French Invasion and Expulsion of the Medici Family


By William LandonNorthern Kentucky University

It took the better part of a generation for Italians to recognize that 1494—the year France invaded Italy—was to close a period of relative peace and cultural brilliance and to open decades, and eventually centuries, of political humiliation. The Medici family was expelled, the era of the city-state was drawing to a close, and the nation-state stood ready to replace it.

Painting depicting Charles VIII’s entrance into into Florence along with his army
Charles VIII’s military superiority was too much compared for the Italian city-states to face on their own. (Image: Giuseppe Bezzuoli/Public domain)

Charles VIII’s Military Superiority

Charles VIII of France surprised the Italian states, the Papacy, and the newly formed Kingdom of Spain by leading an expeditionary force into Italy. Milan fell to France pathetically. Ludovico Sforza became the Duke of Milan after his nephew died—likely from being poisoned at Ludovico’s command. But his powers were so obviously minuscule compared to those of Charles that he was viewed as both pathetic and traitorous.

In order to take his army to Naples—the real object of his invasion—Charles had to pass through Tuscany and to do that he had to confront Florence. The army that followed Charles into Tuscany was massive for its time. He had 30,000 men—infantry, cavalry, and artillery.

The cannon that his fusiliers fielded were brand new. Made of bronze, they did not suffer metal fatigue and melting as earlier iron cannon had; and equipped so that they might be pulled by horse, they were able to keep up with infantry at fast march.

And Charles used his cannon differently, as well. Since their introduction in battle in the late Middle Ages, cannons had been used exclusively to blast down fortifications and walls. Charles began to use them against infantry and cavalry. He lowered the barrels and shot directly at human targets.

No Lives Matter

The Italian wars that had preceded the French invasion involved horrible violence and loss of life, but because the main players in nearly every battle in Italy were represented in the field by proxy, via mercenary armies, the number of fatalities and casualties tended to be very low. 

Mercenary captains were not, on the whole, careless with their soldiers’ lives. Each soldier represented a human life, but more importantly a capital investment on the part of their captain. Training a solder was and is a costly endeavor.

But during the invasion, Charles had no qualms about casualties. Green French soldiers could be conscripted to replace their fallen comrades, and they would learn to fight or die. Mercenary captains did not have that luxury, and they were not prepared for Charles to throw away the lives of his men with such recklessness.

This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the RenaissanceWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Piero de’ Medici

The French made camp at the border of Tuscany. Rather than waiting to consult with his war council, Piero de’ Medici rode directly to meet with Charles. He left an official missive for the Florentine government, but this was not delivered until after he had left the city for Charles’s camp.

Lorenzo the Magnificent had done almost exactly the same thing when he left Florence to negotiate directly with the king of Naples shortly after the Pazzi conspiracy. Lorenzo’s personal genius and negotiating abilities had brought the war with Naples to an end without considerable damage to Florence and Tuscany. Piero believed that he would be similarly successful.

Engraving of Piero de Medici
Piero’s negotiation with Charles VIII made the Florentine government especially ready to castigate him. (Image: Giorgio Vasari/Public domain)

But when he arrived at Charles’s camp, Piero was greeted with cordial contempt. Charles informed Piero that he would lay siege to Florence and sack it if the Medici did not consent to give up their four most important fortresses and the ports of Pisa and Livorno. To Charles’s surprise and amusement, Piero agreed to these outlandish terms without even offering a less punitive alternative.

The Medici Family Expelled

Back in Florence, news of this agreement was met with shock and anger. The government sent two consecutive embassies to Charles, informing him that Piero did not have the right to make such an agreement without consultation, making the treaty void. They tried to make less punishing agreements with Charles, but he stiffly rejected them.

Piero knew that his position in Florence was precarious. But, after having been away for weeks, in mid-November 1494, he had to return. Upon his arrival, he was summoned to the Signoria, which although composed almost exclusively of Medici supporters was prepared to publicly castigate the young Piero for his overreach.

When Piero arrived at the government palace, he was accompanied by a heavily armed group of soldiers. This appeared, worryingly, to be a coup attempt. The palace gates were locked, and the Signoria tolled the palace’s great bell, summoning all Florentine citizens to a parliament.

As the bell still rang, Florentines knew what those refrains meant. A mob attacked and looted the Medici palace, and Piero, together with his two younger brothers Giovanni and Giuliano fled the city into exile. After 60 years of power in Florence—from 1434 to 1494—the Medici were expelled. A new government had to be formed, even as the French advanced on the city.

Common Questions about French Invasion and Expulsion of the Medici Family

Q: How were King Charles VIII’s cannons different from the ones previously used in battle?

The cannons that King Charles VIII’s army was using in its invasion of Italy were made of bronze. This meant that they didn’t suffer metal fatigue and melting as earlier iron cannons had. Since those cannons could be pulled by horses, they could keep up with the army at a fast march.

Q: What were some tactics that King Charles VIII used in his invasion of Italy?

King Charles VIII’s cannons were not only used against walls and fortifications but also against cavalry and infantry. The mercenary armies that fought for the city-states, such as Florence where the Medici family lived, couldn’t afford to lose soldiers as easily as Charles VIII did.

Q: Why were Piero de Medici and his brothers forced to leave Florence?

After his negotiations with Charles VIII, when Piero returned to Florence, he was summoned to the Signoria which was prepared to castigate him. Since Piero was heavily guarded it appeared as a coup attempt and a mob attacked the Medici family’s palace. Thus, Piero and his brothers were forced to flee the city.

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