League of Cambrai: War that changed nothing

Described as the least comprehensible war in history, the War of the League of Cambrai was fought from between 1508 and 1516 by…basically everyone who had any interest in Italy at the time (which was most of Europe). The actual war was fought well beyond the break-up of the alliance and factions within the war were at one time allies and at others enemies and parsing the list of belligerents is a big job if one is to correctly determine what side each country was on at any given time and why.

Forged ostensibly against the Turks, the League of Cambrai of 1508, was Pope Julius II’s alliance against Venice. It offered its enemies, including the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I, Louis XII of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon, an opportunity to avenge their past grievances and carve up Venice’s territory among themselves. It was provoked by Venice’s miscalculations, chief of them a belief that foreign territories were up for grabs for Venetian expansion on the Italian mainland.

The military alliance between the French, the Spanish, the Holy Roman emperor and the pope was initially successful. The Venetian army was defeated at Agnadello in 1509 – the only major battle of the war – and Venice lost all the territory it had accumulated in northern Italy during the previous century. To add insult to injury, the pope also issued an interdict that excommunicated every citizen of the Republic of Venice. The Venetian collapse seemed complete, but the new order didn’t last.

Friction between the pope and the King of France caused the alliance to collapse by 1510. Increasingly anxious about the large French military presence in northern Italy, the pope switched sides and allied himself with Venice against France while the Spanish, satisfied with their gains, became neutral. By 1511, pope had succeeded in bringing Spain into alliance with Venice in the Holy League directed against French power in Italy. The new alliance eventually drove the French from Italy in 1512.

Disagreements about the division of the spoils then led Venice to switch sides. In partnership with a new King of France, Francis I, the Venetians regained the territory they had lost and by 1516, the map of Italy returned to the status quo of 1508. With the League of Cambrai failing to dismember its small empire, Venice even managed to present the whole thing as a triumph. Allegory of the League of Cambrai, the monumental fresco in the Doge’s Palace by Palma the Younger, speaks for itself.