What was the impact of Charles VIIIs invasion of Italy (1494) on the Renaissance?

Portrait of Charles VIII

The French invasion of Italy in 1494 is widely seen as the beginning of the end of the Italian Renaissance. Charles VIII invaded Italy to lay claim to the Kingdom of Naples, which composed most of southern Italy.

The French army marched through Italy with only minimal resistance. The invasion had a profound impact on Italian society and politics. The invasion of Charles VII changed the development of Italy and can be considered one of the primary reasons the Renaissance ended. The French Invasion was to lead to a series of wars that greatly weakened the Italian City-States, prompted a greater role for Spain in the peninsula and eventually led to the domination of Italy by the Spanish Monarchy.


Pope Innocent VIII, had fought with King Ferdinand I of Naples over his refusal to pay feudal dues to the papacy. The Pope has long claimed that Naples was a fiefdom of the Papacy. Ferdinand was an unusually cruel and brutal prince even for the times, refused and this led to a conflict with the Papacy. The Pope excommunicated Ferdinand and thus he effectively stated that Ferdinand was no longer the legitimate ruler. Pope Innocent who had a good relationship with the French asked their king to intervene and he offered the throne of Naples to Charles VIII. The French monarch had a weak claim to the throne through his grandfather, who had married a member of the Angevin Dynasty, the ruling family in Naples. Later Innocent was reconciled with Ferdinand but the French monarch now believed that he was the legitimate king of Naples.[1]

Following the Wars in Lombardy between Venice and Milan, which ended in 1454, warfare had declined considerably and there was a prolonged period of peace in Italy.[2] The De Medici had helped to establish a balance of power in Italy and this brought a large measure of stability to the region. By the 1490s, the situation in Italy was relatively peaceful and it had not been invaded by a foreign army for several decades. In the Fall of 1494, Ludovico Sforza became the Duke of Milan but the new king of Naples, Alfonso II claimed the Duchy for himself, although his claim was rather weak. The new Duke of Milan entered into an alliance with the French king. This finally persuaded Charles VIII to invade the peninsula with an army of 20,000 men.

Invasion of Italy 1494-1498

The French king supplemented his forces by recruiting several thousand Swiss mercenaries. The advance units of the French army defeated a Neapolitan army at the Battle of Rapallo. The Milanese army linked up with the French and soon Charles could march through Italy with little opposition. Anyone who defied him was massacred.[3] Many City-States submitted to him including Florence. Charles VII could march into Southern Italy unopposed and occupied Naples. He only stayed in his new kingdom for several weeks and left a viceroy in charge of Naples. The Italian City-States saw that the French presence in southern Italy was a danger to them all.[4] This led the usually fractious city-states to form an alliance known as the League of Venice or the Holy League.

This League or alliance was unique in Italy and in Europe and its members were all united by their common fear of France and the ambitions of Charles VIII. Ironically, one of the instigators of the League was the Sforza Duke of Milan, who realized that Charles VIII had also a claim to his Duchy. The Pope helped to arrange for many Italian City-States, led by Venice to come together and to form a united Italian army, under the command of the Duke of Ferrara. The Neapolitan King deposed by Charles VII sought the support of the Spanish Royal Family and they offered to help him to recover his kingdom.[5] The French Viceroy found himself surrounded and a plague in Naples was decimating his army. Cut-off and surrounded it was decided that the French garrison must abandon the newly conquered kingdom and they were soon forced to retreat through Italy.[6]

The Pope abandoned Rome to the French army but the French did not occupy the city. Charles VIII had returned to take charge of his army during their retreat through Italy. The League’s Army attacked the retreating French at Fornovo. They hoped to destroy the French army, but Charles VIII was able to inflict heavy casualties on the League and resumed his march home. Charles VIII died in April 1498, before he could regroup his forces and return to Italy to continue the war.[7]

Italian Wars

French troops arriving in Naples, 1494

Charles VII invasion was a failure and it achieved nothing. However, it is of great historic significance because it ushered an unprecedented period of warfare in Italy. The Italian Wars or the Hapsburg-Valois Wars, after the two Royal families who fought for control of Italy disturbed the peace of Italy for several decades. The invasion of 1494 was to start a series of wars that only ended in 1559. The period was not one of constant warfare but war and violence became ingrained in Italian life now. The main protagonists in the Wars were the French, led by the Valois Kings and the Hapsburg, first the Emperor Maximillian I and later Charles V. After the partition of the Hapsburg Empire, the Spanish Hapsburg’s sought to dominate Italy.

The invasion of Charles VII was the first of the so-called Italian Wars. There were to be in total eight more major wars in the Peninsula in the period after Charles VIII retreat. In the 63 years from 1494 to 1559, there were only 19 years of peace in Italy and even in these years, there were smaller localized conflicts. These wars devastated the peninsula and they did great damage to the economy and society. The nature of warfare in this period was particularly brutal. The respective armies would often massacre entire populations. They would regularly engage in widespread looting and robbery. The local civilian populations suffered considerably. The scale of the suffering can be best seen in the Sack of Rome.

The Imperial army mutinied in 1527 and attacked Rome, leaving the city devastated. The impact of the wars came at a time when Italy was already experiencing a period of economic decline because of the Discovery of the Americas, which disrupted the traditional trade networks upon which Cities like Venice and Florence depended. The impact of war on a declining economy meant that there was a severe economic downturn. This meant that funds for the patronage of artists and writers became scarce. There were fewer commissions as the City-States went into decline and they no longer had the means to pay lavish funds to sculptors and painters for public artworks. Even the Church did not have the funds to spend on art.[8] This meant that many artists did not have the means to embark on ambitious projects. Many left Italy for work elsewhere and this is best seen in the example of Leonardo da Vinci leaving his homeland for the Court of the French King. The economic and social disasters produced by almost 60 decades of war did much to end the Renaissance as it destroyed the socio-economic framework that supported artists and writers and allowed them to produce great works.

Cultural Impact of the Wars

The Renaissance was a movement that sought to imitate the lost world of ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance unlike the Middle Ages, stressed the individual, reason, beauty, and secular values. This outlook became known as Humanism and changed European society. The Renaissance not only produced great works of art but also resulted in dramatic change in the outlook of Europeans. The Renaissance was in many ways to lay the groundwork for the rise of the modern world and especially ‘individualism and secularism. There was a widespread optimism especially among the Humanists and artists that men could develop and achieve excellence in the arts, politics, and science.

The Renaissance was inherently optimistic about human nature and believed that people were not just inherently sinful and bad, as taught by the Catholic Church. This is evident in the preoccupations of the great artists and authors of the period. The many years of war and the economic and social dislocation it caused had a dramatic impact on the minds of the people in the Renaissance. They became less optimistic and the old beliefs on the ability of the human will and reason were challenged or abandoned [9]. The years of war led to a much more gloomy and darker world view and this contributed to the end of the Renaissance and arguably laid the foundations for the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque. The invasion of Charles VIII by initiating a series of wars led to a change in the mental outlook of Italians and an increasing ‘cultural pessimism’ that did much to undermine the values of the Humanists[10].

Spanish Domination

French troops arriving in Florence

The French invasion worried many other of the emerging nation-states of Europe and was worried the Spanish elite. They held the island of Sicily and after the French invasion, they became much more involved with affairs on the Italian mainland. They took part in nearly all the Italian wars that took place after the invasion of Charles VII.[11] The kingdoms of Europe were becoming national states, with a unified government and standing armies. By the 16th century, the Italian city-states looked much weaker than large kingdoms such as France.

In the 1490s, after the French invaded Italy, to conquer the kingdom of Naples, the Hapsburg dynasty denied the French any role in Italy. The Hapsburgs decided that France threatened their interests not only in the Peninsula but in the entire Mediterranean.[12] Charles V adopted a very aggressive strategy against the French and he inflicted a series of defeats, such as that at Pavia on the French Monarch.[13]. After the abdication of Charles V and the partition of the Hapsburgs realms the Italian states came under the direct and indirect control of the Spanish Empire, then at its zenith. The Spanish directly controlled the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and the Duchy of Milan and they could influence the internal affairs of technically independent city-states such as Florence. Only Venice could withstand the Spanish and remained independent.

The Spanish control lead to a loss of political and individual freedom and this dealt a blow to the Renaissance as increasingly artists and thinkers were unable to create the works they wanted or to freely express their own ideas and opinions. In the territories that they controlled they introduced the Inquisition and freedom of thought and expression was much reduced. Increasingly artists played it safe and only worked on religious subjects especially in Spanish-controlled areas. The Papacy increasingly dependent on the Spanish encouraged the other City-States to allow the inquisition to operate in their jurisdictions.[14]. However, Venice emerged as one area where artists could still work on secular subjects and experiment with new style, as evident in the works of Titian. The invasion of Charles VIII inadvertently led to the Hapsburg domination of Italy and their rule, created an environment that eventually led to the end of the cultural flourishing that was the Renaissance.[15]


The Invasion of Italy by France in 1494 was to usher in a new era. One that was marked by war and political turmoil. The wars caused great economic disruption and led to a reduction in the amount of patronage available to artists and this resulted in a decline in the arts in Italian society. The wars that resulted from Charles VIII resulted in a change in the balance of power of Italy which ultimately led to the Spanish domination of the area. They championed the Counter-Reformation in the country and this led to a society that was increasingly intolerant of difference and innovation and this helped to end the Renaissance. Instead of looking to the classics for inspiration, increasingly artists and writers were drawn to religious subjects. The psychological impact of the decades of war resulted in a growing cultural pessimism about the nature of man and society and this did much to undermine the values that allowed the arts and culture to flourish in the period 1350-1550. The invasion of Italy by the French monarch began a series of events that greatly contributed to the end of perhaps one of the most brilliant epochs in human history.


  1. Lopez, Robert Sabatino, The Three Ages of the Italian Renaissance (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970), p. 89
  2. Sabatino, p. 99
  3. Ruggiero, Guido. The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento (Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 648
  4. Mallet, Michael; Shaw, Christine The Italian Wars: 1494–1559. (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2012). p. 8
  5. Mallet, p. 109
  6. Anderson, M. S. The Rise of Modern Diplomacy 1450–1919 (London: Longman, 1993). p. 3
  7. Anderson, p. 113
  8. Anderson, p 119
  9. Burkhardt, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Penguin, London, 1993), p. 67, 145
  10. Burkhardt, p. 119
  11. Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Italy. Translated by Sydney Alexander (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 115
  12. Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 6
  13. Konstam, Angus. Pavia 1525: The Climax of the Italian Wars (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1996), p. 113, 117
  14. Guicciardini, p 156
  15. Burkhardt, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Penguin, London, 1993), p. 67, 145