with legal claims to the kingdom of Naples and surrounded by a variety
of apocalyptic prophesies, king Charles VIII of France had, in early
September that year, crossed the Alps at Montgenèvre with an
army of 40.000 men and begun his triumphal march through Italy. On 5
September, the king entered Asti where he was greeted by Lodovico Sforza,
the Duke of Milan, whose formal invitation and plea for assistance had
served as a pretext for the enterprise. On 14 October, the French army
reached Pavia, and on 31 October it made a temporary halt at Santo Stefano,
where the French king was met by a Florentine embassy lead by Piero
de' Medici. who two years before had succeeded his father Lorenzo as
Florence's first citizen. In front of this formidable display of military
might, Piero appears to have lost his head. In what immediately came
to be seen as an act of unconditional surrender, he conceded to disburse
200.000 ducats to the French and to hand over the strategically important
fortresses of Sarzana, Pisa, and Livorno. The news of Piero's abject
capitulation was received in Florence with a combination of disbelief
and rage. On his return to the city, his authority was openly contested.
After decades of silence the ancient rallying cry "Popolo e libertà!"
was again heard from the windows of the communal palace, and on 9 November,
Piero was overthrown and expelled from the city, bringing sixty years
of Medici rule to an abrupt and inglorious end.
On 5 November,
a Florentine delegation led by the Dominican friar Girolamo
Savonarola, was sent out to meet with the king at Pisa, with the
explicit mandate to negotiate with "free and absolute authority"
about matters concerning the preservation of the city. Savonarola, who
already prior to this date had begun to make oblique references to the
coming of an unnamed foreign ruler, sent by God to punish the Italians
for their wickedness and their sins, is by a friendly chronicler reported
to have extolled Charles on the occasion as the divinely elected restorer
of the Christian Republic. According to the same source, Savonarola
should have informed the French king that it was in the interest of
God that Florence should be spared from destruction.
Republican Florence awaited the arrival of the French king, their ancient ally, with a strange admixture of fear and hope, dread and expectations. On his way down the Tuscan coast, Charles had been celebrated as a new conquering Caesar by the Luccans, and been greeted by an inscription in the city of Pisa extolling him as "the king of the Pisans." Against this background it is understandable that his triumphal entry in Florence on 17 November developed into an elaborate and anxiously framed event. For the occasion, the Arno city had dressed itself in the symbols and the insignias of the French monarchy, messages of peace and friendship, and recollections of the communal liberties Charlemagne had granted to Florence back in the Middle Ages.
Frediano, the city gate through which Charles was to make his entry,
had been decorated with inscriptions exalting the French king as the
"conservateur et liberateur de nostre liberté." At
the S. Trinita bridge a triumphal chariot with singers welcomed the
procession. The Communal palace had been adorned with the king's arms,
and the gate of the now deserted Medici palace, where Charles was to
reside during his stay, had been decorated with a triumphal arch. The
fleur-de-lys, symbol of the ancient friendship existing between
France and Florence, could be seen everywhere in the city, and in the
Piazza della Signoria the king was welcomed by a Triumph of Peace, a
festival wagon (carro) designed by the artist Filippino Lippi.
On reaching the Cathedral at midnight after a two hour long procession
in the pouring rain through the streets of the city, the king and his
armed guard were greeted by the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, who in
an oration in Latin compared Charles to Caesar and Charlemange and praised
him as God's envoy, sent to restore Jerusalem to the Christians. At
the main altar of the Cathedral the king solemnly declared that he was
to respect the liberty of the Republic, while the assembled Florentine
populace inside as well as outside the Church shouted "Viva Francia,
witnesses and later commentators stress the fact that the king had entered
the city with an exposed lance upon his thigh, in the manner of a conqueror.
For Sir Walter Raleigh, commenting on the event half a century later,
the French entry was an example of what he called a half-conquest: "A
more lively example hereof cannot be desired, than the Citie of Florence,
which through the weakenesse of Peter de Medices, governing therein
as a Prince, was reduced into such hard termes, that it opened the gates
unto the French King Charles the eight, who not plainly professing
himselfe either friend or foe to the Estate, entred the Towne, with
his Armie, in triumphant manner, himselfe and his horse armed, with
his lance upon his thigh." In the eyes of this perceptive interpreter
of ritual signs, the Florentines all but admitted defeat by allowing
the king to enter their city in this way.
Not surprisingly Florentine and French sources conflict on how to read the symbolical and ritual language of the entry. While contemporary Florentine accounts of the event tended to depict it as a rite of welcome, and the relationship between the two parties as one between equals, the French sources argue that the Florentines during the ceremony in the Cathedral confirmed their vasall status, by pledgeding their obedience to the French monarchy, their overlord. The reason why Charles had remained so long in the city, they report, was because he desired "to subdue the Florentines in his obedience" before marching off towards the glory and the power awaiting him in Naples. The stay of Charles and his army in Florence lasted for eleven days, during which tensions between the French and the Florentines were constantly mounting, until a pact of friendship finally was signed on 25 November.