Charles VIII of France Invades Italy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy launched a series of wars that brought civil chaos to Italy. The peninsula ultimately became both battlefield and prize in the wars between France and Spain.

Summary of Event

The 1494 invasion of Italy by King Charles VIII of France proved to be as climactic an event for the rest of Europe as it was for Italy. It was the first of many invasions of Italy by foreign powers that drew those powers into the orbit of Italian politics and, simultaneously, launched Italy into the insatiable jaws of expanding European empires. The French returned in 1499 under Louis XII, the Spanish invaded in 1501, and Rome itself was sacked by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1527. Italy;French invasions of Charles VIII (1470-1498) Alexander VI Alfonso II Ferdinand II (1467-1496) Ferdinand II (1452- 1516) Sforza, Ludovico Medici, Piero de’ Savonarola, Girolamo Philippe de Comines Charles VIII (king of France) Innocent VIII Savonarola, Girolamo Sforza, Ludovico Medici, Piero de’ (1471-1503) Alexander VI Alfonso II (king of Naples) Ferdinand II (king of Naples) Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Comines, Philippe de Charles VIII (king of France)

A portrait of Philippe de Comines, French ambassador to Venice, who, with King Charles VIII, was nearly fooled by the Holy League into believing that the league was a defensive alliance for the protection of Italy against the Turks.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

While the French motive for the 1494 invasion appeared to be partly medieval, the invasion was to have implications and effects that would help shape Europe in the modern era. Charles VIII’s dynastic claims to Naples, and ultimately to Jerusalem, reflected a medieval worldview. He planned to conquer Naples and then go on to free Jerusalem from Turkish control. Charles saw himself as a universal ruler; this fantasy was abetted by prophetic preachers who surrounded the gullible Charles in his French court.

The French king’s claim to Naples rested on the award of the crown, in the thirteenth century, to Charles of Anjou, younger brother of Louis IX (Saint Louis). In succeeding generations, the House of Aragon put forth rival claims to the same throne and actually ruled Naples from 1442, after they ousted the Angevins.





Charles VIII’s entire reign was directed toward the Italian campaign and the enterprise in the Holy Land. No one could dissuade him from his plans. Thanks to the military reforms of Charles VII, Charles VIII had a standing army of forty thousand to fifty thousand men at his disposal. The Italians were forced to rely on mercenaries and forged alliances. The French enjoyed a definitive military unity that Italy sorely lacked.

Diplomatic inroads provided Charles with the political backing he needed to invade Italy. In 1489, Innocent VIII, who was feuding with Naples, offered the Neapolitan crown to Charles. Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican evangelical preacher in Florence who sermonized regularly against the reigning Medici family, referred to Charles in prophetic terms. Savonarola would have a deep psychological and spiritual impact upon the French monarch. Above all, Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan, made the decisive appeal, based on his own fears of a Florentine-Neapolitan alliance that would isolate Milan and leave it threatened once more by the Venetian Republic.

With his huge army, Charles reached Asti on September 9, 1494. The French were welcomed, guardedly, by Sforza and by Ercole d’Este of Ferrara. The impetuous Piero de’ Medici of Florence unwisely ceded fortresses to the French and signed a degrading treaty. Consequently, on his return to Florence, Piero and the Medici family were expelled by their fellow citizens. On November 17, 1494, Charles proceeded through the gates of Florence with his lance at rest, the symbol of a conqueror.

After a brief stop at Siena, Charles entered papal territory. Pope Alexander VI had given the French monarch hollow words of encouragement while secretly negotiating with the Aragonese in Naples. The anxious pope had personal concerns about Charles’s motives and plans. Savonarola had encouraged Charles to investigate Alexander’s improper election as pope. If a church council were to be called, it could lead to the pope’s removal. The wily Alexander was able to distract Charles from a course of church reform that would endanger his own position as pope.

Charles arrived in Rome with lance at rest on December 31, 1494, after a triumphant six-hour procession. On January 15, 1495, the pope signed a treaty with Charles and yielded certain Italian territories to the French. Charles left Rome on January 28, 1495, and headed to Naples with no further obstructions. Meanwhile, Alfonso II had abdicated his Neapolitan throne to his inexperienced son, Ferdinand II (Ferrandino in Italian), who subsequently fled Naples after a baronial revolt. Charles entered Naples virtually unopposed on February 22, 1495, and was installed officially as the Angevin successor to the Neapolitan throne. His harsh policies toward the Neapolitan nobles soon soured relationships with his new subjects.

Outside Naples, the Italians seemed to pull together, at least temporarily, under an alliance called the Holy League Holy League . Organized by Alexander VI, it included the Papal States, the German empire, the Spanish empire of Ferdinand II the Catholic, and, briefly, Milan under Ludovico Sforza, who immediately withdrew from the league. In a futile attempt to confuse Charles and his astute ambassador, Philippe de Comines, the Holy League represented itself as a defensive alliance for the protection of Italy against the Turks. The French were not fooled, however, and recognized the seriousness of the league’s threat to them.

In May of 1495, Charles left Naples with a small portion of his original army to confront the Holy League. He planned to return eventually to fulfill his crusade against the Turks. This was never to take place. Charles’s army of a mere ten thousand troops lumbered toward northern Italy and met the Holy League on the Taro River at Fornovo Fornovo, Battle of (1495) on July 6, 1495. The battle was indecisive, although both sides claimed victory. The Italians left the field in disarray, while the French lost many provisions but few lives. Charles left Italy in September under the umbrage of safe passage. By the end of 1495, the kingdom of Naples had fallen back to Ferrandino.

Although Charles planned another campaign, these plans were never realized, to the relief of the Italians. The king died suddenly after hitting his head on a door jamb at Amboise on May 28, 1498, and his political dreams died with him.


The 1494 campaign had significant consequences for Italy. Italy was no longer protected from the grasp of other European powers. The failure of the Holy League at Fornovo bared Italian disunity to the world. On the French side, Charles VIII’s ambition and resources demonstrated the centralization of the French state. In addition, there was a growing awareness of the modern concept of “balance of power.” The German empire, for example, entered the Holy League alliance in an effort to block French expansion into Italy, rather than to assert its own claims in the area.

France’s invasion, then, was one sign of the advent of a modern age of sophisticated military expansion accompanied by intricate diplomatic maneuvers. These maneuvers weakened Italy and drew the peninsula more deeply into the web of European ambitions and entanglements.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abulafia, David. The French Descent into Renaissance Italy, 1494-95: Antecedents and Effects. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1995. Questions whether the French invasion upset a relatively calm Italy and looks into political, military, diplomatic, and technological aspects of the occupation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bridge, John S. C. The Reign of Charles VIII, 1483-1498. Vol. 2 in A History of France from the Death of Louis XI. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1924. Concerned almost entirely with the first phase of the Italian Wars, this volume provides a traditional account and relies, almost exclusively, upon political, military, and diplomatic history. There is a completeness about the account that not only reveals the direction of French policy but also provides an insight into Italian diplomacy and politics during the late Italian Renaissance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Guicciardini. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. A careful and comprehensive work that penetrates the crisis thinking of these two writers, expressed in works generated in the wake of the 1494 invasion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Denys, and John Law. Italy in the Age of the Renaissance, 1380-1530. New York: Longman, 1989. A useful overview that places the states of Italy in their urban and regional context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Landucci, Luca. “The Entry of Charles VIII, King of France, into Florence.” In Images of Quattrocento Florence: Selected Writings in Literature, History, and Art, edited by Stefano Ugo Baldassarri and Arielle Saiber. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A discussion of the cultural meaning and historical import of Charles’s entrance into the defeated Florence. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martines, Lauro. Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. Skillfully weaves the threads of humanism and social history into urban politics. Good for understanding the background of the 1494 invasion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mattingly, Garrett. Renaissance Diplomacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955. A classic text on the origins of modern diplomacy. In treating the Italian Wars, Mattingly emphasizes that Charles VIII’s decision to invade Italy was abetted by Italian adventurers, who promoted the invasion because of their own personal ambitions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicolle, David, and Richard Hook. Fornovo, 1495. Oxford, England: Osprey, 1996. An excellent volume that provides an in-depth look into the background of the campaign, the fighting, and its consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinstein, Donald. Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970. Weinstein’s excellent work outlines the evolution of Savonarola’s prophetic character through careful analysis of the monk’s fiery sermons and their relationship to his growing conviction that God had chosen him as a special prophet and Florence as a New Jerusalem. Although it is primarily focused on Savonarola, the changing dynamics of Florentine civic politics, and the evolution of the city’s nature within the prophet’s mind, the 1494 invasion by Charles VIII plays a pivotal role in understanding Savonarola’s worldview.

Apr. 9, 1454: Peace of Lodi

Apr. 26, 1478: Pazzi Conspiracy

1481-1499: Ludovico Sforza Rules Milan

Apr. 11, 1512: Battle of Ravenna

July-Dec., 1513: Machiavelli Writes The Prince

Sept. 13-14, 1515: Battle of Marignano

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

Feb., 1525: Battle of Pavia

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis

Categories: History