- Charles the Bold and Italy (1467-1477): Politics and Personnel
Charles the Bold's reign as Duke of Burgundy resembled a supernova, a veritable blast of light and energy that disappeared in an instant. During his decade of rule, the splendor of his court, the wealth of his patrimony, and the aggressiveness of his foreign policy made Charles an object of fear, admiration, and interest across Europe. In this exhaustively researched study, R. J. Walsh demonstrates that during that decade-long flurry of activity, the last Valois Duke of Burgundy was especially interested in things and people Italian. [End Page 520]
This work was originally slated for publication by a university press in the early 1980s, but for unspecified reasons never appeared. Twenty years later, thanks to several champions, most notably Cecil Clough, it is now in print, largely unchanged from the original manuscript. In a postscript, Werner Paravicini insists that because the work is based so heavily on primary sources, little revision was in fact necessary. It is also, one must conclude, an indication of how out-of-favor Renaissance political and diplomatic history has been in the intervening period.
Walsh begins with an overview of Charles the Bold's relations with Italy, showing that they formed an important component of the duke's foreign policy. He suggests a number of reasons for the increased Burgundian interest in Italy during Charles's rule: the desire to use Italian alliances as leverage against the threat from France, the need for experienced soldiers to outfit his army, and the possibility, however remote, of territorial aggrandizement on the Italian peninsula. Walsh convincingly shows that the first of these was the most important: the role of France and the intentions of the calculating Louis XI were always foremost in Charles's mind.
Walsh then proceeds to look more closely at Charles's relations with the papacy, with Florence, and with Venice. Charles's warm relations with the Pope Paul II contrast with the suspicion between him and Sixtus IV, although Sixtus did gratify Charles with the appointment of a Burgundian cardinal. Relations with Florence are examined largely though the experience of Tommaso Portinari, the manager of the Bruges branch of the Medici Bank. Portinari became a close confidant of the duke, as well as one of his chief creditors.
Charles's pervasive interest in Italy was reflected in the large number of Italians who could be found at his court. This included a number of prominent resident Italian princes, including Rodolfo Gonzaga and Federico d'Aragona, but also numerous manservants, secretaries, doctors, merchants, and "wandering squires." He also examines the hundreds of Italians, from condottieri to infantrymen, who served in the Burgundian army in the 1470s, including Cola di Monforte, the Count of Campobasso, the military commander whose desertion to the Duke of Lorraine before Nancy helped seal Charles's fate.
But the Italians who receive the most comprehensive treatment here are the diplomats. Venice, Naples, Milan, and the papacy (in the form of legates) all regularly had diplomatic representatives alongside Charles. He highlights some common features of their experiences, describing their access to the duke, their functions at court, and the shape of their daily lives. The virtue of his approach here is that he reconstructs the world of the ambassadors almost exclusively through the examination of the content of their dispatches, rather than relying on treatises, instructions, and statutory material, all of which tend to paint ideals rather than actual practice. Walsh's research is further evidence of the immense value of Renaissance diplomatic correspondence, not only for political and diplomatic history, but for cultural, social, and economic issues. Anyone who has spent time studying such correspondence is aware of the vast reservoirs of information and insights that they hold. [End Page 521]
But Walsh's study also reveals the difficulties of writing history from such sources. As Walsh points out, fifteenth-century ambassadors...