- Anti-Italianism in Sixteenth-Century France
Henry Heller's latest book tackles a subject that has long been known, occasionally tackled by literary scholars, but rarely addressed by historians in any kind of systematic way: the intense xenophobia in France directed at Italians in the sixteenth century that reached its zenith during the Wars of Religion. First, he suggests that many more Italians belonged to the Protestant community in Lyons than has been previously thought. While historians have long known about the domination of the banking industry by Italians in Lyons, Heller argues that many of the Italians in Lyons were in fact Protestants. This did not apply so much to the banking families who were from Florence, but to those who had emigrated to Lyons from Genoa and especially from Lucca, an important Protestant center in Italy. Heller admits that the number of Italian Protestants in Lyons was surely small, though he is probably right that if six of the ten leading banking families from Lucca in Lyons converted to Protestantism, then this small number probably wielded significant influence. His point is that the Catholic majority detested the Italians in Lyons not only because of their influential role in the banking industry, but also because they had begun to infiltrate the ranks of French Protestants.
A second argument is that the St. Bartholomew's massacres were not solely areligious phenomenon, as anti-Italianism in Paris was as rampant as anti-Protestantism both before and after the massacres. Unlike in Lyons, Italians in Paris had not converted to Protestantism and were despised for their more traditional links with the banking industry and the recent rise at court of several prominent Italian families. Heller does not claim that many Italians were hunted down and killed on the night of August 24, 1572, though he suggests they could have been targeted. It was just three years later, however, in 1575 when the most significant outbreak of violence against Italians in the capital did occur. Moreover, the Italians became linked with Jews in the minds of many Parisians, because of their mutual involvement in financial affairs. Thus, Heller shows that anti-Italianism and anti-Semitism were intertwined in this period.
Finally, Heller demonstrates conclusively that both Huguenots and Catholics in France were equally hostile to Italians. For the Huguenots, it was more a case of associating Italians with the anti-Machiavellianism that emerged after the St. Bartholomew's massacres. For Catholics, it was during the period of the [End Page 319] Catholic League (1584-1594) that this anti-Italianism reached its apex. In linking together Henri III and the Italian financiers, the deputies at the Estates-General at Blois found a useful way to attack both the king and foreigners at the same time. For example, Pierre d'Epinac, archbishop of Lyons, was a well-known agent of the Guises and he himself had close ties with many Italian bankers. Nevertheless, even he denounced the Italian influence on the crown and complained that Italian bankers were getting rich by getting all kinds of perquisites and special favors in return for their loans to the king. Heller is surely right to stress that this criticism during the period of the League went far beyond the traditional complaints against foreign influence in the past, resulting as it did in calls for regicide. In conclusion, Heller provides a great service in examining the anti-Italian literature of the sixteenth century in all its many guises, and he is especially good in demonstrating how much it contributed to evolving French notions of national sentiment and racism in the period.