Could Italy be on the brink of a second Fornovo?

An “Italian system” had assured power and prosperity to the Peninsula for centuries until 1494 when a French army led by King Charles VIII was allowed to enter Italy to enforce their King’s claim to the Crown of Naples. At the end of August 1494, Charles entered Italy with a powerful army, which included a large contingent of Swiss mercenaries and “modern” field artillery the likes of which had never been seen before in Italy. Charles and his men had been granted free passage into Italy by the francophone duchy of Savoy and Milan but were vigorously opposed by Florence, the Papacy, and Naples. 

On their way down the Peninsula, King Charles and his army crushed every small army that the Pope and Naples could muster and sacked any city that dared resist him. Memorable was the “rape of Rapallo” in which many maidens would be forced to surrender their virginity to the invaders. This shocked Italians, who had become accustomed to the relatively bloodless wars their “system” had guaranteed. In the Italian Peninsula fighting between the independent city-states was still regulated by medieval chivalry and a code of ethics accepted by the Lombard leaderships of the city-states of the North, which at the time represented the economic muscle of the Holy Romano-Germanic Empire that, however, did not include Rome or the Kingdom of Naples. 

The Lombard-led city-states of northern Italy had come to regulate warfare amongst themselves on the basis of a contract or a condotta, as it was then called. The condotta, in essence, was an agreement between the leaders of a given city and the commander of the professional mercenaries contracted to fight that city’s “wars”. These military commanders came to be known as, “Condottieri”. Their tactics called for the establishment of supremacy on the battlefield, the capturing of wealthy prisoners for ransom. The idea was not to wage total war but to supplant one leadership with another, preserving the business and wealth of the belligerents, keeping casualties down to a minimum and sparing the civilian population from harm. The Italian system sought to achieve a win-win situation where the many that would prosper far outweighed the few (mostly mercenaries) that would stand to get hurt. Such tactics would prove useless against the large armies of would-be nation-states like France and Spain that refused to play by Italian rules. These upstarts preferred to play for keeps, waging total, devastating war in the hope of achieving long-term supremacy over entities no longer considered political adversaries but enemies, to be hated and crushed. The mindset was completely the opposite of what the Italians believed and practiced. In 1494 the still rich and relatively powerful states of northern Italy still clung to chivalry (like the rest of the Empire) and the concept that war was a necessary evil to be wagered by and among gentlemen of noble birth to settle their political differences not through wholesale slaughter but by a demonstration of their courage and prowess, much like in medieval jousts.

And so it was that on 22 February 1495, after ravaging and pillaging its way down the Peninsula, the French Army of Charles VIII entered Naples substantially unopposed. The speed and ferocity of the fighting shocked the Italian states, notably Venice and Milan. These states knew well that if they failed to stop the French now, it would only be a matter of time before the entire Peninsula became a province of France. The Papacy and Venice moved quickly to organize a “holy league” against the French. On 31 March 1495, an anti-French alliance was signed by Venice, Milan, the Papal States, Spain, England, and the Holy Roman Empire. These forces fielded a sizeable army under the command of veteran Condottiero Francesco II of Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Their mission was to kick the French out of the Peninsula. 

During the summer of 1494, League forces had begun attacking the command and control centers the French had dispersed along the “Francigena” the old medieval road used by pilgrims on their way to Rome. The Francigena was the French Army’s lifeline linking them and their homeland in what had now become hostile territory. The hostility was such that King Charles VIII had already decided to cut short his invasion. Leaving some ten thousand men in Rome, the King took the rest of his forces, many beset with sickness and disease, including some 60 or so pieces of artillery, with him on the long retreat up the Peninsula and back to France.

Between the 4th and 6th of July 1495, League forces met the French, which in the meantime had decided to regroup, near the town of Fornovo (near Parma) after making their way back up the Peninsula. The French were getting ready to cross the Taro River but were intercepted and denied passage by the Dalmatian light cavalry of Venice who charged the French as they clashed along the banks of the nearby River Taro. In the melee that ensued the Italians stood their ground but took heavier casualties. The French heavy cavalry suffered the loss of many nobles which drowned in the waters of a swollen Taro, dragged under by the weight of their armors while attempting to cross over to the other side.

In the end, the Italians achieved battlefield supremacy, despite the heavy losses (some two thousand Italians and one thousand Frenchmen dead in just one hour), a veritable slaughter for the times. The French were forced to leave behind all of the booty looted in the sack of Naples but, in accordance with Italian rules of warfare, were allowed to bury their dead and care for their wounded before the survivors, including King Charles VIII, were allowed to return to France. For the Italians, it was a costly victory but a victory nonetheless.

For the French, however, the fact that a sizable army had managed to invade, ravage and plunder Italy without suffering annihilation at the hands of the Italians sent to defeat them exposed their weakness due more to disorganization and indecisiveness at the political level. Fornovo would forever shift the balance of power in favor of the nascent “nation-states” of France and Spain and away from the city-states of the Italian Peninsula. The weakness inherent in the “Italian system” had been revealed in all of its dramatic consequences and would condemn Italy to centuries of political, economic and military decline. After Fornovo, the rich northern plain of Italy would become the battlefield of France, Spain, and Austria for centuries to come. While the Papal States were spared the humiliation, Naples would soon succumb to Spanish colonization and suffer annexation to the Spanish Empire. For centuries to come Naples would be governed by a Spanish Viceroy. Overall, the territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Naples lasted from about the mid 15th Century to the mid 19th Century when the House of Savoy absorbed all of “Naples” into a United Kingdom of Italy.

Following its defeat in WWII, Italy has never quite cut the political mustard. The internecine, mostly bloodless, revolution waged domestically by communists and sympathizers to cow all unaligned into submission under pain of being branded, and ostracized politically (and economically) as, fascists, has finally had its epilogue in the recent political elections of March 4, 2018, which – unless something is urgently done – may go down in the annals of history as a self-inflicted modern-day “Fornovo”. Why?

Well, because this latest electoral fiasco was purposely engineered by Italy’s cold war leadership to bring about a hung parliament that would be unable to express a government but that was supposed to work in favor of the old consolidated party machinery in a return to the parliamentarianism of the First Republic. Instead what Italians got was more than two months of “dialogue” between two relatively new parties, both branded as “populists” by all, including Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party, officially allied with Salvini’s League. Sorry for the long sentence but nothing in Italy is short and sweet. Everything is complicated by a fragmented leadership unwilling to risk losing votes by taking an open and clear stance on any of the major issues confronting Italian society today: from what to do about the increasing flux of migrants continuing to wash ashore on Italy’s long coastline, to taxation, the budget and national debt.

Unfortunately, Italy’s post-WWII “system” worked well during the cold war years only because it helped freeze the political status quo of Italian domestic politics to mirror the bloc politics of East and West at the international level. When the Berlin Wall collapsed and signaled the end of the cold war, the Italians continued as if nothing had happened because domestically the political war between “east” and “west” had not ceased. Italian leaders failed to realize that when the wall came tumbling down their political “system” became obsolete practically overnight; that is unless changes were made to mirror domestically the new international political order based on a multipolar, globalized world. Unfortunately, as in 1494 Italian leaders failed to see and understand the problem in time. They did not rise to the challenge. Nothing has been done to reorganize and modernize the Italian “system” which is doomed because it is obsolete, inefficient and unable to compete in the multipolar, globalized world and economy that has replaced the old bi-polar order. 

The Italian “system” desperately needs to be tweaked, beginning with its Constitution and Institutions, including law enforcement, the judiciary and justice systems. Governments need to be stable and the decision-making process needs to be shortened. Real-time capabilities are required, not perpetual indecisiveness. People must be reprogrammed to see that not everyone can be in government or on the dole and that private enterprise, as well as domestic and foreign investors need to be given a chance. People cannot wait months to know whether their taxes will be raised or cut. Nothing of course has been done to remedy the situation, until now that is. Ironically, Italy’s multiparty political system was better suited to the former bipolar world order that emerged after WWII whereas today what is needed is the exact opposite. Let’s hope someone acts well and quickly before the markets begin to rock and roll. Good luck Italia!

Done in Modena, 5 May 2018

  • by Parak