By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
In 1503, after nearly a decade in exile, Piero de’ Medici drowned in the Garigliano River as he and the French forces that he fought alongside fled from yet another thumping at the hands of the Spanish Army. However, his passing, combined with the constitutional reforms at Florence, only briefly halted the Medici family’s plans to retake Florence.
Invasion by France
When Piero de’ Medici and the Medici family fled Florence in the autumn of 1494, they sought refuge in Venice. Piero never returned to Florence, and Italy spiraled into near total war.
In 1494, France invaded, seeking to assert a rightful monarchical claim to the Kingdom of Naples. Spain, which had an equally legitimate claim to the same kingdom, was compelled to invade Italy to counter French aggression. Tens of thousands of Italians lost their lives, including Piero.
The mast to which the Medici had lashed themselves, the Kingdom of France, proved unreliable. King Charles VIII’s plans to permanently retake Naples for the French crown were never successful.
Girolamo Savonarola’s Predictions
The popular religious and political reformer Girolamo Savonarola provided Florence and its newly reestablished republican government with a sense of divine assurance and assistance. He had predicted the French invasion and the scourge that it would bring, and he had also predicted that Florence would come through its period of testing wealthier, more beautiful, and more righteous than it had ever been.
More specifically, Savonarola had preached that Florence had to meet four conditions to reach its zenith. First and foremost, Florence had to recognize and to fear God—thus turning its back on the Renaissance and its pagan lasciviousness; second, the city had to focus its religious and political beliefs on the common good, as opposed to the good of its few powerful families; third, it had to work for the restoration of peace; and fourth, it had to reestablish the republic’s Grand Council, which would open political service to broad swathes of Florence’s population.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Peace Agreement with the Florentine Republic
Savonarola himself was forbidden from serving in political office. Clerics were not permitted to be elected professional politicians, and Savonarola abided by those rules. But he was allowed to act in an advisory capacity to the infant republic. And it was in that role that he represented Florence at King Charles VIII’s camp as the autumn of 1494 drew to a close.
Savonarola was in a very difficult position. Shortly before his meeting with Charles, the Florentine nobleman and former ambassador to King Charles VIII, Piero Capponi, had exclaimed to the king, “Since such shameless demands are being made, you sound your trumpets and we will sound our bells!” Having promised that Florence was willing to go to war with Charles, Capponi angrily departed.
Thus, concerned by the delay that Florentine opposition would entail, Charles entered into a peace agreement with the Florentine Republic, which undid many of the punitive measures to which Piero de’ Medici had rashly assented.
Guicciardini’s History of Italy
This version of events is drawn from Francesco Guicciardini’s History of Italy. The famous Florentine, and close friend of Niccolò Machiavelli, left out all references to Savonarola’s part in the negotiations. And Guicciardini’s history gives Florence more power than it truly wielded. The French could have easily bombarded Florence with artillery and beaten it into submission.
The reality is that Charles did not wish to be waylaid by a war with Florence. His goal was Naples. However, Capponi, and Savonarola, who also met with the King of France as a representative of the Church, were able to convince Charles that an alliance between France and the republic was beneficial to both parties.
French Occupation of Florence
Nevertheless, the French army arrived at Florence in late November 1494. Savonarola and the republican government arranged for a number of Florentine youths, who headed the city’s official delegation, to greet Charles at the San Frediano Gate, which is located across the Arno from the city center. Charles and his army passed through the gate, making their way along what is today the Borgo San Frediano to the Piazza della Signoria—the city’s main square.
Savonarola explained to the government and citizens of Florence that the occupation would be harsh but brief, and that if they endured a short-lived humiliation, peace would prevail. It did, but only after Savonarola was forced to intervene yet again to stop war breaking out between the French occupiers and the disgruntled Florentines.
Finally, Peace in Florence
In order to express amity between Florence and France publicly, Charles requested that the treaty documents be read not in the government square but in Florence’s cathedral, a tip of his velvet hat to Savonarola. The French billeted in Florence for 10 days, and then were gone—making their way to Naples.
Once again, Savonarola’s predictions had proved true, and his advice sound. He began to preach about a new universal peace that would prevail in Florence. It did, but at the expense of the Medici and the families who were aligned with them.
Common Questions about Girolamo Savonarola’s Predictions and the Florence-France Relationship
Girolamo Savonarola’s four conditions were: First, Florence had to recognize and to fear God; second, the city had to focus its religious and political beliefs on the common good, as opposed to the good of its few powerful families; third, it had to work for the restoration of peace; and fourth, it had to reestablish the republic’s Grand Council.
Girolamo Savonarola was forbidden from serving in political office. Clerics were not permitted to be elected professional politicians, and Savonarola abided by those rules. However, he was allowed to act in an advisory capacity.
The French Army arrived at Florence in late November 1494. They billeted in Florence for 10 days, and then were gone—making their way to Naples.