals contributed to the unstable conditions and the pervasive atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that characterized Italian politics on the eve of the French invasion of 1494. [16]

The diplomatic correspondence of late fifteenth-century Italy provides convincing evidence of the peninsula's vulnerability to invasion by foreign powers. The five regional states had abandoned any pretense of being committed to collective security, as each pursued its own narrow interest in alliances forged to maintain a tenuous balance of power. The bankruptcy of the system was demonstrated by a series of diplomatic and military crises, beginning with the Pazzi war of 1478-1480, which was ignited by the rivalry between Florence and Pope Sixtus IV over their respective zones of influence in the Romagna. In the summer of 1480, a Turkish army embarked in Apulia and for a year occupied the town of Otranto before withdrawing. Italy was saved from the prospect of a permanent Turkish base in the peninsula, not by her own efforts (which were paltry), but by a succession crisis caused by the death of Sultan Mohammed II. No lesson from this invasion was learned by the Venetian government, which launched an attack on Ferrara in the spring of 1482. That war involved all of the major Italian states until peace was restored in the summer of 1484. A few months later, another fire broke out in the kingdom of Naples, where a group of barons who had rebelled against their Aragonese ruler, King Ferrante and his son Alfonso, were supported by Pope Innocent VIII. As in the case of the Ferrara war, this uprising involved all of the major Italian states except Venice, and in addition King Ferdinand of Aragon as well as the king of Hungary, Matthew Corvinus. Thus a major lesson from the barons' revolt was how quickly an Italian crisis could become a European problem.

With the sole exception of Lorenzo de' Medici, Italy's rulers in the 1490s were not distinguished for their political skills. They were certainly not men of the caliber of an earlier generation: Pope Nicholas V, Cosimo de' Medici, Francesco Sforza. Except for the Venetian republic their regimes were built upon very shaky foundations. As Burckhardt observed long ago, they lacked the patina of legitimacy enjoyed by the heads of sacralized monarchies, and they could never depend upon the allegiance of their subjects (34). As had been true for centuries, the primary source of this instability was the urban and rural elites, whose penchant for violence and disorder has been well described recently by David Chambers and Trevor Dean. While these elites could be controlled or placated by "a judicious mixture of patronage, threats and, if necessary, force" (Butters, 15), they could also become rebellious, secure in the knowledge that even after failure, they could survive comfortably in exile. These regimes faced thre e distinct challenges in the late Quattrocento: from the Ottoman Turks on their eastern flank; from the Aragonese-Castilian state on the west; and from a revived and aggressive French monarchy on the north. By their conquests of the north African littoral and their sustained pressure on the Venetian maritime empire, the Turks constituted a very real threat to Italian security. The two Christian powers, France and Spain, had been sporadically involved in Italian politics since the thirteenth century. The intensification of their focus on the peninsula in the late fifteenth century was the result of a series of dynastic accidents affecting the major European powers.

Princely government in Christian Europe was dynastic; territory and authority passed from generation to generation via inheritance. The success of a ruling dynasty depended upon the production and survival of legitimate (preferably male) heirs, as the Capetian experience demonstrated. Dynastic events (marriages, births, deaths) far beyond Italy's borders were to have a profound impact upon her fortunes. The French monarchy had barely survived a series of disasters in the fifteenth century: the English occupation that coincided with the reign of an insane monarch, Charles VI; the threat from a powerful Burgundian state on its eastern flank; revolts by groups of dissident barons in the 1460s and again in the 1480s; and a weak and unstable regency following the death of King Louis XI in 1483. Louis's successor, the young and ambitious monarch, Charles VIII, was able to launch his campaign to conquer the kingdom of Naples as a result of two fortuitous events. First, the death in battle in 1477 of Charles the Bold , duke of Burgundy, resulted in the dismemberment of the Burgundian state, and the removal of a potent rival to the French crown. Had the duke negotiated with, instead of challenging, a Swiss army, he might have preserved his Lotharingian state as an autonomous buffer zone between France and Germany. "The Swiss were only peasants (a Milanese diplomat commented), and if they were all killed that would be no satisfaction to the Burgundian nobles who might fall in the war. If the Duke got possession of all Switzerland without a struggle, his income would not be 5000 ducats the greater." [17] The Burgundian dukes had been as deeply involved, diplomatically and militarily, with northern Italian states (Savoy, Montferrat, Milan, Genoa) as were the French monarchs, which raises the question of the feasibility of a French invasion of the peninsula in the 1490s. The second event that facilitated that enterprise was the extinction of the house of Anjou-Provence, whose head, King Rena, died in 1480 and whose heir died w ithout legitimate issue in the following year (Ryder, 68). Had the Angevin dynasty survived to pursue its rights to its Italian possessions, neither Charles VIII nor his successors would have had any legitimate claim to the kingdom of Naples or the kingdom of Jerusalem.

The emergence of Aragon-Castile as a major European power, and a serious threat to Italian independence, was even more problematic than the French connection. "For much of the fifteenth century," an authority on late medieval Spain has written, "it appeared highly improbable that the Spanish kingdoms ... would shortly rank amongst the leading powers of Western Europe." [18] Both kingdoms suffered from endemic civil conflict, motivated largely by the efforts of powerful aristocracies to gain power at the expense of the crowns of Aragon and Castile. Princess Isabella's claim to the Castilian throne was dubious; her brother, King Henry IV, had a daughter, Juana, whom he recognized as his legitimate heir. Isabella's marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon (which under church law was illegal on account of consanguinity) was a desperate effort to gain support for her usurpation of the Castilian throne. Her rival, Juana, married the king of Portugal, which suggests an alternate scenario for the Iberian peninsula: a Castile- Portuguese alliance developing an overseas empire in Asia and the Americas; juxtaposed to an Aragonese state focusing on Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Italy. But Isabella survived the challenges from her rivals, and she and Ferdinand created a viable integrated government of their two realms. They negotiated marriages of their children with royal dynasties in Portugal, England, and the Netherlands, thus laying the foundations for the empire ruled by their grandson, the Emperor Charles V. But that vast inheritance was the product of a series of dynastic accidents: the early death of their only male child, Juan, in 1497; the death of their son-in-law Philip of Burgundy in 1506; and the failure of Ferdinand to produce an heir to the Aragonese throne from his second marriage to the French princess, Germaine de Foix. [19] Rarely, if ever, have dynastic accidents played so critical a role in European history.

For Italy, the consequences of these dynastic gyrations was the formation, on her northern and western frontiers, of two powerful and aggressive regimes, whose rulers were eager to engage in military enterprises. In France, the pressures to invade Italy had been steadily building in the late 1480s and early 1490s, as the monarchy expanded its territory, its revenues, and its military force. Having inherited the long-standing Angevin claim to the Neapolitan kingdom, Charles VIII was pressured by his advisers and his nobles, and by influential exiles to mount an expedition into Italy. The specific invitation to cross the Alps by the duke of Milan, Lodovico Sforza, was only the last in a lengthy list of such appeals: the Venetian republic during the Ferrara war (1484); Pope Innocent VIII during the Barons' War (1486) and again in 1489. [20] Still, there was strong opposition in the French court to the Italian enterprise. "One is always struck when studying late fifteenth-century politics," Michael Mallet has obs erved, "by the difficulties in generating action. On both sides of the Alps there seemed to be an increasing conflict between 'men of action' and a sort of lethargic consensus. ... Vested interests, factional rivalries, personal jealousies, other preoccupations ... slow communications, lack of cash, all militated against action. Discussion, rhetoric, bargaining, temporization, prevailed" (163). But in this particular case, the "men of action" carried the day, as they were to do again and again in subsequent years. There were few European rulers in these decades who favored peace over war. [21]

Commenting on the initial French invasion of 1494, Pope Alexander VI allegedly remarked that the invaders had conquered Italy "with a piece of chalk," a reference to the French practice of identifying the houses where their soldiers were to be quartered. [22] The real significance of Charles VIII's descent lay not in the military superiority of the invaders but in the failure of the Italian states to organize effective resistance to the French. Limiting the capacity of these rulers for collective action were the attitudes, the mentalites, formed by past experience and practice: the pervasive atmosphere of mistrust and fear of their rivals; the sacrifice of the general welfare for self-interest. Machiavelli's searing indictment of Italian princes in his Arte della Guerra is worth quoting in this context. These men, he wrote, thought it sufficient

to write handsome letters, or to compose clever responses at their writing desks, to show wit and wisdom in conversation and repartee, to know how to weave a web of deceit, to decorate themselves with jewels and gold ... to govern their subjects in a haughty and avaricious manner, to fester in inactivity, to dispense their military preferments as favors, to despise anyone who showed the slightest merit, and to wish that their words be considered the sayings of oracles. ... [23]

The sole exception to this pattern of indulgent self-interest was the formation, in the spring of 1495, of the Holy League, a coalition of the major Italian powers excepting Florence, dedicated to the expulsion of the French from the peninsula. This alliance created a formidable military force to challenge the French army retreating from Naples. The battle at Fornovo in Lombardy was a bloody affair, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. King Charles VIII barely escaped capture by Italian troops, and some historians have argued that had the king been seized or killed in the battle, "the course of Italian and European history would probably have been very different" (Mackenney). That scenario is not supported by the evidence. Lost battles -- for example, by the Spaniards at Ravenna in 1512 -- or imprisoned kings -- such as Francis I at Pavia in 1525 -- did not deter the losers or the captives from pursuing their objectives. The captain of the Italian army at Fornovo, Francesco Gonzaga, claimed that the ba ttle had resulted in the restoration of Italian liberty, a judgment that was somewhat premature. [24]

By the second decade of the sixteenth century, it was already clear to perceptive observers that Italy's fate would be determined by foreign powers; the only issue still to be decided was the identity of her future master. For Machiavelli, writing to his friend Francesco Vettori in the summer of 1513, the contenders for that role were the Spaniards, the French, and the Swiss. In response to a query from his friend, he sent this bitter observation: "As for the unity of the other Italians, you make me laugh; first, because there will never be any unity to any good purpose. And even if the leaders were united, that would not be enough, both because there are no armies here worth a nickel. .., and because the tails are not united with the heads, nor will this nation ever respond to any accident that might occur." [25] Though in the last chapter of The Prince he did express the hope that a leader might emerge, like Moses, to lead Italians out of their subjugation, his deeply pessimistic view of their condition ("p oor, ambitious and cowardly") [26] was corroborated by events. The competition for the domination of Italy was still not resolved when Machiavelli died in the spring of 1527. It was left to his close friend, Francesco Guicciardini, to write Italy's epitaph.

Of all the chapters in the dreary history of the invasions, and its record of Italian disunity and ineptitude, the most dramatic and most poignant was the sack of Rome in 1527. That traumatic event was the result of a series of accidents: of miscalculations by Pope Clement VII, beginning with his formation of a league against Emperor Charles V, the League of Cognac, and ending with his failure to provide an adequate defense of Rome. The imperial army, an undisciplined band of 20,000 German, Spanish, and Italian mercenaries, unpaid and poorly supplied with provisions and arms, meandered aimlessly down the peninsula in the spring of 1527. This force could have been bought off by the papacy, or its march southward impeded by the papal-Venetian army commanded by the duke of Urbino. But these decisions were not taken, and by early May, this ragtag army had marched to the gates of Rome. The invaders broke through the makeshift fortifications, attacked and occupied the Vatican and the Trastevere quarter, and then cr ossed the bridges to ravage the districts on the east bank of the Tiber. It was estimated that in the early days of the sack 10,000 Romans were killed and another 10,000 fled into the countryside, where they were harassed by the local peasantry. The pope and members of the curia took refuge in Castel San Angelo, where throughout the summer and autumn of 1527 they witnessed the carnage wrought by the imperial troops. In a frantic search to end the devastation, Clement VII signed a peace treaty in June, which ceded to the emperor large swatches of papal territory: Ostia, Civitavecchia, Modena, Parma, and Piacenza, a grant which he later repudiated. The failure of Italian princes and military leaders to rescue the pope and stop the devastation does suggest a willingness, even a desire, to retaliate against an institution and a city that they both adored and detested. Guicciardini reflected this attitude when he wrote that "no one loathes the ambition, the avarice and the sensuality of the clergy more than I," an d if it had not been for the material benefits he gained from papal service, he would "have loved Martin Luther as much as myself" (48). After news of the sack of Rome reached Valladolid where Charles V was then in residence, one of his counselors wrote that "we expect that Your Majesty will give us accurate instructions so that we may know how you intend governing Rome henceforward, and whether some form of Apostolic chair is to remain or not....I will not conceal from Your Majesty the view of some of your servants that the Holy See should not be utterly and entirely abolished." [27] Then serving as a papal official in the Romagna, Guicciardini wrote to the pope that "it is to be believed that he [Charles V] will want to take away the temporal and to reduce the popes to the condition in which they were when their election and all their power depended on the emperors." [28]

In early December 1527, Pope Clement VII managed to escape in disguise from Castel San Angelo and like so many of his medieval predecessors sought refuge in the fortified towns of Viterbo and Orvieto in the papal state. The remnants of the imperial army finally abandoned Rome in February 1528 and six months later, in October, the pope returned to the ravaged city, its population reduced to some 30,000 souls, one-third of its numbers before the sack. The recovery of Rome and of the papacy was the achievement of a series of sixteenth-century popes, who were united in their commitment to an independent papal state and to a rejuvenated Catholic church under the curia's control. Fifty years after the death of Clement VII in 1534, the papal throne was occupied by Pope Sixtus V, whose five-year reign (1585-1590) represented the culmination of this process of reconstruction. Rome's population had grown to 100,000, and Sixtus launched a massive campaign to restore the physical city: completing the dome of St. Peter's , building dozens of new roads, and employing architects and artists to restore and decorate the city's churches. Rome's recovery was designed to reflect the revival of the Catholic church under papal guidance. That revival contributed to the significant recovery of territories previously lost to Protestantism, so that between the 1590s and the 1650s, the Catholic proportion of Europe's population grew from one-half to four-fifths. [29] And the restoration of a papal state under Rome's direct control was a defining feature of the early modern history of Italy, a deeply entrenched structure that would survive for three centuries before it was finally dismantled.

During these turbulent centuries, from Frederick II's failed effort to create a Ghibelline empire to the sack of Rome, there is no single event, no battle (Benevento, Tagliacozzo, Fornovo, Agnadello, Ravenna, Pavia) whose different outcome would have altered significantly the course of Italian history. I have suggested that the history of the Roman papacy is replete with fortuitous moments (in 1305, 1378, 1418, 1527) that could have changed the fortunes of that institution and of Italy. I have described the accidents of births, marriages, deaths, and inheritances that created the context for the series of foreign invasions that culminated in Italy's domination by Haps-burg Spain. I do believe that Italy was destined to lose its independence in the sixteenth century, if not to one, then to another conqueror. The spirit of particularism and of pervasive distrust, so deeply rooted in the mentalite of this society, doomed any sustained effort to unite against a foreign invader. While attempting to recruit a mili tia from the rural inhabitants of the Florentine dominion in 1506, Machiavelli encountered this attitude. "Two causes have contributed to give me the greatest trouble in this matter," he wrote, "the one is the inveterate habit of disobedience of these people, and the other is the enmity existing between the people of Petrognano and those of Campana." [30] The villagers of Campana refused to serve alongside recruits from Petrognano, whom they detested. It was this mentality, as characteristic of poor peasants as of great nobles, that persuaded Machiavelli that "the tails are not united with the heads, nor will this nation ever respond to any accident that might occur."

(1.) Opie, 324-25. Herbert (d. 1633) included only the first three lines of the poem in his Jacula Prudentum (Outlandish Proverbs); the final lines were added later by unknown hands.

(2.) Adamson.

(3.) Roberts, 782.

(4.) Braudel, 1:21.

(5.) Quoted in Ferguson, 6.

(6.) Duffy, chaps. 2 and 3.

(7.) Qtd. in Brucker, 316.

(8.) Qtd. in Duffy 132.

(9.) Qtd. in Barraclough, 162.

(10.) Qtd in Tierney, 1758.

(11.) Qtd. in Brucker, 423.

(12.) Duffy, 148. Several ultramontane cardinals did not travel to Rome for the 1492 conclave.

(13.) Fubini, 187 n. 79.

(14.) Machiavelli, whole chap. 7.

(15.) Nicholas qtd., here and below, in Fubini, 167, 182.

(16.) Bullard, 65-79, 87-94.

(17.) Burckhardt, 34.

(18.) Lovett 10. (19.) Ibid., 24, 27.

(20.) See Mallett, 152-53.

(21.) See Hale, 1985.

(22.) See Laven, 357.

(23.) Qtd. in Laven, 361-62.

(24.) Chambers, 1995, 224-29.

(25.) Qtd. in Najemy, 160.

(26.) Ibid., 170.

(27.) Qtd. in Chamberlin, 196.

(28.) Prodi, 20.

(29.) See Parker, 50.

(30.) Qtd. in Hale, 1963, 87.


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