Battle of Fornovo
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|Battle of Fornovo|
|Part of the First Italian War|
The Battle of Fornovo in the Gallery of Maps (Vatican Museums)
|France||League of Venice|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Charles VIII
King of France
| Francesco II
Marquess of Mantua
|12,000 men||20,000 men|
|Casualties and losses|
|1,200 casualties||2,000 casualties|
The Battle of Fornovo took place 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the city of Parma on 6 July 1495. The Holy League, an alliance comprising notably the Republic of Venice, was able to temporarily expel the French from the Italian Peninsula. It was the first major battle of the Italian Wars.
Charles VIII dreamed of his own crusade against the infidel and of recapturing Jerusalem for Christendom. This was to be preceded by the conquest of the Kingdom of Naples, to which he had a nebulous claim 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 Roussillon and 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.
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 Ferdinand II of Aragon, King of 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, Pope Alexander VI, and Naples.
On his way to Naples, Charles crushed every small army that the Pope and Naples could send against him and massacred any city that resisted him. This shocked the Italians, who were accustomed to the relatively bloodless wars of the Condottieri.
On 22 February 1495 Charles VIII, with his general Louis II de La Trémoille, 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, Ludovico Sforza, 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 I, Holy Roman Emperor. The League engaged a veteran Condottiero, 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. While it is unclear whether it was imported from the New World or a more virulent strain of an Old World disease, the first known epidemic of syphilis had broken out in the city. As the French Army returned north this malady would be spread across Italy, and eventually all of Europe. Spread by the returning soldiers, it would be known through most of Europe 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 was described by physician Alessandro Beneditti in his Diaria de Bello Carolino'
On 27 June the Venetians and their allies established camp near Fornovo di Taro ( ), some 30 km southwest 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 money, while others cautioned that Italy was risking too much in this battle, while for the French it was just one army. They had plenty more to draw upon.
On 4 July, Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, Charles' strongest ally in Italy, wrote to Charles to tell him that the Senate had not yet decided. But Charles was anxious, seeing the enemy numbers growing, while he had no hope of reinforcements. When an effort to sway the undecided forces of Parma was thwarted by the Venetians, Charles instead sent a messenger to request free passage to return to France, but the Venetians replied that he would have to restore all his conquests before such could be considered. The messenger, having scouted the troops, reported back to Charles. The forty soldiers Charles subsequently sent to reconnoiter were quickly routed by the Stradioti, mercenaries from Balkans.
Two days later, 6 July, Charles decided to offer battle because the French were short on provisions. The League armies, mostly Venetians, were at the right side 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 battle groups. The first group, a troop of about 2,500, was led by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio. The second, the largest, was led by Charles himself. The final group, of about 1,400, was led by Francesco Secco, who rode in conversation with prisoner Count Niccolò di Pitigliano. There was in addition a large phalanx of spear soldiers. Artillery ranged before the first line and protected the second line on the side of the Taro.
Melchiorre Trevisan promised the League soldiers the spoils of battle if they were victorious, igniting their combat ardor. Francesco Gonzaga divided his forces in nine lines. His battle plan was to distract the first and middle groups of the French by two lines while flanking the rear. Once the French groups were disorganized, the rest of the Italian troops would attack.
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. Niccolò di Pitigliano, managing to reach the Venetians, told them that the French were demoralized. A number of the Italians were fleeing the battle, but Pitigliano and the Venetian proveditors were instrumental in turning back many by convincing them that the battle was being won or that, even if it were not, it would be better to die in battle than be executed for the loss.
After over an hour of fighting, the French were forced back to a hilltop. Both sides took to camp. The French had lost about a thousand men, while the Venetians lost twice that many. Many nobles had died. The French had lost the booty of the Italian expedition. A day's truce was declared for burial of the dead. The dead and even the wounded were looted by the victorious League infantry and then the local peasantry.
The following evening, Doge Agostino Barbarigo and the Venetian Senate received a report in which they were told that the Venetian army had not been destroyed, but that the result of the battle was uncertain because they had many casualties and deserters, but they did not know the enemy casualties. Due to the lack of details in this and due to other private correspondences, the Italians first believed they were in worse position than before, but the next day's detailed report declared victory. Though expressing dismay at his financial losses, Charles also voiced pride at the conduct of his soldiers and in the limited loss of soldiers.
Francesco Guicciardini wrote that both parties strove to present themselves as the victors in that battle, but the eventual consensus was for a French victory, because the French repelled their enemies across the river and succeeded in moving forward, which was their reason for fighting in the first place. In contemporary tradition, though, the battle counted as a Holy League victory, because the French forces had to leave the battlefield and lost their provisions. To the Italian coalition, however, it was at best a tactical victory, while the strategic outcome was in fact unfavorable and the long-term effects disastrous. The League took much higher casualties and could not prevent the opposing army crossing the Italian lands on its way back to France.
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, and 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'Orléans, 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 slightest disadvantage. Italy was to be the scene of a dispute between the main continental powers, where the Italians were left with only a secondary role in their own destiny. Basically only Venice with its exemplary (for the time) system of government was going to survive the invasion of Italy as a completely independent state, but with the greatest difficulties, and at the cost of her strength and impulse.
- Alessandro Beneditti, Diari de Bello Carolino Ch. 29–60 Book I
- R. Ritchie, Historical Atlas of the Renaissance, 64
- Nicolle 1996, p. 52.
- Nicolle 1996, p. 73.
- Based on sections 49-60, Beneditti, Alessandro (1967) [composed in 1495], Diaria de Bello Carolino, transl. Dorothy M. Schullian, New York
- Francesco Guicciardini, Storia d'Italia, http://www.filosofico.net/guicci1ardinistoriadital1iaia1.htm, accessed 20th March 2014.
- Luigi BARZINI, Jr., The Italians: A Full Length Portrait, New York, 1964.
- Dupuy, Trevor N. (1993), Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-270056-1;
- Nicolle, David (1996), Fornovo 1495: France's Bloody Fighting Retreat, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1-85532-522-5
- Ritchie, Robert (2004), Historical Atlas of The Renaissance, Thalamus Publishing, ISBN 978-0-8160-5731-3
- Battle of Fornovo animated battle map by Jonathan Webb