Few countries in Europe have influenced each other more throughout the course of history than Italy and France. It is not by chance that France and Italy are so alike in language, culture and even in some foods and wines. The beauty of their respective countries has the Italians singing about the “Bel Paese” and the French about the “Douce France”. Indeed, had the francophone Dukes of Savoy looked more towards France than towards Italy for territorial aggrandizement, the two might very well have become one: their languages while different are extremely close in grammar and many words differ slightly in spelling and pronunciation. Had the “Langue d’oc” prevailed over the “Langue d’oeil” even such minor differences would probably have disappeared over time. French comedy is similar to Italian comedy. French films translate well into Italian like few others. The French and Italians share many of the same proverbs and sayings. In short, they are more alike than one would think at first glance.
The Dukes of Savoy were vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor and could not take lands that belonged to the French Monarchy short of an all-out war between the Empire and France. Still, the Dukes of Savoy were the powerful gatekeepers of an Alpine State that at one point (ca. 1180 AD) governed over wide areas of present-day France and Switzerland from the Franche Compté, Geneva and its lake, the Valais, the Dauphiné and most of Provence down to the Mediterranean Sea. From Savoy proper and the Vallée d’Aoste, the Dukes would subsequently acquire all of Piedmont, whose people spoke franco-provençal or Piedmontese, a language considered by many a bridge between French and Italian. This relatively big and militarily important State straddled the Alps and for centuries was an important economic and cultural gateway linking Italy and France together.
In the arts, music, science, and literature the reciprocal contributions and exchanges between these two major linguistic areas have never ceased. La Comédie Française built upon and continued the traditions of La Commedia dell’arte. The Medici gave France a number of Queens (Catherine De Medici and Maria De Medici) and Kings (Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III). Together Florence and France shared the Fleur-de-Lis on their respective coats-of-arms. Catherine De Medici is credited with making French cuisine great, thanks to the contributions of her staff of Florentine cooks, then considered the best in Italy. Leonardo Da Vinci spent the last productive years of his life in France at Château Clos Lucé near Amboise at the invitation of his young admirer, King François I.
Towards the end of the 1400s, the Italian Renaissance began to exhaust itself under the blows of larger political units with “national” aspirations. Until then, the Holy Roman Empire had proven to be medieval Europe’s greatest, most successful and enduring, political construction. The peoples of the Holy Roman Empire enjoyed freedoms and liberties unknown to most other Europeans. Culture, arts, and the sciences flourished as never before. After the Battle of Fornovo (1495) the Italian states of the Empire began to show signs of political and military obsolescence as Italian decentralization succumbed to the centralized power of a nascent France.
After Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, religious wars and the plague would greatly reduce the Empire’s population thereby continuing to further weaken what in retrospect had been a medieval form of European “Union” or Reich largely based on self-governing political units in accordance with the traditions of the Germanic peoples, including the Lombards of Italy.
By 1648, the Holy Roman Empire, had been ravaged by the Thirty Years’ War, fought mostly on German soil for religious and political reasons that pit Catholics against Protestants and involved practically all of the European powers large and small from France, Spain and the Empire to Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and Russia. As a result, the Treaty of Westphalia would recognize the independence of Switzerland and the Netherlands. Henceforward, the power of the Holy Roman Emperor would be greatly reduced. Still, the Empire would survive well into the 1800s, a testament to the resilience of decentralization.
Both the German and the Italian states of that Empire would survive until Prussia and Piedmont finally unified Germany and Italy respectively in the 1800s. While Prussia intelligently maintained the federal architecture that had made great and long-lasting the Holy Roman Empire, Piedmont unwisely chose French-styled centralization to unify a diverse people that in many cases had not lived together politically for hundreds of years. The glorious Italian states that had given the world the Renaissance were wiped out in one fell swoop and replaced by an enlarged Piedmont called “Italy”.
Those that wish to govern these peoples today would do well not to forget who they are and whence they came, for what they are today they owe to those that have come and gone before them.