Battle of Fornovo

From Academic Kids

The Battle of Fornovo took place in July 1495 during the Italian Wars. The result was militarily inconclusive, but Charles VIII of France lost all his Italian booty and had to abandon his claims in Italy, so strategically was a victory for the Holy League, especially Venice.



Charles VIII dreamed of his own crusade versus the infidel and recapturing Jerusalem for Christendom. He based his plan on a nebulous claim that his family had for the throne of Naples in Southern Italy through his paternal grandmother, Marie of Anjou (1404 - 1463).

To have his hands free in Italy, Charles made ruinous pacts with all his neighbours, so they would not interfere. Henry VII was given cash, Ferdinand II of Aragon was given the Rousillon. Maximillian was given Artois and Franche-Comté. This handing out of territory is symptomatic of Charles’ lack of foresight. However, Charles was willing to do this in his attempt to establish his Neapolitan base for his crusade.

The fighting between the many independent towns of Italy was done by establishing a contract, condotta in Italian, between the town leaders and the leaders of mercenary bands, who came to be called Condottieri. This led to the developing of fighting tactics destined to establish field supremacy gaining wealthy prisoners to be ransomed and minimizing casualties, as it was basically a business. These tactics were going to be put to shame when the motivated armies of France and Spain descended upon the Italian peninsula.

The Campaign

Charles VIII was on good terms with the two powers in northern Italy, Milan and Venice, and both had encouraged him to make good his claims over the Kingdom of Naples. Thus he assumed he would have their support when he moved against Alfonso II of Naples, especially as the rival claimant was Fernando, king of Aragon and Spain. At the end of August 1494 Charles VIII led a powerful French army with a large contingent of Swiss mercenaries and the first train of artillery seen in history into Italy. He was granted free passage through Milan, but was vigorously opposed by Florence, the Pope, and Naples.

In his way to Naples, Charles crushed every small army that the Pope and Naples were able to oppose him, showing a willingness to massacre every city that resisted him, that shocked the more civilized Italians.

On 22 February 1495 Charles VIII entered Naples almost without opposition. The speed and violence of the campaign left the Italians stunned. Realization struck them, especially the Venetians and the new Duke of Milan, that unless Charles was stopped Italy would soon be another province of France. On 31 March in Venice the Holy League was proclaimed; the signatories were the Republic of Venice, the Duke of Milan, the Pope, the Spanish King, the English King, and Maximilian Hapsburg, Holy Roman Emperor. The League engaged a veteran Condotieri, Francesco II of Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua to gather an army and expel the French from Italy. By 1 May this army was threatening the garrisons that Charles had left in a trail down Italy to guard his communications with France. On 20 May Charles left Naples leaving behind a garrison to hold the country and proclaiming that he only desired a safe return to France.

As a footnote Charles' army had picked up a terrible malady while in Naples. Naples is southern Italy's great port and sailors who had sailed with Columbus a few years earlier had left the comforting women of Naples with syphilis, the New World's horrible gift to the Old. As the French Army returned north this malady would be spread across Italy, and eventually all of Europe. Everywhere except in France it was going to be known as the French disease.

Besides syphilis, Charles was taking with him both his large siege train and a baggage train that was loaded with the rich booty from Florence, Rome, and Naples. On 4 July the French reached the village of Fornovo and found their passage blocked by the main League army camped just north of the village.

The Battle of Fornovo

Alessandro Beneditti, in his Diaria de Bello Carolino (Diary of the Caroline War) gives one of the best accounts of this battle. Beneditti was a physician working for the Venetian forces and started his diary in May 1495, and a month later, was an eyewitness to this battle. This section reflects chapters 29 to 60 of Book 1 of the Diaria de Bello Carolino heavily edited for brevity.

On 27 June the Venetians and their allies established camp near Fornovo di Taro (Template:Coor dm), some 30 km southeast of Parma, to wait for the French. They would not have to wait long. But the Venetian Senate was not unanimous on fighting the French. Some members wanted to attack the rear guard of the French to try to seize the bounty, while others cautioned that Italy was risking too much in this battle, while for the French it was only one army. At length the opinion prevailed that the battle should be entrusted to fate.

On 4 July, Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, Charles strongest ally in Italy, communicated with him that the Senate had as yet not authorized the Venetian proveditors to fight. But the French were anxious, seeing the enemy numbers growing, while they had no hope of reinforcements. Parliaments were started, and Charles requested free passage, but the Venetians required him to restore all his conquests. Charles, after consulting with his Italian advisors, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio and Francesco Secco, together with the nobles, decided to fight, and sent about forty soldiers ahead to reconnoiter. These were quickly routed by the Greek Stradioti.

Two days later, 6 July, Charles decided to present battle because they were short on provisions. The League armies, mostly Venetians, were at the right slope of the Taro river, and the French decided to keep the left side of the river. The French position was deemed to be good for defense because the Venetians had not cleared the field, and the rain had made the river banks slippery and impassable for the cavalry. Charles organized his army in three battle groups. He put Gian Giacomo Trivulzio in charge of the first, which consisted of three hundred horsemen, two hundred light-armed soldiers, and two thousand German foot soldiers equipped with spears, who were surrounded by men carrying small hand-guns and armed with axes and hatchets. After a short space Count Niccola of Pitigliano and Franceso Secco rode alone in front, the first one the prisoner, the second the leader. A little after them followed the second group, of which the King himself was in command. It consisted of six hundred horsemen, the real line of battle, and in it were all the mounted bowmen and the German foot soldiers the flower of almost all the troops of the King. After a like space came the last group, in which were four hundred horsemen and about a thousand foot soldiers. The rest of the spear-bearing foot soldiers made up one line or vast phalanx which advanced not far from the lines of the horsemen. Artillery protected the first line from the front and the second toward the Taro.

Melchiorre Trevisan promised the League soldiers that the huge spoils of the Neapolitan kingdom which the French carried were theirs if they triumphed in battle, igniting their combat ardor. Francesco Gonzaga divided his forces in 9 lines. His battle plan was to harass the first and middle groups of the French, while the main force was to attack the rear of the enemy on both sides, when confusion was thrown into the rear and spread by the fugitives into the other two groups, the three lines kept as the reserve were to attack in full force.

The light cavalry attack on the French front was impeded by the terrain conditions, as the French anticipated, and its result indecisive. While the battle was at its most delicate point, the Stradioti saw that the French guarding the baggage train were being driven out by the assigned Italian light cavalry, and they immediately left their positions to fell upon the rich baggage to plunder it. What had been a battle slowly evolving towards the Venetian advantage, now turned into a bloody exchange. The French artillery did not play a role because the rain wetted the powder. The Venetian reserve entered battle. The French were demoralized by the numbers of their enemies, but the Venetians failed to capitalize because many were fleeing the battle and others went to plunder the baggage train. As often, the mercenaries did not want to continue a battle that was turning too bloody for their taste. The Venetian proveditors, and Count Niccola Pitigliano were instrumental in turning back many fleeing Italians convincing them that the battle was being won.

After over an hour of fighting, the French yielded the field and took refuge in a hill. The Venetians that wanted to pursue them were too few and both sides took to camp. The French had lost over a thousand men, while the Venetians lost over two thousand, but the nobles of both sides had been singled out, and many of them had died. But to King Charles, his personal loss was enormous, because he lost all his booty from his Italian expedition, worth well over 300,000 ducats. A 24 h. truce was declared for burial of the dead. Many unlucky soldiers in the booty pillage, joined by crowds of local peasants and camp-servants took on the field and removed anything of value from the fallen soldiers, so even the wounded ones were found naked before being taken to the camp for treatment.

The following evening, Doge Agostino Barbarigo and the Senate received a report in which they were told that the Venetian army had not been defeated, but that the result of the battle was uncertain because they had many casualties and desertors, but they did not know the enemy casualties. The entire city thought that their fortunes had worsened, but the next day a more detailed report finally revealed the extent of the plunder and the fear that had seized the enemy, who dared not fight but as suppliants sought now a truce, now peace. However Charles was allowed to leave Italy unmolested.

The Consequences

Charles left Italy, without having gained anything. He attempted in the next few years to rebuild his army, but was hampered by the serious debts incurred by the previous one - he never succeeded in recouping anything substantive. He died two-and-a-half years after his retreat, of an accident - striking himself on the head while passing through a doorway, he succumbed to a sudden coma several hours later.

Charles bequeathed a meagre legacy - he left France in debt and in disarray as a result of an ambition most charitably characterized as unrealistic, and having lost several important provinces that would take centuries to recover. On a more positive side, his expedition did broaden contacts between French and Italian humanists, energizing French art and letters in the latter Renaissance.

Charles proved the last of the elder branch of the House of Valois, and upon his death at Amboise the throne passed to a cousin, the duc d'Orleans, who reigned as King Louis XII of France, who would try to make good his clearer claim to the Duchy of Milan.

However, for Italy the consequences were catastrophic. Europe knew now, from the French and German soldiers in Charles' expedition, of an incredibly rich land, divided into easily conquerable principalities, and defended only by mercenary armies that refused to fight at the slightness contrariety. Italy was to be the scenary of a dispute between the main continental powers, where the Italians were left only with a secondary role in their own destiny. Basically only Venice with his modelic (for the time) system of government was going to survive the invasion of Italy as a completely independent state, but at the highest difficulties, and at the cost of her strength and de Fornoue


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