The War Over Naples

The various kingdoms of Spain had seen many wars before the 16th century. But when they decided to take arms once again against Italy in 1501, it was the first time they did so riding on the momentum of the expansive wave that had taken over the would-be country.

Specially because the same man that had gained notoriety in every battle that had put Spain into this sweet time in its history, creating one of the most efficient Spanish schools of warfare, became involved in this war too.

His name was Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba.

Episode I. The French Menace

Milan's Ludovico da Sforza was a cultivated man. He had received the best education possible with the best tutors in 16th-century Italy and he had a habit of putting it to good use. He helped Leonardo Da Vinci to paint (in fact, he commissioned The Last Supper) and ascended to the throne of Milan as a regent even though it wasn't his role to do so. He was a smart man.

And he had reasons enough to worry about his safety when the rest of the Italian kingdoms started to gain military power. He needed to do something. So he remembered how, for a brief time in 1489, the Pope Innocent VIII had had a disagreement with the King of Naples, Ferdinand I. In his rage, the pope had excommunicated and deposed the king, and offered the throne of Naples to Charles VIII of France. The dispute was resolved in the pope's deathbed so everything really went on as if nothing had happened.

Ludovico Da Sforza, though, realized how useful this anecdote could be and used it to manipulated Charles VIII into thinking that Italy belonged to him because the Pope had said so. It is very hard to say no to the possibility of owning one more country (and one as strategically located as Italy, which would allow him to fight the Ottoman Empire). As it happened, Ferdinand I of Naples died in 1494, leaving his reign in the relative instability of every kingdom that is switching kings. Over the course of a summer, Italy received 55,000 French and Swiss troops sent there by the King and the Italian wars were about to begin.

It was a smart move. Italy back then was a bunch of scattered city states and their armies could not hold a candle against the thousands of French forces. For months, they moved like they owned the place. On 22 February 1495 Charles VIII entered Naples almost without opposition

Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba Strikes Back

The French troops' attitude were not too keenly received in Italy, so they formed the League of Venice to fight against them. They were a bunch of mercenaries but they also were remarkably efficient. The French forces were abated and started a slow descent towards defeat -they suffered a terrible epidemic of syphilis which worsened as the Italian troops grew stronger. (The disease would later spread out throughout Europe, which explains why it is so closely associated with France.)

Now, technically Spain should not have joined the conflict. Charles of France had given Aragon a portion of their territory called Roussillon (which remains, to this day, a part of Catalonia) and its king, Ferdinand, had shown interest in fighting for the throne of Naples as well. But it would mean the strictly Catholic king would be contradicting the wishes of a pope (also, Ferdinand I of Naples was his brother in law), so he decided to send his best troops. That meant calling Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba.

It wasn't a easy choice. Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba was in his forties, and thus, much too old to be physically fit and much too young to be intellectually strong. But he was Queen Isabella's favorite, so they sent him there. It was probably for the best. He led the 5,000-men army twice through Italy and was victorious in both occasions

Italy successfully kicked the French army out of their territory, in a the Battle of Fornovo (which has the distinction of being the first army in a long succession of Italian wars). The ever-cunning Ludovico da Sforza decided to double-cross the French and side with the Italians instead.

After the battle was over, Da Sforza descended from the throne and led a quiet life as Duke of Milan. Fernández de Córdoba was awarded Great Captain for his effort in the battle field.

Historians now dispute it was due to his blatant Spanish arrogance.