Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Beginning of Italian Unity Shattered

All the states of which we have so far heard had, by the end of the fifteenth century, passed through the formative stage. They had all consolidated into nationality except Germany, which was still a conglomeration of states, and Italy, which was yet without nationality, unity, or central government.

This was chiefly do to the efforts of Germany to impose German rule upon the Italians. Frederick II, who was Italian rather than German, was the last, and almost the only, German emperor who had in this any chance of success (see Chapter XXVII). He failed, and after him the emperors interfered little, and always with disastrous results, in the affairs of Italy.

Yet Italy found no peace, and until the middle of the fourteenth century it was torn by civil wars. Princely families rose and fell, while more than one despot schemed in vain to draw the whole country under his rule. The rival factions were still called Guelph and Ghibeline, but the real struggle was no longer between the pope and emperor. It was rather between feudalism and commerce, between inaction and progress.

Out of this welter of warfare there arose in Italy, towards the middle of the fifteenth century, five chief powers. Thy largest of these was the kingdom of Naples. This included the whole southern portion of the peninsula as well as the island of Sicily. Then, like a wedge across the centre of the peninsula lay the papal states. North of these were the republics of Florence and of Venice and the Duchy of Milan.



Florence and Venice were termed republics, but the rule in them, as in all Italian states, tended to despotism. And despotism brought in its train the usual crop of plots and murders. Yet, in spite of this tendency towards despotism Italy had made some advance towards freedom and nationality in that her despots were all Italian, and not imposed upon her by an alien power. Even Alfonso, king of Naples, a Spaniard by birth, was Italian in his sympathies.

The five states, moreover, had a common language, a common literature, and love of art, and through these there began to dawn among them a feeling of common nationality. Thus in Italy it was through a love of learning and of art that the sense of nationality awoke, and not as in other nations through war and a necessity for combining against a common foe.

Politically, however, in the fifteenth century there were as yet no Italians. There were merely Venetians, Florentines, Genoese, Neapolitans, and so on. Still for a time there was a sort of peaceful federation among the five greatest states, and between the years 1447 and 1492 Italy was more free, and more at rest from foreign domination, than it had been for many generations. Had this time of peace been allowed to last, had the country been left free from pernicious alien interference, unity might have been attained much earlier.

As it was Italy was still centuries away from unity. It was still for centuries to be torn to pieces, and subjected to the tyranny of foreign princes.

In 1266 Charles of Anjou, on the invitation of the popes Urban IV and Clement VI, had taken possession of the kingdom of Naples, which included Sicily. The French domination was very irksome to the Sicilians, and in 1282 the rebellion known as the Sicilian Vespers broke out. The French were massacred wholesale, and driven from the island. Then the Sicilians called Peter of Aragon, who had married the daughter of Tancred (see Chapter XIV) to the throne.

After this the house of Anjou ruled in Naples, the house of Aragon in Sicily. But in 1435 the Angevin dynasty died outwith Joanna II, and the kingdom passed, not without bloodshed, to the king of Sicily, Alfonso of Aragon, surnamed the Magnanimous. Thus Spanish domination on the mainland was begun.

Charles VIII. The French in Italy

When Louis XI, king of France, died in 1483 he was succeeded by his son Charles VIII, a boy of thirteen. Charles was a throw-back into mediŠvalism. He was full of romantic ideas, sighing for picturesque wars and victories, and all the splendours of an outworn feudalism. As an Angevin he claimed the throne of Naples, and when invited to invade Italy by a would-be duke of Milan, Ludovico the Moor, he joyfully accepted.

Like a knight of old, he laid his lance in rest, and with banners waving in the breeze and trumpets sounding, he rode into Italy surrounded by all the pomp of a feudal army. Yet this apparently feudal pomp was purely theatrical. Charles, however much he wished it, could not turn back the hands of time, and in reality his army was mostly made up of mercenaries.

His progress was a pageant rather than a campaign, and without drawing a sword he passed through Italy to Naples. Alfonso fled at his coming, and almost without opposition Charles was crowned, assuming, besides that of King of Naples, the empty titles of Emperor of the East and King of Jerusalem.

But while in Naples Charles played at Empire, Ferdinand, King of Spain, Maximilian I, Emperor of Germany, together with some of the Italian princes (among them that same Duke of Milan who had invited him to invade Italy), joined in a league against him. Hurriedly then the pageant emperor beat a retreat. But at Fornova he found the armies of the allies barring the way. With the courage of desperation he faced his foes. The result was a bare victory for the French, but it secured their return to France.

Having reached his own land again in safety all recollection of his short-lived triumph in Italy seemed to pass from the mind of Charles, and he never renewed his claim to the throne of Naples.

At first sight this campaign seems of small importance. Charles had done little but ride through Italy and ride back again. But it had great results. It meant the discovery of Italy by the rest of Europe, and a French writer declares that this discovery of Italy had more effect on the sixteenth century than the discovery of America. With it began a long and disastrous interference of France in the affairs of Italy, an interference prejudicial alike to both countries. The folly of France, in thus wasting her energies in an unjust war of aggression, prevented her from taking a higher place among the nations of Europe, and shattered the beginning of Italian unity.

Rodrigo Borgia and Savonarola

Meanwhile, although the French were driven out of Italy, there was no peace for the unhappy land. The infamous Rodrigo Borgia was pope. He had taken the title of Alexander VI, and never had Italy more cause to be ashamed of her pontiff and her priesthood. For Alexander was one of the worst popes who ever sat upon the papal throne. Courteous, magnificent, and a great lover of art, he was yet wicked and cruel, and so greedy of wealth and power, both for himself and his family, that he cared not if he plunged the whole of Italy into war to gain his ends.

He cared nothing for his sacred office, and never did the Church sink so low as under his rule. But already the day of reform was dawning. In Florence a monk named Girolamo Savonarola raised his voice against the evil living of the great prince of the Church. He was austere as a Hebrew prophet, and spoke with such fierce eloquence that the pleasure-loving Florentines were shaken out of their careless paganism. At his bidding they made bonfires of their works of art, and all such "vanities"; they cast away their splendid garments of silk, their ornaments of gold, and dressed with the simplicity of monks and nuns.

Savonarola was a reformer before the Reformation. But he was not a reformer as we have come to understand the word. He preached not schism but righteousness, and to the day of his death he believed with all his heart in the teaching of the Church.

It was the coming of Charles VIII that brought Savonarola to the front in Italian politics. It seemed to him that Charles was the instrument of God's vengeance upon Italy for her sins. To resist him was to resist God, and out of his own enthusiasm he endowed the frivolous French monarch with all the attributes of a divine messenger and minster of justice. Yet, when the tyrant Piero de Medici had been expelled from Florence, it was Savonarola who persuaded Charles to move southward, and leave the republic in peace to reframe her constitution.

Savonarola took a great part in the reframing of this constitution, and for a time the Florentines followed him whither he led them with a passionate devotion. But if Savonarola saw in Charles Italy's great hope others regarded him and his army merely as barbarians, to be driven from the land as speedily as might be. Many of the northern states, therefore, joined with the king of Spain and the emperor in the League of Venice against France. Florence, however, under Savonarola's guidance, refused to join.

This refusal roused the wrath of the pope, for he, more than all the other princes, wanted to be rid of Charles. And as Savonarola would not yield, he swore his downfall. First, however, he bribed him with the promise of a cardinal's hat. Savonarola refused it scornfully. He would have no red hat, he said, save the red crown of a martyr.

As this pestilent friar would not hear reason Alexander VI excommunicated him. Gradually then troubles thickened about him. He lost influence, his beloved Florentines fell away from him, his enemies increased in number and power. At length he was seized and condemned to death for schism and heresy. On May 23, 1498, he was hanged, and his body was afterwards burned.

Savonarola was a great, pure-minded man, hating sin and loving with a great tenderness the sinful and the weak. Whether he was a perfect patriot can scarcely be decided without a perfect knowledge of the troublous times in which he lived. It was not possible for him to be a great reformer and a great politician at one and the same time. So, passionately earnest, fiercely righteous and noble-minded although he was, he failed. His chief failure, it may be, lay in that he trusted to outside aid, instead of bidding his people be strong in themselves. Yet for good or evil his spirit lived after him, and no one can think of the struggles of Italy at this time without taking Savonarola into account.