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Communication and conflict. Italian diplomacy in the early Renaissance, 1350 - 1520

Diplomacy has never been a politically-neutral research field, even when it was confined to merely reconstructing the backgrounds of wars and revolutions. In the nineteenth century, diplomacy was integral to the grand narrative of the building of the modern 'nation-State'. This is the first overall study of diplomacy in Early Renaissance Italy since Garrett Mattingly's pioneering work in 1955. It offers an innovative approach to the theme of Renaissance diplomacy, sidestepping the classic dichotomy between medieval and early modern, and re-considering the whole diplomatic process without reducing it to the 'grand narrative' of the birth of resident embassies. Communication and Conflict situates and explains the growth of diplomatic activity from a series of perspectives - political and institutional, cognitive and linguistic, material and spatial - and thus offers a highly sophisticated and persuasive account of causation, change, and impact in respect of a major political and cultural form.

The volume also provides the most complete account to date of how it was that specifically Italian forms of diplomacy came to play such a central role, not only in the development of international relations at the European level, but also in the spread and application of humanism and of the new modes of political thinking and political discussion associated with the generations of Machiavelli and Guicciardini.
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General Editors
joh n h . a rn old pat ric k j . ge a ry
joh n wat ts

and Conflict
Italian Diplomacy in
the Early Renaissance, 1350–1520


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Italian diplomacy was a topic far from my interests when Franca Leverotti invited
me to join the team that was editing the correspondence between Mantua and
Milan in the Sfo; rza era; many years have gone by since then, but I am still most
grateful to her, not only for her long-lasting friendship but also for that first push
towards the unknown country of Renaissance diplomacy. Over the years Riccardo
Fubini has been a generous and inspirational source of knowledge: I have gained
enormously from his conversation and his work. I have had the chance to discuss
diplomatic practices with many friends and colleagues: in Italy, first and foremost
Francesco Senatore and Nadia Covini; then, over the years, the members of the
small but tireless teams of editors of the correspondence from Milan and from
­Naples—particularly Gianluca Battioni, Marco Folin, Marcello Simonetta, Francesco
Somaini, Francesco Storti, Armando Miranda, Emanuele Catone, Bruno Figliuolo,
Elisabetta Scarton, and Patrizia Meli. I have benefited enormously from working
with Jean-Claude Waquet and his research group at the EHESS, in particular Stéphane
Péquignot. Together with Stéphane and John Watts, in September 2012 I organized an international workshop on European diplomacy at the Centro de Ciencias
Pedro Pascual (University of Barcelona) in Benasque. A group of friends gathered
together to discuss European diplomacy and walk in the Pyrenees: I am most
grateful to John and Stéphane, and to Bénoît Grévin, Eva Pibiri, Armand Jamme,
Christina Antenhofer, Paul Dover, Barbara Bombi, Serena Ferente, Francesco
Senatore, Roser Salicrú y Lluch, Dejanira Couto, Tiago Viúla de Faria, Toby Osborne,
Oren Margolis, Viorel Panaite, Joan Pau Rubiés, Óscar Villaroel González, and
John Watkins. The director of the Centre, José Ignacio Latorre, is a theoretical
physicist and a long-time friend: his intellectual curiosity and warm hospitality
allowed us to enjoy the facilities of the Centre, and I feel a debt both to him and
to the efficient and welcoming staff at Benasque. The current Italian Research Project PRIN on social mobility has provided me with a framework in which I could
combine research on diplomacy with the study of social mobility: for this challenging opportunity I am indebted to Sandro Carocci, our principal investigator, to
Sergio Tognetti, Lorenzo Tanzini, and Olivetta Schena, my colleagues in the scientific unit of the University of Cagliari, and to all the participants in the project.
Many friends through the years have been patient interlocutors and enthusiastic
accomplices in my research, and I am most grateful, in many different ways, to
Barbara Rosenwein, Olivier Guyotjeannin, Marilyn Nicoud, Steve Milner, Chris
Celenza, David Bénéteau, Patrick Gilli, Monica Salvadori, David Rundle, Maria
Sofia Fusaro, Jane and Robert Black, Julius Kirshner, Olivier Mattéoni, Daniela Frigo,
Alison Brown, Andrea Gamberini, Toby Osborne, Antonio Castillo Gomez, Monica
Ferrari, Tommaso Duranti, Monica Azzolini, Brian Maxson, Liz Horodowich,
Tim McCall, Sean Roberts, Christine Shaw, Trevor Dean, John Law, Alessandro
Arcangeli, and Paola Volpini.



I have been given the opportunity of discussing some of the topics of this book
in seminars and conferences in Paris, Milan, Exeter, Seton Hall, Florence, Durham,
Oxford, Edmonton, Edinburgh, Lausanne, Leeds, Venice, Washington, and New
York: I feel indebted to Stéphane Péquignot, Sylvio de Franceschi, Jean-Philippe
Genet, Olivier Guyotjeannin, Andrea Gamberini, Andrea Zorzi, Maria Sofia Fusaro,
David Bénéteau, Fabrizio Ricciardelli, Stefano Cracolici, Federico Federici, Dario
Tessicini, Carlo Caruso, Annalisa Cipollone, Giles Gasper, Nick Davidson, Nicola
Gardini, Bernard Andenmatten, Eva Pibiri, Heinz Noflatscher, Michael Chisolm,
Monica Azzolini, Brian Richardson, Stefano Dall’Aglio, Steve Milner, Paola Volpini,
and Dennis Romano for inviting me.
I have also been helped by a number of institutions. I feel I owe a great debt first
and foremost to my own university, my colleagues and my students in Molise;
then, to the Institute of Advanced Studies, the Institute of Medieval and Early
Modern Studies, and the Italian Department of the School of Modern Languages
in Durham that hosted me twice in Durham—as Leverhulme Trust visiting professor
in 2011, and as Marie Curie Senior Research Fellow in 2012—and to the École
Nationale des Chartes, in which I spent a month in 2014 as invited professor.
­Finally, Chris Wickham—who has known me since I was a student in Pisa—invited
me to Oxford to give a seminar about argument and emotion in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s
correspondence in 2011. That invitation was the prelude to a three-month stay in
All Souls as a visiting fellow: my research took its final shape in that wonderful
setting, and I am deeply grateful to him, to All Souls, and to my co-fellows of
Michaelmas Term 2012.
But a book is not just raw research: it needs to be read and amended, and it
needs to be published. I feel a great debt to John Watts, John Arnold, and Patrick
Geary for the opportunity they offered to publish my research in the Oxford University Press series Oxford Studies in Medieval European History. To John Watts
I am particularly indebted moreover, for his friendship, and because within a very
busy schedule of his own, he found the time to read the text carefully, and to provide me with an invaluable mix of kind advice, open discussion, encouragement,
most-needed correction, and beautiful English restyling. I am extremely grateful to
him. Christine Shaw read and carefully amended my English: she did it with both
the competence of a historian and the light touch of a friend; if the linguistic result
still has a long way to go, it is definitely not her fault. Chapters of this book have
benefited from the attention of Armand Jamme, Stéphane Péquignot, and Michaela
Valente: I thank them for their patience and their help. The final version of the
book has also greatly benefited from the comments of the two anonymous readers:
their observations were eminently just and extremely helpful.

1. Diplomacy and the ‘genèse de l’État moderne’
2. Renaissance Italy: New Approaches to Diplomacy


1. The Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy
1. Diplomatic Interactions
2. Identities and Chronologies
3. Spheres of Activity: Italy and Beyond
4. Concluding Remarks: Praxis and Late Developments


2. The Polygenesis of Diplomacy and the Trajectories of Change
1. Patterns
2. A Polygenetic Model: Formal Diplomatic Assignments
3. Merchants
4. Papal Legates, Nuntii, Collectors
5. The Chronology of Diplomatic Change
6. Concluding Remarks: Flexibility and Models


3. Sources for the Study of Diplomacy
1. Letters and Other Representations
2. Records
3. Narratives
4. Laws and Rules
5. Concluding Remarks: Images and Perceptions


4. Information
1. The Value of Information
2. Control and Manipulation
3. Information Networks
4. Information-Gathering, Ordering, and Transmission: The Techniques
5. Concluding Remarks: Information and Anxiety
5. Negotiation
1. Old and New Meanings
2. General Aims and Daily Practices
3. Roles and Patterns of Interaction
4. Concluding Remarks: The Documentary Lenses




6. Communication
1. Communication in Diplomacy
2. Communication Networks
3. A Web of Words
4. Concluding Remarks: Controlling Conflict, ‘Thinking’ about Politics


7. Diplomatic Agents: An Open Social Field
1. An Open Social Field
2. Ambassadors
3. Occasional Diplomats
4. The Gendered Face of Diplomacy
5. Concluding Remarks: A Reciprocal Duty


8. Forms, Actions, and Rituals
1. Forms, Actions, and Rituals of Diplomatic Interactions
2. Forms and Practices of Diplomacy
3. Ritual and Hierarchy
4. Concluding Remarks: The Obsession with Secrecy


9. The Spaces of Diplomacy
1. The Political and Physical Spaces of Diplomacy
2. The Spatial Geography of Interactions
3. Cities and Countryside: The Spaces of Diplomacy
4. Concluding Remarks: A World on Stage?


10. The Forms of Diplomatic Communication
1. Forms and Codes: Speaking, Reading, Actions, Writing
2. Speaking and Reading
3. Actions
4. Writing
5. Concluding Remarks: The Records’ Memory


11. Argument and Emotion
1.	Argument and Emotion: Performative Codes and the Transformative
Power of Words
2. Argumentative Strategies over Time
3. The Words and Scripts of Emotions
4. Concluding Remarks: Constative, Performative, or Transformative?




12. Languages, Lexeis, and Exchanges
1. Transfers
2. Languages
3. Lexeis
4. Exchanges
5. Concluding Remarks: The Ultimate Exchange






To Corinna

In the spring of 1494, desperate to avoid a possible war in Tuscany as a side-effect
of Charles VIII’s descent into Italy to conquer the Kingdom of Naples, the Florentine ambassadors Guidantonio Vespucci and Piero Capponi wrote to Piero de’
Medici that it would be necessary ‘to understand (intendere) the arguments
(ragione) of the parties before having recourse to weapons (armi)’.1 They wanted
the king to put his case to Pope Alexander VI in Rome before calling the kingdom
to arms. Some of these words have multiple meanings. ‘Intendere’ alludes to both
listening and understanding; ‘ragione’ means both the legal grounds and the
reasons for one’s claims. ‘Armi’, by contrast, does not leave any scope for interpretation. It was too late, of course: ‘war is coming to our home: they do not want to
be kept at bay with words any more’, said a bewildered Ludovico il Moro to
Giovan Battista Ridolfi, Florentine ambassador in Milan, at the end of September.2
What could not be kept at bay with diplomatic interactions were the men and
cannon of the king of France: the unexpectedly successful Italian expedition of
Charles VIII was about to invest the whole peninsula, subverting governments
and pushing the distinctive Italian political experiment towards a real turningpoint. The ‘Italian’ way of mastering external political interventions by absorbing
them into a dense network of communication and dialogue proved unable to
cope when someone from abroad imposed, at least for a while, a different style
of confrontation.3
My research deals with words and swords, reasons and weapons. Italian diplomacy in the period from the mid-fourteenth to the early sixteenth century provided
a vulnerable but flexible system of power with a tight network of channels of negotiation in order to avoid an unqualified recourse to violence.4 It apparently failed:
as Francesco Guicciardini wrote some thirty years later, in 1494 ‘there entered into
Italy a flame and a plague that not only changed the states, but also the ways of
government, and the ways of war’.5 However, this network of interactions and
1 Guidantonio Antonio Vespucci and Piero Capponi to Piero de’ Medici, Turin, 17 Apr. 1494, in
Négotiations, i. 377–9, at 378 (‘prima intendere la ragione delle parti innanzi si venga alle armi’).
2 Giovan Battista Ridolfi to Piero de’ Medici, Alessandria, 25 Sept. 1494, in Négotiations, i. 566–7,
at 566 (‘la guerra viene a casa nostra, e non vogliono essere tenuti più in parole’).
3 The French Descent; Mallett and Shaw, The Italian Wars.
4 See Mallett, ‘Diplomacy and War’, and Fubini, ‘Diplomacy’: for a reassessment of these topics,
see Lazzarini, ‘Renaissance Diplomacy’.
5 Guicciardini, Storie fiorentine, ii. 117: ‘era entrata in Italia una fiamma e una peste che non solo
mutò gli stati, ma e’ modi ancora del governargli ed e’ modi delle guerre’.


Communication and Conflict

­ egotiations proved fruitful—in Italy before 1494, and perhaps in Europe
afterwards—in many unexpected ways.
In the 1959 volume of the New Cambridge Modern History, dedicated to the
Renaissance, John Hale wrote a chapter on ‘International Relations in the West:
Diplomacy and War’. International political interactions were seen in terms of the
traditional relationship between military violence and diplomatic dialogue, with
these two mostly presented as antithetical rather than complementary.6 More than
fifty years later, how can a volume devoted to the acts, practices, and languages
of interactions between states, from open violence to peaceful communication,
provide a fresh image of international relations in the West apart from—no small
point—choosing to use different words?
1. D I P L O M A C Y A N D T H E ‘G E N È S E D E L’ É TAT M O D E R N E ’
Diplomacy has never been a politically neutral research field, even when it was
confined to merely reconstructing the backgrounds of wars and revolutions. In the
nineteenth century, when diplomatic historians were mainly diplomats themselves,
diplomacy became one of the backbones of the grand narrative of the building
of the modern ‘nation-state’. More than a century later, however, the most recent
research is moving away from diplomacy as an institutional tool of power, a ‘histoire diplomatique en soi’, as Lucien Febvre used to say,7 and is increasingly looking
at it as a social and cultural practice that enabled both Europeans and non-Europeans
to engage with each other in formal and informal, state and non-state contexts,
through the elaboration of common languages, shared practices of communication, and political cultures.8
Since the nineteenth century, Renaissance Italy has been on the front line of
diplomatic research. Italian polities have provided excellent case-studies for the
theory associating the beginnings of permanent diplomacy and the emergence of
resident ambassadors with the process of state-building.9 But it is worth noting
that, of the two key elements of the grand narrative about diplomacy and statebuilding—that is, the existence of permanent representatives abroad and the
public and centralized (i.e. royal) monopoly of negotiating power—late medieval
Italy precociously implemented the first, but almost entirely lacked the second.
When, in the 1950s, Chabod’s model of a ‘Renaissance State’ constructed by officials
and institutions provided the first sketch of a possible ‘Italian way’ to what was
then usually defined as the ‘modern’ state, diplomacy was at the very heart of the
process.10 However, rather than focusing on diplomacy and external interactions,
6 Hale, ‘International Relations’.
7 Febvre, ‘Contre l’histoire diplomatique en soi’.
8 Péquignot, ‘Berichte und Kritik’: on this change, see the results from Lazzarini, Péquignot, and
Watts, Negotiating Europe.
9 Reumont, Della diplomazia italiana; de Maulde la Clavière, La Diplomatie; Schaube, ‘Zur
10 Chabod, ‘Y a-t-il un État de la Renaissance?’.



Italian research on the state turned towards analysis of the internal institutional
and social frameworks of the various polities. The major problem on the table was
to understand and explain the lack of national unity before the Risorgimento: diplomacy, still deeply linked to the process of state-building, was not at the forefront
of Italian investigations.11 In this historiographical context, Italian research on diplomacy rather focused on source editions, leaving the business of interpretation to
Anglo-American scholars such as Mattingly, Ilardi, and Queller, whose pioneering
work, being mainly concerned with the theme of the origins and early forms of
contemporary diplomacy, built on the nineteenth-century research of the likes of
Reumont, de Maulde la Clavière, or Schaube rather than engaging with the most
innovative approaches to the workings of power.12 Mattingly offered in 1955 the
first twentieth-century overview of Renaissance diplomacy: a group of Italian
­Renaissance states, led by Milan, struggling for survival within the tight peninsular political system, invented ‘modern diplomacy’, most crucially through the
­deployment of resident ambassadors. In the following centuries European monarchies took the lead by transforming the first Italian resident embassies into a
system of international relationships, both widespread and deeply formalized.
­Advanced almost simultaneously, with some differences, by Fritz Ernst, this grand
narrative was partially revised by Queller, who emphasized the medieval roots of
the process.13 But soon after, pan-European approaches to the history of the
‘modern’ state began, in the 1980s and 1990s, to nuance the older emphasis on
centralism, national unity, and bureaucracy with a recognition of the variety of
forms of public power and the varying agency of rulers and kingdoms.14 In this
process, European and Italian historians converged: fifteenth-century Florence
became the ideal case-study for both. In recent decades, therefore, the gap between
a model of innovative diplomacy and the process of state-formation in Italy has
been partially filled by closer attention to the mechanisms of power and legitimation within the Italian states.15
The time has now clearly come for a new survey of Italian diplomacy with the
potential to replace Garrett Mattingly’s pioneering, but outdated, Renaissance
Diplomacy by taking into account the most recent and ground-breaking work on
11 Origini dello Stato.
12 Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy; Ilardi, Studies; Queller, Early Venetian Legislation and The
­Office of Ambassador.
13 Ernst, ‘Über Gesandtschaftswesen’: on this debate, see Senatore, ‘Uno mundo’, 28–43.
14 See the research programmes within the frameworks of both the European Science Foundation
(The Origins of the Modern State) and the CNRS (La Genèse de l’État moderne). See also, more recently,
Empowering Interactions, and Watts, The Making of Polities.
15 Riccardo Fubini’s crucial research on Florence has been ground-breaking (Fubini, ‘Diplomazia’
and ‘Diplomacy’), but his work must be read together with Rubinstein’s The Government of Florence.


Communication and Conflict

Renaissance Italy.16 In presenting innovative approaches to the theme of
­Renaissance diplomacy, this book will sidestep the classic dichotomy between
medieval and early modern, and reconsider the whole diplomatic process without
reducing it to the ‘grand narrative’ of the birth of resident embassies.17 Diplomacy
will be considered as a flexible political activity in which a full range of dynamics
until now mostly considered separately—negotiation, information-gathering,
representation, and communication—interacted in a process intimately linked to
political and cultural transformations of power and authority. Gathering all the
facets of this process under the banner of a hypothetical and teleological building
of a ‘modern state’ is no longer necessary, and can be misleading.
Such a revision implies a chronology necessarily more extended and nuanced than
the traditional mid-fifteenth-century turning-point, taking into account a long
Quattrocento that spans the mid-fourteenth to the early sixteenth century.18 It also
needs a wider geography, and we shall consider the interactions of Italian powers not
only within the peninsula, but also in the Christian West and in the Levant. Even
though the rhythms of change were various and irregular, and different powers chose
different strategies at different times, there was no single moment of transformation
in any of these spheres: diplomacy developed through the continuous adaptation of
practices and languages on all these different levels.19
The emergence of diplomacy as a flexible political activity is grounded on some
important features of the Italian peninsular system, which it is well to introduce at
the outset. The first is the political framework. The Italian peninsula in the late
Middle Ages and early modern age provided a distinctive political environment, in
presenting a wide assortment of political entities that varied greatly in size, form,
and power. In a long Quattrocento that stretches roughly from 1350 to 1520, what
we call ‘Italy’ was composed of a mosaic of polities and powers resulting from the
slow concentration and definition of the much more fragmented landscape of the
aftermath of the Hohenstaufen era. In the north were a number of territorial states
of different size and power, born from the strongest among the communal cities,
together with a few lay and ecclesiastical feudal principalities. In the centre lay the
Papal States, and in the south were the two kingdoms of Sicily and Naples, temporarily unified under the personal rule of Alfonso of Aragon between 1442 and
1458. Minor lords, republics, and communities completed the picture, but it was
not a static one: rather, ongoing processes of territorial expansion, institutional
change, conflicts, and interactions meant that the political geography of the peninsula was always changing.20
16 The Italian Renaissance State.
17 Mattingly’s seminal book still provides almost the only frame of reference, even for much more
recent syntheses such as Frey and Frey, The History of Diplomatic Immunity.
18 For a different—although convergent—use of a similar time-scale, see Celenza, The Lost Italian
Renaissance, p. xiii; on the emphasis on the early 1450s, mostly triggered by research on the Italian
League (1455) and Sforza’s dominion over Milan (1450), see Margaroli, Diplomazia; and, on a more
Italian perspective, Fubini, ‘L’idea di Italia’, 126.
19 Lazzarini, ‘Écrire à l’autre’; ‘Patterns of Translation’.
20 For what follows, see the synthesis provided by Lazzarini, L’Italia degli Stati territoriali, 48–74,
and The Italian Renaissance State: the main themes and many nuances of such a complex process will
be further developed in many ways in the present volume (mainly in Chs. 1, 6, and 12).



While the political independence and agency of all these powers was actually
very broad, they were formally limited, as they were still subject to the more
or less effective sovereign authority of the Empire (in the centre–north of the
peninsula) and the Papacy (in the centre–south).21 This mosaic of territories
and powers featured an even wider array of institutional and constitutional
­experiments. The more formal states included republics (large and small, with
or without a maritime empire: Florence, Lucca, Siena, Genoa, Venice); principalities centred on episcopal and communal cities (such as the duchies of Milan
and Ferrara and the marquisate of Mantua), and others based on feudal or ecclesiastical lordships (such as the duchy of Savoy, the marquisate of Monferrato, or
the prince-bishops of Trent and Aquileia); together with the very peculiar papal
monarchy, and the southern kingdoms. Politics was not only a matter for polities with a legally defined authority, however, but also for all those powers,
communities, and individuals that controlled a fraction of political agency and
gave expression to a political culture. The peninsular political system was therefore not reduced simply to duchies, kingdoms, republics; that is, to the formal
framework of authority and power: it was the result of all the different political
forces mutually interacting in complex patterns of conflict and negotiation.
This constellation of polities and powers was, finally, closely connected by dynastic
links and economic and political interests to a broader European and Mediterranean scenario.
Italy was a very fragmented political space, but it also possessed some unity:
shared languages and practices of power, human mobility, and cultural identity
and background, rather than a common political constitution.22 In this political
system conflicts were increasingly kept at bay by means of pacts and endless negotiations.23 Prolonged territorial wars—and the increasing financial pressure which
came with them—had pushed the Italian powers towards oligarchical channels
(as in Florence) or autocratic innovations (as in Milan) in the second half of the
fourteenth century. The resulting efficiency in political decision-making and the
concentration of authority and power in the hands of princes and narrower elites,
however, did not rescue these polities from a dangerous lack of internal legitimacy
and external recognition.24 Territorial expansion and institutional growth, together
with intermittent but increasingly dangerous interference on the part of extraItalian powers (in particular the Iberian and French kings and princes), pushed the
peninsula to two significant turning-points. The first arose at the end of the fourteenth century from the wars between Milan and the two republics of Venice and
Florence, and the struggles for the Kingdom of Naples between Aragonese and
Angevin pretenders. These conflicts produced a growing awareness among political
elites of the complementarity of the Italian framework: it was becoming less a mosaic
than a system of polities and powers. The second turning-point came with the
Italian wars at the end of the fifteenth century, which, in turn, exposed the inner
21 Lazzarini, L’Italia degli Stati territoriali; L’Italia alla fine del Medioevo.
22 Gamberini and Lazzarini, ‘Introduction’.
23 Lazzarini, L’Italia degli Stati territoriali.
24 Fubini, ‘Potenze grosse’.


Communication and Conflict

fragility of the Italian system, and dramatically threw it into the broader and more
dangerous political arena of Europe.
Although it was fragile and mostly illegitimate, this flexible and creative system
of powers provided the conditions in which diplomacy became an all-consuming
political activity capable of elaborating innovative languages of power and resistance, and of providing a common arena in which they could be used by political
actors of different quality and weight. The sharing of these languages and practices
allowed even the most unlikely political agents to join in a common discourse of
negotiation and communication. Thus, from 1350 to 1450 the structural flexibility
of Italian diplomacy broadened the array of potential actors and fine-tuned diplomatic practices across chronological or constitutional boundaries. The resulting,
sometimes overlapping, networks included most of the formal and informal polities in and around the peninsula: territorial hegemony and political legitimacy
were discussed within negotiated frameworks, either inclusive or exclusive, which
were aimed rather at causing damage to others by excluding them from negotiating
dynamics than at preventing war or solving conflicts. But this kind of flexibility
could not last forever. In the second half of the Quattrocento competition started
to narrow the field, resulting in many, sometimes conflicting, attempts to discipline the geography of powers; they came to be selectively coordinated, even if the
Italian system remained on the whole multipolar. The opening of the political network to European influence and the partial changing of the rules of competition at
the end of the fifteenth century transformed once again the hierarchies of negotiation, and altered the grammar of the Italian diplomatic system. However, aided
by the focusing of European politics on Italy from 1494 onwards, in the early sixteenth century the Italian discourse and practice of diplomacy began to spread to
a wider arena, becoming a standardized and recognizable European language of
political interaction.25
Negotiation, information-gathering, and representation were the three major
aims of diplomacy:26 communication networks developed by means of shared political languages and practices of interaction became the arena in which conflicts
were dealt with by the way of multiple negotiations; an unprecedented amount of
information of all sorts was mastered; and a less fragile legitimacy was built upon
pragmatic reciprocal recognition. Many were the building-blocks of such a flexible
and creative system of practices, rituals, and languages of diplomacy. Never-ending
negotiation emphasized the political role of the ambassadors, prolonged their stay,
and strengthened their influence, although governments continued to use other
intermediaries, such as merchant consuls or the chancellors and courtiers of those
high prelates who were also members of the political elites (like the increasingly
numerous cardinal-princes), or indeed princely spouses.27 Long-lasting missions
­existed side by side with short embassies, espionage, and many informal forms
of contact. Moreover, diplomacy remained for a long time an open social field:
25 Lazzarini, ‘News from Mantua’; Lazzarini, ‘Renaissance Diplomacy’; Dover, ‘The Growth’
(I thank Paul Dover for letting me read his paper).
26 Gilli, ‘La fonction d’ambassadeurs’, 181.
27 Fubini, ‘L’istituzione diplomatica’; Covini et al., ‘Pratiche e norme’.



aristocrats and chancellors, merchants and soldiers, clerics and intellectuals, officials
and princesses, subjects and sailors could enter the diplomatic interaction at any
time, for different purposes, and in many different ways.28 Finally, a ‘new’ common
political and diplomatic discourse was implemented on the basis of the emergence
and definition in a written form of distinctive textual, lexical, and linguistic
­resources that contributed to the way in which individuals perceived issues, framed
their language, and evolved systems of interpretation and political agency.29 A
widespread and standardized common language facilitated contacts and negotiations within Italy, and it was adapted, or substituted, by humanist Latin outside
the peninsula. Both the fifteenth-century vernacular and Latin were in fact linguistically and discursively refined by the absorption of a ‘classical’ cultural heritage
consisting in different layers of Ciceronian rhetoric, linguistic and syntactical borrowings from Classical Latin, and a more general fund of stories, characters, and
On the basis of these developments, one could therefore argue that diplomatic
networks countered political centralization instead of promoting it, precisely because
they permitted so much contact between so many groups and individuals, and
­because diplomacy was by no means restricted to rulers and governments.31 Equally,
we may wonder how many ‘diplomacies’ we can identify: condottieri, as well as
subject cities or urban and rural factions, could at times exercise diplomatic agency;
princes, statesmen, and intellectuals increasingly engaged in a ‘cultural diplomacy’
that by exchanging cultural products could create and maintain unpredicted connections.32 Renaissance Italy, therefore, proved to be a landscape in which diplomatic languages, practices, and tools—together with political and governmental
forms and institutions, complex and contradictory as they could be—grew and
became pivotal not only for the peninsula itself, with all its supposed singularity,
but also for the European continent as a whole.
Italian diplomacy elaborated a common political language and shaped a geography
of interacting identities and powers in a space that was at the same time politically
fragmented and culturally connected. In order to explore it from this perspective,
I shall focus more on interpretation of processes and developments than on providing
a case-by-case survey of its evolution. Reflecting the attention paid to political languages, primary sources will be extensively quoted (in English translation): when
required, the original version will be provided in footnotes. The volume is divided
into four sections. Part I (‘The Framework’) deals with the general framework of
the research: the long and flexible time-scale of Italian diplomacy, its geopolitical
physiognomy, and its documentary and textual foundations. Part II (‘Diplomacy as
a Political Action’) analyses the nature of diplomacy as a complex political action:
28 Lazzarini, ‘I circuiti mercantili’.
29 Bullard, ‘The Language of Diplomacy’; Lazzarini, ‘Argument and Emotion’.
30 Grafton, ‘Humanism’; Witt, In the Footsteps; The Rhetoric; Milner, ‘ “Le sottili cose” ’; Gilli, Au
miroir de l’humanisme, Maxson, The Humanist World.
31 I thank John Watts for pointing this out to me at Benasque; see Watts, ‘Introductory Talk’.
32 Covini, ‘Guerra e relazioni diplomatiche’; De Vincentiis, ‘Le Don impossible’; Senatore, ‘Le


Communication and Conflict

its main functions as provider of a shared communication network, of many
­systems of information-gathering, and of a common arena for settling conflicts,
mediating relationships, and shaping political identities will reveal its role in representing and legitimizing authority. Part III (‘Diplomacy as a Practice’) investigates
diplomacy as a flexible and adaptable practice: the various and changing backgrounds, roles, and competencies of the diplomatic agents; the moments and
rituals of negotiation and information-gathering; the public and private social
spaces of diplomatic interaction. Finally, Part IV (‘Diplomacy as a Political Language
and a Cultural Process’) focuses on the cultural processes that linked diplomacy to
the emergence of a peculiar and innovative language of power and domination.
Each chapter opens with a range of examples in order to plunge the reader directly
into the complexity and variety of the themes analysed therein; the concluding
­remarks aim rather to add a slightly different perspective to what is said in the
chapter than to offer solid conclusions or reassuring models.


The Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy
1. D I P L O M AT I C I N T E R A C T I O N S
A map of diplomacy centred on the Italian peninsula between 1350 and 1520
results in a very complex picture of political protagonists and diplomatic features.
International and infra-national as well as formal and informal political actors
contributed to a geography of diplomacy which was both multilayered and
A first example illustrates its extension outside Italy. In 1451 the Lombard Giovanni Castiglioni, bishop of Coutances, wrote a memorial (an aviso) to Francesco
Sforza, the new duke of Milan, to warn him about the general European situation
and the ambitions of Charles VII of France. That summer, in fact, the king was
heading to Lyon to discuss in the General Estates of France the possibility of
an ‘enterprise of Lombardy, and of all the rest that pertains to his house in Italy’.
Castiglioni’s analysis of the European situation provides a good overview of some
of the diplomatic manoeuvres within and around the Italian peninsula at the
middle of the fifteenth century, just before the end of the Hundred Years War and
on the eve of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Charles was planning an
Italian expedition:
to take revenge first of all on the Fulgosi [Fregoso] because of the ‘joke’ he thinks they
played on him at Genoa, and also on the king of Aragon, by whom—apart from the
insult of the Kingdom of Naples—he considers himself offended because of certain
intrigues that the king is involved in with the English and with the duke of Burgundy
and some other lords.

The final goal of the king was double: he aimed at ‘the Empire, and at having the
Papacy at home’. After occupying Genoa, backed by Marquis Guglielmo of Monferrato and with the support of some Genoese exiles and the city of Asti, he would
then conquer Lombardy:
and, having obtained Lombardy, it should be easier to conquer the rest of Italy . . . and
having obtained Italy, it seems to him he should have the imperial crown, one way or
another, and after that [the French] see no obstacle to having the Papacy at their command, and transferring it to Avignon.1

1 [Giovanni Castiglioni] to Francesco Sforza, Milan, 12 Sept. 1451 (Paris, BNF, MS Italien 1585,
cc. 223–224r), edited in Fubini, ‘Niccolò V’, text at 101–4, 101–2.


Communication and Conflict

Castiglioni’s memorial is far too long to be quoted extensively: however, in three
dense pages of political chemistry he mentioned the emperor, the European kings
(France, Aragon, Castile, England) and princes (Burgundy, Savoy), the Germanimperial world (from the elector-princes to the episcopal cities and the urban leagues),
the Levant, and of course the Italian powers—both great and small (Florentines and
Venetians, the cities of Asti and Siena, Monferrato and the minor lords). By means
of constructing and combining hypotheses, Castiglioni put before the duke a whole
world of polities interacting ­according to different logics, and pursuing distinct and
often conflicting policies. Castiglioni’s memorial depicts a particular political context, but at the same time is quite typical of both the close reasoning on the European
and Italian situation in the middle of the fifteenth century, and the extreme complexity of every move in such a scenario.
On the other hand, political interactions that we are tempted to recognize as
diplomatic in forms and meanings often involved much smaller players, and
could be restricted to the same territorial state. A second example throws light
on the plurality of the protagonists on a regional scale. In 1472 Antonio Ivani,
from Sarzana, a former Florentine chancellor in the Tuscan city of Volterra,
during the brutal repression of the uprising of the city against Florence wrote to
his friends, the Volterran aristocrats Giovanni Sighieri and Biagio Lischi, that
‘perhaps God wants you to survive better by negotiating than by governing’.2
For small cities—even those with a strong urban identity and a long-standing
tradition of independence—it was better to survive by negotiation than to risk
everything for a liberty difficult to sustain.
But the picture was actually even more complicated. A couple of examples from
Florence show both the multiple layering of the daily negotiating activity, which
involved general and particular leagues, and the coexistence of different ranges of
goals, general and particular, to be reached. In 1483 the Florentine Priors explained
to their ambassadors leaving for France that:
Your mission has to have a dual commission (commissione bipartita), because you are
acting on behalf of two instances, that is, the matters important to our city, and those
that you will negotiate together with the ambassadors of our league, that are relevant
to the other allies as well as to us.3

A couple of years later, writing to Francesco Gaddi, appointed Florentine ambassador to Milan, Lorenzo de’ Medici specified to him: ‘besides what you have as a
commission from the Ten, you need to understand the true reason (vera cagione)
for your mission, that is . . .’.4 This complicated superimposition of duties and political aims did not simplify ambassadorial activity, as a last example from Florence
will show. In 1404 Rinaldo degli Albizzi recorded in his register of diplomatic
2 Antonio Ivani da Sarzana to Giovanni Sighieri and Biagio Lischi, 9 July 1472, edited in Ferrari,
‘Antonio Ivani’, 63, quoted and commented on in Fubini, ‘Antonio Ivani’, in Fubini, Italia quattrocentesca, 137.
3 The Priors to Florentine ambassadors to France, Florence, 8 Nov. 1483, in Négotiations, i. 200.
4 Lorenzo, Lettere, IX. 793: Lorenzo to Francesco Gaddi, Florence, 14 Oct. 1485.

Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy


a­ppointments that, being sent on assignment to Carlo Malatesta by the Priors
without the Ten and their chancellor, Coluccio Salutati, knowing the whole matter,
he had not been paid on his return even if the Priors had given to him a commission subscribed by all of them.5 Even within the most regulated institutional systems the political geography of diplomacy was multilayered: the various centres of
decision and power, the reggimento, the city, the general leagues, dictated different
and sometimes conflicting road-maps to envoys who were simultaneously in charge
of more than one mission, as well as personally responsible for more than one neg­
otiation at a time.
A map of diplomacy centred on the Italian peninsula should therefore have
­regard to all the protagonists and their overlaps by including both formal—that is,
legally defined—and informal subjects, interactions, and connections. Thus, an
overview of the ‘political geography’ of diplomacy should firstly include legitimate
and recognized lords and regimes, and encompass many geopolitical networks,
from local contexts to the European and Mediterranean world. The general picture, however, shows clearly that these different circles of authority and representation did not necessarily create a rigidly defined geography, nor coincide with
later—possibly simpler—political identities. Furthermore, less autonomous or
­legitimate territorial and non-territorial powers participated in diplomatic interactions, exercising at times some very effective political agency. Finally, no straight
or rigid boundaries separated what historians later defined as ‘diplomacy’ or ‘politics’, or ‘international’ or ‘internal’ politics. The nature and instruments of internal political dialogue and external diplomatic interaction did not radically differ,
and they were not conceived as separate actions: even highly ‘international’ pacts
like general treaties of alliance and peace (e.g. the Italian League) formally included
non-independent rural lords and urban or rural communities as well as autonomous states.6 All these political actors and negotiation levels in fact intertwined
and overlapped: the final picture needs to be explored step by step, but should be
imagined as a whole.
2. I D E N T I T I E S A N D C H RO N O L O G I E S
An atlas of all the actors involved in Italian diplomatic dynamics—that is, all the
powers and governments that autonomously promoted reciprocal interactions
aiming at various political ends—will necessarily consider many different levels in
a distinct way for the sake of clarity. Moreover, time-scale plays a great role in the
processes of definition of political identities and geopolitical boundaries: polities
became more defined over time, while some of those in play earlier disappeared
later, and vice versa.
5 Commissioni, I, 6, p. 33, 11 Mar. 1403 [1404].
6 The Italian League is in Lünig, Codex, vols. II and IV ad indicem: Fubini, ‘“Potenze grosse”’,
Lazzarini, ‘Scritture dello spazio’, 162–71.


Communication and Conflict

Flexible Identities
Among the protagonists of ‘Italian’ diplomacy, a core group will comprise the
Italian powers and polities, widening to include the Christian West, and finally
the Mediterranean, the Near East, and the Levant. However, we need to emphasize
the inadequacy of easy political labels such as ‘France’ or ‘Empire’ or, of course,
‘Italy’. None of these denominations is necessarily accurate, as none of these identities was unambiguous: contemporaries adopted different criteria in including or
excluding states and dominions from particular circles or networks, and this has
implications for what can be considered ‘Italian’. From the perspective of London
or Bruges, fifteenth-century Sicily and Naples belonged to the Iberian and Aragonese cluster of kingdoms and counties.7 From France, Savoy was perceived for long
as a principality whose official language was French and whose princes intermarried with the French royal family. Venice and Genoa were Mediterranean and
maritime empires as well as—if not even more than—Italian powers. Venice was
never part of the Western Empire, while the recurrent Genoese predilection for
foreign protection—Milanese or French, Angevin or Aragonese—makes it difficult
to classify the Ligurian city as consistently either independent or ‘Italian’.8 Ecclesiastical principalities like Trent or Brixen thought of themselves as imperial lands,
and some of the Piedmontese cities under intermittent Franco-Angevin rule were
closer to Provence than to Lombardy.9 And finally, was the Papacy an Italian
power?10 Meanwhile, as we will see, non-Italian and non-European counterparts
too are not easily labelled as French or German, Ottomans or Arabs. The map of
diplomacy was far different from what it would become, and much less familiar.

The Events: A Chronology of Historical Change
Of course, time-scale is highly significant in the processes of definition of political
identities and of drawing geopolitical boundaries. Chapter 2 will deal specifically
with the problem of the chronology of changes in diplomacy, but it is worth identifying at this point the key moments and events in the historical process of the
determination of the nature and boundaries of the Italian sub-system within the
European and extra-European system of powers.11 This long and complex process
of openings and closings, and of multilayered and conflicting interactions, had
many phases and two major turning-points (the years around 1400, and the 1490s)
which stand out for the increased density, acceleration, and diffusion of patterns
and models of diplomatic change.12
The papal move to Avignon (between 1309 and 1376, and then again during
the Schism, between 1378 and 1403) imposed a new context and possibly new
practices on negotiations with the curia for Italian signori and communes, and

Plöger, England; Marinescu, ‘Les Affaires’.
Storia di Venezia. III, La formazione; Shaw, ‘Genoa’.
Bellabarba, ‘The Feudal Principalities’; Gli Angiò.
Prodi, The Papal Prince; Carocci, ‘The Papal State’; Chittolini, ‘The Papacy’.
Fubini, Italia quattrocentesca, 26.   12 Lazzarini, L’Italia degli Stati territoriali, 48–74.

Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy


r­ edefined both the international and the Italian profile of the Church, clearly polarizing the two.13 Meanwhile, the drive towards territorial expansion started to
become systematic in the final years of the fourteenth century, to culminate in the
first decades of the fifteenth century by involving almost every major Italian political actor.14 In the councils and chancelleries a ‘new’ awareness of playing on a
highly interconnected peninsular board started to grow and influence the process
of political decision-making.15 On the other hand, the Conciliar era (Constance
1414–18, and Basle 1431–8) saw the development of a ‘nation’-based network of
high-level diplomatic interactions and political representation, and the opening
of a season of Italian-based international councils and diets (Ferrara–Florence,
1435/8–9, Mantua 1459–60).16 As a side-effect of such a redefining of the European and extra-European network of contacts, the Italian principalities broadened
their dynastic strategies to include Western and Eastern European dynasties, their
rulers at the same time gradually becoming imperial princes themselves.17
Within the framework of the Italian League (1455), and its renewals, and partially as a consequence of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the
second half of the fifteenth century saw at first a move towards a more deliberate
and determined closure against ‘external’ pressures and influences. These agreements concretely monitored external contacts and discouraged alliances, and,
more theoretically, elaborated and diffused an innovative idea of ‘Italy’ as a political
whole, distinct in culture, political attitudes, and social customs from both the
‘Oltramontani’ (i.e. the Europeans) and the ‘Barbarians’ (i.e. the Muslims).18 The
process was two-sided: the comment of John Watts about Europe, ‘political boundaries began to settle and become less permeable’, could also apply to Italy.19 This
evolution was not painless: the system was troubled by many small conflicts and
many traumas, the diplomatic arena became more selective, and authority concentrated within fewer hands.20
The broadened external political scenery, and the extremely dense tissue of internal and external Italian dynamics, imposed towards the end of the century an
almost sudden—and involuntary—reopening of Italy: and under unpropitious
conditions.21 In 1495 Ludovico Sforza was fully aware of the novelty—and the
potential danger for the Italian states—of such a change: the French armies had
13 Zutshi, ‘The Avignon Papacy’ (and bibliography); Partner, The Lands of St Peter.
14 Lazzarini, L’Italia degli Stati territoriali, 48–70.
15 Varanini, ‘Venezia e l’entroterra’; Lazzarini, ‘La conquista’.
16 Storia della Chiesa. XIV/1, La Chiesa al tempo del Grande Scisma; Black, ‘Popes and Councils’;
Millet, L’Église; Firenze; Picotti, La dieta.
17 Black, Absolutism; Lazzarini, ‘News from Mantua’; Somaini, ‘Les Relations’.
18 Margaroli, ‘L’Italia’; Fubini, ‘L’idea di Italia’. The distinction between Oltramontani and Barberi
is in a letter by Lorenzo de Medici to Giovanni Lanfredini, in Lorenzo, Lettere, xv. 1493, Florence, 6
June 1489 (‘I do not like Oltramontani or Barberi beginning to become mixed up (mescolarsi) in
19 Watts, The Making of Polities, 287.
20 Lazzarini, L’Italia degli Stati territoriali; Fubini, ‘L’età delle congiure’; Pellegrini, Congiure di
21 Although the presence of the ‘Oltramontani’ in Italy had grown since the League of the Bien
publique (1465) (Fubini, ‘I rapporti diplomatici’, p. 328), in the early 1490s the situation spiralled out
of control; Mallett and Shaw, The Italian Wars.


Communication and Conflict

conquered the Kingdom of Naples with unprecedented ease, and he desperately
tried to restore the old way by proposing—unsuccessfully—to Venice the formation of a ‘new league among Italian princes only’.22 Europe was focusing once
again on Italy, and a transitional and highly experimental period painfully opened
the way to profound constitutional and political change. As Malipiero disconsolately stated, ‘we did not want to believe in the French descent, and now they are
here, and we do not know what to do’.23
3. S P H E R E S O F A C T I V I T Y: I TA LY A N D B E YO N D
In the mid-fifteenth century awareness of being part of different geopolitical networks was widespread: the peninsular diplomatic game knowingly involved many
actors, now worth taking into account one by one.

Statesmen in the mid-fifteenth century were expected to be experienced in the ‘cose
de Italia’: Francesco Sforza was ‘very prudent, and wise, and expert in the things
(cose) of Italy’, and in 1451 Simone da Spoleto, the Milanese ambassador in Florence, reputed the Venetians wiser than King Alfonso the Magnanimous of Aragon
because ‘they have a better understanding of the matters (pratiche) of Italy’.24 ‘Italia’ was then a political space: classical culture provided Biondo Flavio with a
strong framework for ordering historical change when he composed his deeply
innovative Italia illustrata (1453), and the awareness of belonging to a common
space—possibly more recognizable by comparison with others than by its inner
nature—in the fifteenth century was growing among the Italian political elites,
statesmen, ambassadors, princes, and prelates.25 It did not conceal, however, its
inner multiplicity: when the time came for concrete negotiation, Italy broke down
into its basic components, and Fiorentini, Venitiani, Sienesi, el marchese de Mantoa
or Sforza strongly re-emerged and polarized the political discourse. The Florentine
Benedetto Dei in 1463 described Italy to the Ottoman Khasim Bey as follows:

22 Quoted in Catalano, ‘La fine’, 478. Probably unconsciously, Ludovico echoed a political discourse elaborated at the eve of the Italian League in 1454: Francesco Sforza strongly supported, in
writing to Cosimo de’ Medici, the idea of implementing ‘a league for the defence of the states of Italy
(delli stati de Italia) between us Italians’: Francesco Sforza to Cosimo de’ Medici, Milan, 12 May 1454,
quoted in Margaroli, ‘L’Italia’, 532, n. 80.
23 Annali veneti, 328–9. On the Italian wars, Les Guerres d’Italie. Histoire; Les Guerres d’Italie. Des
batailles; Mallett and Shaw, The Italian Wars.
24 Antonio da Trezzo to Francesco Sforza, Ferrara, 29 Apr. 1453, quoted in Margaroli, ‘L’Italia’,
533; Simone da Spoleto to Francesco Sforza, Florence, 4 June 1451, ibid. 533–4.
25 Such a political idea therefore circulated long before the early sixteenth century, the age in which
Vincent Ilardi found in Italian writers evidence of a feeling of italianità: Ilardi, ‘“Italianità”’; on the
concept of ‘spazio politico’, see Tenenti, ‘Profilo’, and Margaroli, ‘L’Italia’. On Biondo’s Italia Illustrata,
Fubini, ‘La geografia’.

Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy


Italy has many powers (potenze), among whom four are the greatest …: the Duke of
Milan, who has the great harbour of Genoa, and King Ferrante who has the beautiful
harbour of Naples, and the Venetians that have the gulf [the Adriatic Sea], and the
Florentines, that have the great harbour of Pisa. And after those powers, Italy has sixteen free lordships (signorie libere) with their lords and citizens with cities and towns
and peoples (città e chastella e popoli) subjected to them, that owe obedience to them:
first is the great Shephard of the Christians, the Siennese, the marquis of Ferrara, the
Lucchesi, the marquis of Mantua, the count of Urbino, the marquis of Monferrato,
the lords of Rimini, Pesaro, Forlì, Faenza, Imola, and Cesena, the marquis of Saluzzo,
the marquis of Piombino, the lord of Correggio, the lord Sir Gabriele Malaspina [lord
of Fosdinovo]. And moreover, in Italy there are two cities very powerful by reason of
their soldiers and people, that is, Bologna and Perugia.26

From the second half of the fourteenth century almost every autonomous polity
expressed at some stage a diplomatic agency formally defined and clearly recognizable.27 The flexibility imposed by the slow process of channelling intra-peninsular relationships towards a multilayered system of treaties, and partial and general
leagues, through almost continuous negotiations, opened up to a great number of
actors a variable and potentially endless diplomatic arena.28 The intensity, regularity, and duration of the diplomatic assignments of the ambassadors sent by all
these polities were different, and the extent of their mandate—as well as their actual influence—varied greatly case by case.29 From the end of the fourteenth century, however, they all increasingly, and more and more regularly, gathered at least
at the central points of the system, which, apart from the seats of the papal curia
and the Conciliar cities, came to include Venice, the Neapolitan court, and Milan.
Florence was less regularly frequented, and other courts or cities—such as Mantua,
Ferrara, Monferrato, or Siena—normally hosted some ambassadors or representatives of other powers for shorter periods or specific reasons, or on their way to
somewhere else.30 No linear and unambiguous pattern, though, is to be expected
until at least the very end of the fifteenth century. Milan, in the turbulent age of
Gian Galeazzo Visconti, hosted almost regularly even long-lasting diplomatic missions from Venice, Mantua, or Ferrara; Florence’s weight as a diplomatic central
26 Dei, La Cronica, 127–8, quoted in Ferente, Gli ultimi guelfi, 10–11. Ferente stresses that the
main criteria for political agency were here the sheer power (potenza) monopolized by four polities
all provided with access to the sea, and autonomy (signoria libera); Bologna and Perugia, both subject to the pope, also figured on the list, more on account of their wealth and power than of
their ‘liberty’.
27 A few examples will suffice: in 1375 Marquis Federico of Saluzzo sent his advocatus to Avignon
to complain to the pope about the aggression of Amedeo VI, count of Savoy, against him (Cristoforo
da Piacenza to Niccolò II d’Este, 4 Aug. 1375, Avignon, in I dispacci, no. 15, p. 52); in 1468, some
Milanese chancery ordines prescribing the honour to be paid to lords, princes, and ambassadors visiting Milan listed, after the envoys sent by the greatest powers, a whole array of lords and cities
(Maspes, ‘Prammatica’; on this text, see Ch. 8, sec. 3; a crucial letter written by Agostino Somenzi,
Milanese ambassador to Maximilian I on behalf of Ludovico Sforza, in May 1499 to the duke, was
copied in the Milanese chancery and sent to Rome, Florence, Monferrato, Genoa, Spain, Siena, Forlì,
Turin, and Lucca (the order is on a mention de chancellerie beside the text; Pélissier, Documents, 147).
28 On such an idea of ‘system’, see Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy, reconsidered and further
elaborated in Isaacs, ‘Sui rapporti interstatali’, and Grubb, ‘Diplomacy’.
29 See Ch. 2, sec. 2.    30 Del Bo, Uomini; Senatore, ‘Callisto III’. See Ch. 9.


Communication and Conflict

point significantly increased during the age of Lorenzo de’ Medici; the attraction
of the Neapolitan court saw a peak in the age of King Alfonso and of course during
the two crises in 1459–64 and 1485–6, but also experienced several gaps during
the reign of Ferrante; Ferrara involuntarily gathered many ambassadors and princes
during the war against Venice (1482–4), when it became the organizing centre of
all the war operations and hosted the duke of Calabria, Alfonso. Moreover, special
minor events increased the occasional centrality of minor cities.31
The last two decades of the fifteenth century saw a partial changing of the
scenery. The tougher rules of competition and the disciplining process triggered by
some authoritative centres at the expense of others transformed the hierarchies of
negotiation, reducing the protagonists in the diplomatic dialogue to a closed circle
of major powers mostly gathered in certain key capital cities (Rome and Venice
were pre-eminent, followed by Milan and intermittently by Naples and Florence).32

A complementary aspect of such a process was the opening of the Italian diplomatic arena to the rest of Europe. Most of the European rulers, such as the kings
of France, Aragon, and Castile, the dukes of Burgundy, and the emperor, were
among the major powers that increasingly sent their ambassadors to the Italian
diplomatic central points at the end of the fifteenth century. As we shall see, the
hierarchical reordering of the ‘inter-Italian’ communication network entailed its
increasingly regular opening to European polities. From the 1480s contacts and
interferences between Europe and Italy deepened and became regular and reciprocal.
Moreover, at the end of the fifteenth century the French invasion transformed the
tensions between the Italian powers and their European interlocutors from the
level of hypothetical internal and/or external diplomatic alliances into a succession
of military leagues and real wars. Nevertheless, the intermittent contacts and influences between the European powers and Italy were of course much older, and in
some cases more substantial.
At least one of the Italian polities, the Kingdom of Sicily, had had close links
with foreign dynasties since its very beginning, in 1130. In particular, from 1266
the Angevin princes and the Aragonese kings and their multilayered relations
with the southern Kingdom of Sicily in its two separate branches ­represent
a highly significant example of the difficulty of establishing rigid boundaries
­between and identities for supposedly distinct systems of diplomatic interactions
on the basis of later political maps. To avoid being compromised by the implications of later definitions (like ‘Spanish’ or ‘French’), then, we will in general
adopt dynastic criteria to refer to the rulers of the southern kingdoms. Moreover,
both the Angevins of Naples and the Sicilian Aragonese kings were cadet branches
of their respective royal dynasties, with whom they maintained either acceptable
31 On these events, the volumes of the Storia di Milano (particularly vols. V, La signoria dei Visconti;
VI, Il ducato visconteo e la repubblica ambrosiana; VII, L’età sforzesca) remain a good general survey. On
the ‘places’ of diplomacy, see Ch. 9.
32 Lazzarini, ‘News from Mantua’, 123–4.

Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy


or difficult relations, according to circumstances.33 Occasionally these contacts
were grounded on dynastic links extended to include other segments of the dispersed dominions of the respective crowns. The status of such princes—and accordingly, their identity as diplomatic actors—was mixed (though it probably
appeared less mixed to contemporaries’ eyes than to ours). They were rulers suspended ­between different systems of powers, cultures, and languages: with their
relatives the kings of France, or count-kings of Aragon, Valencia, and Barcelona,
they maintained diplomatic relationships interwined with dynastic ties, and added
to formal diplomatic embassies a more than usually dense network of family- and
client-related contacts.34 This context sometimes generated unconventional situations: the great Mediterranean isles of Sicily (the Kingdom of Sicily ultra farum),
Sardinia, and Corsica, even if for longer or shorter periods ruled by the same dynasty as Naples, almost disappeared from the Italian diplomatic map. Sicily in particular, ruled with Naples in the name of Alfonso V between 1442 and 1458, and
restored to the main Aragonese lineage as soon as Ferrante became king in Naples,
appeared in Italian diplomatic correspondence almost exclusively as a base for
maritime voyages, mercantile and manufacturing exchanges, and North African
With the exception of the Aragonese- and Angevin-ruled southern kingdoms,
the most privileged targets for formal embassies were both the Franco-Angevin and
the imperial regions, even though different phases, channels, and degrees of intensity regulated these multiple interactions on both sides. The counts, then dukes, of
Savoy swung—often dangerously—with both the kings and the princes of France,
thanks partly to their dynastic relations. When, in the autumn of 1476, Louis XI
met his sister Iolanda, freshly released from her imprisonment by Charles of Burgundy, the king welcomed her, joking about her political identity: ‘he looked at her
good-temperedly and said: “My lady the Burgundian, you are very welcome.”
Looking at him, she understood he was joking, and answered very wisely that she
was a good Frenchwoman’. Actually, she was also—if not mainly—the widowed
duchess of Savoy.36 The dukes of Burgundy and the cities of the Low Countries—
halfway between France and the Empire—were firstly crucial economic partners
for the mercantile and financial Italian elites, and became increasingly important
as potential political allies in the second half of the fifteenth century, during the
reign of Charles the Bold.37 A whole chapter would be necessary to address the
­extremely complex relationships between the kings of France, the princes of Anjou,
and Genoa: the city’s habit of intermittently submitting itself to the Valois–Anjou
33 On intersections, see Titone, ‘The Kingdom of Sicily’, Senatore, ‘The Kingdom of Naples’, and
Schena, ‘The Kingdom of Sardinia and Corsica’.
34 Abulafia, The Western Mediterranean Kingdoms; L’État Angevin.
35 Corrao, Governare un regno; Epstein, An Island for Itself; Schena, ‘The Kingdom of Sardinia and
36 Commynes, Mémoires, ii. 127. On the Savoyard diplomatic network, see now Pibiri, En voyage
pour monseigneur.
37 La Cour de Bourgogne: see particularly the rapport by Fubini, ‘États d’Italie’, and the communications by Tanzini, ‘Florence et la Bourgogne’; Lazzarini, ‘Mantoue et la Bourgogne’; and Toscano,
‘Naples et la cour de Bourgogne’.


Communication and Conflict

represented a standard feature of the Italian political scene, at least from 1311 to
1528, even though it alternated with periods in which the Genoese elites monopolized the government, or the city submitted to other foreign rulers.38 On the
other hand, the Guelph–Angevin connection was intermittently centred on certain key points (Asti, Genoa, Ferrara, Florence), catalysed in the fourteenth and
early decades of the fifteenth century by the Kingdom of Sicily citra farum, and
linked to the condottieri bracceschi and their powerful mercenary army. During the
long Quattrocento it spanned the peninsula and generated a flux of diplomatic
agents and a network of open and secret contacts, at the same time confronting the
­increasingly powerful and settled alliance between the Sforza dukes, the Medici
regime, and the Aragonese kings of Naples.39 Florence, finally, was consistently
part of this Guelph–Angevin connection from the second half of the thirteenth
century; but Anjou did not automatically mean France, and economic and financial interests, like all the links between the Florentine companies and the kingdom
of France, did not automatically trigger political alliances, even though they had to
be carefully taken into account in every move.40
The signori of the Po plain maintained not always peaceful relationships with the
Empire, or rather with the emperors and/or the candidates to the imperial crown.
In the fourteenth century they needed an investiture as imperial vicars to strengthen
their grasp over their cities: in 1395 Gian Galeazzo Visconti even succeeded in
­becoming an imperial prince thanks to a controversial ducal investiture regarding
Milan.41 This first concession of a princely title, followed by similar investitures in
favour of the Gonzaga (marquises of Mantua in 1433) and the Este (dukes of
Modena and Reggio in 1461), modified the institutional identity of the Italian
lords, and multiplied the ‘German’ princes by admitting new ‘Italian’ members
to the imperial diets.42 The northern lords were not the only ones to look to the
­Empire for legitimacy. Both Florence and Venice asked for and obtained an unusual
title as collective imperial vicars at the beginning of the fifteenth century, in concert with the crucial annexations of Pisa and Padua. Moreover, Venice had intensive dealings with the Empire along its eastern border at the end of both the
fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries.43 The imperial court was therefore one of
the most regular destinations for formal ambassadors and informal agents. Furthermore, despite the undeniable loss of incisiveness and focus of imperial activity
in Italy if compared to the thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth centuries, the
recurrent imperial descents into Italy (1354, 1431–3, 1452, 1495) interfered in
38 The ‘French’ periods covered the years from 1396 to 1409, 1458–61, 1499–1512, 1515–22, and
1527–8; the ‘non-French’ hegemony was as follows: the emperor Henry VII (1311–13), Roberto of
Anjou, king of Naples (1313–35), Archbishop Giovanni Visconti, lord of Milan, and his heirs (1353–6);
Teodoro Paleologo, marquis of Monferrato (1409–13), and again the dukes of Milan (1421–35,
1464–77, 1487–99). On the deep character of the so-called Genoese political instability, see Shaw,
‘Genoa’ (the various dominations are summarized at p. 226).
39 Gentile, ‘Factions’; Guelfi e ghibellini; Ferente, ‘Guelphs!’; Margolis, The Politics of Culture.
40 See Négotiations; De Vincentiis, ‘Le signorie angioine’.
41 Black, ‘Giangaleazzo Visconti’.
42 Gilli, ‘Empire et italianité’; Somaini, ‘Les Relations’; Faverau-Lilie, ‘Reichesherrschaft’; almost
every lord sent ambassadors to the emperor: for an example, see Seneca, ‘Un diplomatico goriziano’.
43 Rubinstein, ‘The Place’; Varanini, ‘Venezia e l’entroterra’; Fubini, ‘“Piccolo stato”’.

Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy


the peninsular dynamics by legitimating—or avoiding legitimating—parties and
rulers. The emperors played an increasingly difficult game, although they mostly
lacked that very experience of the ‘cose de Italia’ that was reputed to be paramount
to act as a protagonist on the Italian scene.44 The imperial ‘commonwealth’, however, was not composed only by the emperors and their itinerant court. The cities
and villages of the Swiss confederation were engaging more and more with the
Italian powers, mostly, but not exclusively, with the duchy of Milan, and recent
research has shed some light on the mechanisms and practices of their diplomatic
activity both on the internal and external level.45 The German princely dynasties
in turn—the likes of the dukes and counts of Wittelsbach, Brandenburg, and
Tyrol—increasingly looked to Italian princes as suitable husbands and wives for
their heirs. The resulting marriage alliances in some cases had a deep influence on
the political enhancement of the Italian princes, at the same time offering the opportunity of cross-cultural interactions.46 The marquises of Mantua were the forerunners of a tendency to marry into the imperial lands that would become common
in the sixteenth century, within a more pervasive and imposing imperial system.47
In 1433 the marriage between Ludovico Gonzaga and Barbara, daughter of John
of Hohenzollern, margrave of Brandenburg, and granddaughter of Frederick, the
Elector Palatine—made in the shadow of the Council of Basle—opened up to the
Gonzaga a whole network of German and more generally northern connections.48
From around 1440 to 1480 Barbara sustained a close and complex range of contacts, dynastic alliances, and exchanges with a wide group of German princes and
the emperor, which resulted in several more marriages of Gonzaga princes and
princesses in the German area. This German ‘specialization’ of Ludovico and Barbara helped them in developing a peculiar political identity in the Italian arena as
potential mediators with the German world, and increased their political relevance. The most spectacular outcome of this specialization was the choice of
Mantua as the seat of the diet devoted by Pius II to the would-be crusade against
the Ottomans in 1459; the most important and lasting result was the election of
the second son of the couple, Francesco, to the purple in 1460, first of a whole
series of cardinal-princes of the Renaissance.49
Until the very end of the fifteenth century England, the kingdoms of Castile,
Portugal, and Navarre, and Eastern Europe were more occasional interlocutors
with Italy. Contacts were irregular and exploratory, and apart from some episodes,
for example the admission of princes to some prestigious chivalric order such as the
Garter or the Toison d’or, or some specific reasons, such as a marriage alliance (like
the wedding between Edmund of Langley and Violante Visconti, or the more consistent link with Angevin Hungary), or the trade in horses, regular formal diplomatic relationships developed only from the end of the fifteenth century and the
44 Pirchan, Italien und Karl IV; Ghignoli, ‘Italienische Forschungen’; Somaini, ‘Les Relations’;
Lazzeroni, ‘Il viaggio’; Maximilian I.
45 Jucker, ‘Trust’.   46 Antenhofer, Briefe; Lutter, ‘Geschlecht’.
47 Fichter, ‘Dynastic Marriage’.    48 Severidt, Familie; Nolte, Familie; Baldi, Pio II.
49 Picotti, La dieta di Mantova; Lazzarini, ‘La nomination’. On Barbara’s role, see Ch. 7, sec. 4.


Communication and Conflict

Italian wars.50 In such a pioneering context, the distinction between formal and
informal diplomacy proves even more useless than usual: many tried and tested
contacts were established through a variety of channels, such as the merchant circuits or dynastic alliances, who in case of need could provide information and
contacts, or prepare more formal approaches. In 1496,
the Venetians, seeing that the king of France was still on the verge of coming again to
Italy, decided to entrust Sir Piero Contarini and Luca Vallaresso, merchants in London
in England, with the mission of tempting the king of England to make war on the
king of France in order to distract him from the Italian enterprise.51

Henry VII apparently gave some hope to the Venetians: therefore Andrea Trevisan
left Venice for London in 1497 for the first formal Venetian embassy to England.52
Dynastic alliances, always a crucial element in diplomatic interactions, were particularly effective in opening new diplomatic and political frontiers: Beatrice,
daughter of Ferrante of Aragon, king of Naples, married in 1476 Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, and one of the dynastic consequences of the marriage was
the appointment of her nephew Ippolito d’Este (the eight-year-old son of her sister
Eleonora, duchess of Ferrara) to the bishopric of Esztergom in 1486.53 Sometimes
even more unusual contacts derived from tentative alliances of this kind: an
­anonymous aide-mémoire preserved in the Milanese archives (undated, but probably written in the early 1460s) enumerated and briefly described the countries
which surrounded Russia: Tartaria, Lituania, Prusia, Livonia, Dacia—‘questi paesi
sono in cerco la Russia’.54 Contacts with Russia during the age of Francesco and
Galeazzo Maria Sforza became more frequent, and one of the reasons for such an
interest was a link to the fascinating—and crucial—story of Zoe/Sophie, the
youngest daughter of Thomas Paleologus, despot of Morea, who became in 1472
the second wife of Ivan III Vasilevic, grand prince of Moscow. She came to Italy in
1460, and lived in Rome after her father’s death in 1462: in those years she was
considered as a possible wife by several Italian princes, including the Gonzaga and
the Sforza.55 This interest, and the curiosity generated by the rather different
ending of her story, could have given rise to the enquiry that produced the brief
geographical summary, and the subsequent contacts.56 As for the Iberian penin50 In a volume published in 1989 on English diplomatic relations with continental Europe, there
were no essays devoted to Italy, and pour cause: England.
51 Priuli, I diarii, 51. England developed commercial contacts with the Mediterranean well before
any formal diplomatic interaction, apart from with Venice; see also Basso, ‘La presenza genovese’. See
here Ch. 2, sec. 3, and Ch. 7, sec. 3.
52 On this trip, see Itinerarium (Latin version at pp. 73–88).
53 Gerevich, ‘Ippolito d’Este’; Banfi, ‘Il cardinale Ippolito’.
54 Archivio di Stato di Milano, Archivio Sforzesco (ASMi, AS), Miscellanea Ragusa-Russia, b. 640, s.d.
55 Ronchey, ‘Malatesta/Paleologhi’.
56 Alef, The Origins, 47–51, and Barbieri, Milano e Mosca, 19–26 and 79–85. Galeazzo Maria
Sforza in 1476 sent an ambassador to Prince John of Russia (Ivan III): perhaps in response, Ivan III
sent back a Russian ambassador, George Percamota/Tracaniota (a Greek), who arrived in Milan in
1486; the ambassador was interviewed at the Milanese court and answered a series of questions about
his home country. His answers were summarized and recorded by a secretary, whose nota was then
transcribed in a register of memorabilia in the archives in Milan (ASMi, AS, Registri Ducali, n. 214,
ff. 170v–172v). See Croskey and Ronquist, ‘George Trakhaniot’s’; Horodowich, ‘Wider World’.

Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy


sula, the Spanish monarchs—that is, Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and
Castile—were predictably the first to enter diplomatic interactions with the
major Italian powers, thanks to their dynastic links with the Aragonese dynasty
in Naples, and to their interest in the kingdom.57
It should be clear now that ‘Italian’ and ‘European’ governments and powers
interwined in the late Middle Ages in many variable ways. Towards the end of the
fifteenth century though, something was changing. On the one hand, once-intermittent contacts became more and more regular, and a common space for communication and negotiation was open, having on a few key stages (Rome, Venice,
Milan) its mostly continuous performance. In 1462 Louis XI was annoyed by the
Milanese ambassador’s pretension to follow him everywhere,58 and never really
considered the hypothetical opportunity of sending a French ambassador to live
day by day next to Francesco Sforza. Thirty years later Maximilian of Habsburg
wanted to gather at his court the ambassadors of every important power in
Europe.59 Even the French kings had changed their mind by that time: Accurse
Maynier stayed in Venice from early 1499 to 1502 on behalf of Louis XII; when
he left, the Venetian Senate wrote to the king in praise of his work, referring to him
as the ‘the envoy (orator) of the Most Christian King of France resident with us
(appresso a nui residente)’.60 It was not only a matter of practices: the second profound change was in political concepts and tools, and involved the ‘new’ awareness
of a collective and shared Italian identity, mirrored of course by the development
of equally ‘new’ French or Spanish ones. Despite its undeniably instrumental nature and its still partially cultural background, this identity was increasingly preventing the survival of a flexible and variable sense of belonging to more than one
linguistic, cultural, even political community, and was therefore hardening distinctions, rules, and formality in diplomatic interactions.

The Church
In such a complicated framework, the Church deserves separate attention.61 Both
as a universal spiritual institution and a political power increasingly focused on a
concrete territorial base, directly and indirectly nourished by, and linked to, immense patrimonial wealth scattered all over the whole Christian West, the Church
was in fact—at least until 151762—a very peculiar diplomatic actor. On the one hand,
the popes maintained relationships of varying frequency with almost every ruler
in the West, in order to guide, counsel, and observe the spiritual behaviour and
often the political attitudes of princes and countries, to direct and protect the local
57 El Reino de Napoles.   58 Senatore, ‘Uno mundo de carta’, 74.
59 Foscari, ‘Dispacci’: Innsbruck, 4 July 1496, p. 747.
60 Pélissier, Documents, 8–11 (Venice, 21 Jan. 1502).
61 I would like to thank Armand Jamme for his valuable comments on this paragraph and in general on my attempts to deal with the extreme complexity of the papal world.
62 By the Council of Pisa-Milan (1511–2), the French concordat (1516), and Nuremberg (1517)
‘the relationship between Rome and Europe had changed. After 1450 large areas and some rulers were
disaffected from or indifferent to Roman authority. The upshot was to be separate states—and
Churches’, Black, ‘Popes and Councils’, 86.


Communication and Conflict

clergy and their patrimonies, to secure the Church’s rights and prerogatives, to promote social and cultural patterns of Christian discipline, and to foster supposedly
universal Christian enterprises like the crusades. On the other hand, since the Gregorian reform all these duties and prerogatives were conceived as being linked to
the sphere of ‘government’ rather than to ‘diplomacy’. The concept of the universal
power of the Church over Christendom as a whole will not be specifically addressed
in this book:63 however, it helps in understanding the apparently paradoxical coexistence of precocity and lateness in papal ‘diplomatic’ practices, and it throws some
light on the role of the Papacy as a diplomatic actor within both the Italian peninsula and the wider Christian West.64 From the eleventh century onwards, legati,
iudices delegati, and then nuntii of different kinds (oratores, commissarii, collectores)
developed diplomatic functions of some sort, variously mastering the prerogatives
and the proctorial mandate to deal with lay rulers in order to solve conflicts and
problems mostly involving ecclesiastical patrimonies, institutions, and persons.
The border between politics and administration, and between matters of general
interest and local situations, was of course very indefinite.65 On the other hand,
the practice of petitioning ‘concerned both the government of secular and ecclesiastical institutions and diplomatic relations between rulers who petitioned each
other in order to carry out their foreign affairs’.66 It is worth noticing that some
flexibility within and outside diplomatic administrative procedures characterized
both the practices of petitioning—in particular when benefices were not involved—and the role and functions of the papal representatives. Legates and nuntii
played a dual role in most of the contacts and interactions seen above, crossing
effortlessly—from within a theoretically universal system of power—the already
hypothetical boundaries between ‘Italian’ and ‘European’, and ‘internal’ and ‘external’ circuits of negotiation.67

Outside Europe: The Mediterranean and the Levant
The Mediterranean, the Near East, and the Levant constituted the final major diplomatic arena for the Italian powers. The flexibility and experimental nature that
characterized contacts with the more remote European countries multiplied in the
multifaceted interaction with a Mediterranean and Levantine world that encompassed both the Latin and Byzantine commonwealths and the Muslim East and
South (Maghreb and North Africa, the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt and Syria,
63 Caravale, Ordinamenti: such a vision was, in any case, facing a radical change towards the end of
the long Quattrocento.
64 On the diplomatic representation, see the general framework and references in Blet, Histoire,
159–202; on the centrality of Rome in the fifteenth century, Shaw, ‘The Papal Court’.
65 Queller, ‘Thirteenth-Century’; Schmutz, ‘Medieval Papal Representatives’; Perrin, ‘Legatus’; Barbiche, ‘Bulla legatus nuntius’; Jamme, ‘Anges de la paix’.
66 Bombi, ‘The Roman Rolls’, 597 (also for the most recent debate); in general, see Suppliques; for
the German Empire, see Felten, ‘Kommunikation’.
67 For a first survey, see Blet, Histoire, 159–73. Things were complicated by the growing role of the
papal secretaries, on which see Revest, ‘Aux origines’. See here Ch. 2, sec. 4.

Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy


the Mongol dominion of Persia, the Ottoman princes of Anatolia).68 Between
the East and West, a small and fluctuating constellation of cosmopolitan and
scattered Latin outposts on the Mediterranean coasts and islands played a crucial
role in mediating, translating, and fostering contacts and dialogue. Dubrovnik/
Ragusa, under Venetian rule until the mid-fourteenth century, and from 1358
subject to the distant authority of the kings of Hungary that granted to the city
an effective autonomy; Rhodes, the stronghold of the military-religious order
of the Hospitallers of St John; and Cyprus, the refuge of the last Latin rulers of
the Near East, the Lusignan, were always on the front line of conflicts and
It was not an easy context: diplomatic relations with Muslim countries carried
implicit theoretical and spiritual problems, and were biased by distance, conflict,
and cultural and linguistic gaps; the Latin East and the Byzantine commonwealth
were in turn only partially and intermittently welcoming and ready to acknowledge a cultural promixity, or to engage in alliances and treaties.70 In this difficult
world, the map of contacts, exchanges, and interactions was particularly complicated. Pisa, Genoa, and Venice had established since at least the eleventh century
regular relations with countries and rulers, both Muslim and Byzantine: contacts,
treaties, and agreements, however, were mostly implemented by means of men and
institutions obeying mercantile and economic logics that only partially coincided
with political strategies.71 Republican cities relied on such networks well into the
early modern age: despite some important differences, all the Tuscan, Genoese, or
Venetian commercial agents on the Black Sea, or in Constantinople, Tunis, Cairo,
and Damascus, acted as private persons as well as public officials of a sort, dealing
daily with the local political society in defending their personal privileges and the
common interests of the local Christian community and the distant metropolis.
However, more formal diplomatic missions increased towards the end of our
period, mostly supported by—but sometimes conflicting with—the consular networks.72 The southern Kingdom of Sicily, and its late medieval heirs of Sicily citra
and ultra farum, had a huge maritime exposure and—consequently—a much
more ancient and well-established Mediterranean vocation. The result was a long
and complex history of contacts, relationships, conflicts, and agreements with the
Levantine powers. The southern kingdoms—with their Byzantine, Arab, Norman,
and Crusader antecedents and roots, and with their Angevin and Aragonese endings—clearly represent an exceptional case of almost uninterrupted and structural

68 Edbury, ‘Christian and Muslim’; Zacharadiou, ‘The Ottoman World’; ‘Islam’, essays by R. Irwin
(Mamluks), M. Brett (Maghreb), D. Abulafia (Granada).
69 Vatin, L’Ordre de Saint-Jean-de Jérusalem; Krekic, Dubrovnik/Raguse; Spremic, ‘Relazioni’; Arbel,
70 Setton, The Papacy; Weber, Lutter.
71 Ashtor, Levant; Relazioni, particularly Ladero Quesada, ‘Prolusione’, and Balard, ‘Les
72 Tracy, ‘Il commercio’; Comunità; Lazzarini, ‘I circuiti mercantili’.


Communication and Conflict

contacts.73 The northern principalities, on the contrary, came last in such a world,
and had an original gap to fill by comparison with both the mercantile cities and
the South. Even though in the high Middle Ages they had occasionally interacted
with the Byzantine, Latin, Muslim East in many ways—dynastic, military, intellectual, political—they did not create a real network of exchanges with the Mediterranean and the Levant, nor develop some sort of policy towards those regions until
the first decades of the fifteenth century, and they started to implement proper—
although intermittent—diplomatic interactions only in the second half of the
Quattrocento, when the fall of Constantinople into the hands of Mehmed the
Conqueror altered dramatically the whole eastern theatre and imposed a brutal
redefinition of the balance of power in the Mediterranean.74
Despite cultural distance, linguistic difference, and open conflict, therefore, in
the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contacts with the Near East became increasingly dense and frequent, and took advantage of every possible channel already
available and tested in order to promote and strengthen a network of more regular
and formalized contacts, even with the Islamic powers detached from the Ottoman
world. The trauma of the fall of Constantinople, and the following brutal advance of
the Ottomans both by land and by sea during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror
(1453–81) forced the Italian rulers to deal with interlocutors who represented primarily a hard and uncompromising military and political power rather than a
familiar commercial partner.75 Such a change had an interesting dual effect: on
the one hand, it prompted the stipulation of treaties and truces negotiated by
means of formal embassies; on the other, it rapidly inserted the new masters of
what used to be the Byzantine Empire into the political game as played between
the peninsular powers. Shortly after the fall of Negroponte, in 1471, Galeazzo Maria
Sforza, duke of Milan, sent to Istanbul the Genoese Oliviero Calco, disguised as a
merchant, to explore the opportunity of a secret league with Mehmed the Conqueror against Venice and Naples. The duke instructed Calco to apologize on the
duke’s behalf for not having sent to the sultan a formal embassy (‘because if the
pope and the other powers of Italy heard that he had sent agents and gifts to him,
the Turk, they would have paid a lot of attention (fariano gran caso) to this’). Notwithstanding such understandable embarrassment, in Galeazzo Maria’s hypothetical reconstruction of supposed offences, real factions, and fragile alliances
Mehmed was expected to act exactly like one of the Italian powers.76 On the other
hand, in those very months Pope Paul II was negotiating a league against the Ottomans with a Muslim ruler, Hasan Beg Bahador Khan, called Uzun Hasan, sultan
of Persia, and the leader of the Turkmen Aq-Qoyunlu (1453–78).77 Only a few years
73 Il Mezzogiorno; Abulafia, ‘The Kingdom’; Del Treppo, ‘Prospettive’ and ‘La Corona d’Aragona e
il Mediterraneo’.
74 Origone, ‘Marriage’; Haberstumpf, Dinastie; Gallina, ‘Fra Occidente e Oriente’; Ortalli, Da
Canossa a Tebe; Lazzarini, ‘Écrire à l’autre’; Weber, Lutter.
75 L’Europa dopo la caduta di Costantinopoli.
76 ASMi, AS, b. 646: Lazzarini, ‘Écrire à l’autre’, 182–4.
77 Piemontese, ‘L’ambasciatore di Persia’; Lazzarini, ‘Patterns of Translation’; on the role of Uzun
Hasan in Italian politics, see also Meserve, Empires of Islam, 228–9, and Weber, Lutter, 91–4, 438–9
(see here also Ch. 12).

Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy


afterwards, an alliance between the popes and the Ottomans themselves was
easier to believe in: the Ferrarese Ugo Caleffini, in his Chroniche, imagined,
without being in the least disturbed, that the pope was leading against Florence
and Venice a league comprising ‘the pope, the king of Naples, the king of Hungary, the emperor and the Turk and the great sultan’.78 At the end of the fifteenth
century, and during the reign of the less aggressive Bayazet II, another step towards the open integration of the dreaded Ottomans into a shared political
framework was taken: Marquis Francesco Gonzaga was proud to show to all the
Italian powers that he maintained a regular and formal exchange of letters, ambassadors, and presents with the sultan, and ordered his chancellors to copy Bayazet’s
letters in the same lavish register in which his submission to Louis XII of France
was transcribed.79

Boundaries: Other Actors
To conclude our map of diplomatic actors, a further step is needed: from the second half of the fourteenth to the end of the fifteenth century the Italian diplomatic arena was mostly open not only to formal governments and regimes, but
also to every actor—individual, faction, community—more or less grounded on a
territorial dominion, and more or less juridically autonomous, that was able to
mobilize some power and to express some political agency. By talking of ‘other
actors’ the following pages will encompass two levels of potential interaction by
crossing two ostensible boundaries, the internal/external and the formal/informal.
This point is crucial: both negotiations between a centre (a prince, a government,
a court, a chancery) and a local interlocutor (subject cities, rural communities and
lords), and between rulers and less formally defined or not entirely autonomous
powers (condottieri, cities or lords submitted to another ruler, merchant nations,
great prelates) were mainly managed as diplomatic interactions. Moreover, they
were defined by practices in many ways similar to what the classic studies of diplomacy would have defined as ‘diplomatic’. All these people, in fact, would be ‘unexpected’ in a traditional survey of medieval diplomacy.
Roughly from 1350 to 1450, the structural flexibility of the cluster of diplomatic practices implemented within the peninsular system of states, and adopted
outside according to circumstances and contexts, included a broad array of potential actors, and fine-tuned diplomatic practices across institutional and political
boundaries. The resulting and sometimes overlapping networks flexibly included
most of the formal and informal polities in and around the peninsula while admitting almost anybody who could impose himself on a wider audience within the
diplomatic arena. Territorial hegemony, political legitimacy, economic expansions
and crises, individual cases, and universal enterprises were discussed within negotiated frameworks that could be inclusive or exclusive according to the political
78 Caleffini, Croniche, 296.
79 Archivio di Stato di Mantova, Archivio Gonzaga (ASMn, AG), b. 86, vol. 16; Kissling, Sultan;
Lazzarini, ‘Écrire à l’autre’, 178–80.


Communication and Conflict

nature of the issues on the table, but not necessarily to the political identity of the
protagonists involved in the negotiation.80
A few examples will throw some light on such interactions. Subject cities like
Capua maintained with the Aragonese kings a channel of ‘uninterrupted negotiation’ that, when it came to crucial issues like wars, royal successions, general parliaments, or fiscal reforms, adopted a fully diplomatic grammar: the representatives
of the city were carefully elected in the general council, were provided with credentials and instructions, and had to deliver, on their return, a final verbal report
that was transcribed in a register preserved in the urban chancellery.81 Similarly,
Bologna, which enjoyed a partial autonomy as a community mediate subiecta but
was formally subject to the Holy See, hosted foreign ambassadors—like the Milanese Gerardo Cerruti in the 1470s—who dealt directly with the city councils in
taking significant decisions about the whole region of the Romagna and its cluster
of troublesome semi-independent lordships, in between the territorial influences
of Milan, Venice, and Florence.82 Even smaller cities like Volterra, as we saw earlier
in the chapter, could choose the path of negotiating with the dominant city. Major
and minor lords, individually or as a part of some factional alliance, maintained
some autonomy and could act independently and sustain a fully operative diplomatic network. The great feudal lords—the Roman and Neapolitan barons, like
the various branches of the great Orsini kinship, or Gian Giacomo Trivulzio and
the gentiluomini di Lombardia—were just the tip of the iceberg, but the lists of
recommandati et adherentes that accompanied the clauses of the general leagues—
starting from the Peace of Sarzana in 1353—make manifest the complexity of the
actual composition of what we tend to simplify as an Italian political system made
up of a few big polities and some minor powers.83 In the treaty of peace following
the 1467 league, Paul II imposed the clause that no lord or land formally submitted to the Church (subditus) should appear as a confederatus of one of the other
major powers. His urge to make this explicit shows quite clearly how common was
the phenomenon of subordinate powers maintaining political allegiances (presumably negotiated ‘diplomatically’ in advance) that might go against the interests of
their legal rulers.84 According to Camillo Porzio, in 1485 the Neapolitan barons who
rose up against Ferrante were fighting to obtain from the king the concession of
‘keeping men of arms for the defence of their states . . . safeguarding their fortresses
by their own troops . . . and without asking the king’s permission, being hired and
going to war under any prince’. In a word, they claimed to act as almost independent lords.85 When, in 1432 and again in 1447, the formally Milanese vassal
and actual lord of the subject mountain city of Sondrio, Antonio Beccaria, opened
up the strategic Valtellina valley to the Venetian army, the exchange of letters that
80 See Ch. 6.
81 Senatore, ‘Le ambascerie’; Covini et al., ‘Pratiche e norme’ (Senatore, ‘L’ambasciatore napoletano
fra diligentia e prudentia (1458–1494)’); within the Aragonese commonwealth, see also the case of
Barcelona: Péquignot, ‘ “De bonnes et très gracieuses paroles” ’.
82 Duranti, Diplomazia; Il carteggio.
83 Shaw, The Political Role; Abulafia, ‘Signorial Power’; Arcangeli, Gentiluomini di Lombardia.
84 Fubini, ‘Lega italica’, 213.
85 Porzio, La congiura, 64, quoted by Del Treppo, ‘Prefazione’, 7.

Political Geography of Italian Diplomacy


preceded his choice was conceived as an act of diplomatic autonomous agency, and
Beccaria was apparently ‘betraying’ his superior lord, the duke of Milan, for the
sake of his Guelph factional identity.86
Lords, cities, and communities were not the only ones who gave voice to their
political agency by means of a certain amount of diplomatic activity: great captains
and condottieri (sometimes minor lords themselves)87 acted in the same way. A
military company ‘non era una città, né un castello o un villaggio rurale, ma una
comunità itinerante e quasi aterritoriale’, and gave to its captain both strength and
diplomatic initiative. Not only were great captains like Micheletto Attendolo,
Francesco Sforza, or Jacopo Piccinino able to play a very sophisticated game between the governments keen to hire them, thanks in part to their having a proper
chancery and some reliable diplomatic agents, but they regularly dealt with formal
ambassadors sent to them by princes and republics.88 High prelates—particularly
cardinal-princes—also often behaved as autonomous diplomatic agents, not only
acting as diplomats on behalf of the Church as legates or nuntii, or of their country
and their family, but pursuing political strategies for themselves.89
4. C O N C LU D I N G R E M A R K S : P R A X I S A N D L AT E
This kind of flexibility could not last forever. In the second half of the Quattrocento harsh competition started to narrow the field of participants in the diplomatic arena, resulting in many, sometimes conflicting, attempts to impose a
selected geography of hegemonic powers on the still multipolar nature of the
Italian system. Men like the condottiero Jacopo Piccinino or the troublesome lord
Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, or even crucial cities like Genoa, were forcibly
deprived of the right to be included in the agreements and treaties stipulated
among an increasingly territorially-based group of hegemonic rulers, with weighty
consequences. The broadening of the political network and the partial changing of
the rules of competition at the end of the fifteenth century transformed the hierarchies of negotiation once again, and altered the grammar of the Italian diplomatic system, by turning a flexible communication network into a more ritualized
system of relations.
The political reality was still nuanced, however: statesmen could still think that
men and personal wills and goals counted more than treaties and rules. Lorenzo de’
86 Della Misericordia, ‘La “coda dei gentiluomini” ’, 370–1; Gentile, ‘ “Postquam malignitates
temporum” ’.
87 For two examples from the Po plain, see Covini, ‘Tra condotte e avventure’ and ‘Le condotte dei
88 Ferente, La sfortuna, 7; Del Treppo, ‘Gli aspetti organizzativi’; Covini, ‘Guerra e relazioni diplomatiche’. In 1448 Francesco Sforza maintained ambassadors at the Neapolitan court, and an envoy
was sent to him by King Alfonso: Nicodemo Tranchedini to Alessandro Sforza, quoted without date
in Soldi Rondini, ‘Milano’, 250–1.
89 Pellegrini, Ascanio Maria Sforza: but figures like the archbishop and doge of Genoa Paolo
Fregoso still await full research.


Communication and Conflict

Medici manifested in 1471 a radical scepticism regarding negotiated agreements,
in writing to Sacramoro da Rimini, the Milanese ambassador in Florence, saying
that ‘I do not care very much about the general league, because I do not fear it if
our league is still operational; if not, I trust more wills and souls than chapters:
these, as you know, can be made and destroyed according to the moment’.90 However, towards the end of the century the diplomatic game, by increasingly disciplining access to both the negotiating spaces and the available information, was
changing the practices of political and diplomatic interactions.
90 Lorenzo, Lettere, I. 90, Cafaggiolo, 2 Sept. 1471, p. 322 (quoted in Fubini, ‘Lega italica’, 216).

The Polygenesis of Diplomacy and the
Trajectories of Change
1 . PAT T E R N S
The traditional grand narrative of Renaissance diplomatic ‘revolution’ was based
on the diffusion of a ‘new’ diplomatic practice grounded on residency, central control, and professional ambassadors: Italian states provided the laboratory for this
process, that was later on taken over by European monarchies and nation-states. In
fact, the process was both much more complicated and less definite. On the one
hand, fifteenth-century ambassadors had a multiple origin (a ‘polygenesis’): their
nature and competences were determined by the slow merging of uses and rules
­derived by many practices connected to medieval diplomacy, mercantile networks,
papal traditions, and military and political needs. On the other hand, formal political diplomacy was far from monopolizing diplomatic relationships: different
diplomatic agents (and agencies) coexisted with formally qualified ambassadors
sent by official polities throughout the long Quattrocento, surviving here and there
well into