Counting the Correspondence: letters from the Italian Wars

Nowadays writing someone a letter might be regard as quite a statement, but in the past epistolary activities were a continuous and everyday affair. For medieval and early-modern diplomacy in particular, the letter played a fundamental role. It was a means of maintaining relationships and exchanging information. Noble families relied on chancelleries to aid them in the process. Having said that, personal and political ties were strongly intertwined and there was no such thing as separate diplomatic and private correspondence. Nonetheless, political upheavals could have their effect on the intensity of chancellery activities. We will look further into the matter following three Renaissance families, the Gonzaga from Mantua, d’Este from Ferrara and finally the Sforza from Milan in a very particular moment in time. In the years 1494-95, Charles VIII, King of France, led his troops down the Italian peninsula in order to defend his claims to the Kingdom of Naples. We will pay particular attention to the shifting frequency of written letters, especially that of Ludovico Sforza, the de facto ruler of Milan who played quite a few tricks on his political allies during the course of the war.

Let us first take a look at our protagonists. There were several marital ties between the families, but the one that tied them most tightly together were the marriages of Ercole d’Este daughters. The older one, Isabella d’Este, was married to Francesco Gonzaga and her younger sibling, Beatrice d’Este, to the aforementioned Ludovico Sforza, also known as ‘il Moro.’ A simplified family tree shows the relations between the family members. Bear in mind that the two Este daughters are part of the Gonzaga and Sforza households even though they still bear their maiden name. This will be relevant later on.

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As one can see, all three families where located in the Po-delta. During the invasion, the French travelled all the way south to Naples, which they took in February. The main battle took place in Northern-Italy again, near the town of Fornovo. In this battle, the Italian League failed to thwart Charles VIII in his return to French soil. Francesco Gonzaga celebrated it as a victory nevertheless. In honour of this alleged triumph he had the Madonna della Vittoria made by Andrea Mantegna, featured in the thumbnail of this article.

Now let us look at the surviving letters sent from the Sforza chancellery to the Este and Gonzaga. The limitation that these only include surviving originals is an important one, copies might have been stored at other archival locations. Broadly speaking, we see that the frequency of Ludovico Sforza’s two epistolary relationships are inversely proportional to one other. During the year 1494 his main correspondent seem to have been Ercole d’Este. Starting from January 1495, however, his focus seems to have shifted to the Gonzaga’s of Mantua. This lasted to approximately the end of the year, and by December 1495 it was Ercole d’Este again who was receiving the lion’s share of the letters.

These changes become significant when we compare them to the political developments of the time. Ercole d’Este, even though not going as far as providing openly military support, aided the French in their invasion nonetheless. Ludovico Sforza, on the other hand, initially went all in on the French. This lasted to the next year when the French succeeded to take possession of Naples in February 1495. Ludovico Sforza would join the anti-French coalition known as the Italian League, concluded 31 March 1495. The forces of this coalition of Italian and oltralpine states were led by Francesco Gonzaga, his brother-in-law. It is clear, however, that the upward trend in epistolary frequency started much earlier. This confirms the idea that Ludovico Sforza worried about the progress his allies were making in the peninsula already at an earlier stage. It is in particular about the time that they reach Naples that the shift started to take place. Also discernible is the main battle of this war, that at Fornovo in July 1495, as the numbers surge higher and peak in the aftermath in the following month. In October that year, Ludovico changed sides once again, concluding a seperate peace with Charles VIII of France, leaving his former allies behind in outrage. Ercole d’Este, who had remained on good terms with Charles VIII all along, played an intermediary role in according and executing this peace. That also explains why the number of letters for the Gonzaga are plummeting and d’Este is retaking his more prominent position once again.

But there is another aspect to this that so far has not become clear yet. The numbers of Ludovico’s outgoing letters to the Gonzaga contain both that addressed to Francesco Gonzaga as well as that to his wife, Isabella d’Este. Because for the whole of 1494, Ludovico hardly wrote to the Gonzaga’s at all -there is only one letter for Isabella – we will leave that year out of the picture.

Isabella administered the state at times that her husband was absent, without doubts one of the reason that has made her a much discussed subject in the historiography. This is also reflected by the amount of letters she received from Ludovico Sforza. Most of them were sent in the months March to July; the months leading up to the battle of Fornovo. In this time, Francesco Gonzaga was away from home preparing his troops in the field. Isabella d’Este took care of matters at home and consequently was also addressed by Ludovico directly. In the months leading toward the battle, however, her relative importance as a correspondent diminished. The number of letters she received from Milan are less than those of Francesco Gonzaga in these months, to drop to an absolute minimum in the month after. In the later months of the year, the amount of letters she receives – both absolute and relative – never received the same heights again. It only reached its peaks during the times that Francesco Gonzaga was away from court, thus proving the central role that Isabella d’Este could play in his absence.

As we have seen, the changes in the intensity of epistolary activities can give us a deeper understanding of the shifting political alliances. However, not all letters have survived to our day. For example, the replies to the letters discussed above – those sent by the Gonzaga and Este to Ludovico Sforza – have been featured less prominently in this article because their numbers are too low to draw any significant conclusions. To illustrate how easily letters might have been lost for posterity we could turn our attention to the draft copies that the Sforza sometimes kept of their outgoing letters. The next graph indicates how many of the outgoing letters from the Sforza to the Este actually have corresponding copies; at the same time, there are also some copies without any corresponding original. This functions as a warning that chancellery activities and archival practices are not perfect and that the remaining material consequently does not always offer a complete picture.

To give another example: from Isabella d’Este to Ludovico Sforza we only have 21 original letters. Compared to Ludovico’s replies to Isabella, that we already encountered before, it seems to follow the same trend but at a lower frequency. In the correspondence, Ludovico complains several times about the lack of response. This lack of commitment to the correspondence from the side of Isabella seems to be confirmed by the data. On the other hand, the number of letters from Francesco Gonzaga to Ludovico Sforza, that for the comparison have been included as well, is not much higher. Therefore, it might also be that in Milan the letters have been less well preserved than they were in Mantua.

In conclusion, the changing amount of letters produced by the Sforza chancellery to Mantua and Ferrara reflects Ludovico Sforza’s changing alliances. Moreover, the data seem to suggest that Ludovico started actively planning his break with the French from the moment that they took possession of Naples. In addition, the numbers also seem to support Isabella d’Este supposed role as administrator of the family affairs in absence of her husband, Francesco Gonzaga. At the same time, however, Ludovico’s attention was mainly drawn to him up-to and directly after the battle of Fornovo. Furthermore, we have also seen that we must be careful in interpreting this data. Not all letters have survived and the circumstances in which they were preserved are not always clear. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see that we can draw parallels between the epistolary frequency and the political developments.

The following tools have been applied in this article:

The data presented in this article is based on the following archival collections:
Archivio di Stato di Modena, Archivio Segreto Estense 1215a, 1216
Archivio di Stato di Milano, Archivio Sforzesco 334, 335, 335, 399
Archivio di Stato di Mantova, Archivio Gonzaga 1612, 1613

For further information, see also:

Mallett, Michael Edward, and Christine Shaw, The Italian Wars, 1494-1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe, Modern Wars in Perspective, 1st ed (Harlow, England ; New York: Pearson, 2012)
Pellegrini, Marco, Le Guerre d’Italia: 1494-1530, Universale Paperbacks Il Mulino, 562 (Bologna: Il mulino, 2009)

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