The invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France in 1494-95 has acquired a special reputation as the start of a new era in Italian politics after the forty-year settlement between Milan, Venice, Florence, the papacy and Naples that supposedly followed the Peace of Lodi in 1454. For the great sixteenth-century Florentine historian, Francesco Guicciardini, the French invasion marked the beginning of an unending Italian tragedy, continuing through the reigns of Louis XII and Francis I of France and of Ferdinand II and Charles I of Spain; 1494 was:
... a most unhappy year for Italy, truly the beginning of the years of wretchedness, because it opened the way for innumerable horrible calamities which later for various reasons afflicted a great part of the rest of the world.
It was against the kings of Naples, members of the Spanish royal house of Aragon, that the French king directed his campaign, amid talk that Naples would also be the springboard for a crusade to recover Constantinople and Jerusalem. In order, then, to understand Charles' plans it is important to understand who his enemies in Naples were and what crimes were attributed to them.
King Ferrante or Ferdinand of Naples died after a long reign at the beginning of 1494 and thus did not actually witness the war that was originally aimed against him, and subsequently against his successors. Ferrante seems almost the embodiment of the Renaissance prince, sharing with his contemporaries in Milan, Ferrara and elsewhere a reputation for subtle diplomacy, duplicity and cruelty that has been vividly perpetuated in Jacob Burckhardt's characterisation of him in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: 'it is certain that he was equalled in ferocity by none among the princes of his time', and yet he was 'recognised as one of the most powerful political minds of the day', who avoided all other vices in order to concentrate on the destruction of his political opponents. He enjoyed above all having his enemies near him, 'either in well-guarded prisons, or dead and embalmed, dressed in the costume which they wore in their lifetime. He would chuckle in talking of the captives with his friends, and made no secret whatever of his museum of mummies'. To this day, shrivelled corpses preserved in the vaults of the Castelnuovo at Naples are pointed out, rightly or wrongly, as Ferrante's victims. John Addington Symonds summed this attitude up by describing Ferrante as 'a demon for dissimulation, treachery and avarice', only moderating the force of his words by remarking that his son Alfonso II of Naples was even worse.
This appalling reputation has its origins in the violent controversies that raged over the legitimacy of Ferrante's claim to the throne, and in the constant attempts of French princes to assert their own right to the kingdom of Naples, culminating in the celebrated descent into Italy by Charles VIII of France in 1494, and the fall of Naples itself in February, 1495. The French chronicler Philippe de Commynes, who served Charles VIII as an ambassador in Italy, established for all time Ferrante's evil reputation, writing of Ferrante's son Alfonso, Duke of Calabria (the future King Alfonso II of Naples), 'never was any prince more bloody, inhuman, lascivious or gluttonous, but his father was more dangerous still, since no one knew when he was angry or pleased'. Such images of the Neapolitan royal family served their purpose in justifying the French invasions of Italy, and should be read as vigorous propaganda. Yet the claim to rule of Ferrante could be faulted; the French king had a genuine claim to the throne of Naples which originated in the conquest of southern Italy, at papal behest, by Charles, Count of Anjou and Provence in 1266.
Ferrante had effective replies to the French claim. In the first place, Ferrante had been nominated as King of Naples by his father Alfonso V (Alfonso I of Naples), the Magnanimous, king of Aragon, Valencia, Sicily and Sardinia, conqueror in 1442 of Naples and southern Italy, whose own rights to the south of Italy originated not simply in conquest but in the will of the profligate last Angevin ruler of Naples, Joanna II; she had died in 1435 without a direct heir. …