Saturday, February 27, 2016

Alessandro de' Medici, Duke of Florence

One of the most unfortunate members of the Medici family to rule over Florence was Duke Alessandro, the recognized only son of Lorenzo II de‘ Medici. There has been some speculation as to his actual parentage and the identity of his mother is not known for certain at all. In any event, he was the recognized son and heir of Lorenzo II, Duke of Urbino which, as far as the law was concerned, is all that matters. He was born on July 22, 1510 but though he was the first to come to rule Florence based on heredity, as a monarch, that did not happen immediately after the death of his father in 1519. Rather, power effectively passed to the Medici who held the highest office of all Pope Clement VII who appointed Alessandro’s cousin, Ippolito de’ Medici, to rule Florence on his behalf. It was also Pope Clement who had arranged the marriage of Alessandro’s (legitimate) half-sister Catherine to King Henri II of France. Many accounts describe Alessandro as unprepossessing but not in a flattering way and he was the focus of a great deal of criticism both from within his own family as well as the republican and overall anti-Medici forces in Florence.

The papal representatives sent to oversee the boy were extremely unpopular with the anti-Medici faction as well as, again, elements within the family such as Clarice Strozzi, daughter of Piero di Lorenzo (“the Unfortunate”), who railed against Alessandro as being unworthy of the Medici family name and against his papal guardians as well. There would also been tensions between the cousins, Alessandro and Ippolito, when, later in life, Alessandro caught Ippolito in the arms of his half-sister Catherine as the two had a forbidden romance which was ended with her being sent to France and Ippolito into the service of the Church. The status of Alessandro as Gran maestro of Florence was largely nominal but wider events taking place in Italy would soon see him raised to a higher status but not before enduring quite an ordeal. For the time being, the power of Pope Clement VII kept him safe at home but the threat of an alliance between the Pope and the King of France invited the opposition of the formidable German Emperor Charles V, also King of Spain, who dispatched a powerful Spanish-German army to invade the Papal States and attack Rome to ‘teach the Pope a lesson he would never forget’.

That campaign culminated in the 1527 “Sack of Rome” which must rank as one of the most horrific acts of rampant savagery and horror in all of human history. The accounts are numerous and often too lurid to repeat such that the imagination itself would be overwhelmed in describing the barbarity that occurred. The Emperor himself, who was not present of course, was shocked but not so shocked as to fail to take advantage of the situation and force the Pope into submission. Likewise, in the city of Florence, the anti-Medici elements saw the sacking of Rome and the violent destruction of the power of the Pope as their great moment of opportunity. They took to the streets shouting slogans and singing songs in thanks to the downfall of the Pope. The papal envoy, Cardinal Silvio Passerini, took the Medici family and children, Alessandro as well as Ippolito, but leaving little Catherine behind for some reason, and quickly fled Florence for safer environs. An effigy of Pope Clement VII was torn to pieces in the street and a republican government was restored under a new anti-Medici leader.

This was not the first time that the effort at a Medici monarchy had been undone by a republican restoration in Florence (Piero di Lorenzo had presided over that dubious honor) and those with cool heads did have reason to hope. They had only been overthrown, after all, because the imperial troops had conquered Rome but the fact was that Pope Clement VII was still alive and, after having been put in his place by the Emperor, would have what amounted to German support rather than opposition so long as he did nothing to displease Hapsburg monarch. Indeed, Florence was never far from the thoughts of Pope Clement VII and as soon as he and Emperor Charles V concluded the Treaty of Bologna by which the Pope absolved the imperial forces for their actions in Rome, agreed to crown Charles V “Emperor of the Romans” by his own hand and, it went without saying, promising again not take sides with the French against Charles. In return, the Emperor gave the Pope territory taken from the Republic of Venice and agreed to help restore the Medici family to power in Florence.

That was good news for Alessandro, but he looked likely to have been in for a soft landing in any event as Emperor Charles V had entertained another ducal throne for him. The Sforza Duke Francesco II of Milan had been appointed to that position by the Emperor when the Emperor’s Spanish forces had driven out the French in the Italian Wars. However, Francesco II had turned against the Emperor in the latest unpleasantness, allying with Florence, Papal Rome, the French and so on. As a result, once his forces were victorious, the Emperor had considered placing Alessandro de’ Medici on the ducal throne of Milan but the Republic of Venice objected to the idea and, after paying the Emperor a considerable bribe, Francesco II was allowed to return. So, it was back to Florence after all for Alessandro but he would have an equal rank anyway. First, of course, was the detail of actually taking the city which was the last of the Italian states still holding out in opposition to the Emperor.

The siege of Florence began on October 24, 1529 with the German, Spanish and assorted Italian forces paid by the Pope all under the command of the Prince of Orange set to work building fortifications, bringing up artillery and shelling the city. The republican forces were considerable but not in the best frame of mind. Many of the well-to-do citizens had fled at the first sign of trouble and a number of the troops employed by the Florentine government deserted rather than face the imperial forces. After a time a relief army tried to come to the aid of Florence but was defeated by the Prince of Orange (though he was killed in the battle) and the fate of the city was sealed. On August 10, 1530 the city surrendered and the restored republic was promptly dismantled. For Alessandro de’ Medici it was his moment of glory, returning to power and being given the title “Duke of Florence” by Emperor Charles V. His enemies were executed or exiled, at least the most vocal and prominent ones, and the future looked promising for the frizzy-haired nineteen-year old. In fact, his uncle the Pope had also bought for him the title “Duke of Penne” from Charles V and hoped that he might pull off another advancement for the House of Medici by marrying Alessandro to the Emperor’s illegitimate daughter Margaret.

At first, Duke Alessandro acted with the advice of elected councils, trying to calm the nerves of the defeated republicans. However, he soon showed that he was not about to forget all that had transpired. He disarmed the populace, confiscating all weapons even if they were purely ornamental, and build a large new fortress to help ensure that he would not be chased out of town again. The large bell which had symbolized the republic in Florence (Americans might think of it as being in the same vein as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia) was melted down and, you have to love this, cast into medals showing the figures and symbols of the House of Medici. The republican opposition, needless to say, became increasingly furious and just exactly what sort of man Duke Alessandro was depends almost entirely on whose side of the story you choose to believe.

Some wanted to assassinate him but the fear of another war which might be sparked by such a thing dissuaded the hot-heads and so the enemies of the Duke decided to send a representative to Emperor Charles V to implore him to give Florence justice by removing the man he had just set over them. To carry out this mission they chose Alessandro’s own cousin, with whom he was constantly feuding, Ippolito, by then a cardinal. However, he had not gone far when he fell ill and died which, of course, many attributed to poison given to him by Duke Alessandro. In any event, other delegates were dispatched and they made their case to Emperor Charles V. They described Alessandro de’ Medici as the most horrible tyrant, trampling their rights, killing their men, raping their women and just about every crime one could imagine. However, that Charles V might hear both sides of the story, one of Alessandro’s advisors, Francesco Guicciardini was on hand to paint a very different picture of the Duke. He said that he would not try to make reply to every horrific accusation made by the complainants, “but His Excellency’s virtue, his fame, the opinion of him held throughout the city, of his prudence, of his virtuous habits, are a sufficient reply”.

Historians have, themselves, debated which image of Alessandro is more correct. Emperor Charles V, if deemed a sufficient judge of character, seems to have found no merit in the accusations made by the critics of Alessandro. Not only were their charges not accepted but the Emperor fulfilled the wish of the late Pope Clement and agreed to have his fourteen-year old daughter Margaret married to Duke Alessandro; an illegitimate Hapsburg for an illegitimate Medici. The two were married in 1536 and, based on her later life, she might have been just the sort of woman Alessandro needed. However, the two would not have a long, married life together. As far as his private life was concerned, Alessandro had one mistress who gave birth to his three children, and was allegedly lured away by the promise of a romantic rendezvous with a famously beautiful widow, Laudomia, by her brother, Lorenzino de’ Medici (a distant cousin of Alessandro) who then assassinated Alessandro on January 6, 1537. He was only 26-years old but had lived quite a colorful life. Lorenzino said he had done the deed to restore the republic but, if genuine, it certainly did not work and he was killed in Venice several years later.

The ducal throne passed to Cosimo I de’ Medici, son of the famous “Giovanni of the Black Bands” who had died fighting against the imperial invasion on behalf of Pope Clement VII and the Italian states. The recently married and recently widowed Margaret of Austria was promptly married to the Farnese Duke of Parma (grandson of Pope Paul III) the following year. She was later put in nominal control of the Netherlands by her half-brother King Philip II of Spain and had he taken her advice might have averted rebellion there. As for Alessandro de’ Medici himself, again, an assessment of him is difficult as the most prominent accounts of him come from his enemies who describe him as harsh, incompetent and licentious yet this is to be expected. Historians, trying to take a more impartial view have argued back and forth as to what sort of man he really was with some concluding that he was a much better ruler than his detractors have claimed. However, he was certainly significant as the first Medici to be Duke of Florence and though his time in power was tumultuous the Medici would go on to solidify themselves and ultimately unite the surrounding region into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Savoy Family Foreign Policy

The original focus of foreign policy for the newly born (or newly restored) Kingdom of Italy was, naturally, first on the recovery of the remaining Italian territory still under foreign rule and, as part of that drive, the recovery of the historic capital of Rome which was occupied by French troops. However, King Victor Emmanuel II was a man of restless energy, grand aspirations and ambition. Naturally, he wanted to restore all of “unredeemed Italy” but he also looked beyond the Italian borders towards the creation of a dynastic alliance of Mediterranean countries linked by the House of Savoy. To the end of his life he was also yearning for military adventure such as in the Balkans against the tottering Ottoman Empire of Turkey and, like many Italians, sympathized with the Greeks who were fighting for their independence from centuries of Turkish domination. That never came to be but he was able to at least make an effort to advance his goal of a dynastic alliance across the nations of the former Roman Empire through the lives of his children. This was a game royal houses had played since time immemorial.

In 1859 the King, in what was a great sacrifice, arranged the marriage of his daughter Princess Maria Clotilde to Prince Napoleon Joseph Bonaparte. This, combined with ceding certain territories, including the Savoy heartland, to France in exchange for the assistance of Napoleon III in the war to reclaim northern Italy from Austrian rule. Yet, there was also more long-term goals in mind with this marriage. Ultimately, Prince Napoleon Joseph would become the senior member of the Bonaparte family and Princess Maria Clotilde would have been placed to cement Franco-Italian ties and Savoy influence in Paris. However, as we know, it all came to nothing as the French Second Empire ultimately fell and Napoleon III himself disinherited Prince Napoleon Joseph. There were also growing tensions between France and Italy over their stopping short in the campaign against Austria and the occupation of Rome with French troops. In the end, King Victor Emmanuel II would send Crispi to try to arrange a war alliance with Germany against Austria and France so Italy could regain territories lost to the French and lands still held by Austria populated by Italians but Bismarck rejected the proposal.

In 1862 the King arranged the marriage of his daughter Princess Maria Pia to King Luis I of Portugal. This was a match that worked out very well. The two were much in love at first, though the King’s numerous infidelities later alienated him from his Italian wife. However, Queen Maria Pia was very popular in Portugal, known for her great care of the poor and the Savoy queen consort, later queen dowager, was the basis of a lasting, informal, friendship between Italy and Portugal. With the long-standing alliance of Great Britain and Portugal, combined with the Italian policy of maintaining good relations with the British Empire for security in the Mediterranean, this fit together quite well. In the person of Queen Maria Pia, the House of Savoy maintained a beloved presence at the court in Lisbon for as long as the Portuguese monarchy existed. When the Kingdom of Portugal was overthrown in 1910 the Queen Dowager Maria Pia was forced to go into exile with the rest of the Portuguese Royal Family and died the following year in Italy.

The same year that Princess Maria Pia was married to the King of Portugal, a prince of the House of Savoy was in the running for the throne of another country. Italian volunteers had long given assistance to the struggling Greeks in their fight for independence from Muslim domination. When an independent Greece was finally restored, it was originally a republic, which did not last long and later, with the intervention of the Great Powers in favor of the Greeks, it was decided that the country would be a monarchy. King Victor Emmanuel II thought his second son, Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, would make a fine King of Greece and could play an important part in this dynastic alliance of countries with prominent Savoy royals. A referendum was held in November of 1862 and the Duke of Aosta was in the running but did not win. In the end, none of the top choices were acceptable to the Great Powers and so the Greek crown finally passed to Prince William of Denmark.

However, King Victor Emmanuel II was not done trying to find a throne for the Duke of Aosta. In 1868 the Spanish overthrew Queen Isabella II and sent her into exile after which they began to shop around for a new monarch. It was this search which helped spark the Franco-Prussian War. With another French or German monarch off the table, the King of Italy pushed his second son to step forward as a candidate. The Duke of Genoa was the first that the Spanish showed interest in but his mother refused to allow that and so later their attention fell on the Duke of Aosta. King Victor Emmanuel II was pleased but his son rather less so. At the end of 1870 the Duke of Aosta was elected King of Spain, taking the oath the following year. However, the hoped for family ties came undone rapidly, to the consternation of the King. The Franco-Prussian War saw the downfall of Emperor Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II sent a courtier to bring his beloved daughter home, rescuing her from the chaos of the communards. However, this was overshadowed by the withdrawal of the last foreign troops on Italian soil, the French garrison in Rome, and the Eternal City once more became the capital of a united Italian peninsula. But, over in Spain, King Amadeo I was finding nothing but frustration.

In some ways, the brief Savoy reign over the “Land of the Setting Sun” was the decisive period in determining whether any vestige of the once vast Spanish empire remained in the world. A short time earlier, in 1868, the first uprising in Cuba in favor of independence was launched, starting the conflict that would eventually attract the sympathy of the United States and end in the Spanish-American War and the sale of Cuba, Puerto Rico and other colonial outposts to the USA. This was the time to stop such separatist movements before they got out of hand and King Amadeo I tried to do so but, as in the past, republican conspiracies and another Carlist uprising at home prevented the hard-pressed Spanish army from focusing fully on defending what was left of the empire (the Third Carlist War of 1872). With his own supporters turning against each other and a growing republican movement that benefited from the many Spaniards who were tired of the bickering royalists and their seemingly endless civil wars, King Amadeo became a source of unity only in that everyone seemed to be opposed to him for one reason or another. In February of 1873 he finally declared Spain ungovernable and abdicated, returning to a much happier life in Italy. With France and Spain having rejected monarchy and embraced republicanism, the only remnant of King Victor Emmanuel’s dynastic foreign policy was the Queen of Portugal.

To the very end of his life, the restless King hoped to achieve some greater glory and embellishment for his country. He is said to have told Paget, the British ambassador, that he had proposed to the Austrian and German emperors that he be given a free hand to invade Turkey, overthrow the Sultan and deport him back to his ancestral lands in Central Asia after which all the major powers could join in the partition of the Ottoman Empire, with everyone, happily, being given all they wanted. Paget did not take this seriously but the King continued to bring it up, saying that with 200,000 Italian soldiers he could solve all the ‘eastern problems’ with a single blow and Britain could benefit by annexing Egypt in the process. He became positively alarmed when he found that the King of Italy had mentioned such plans to the Russians who seemed rather positive about the idea, at a time when Britain and Russia had a fairly heavy rivalry going on. However, such aspirations were thwarted, ultimately by Bismarck and the Germans who began to put together what became the “Central Powers” of Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary but in what would be a defensive alliance only. So, there would be no Balkan adventure for King Victor Emmanuel II who finally ceased his restlessness with his death in 1878.

Monday, February 1, 2016


The Black shirted militia of the Italian Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini had its origins in the nationalist groups of war veterans in the aftermath of World War I. Their military inspiration came from the Arditi, the elite assault troops of the Italian army, many of whose symbols they adopted as their own. In a way, they predated the Fascist Party itself which, under Mussolini, was formed to provide a structure and a program for what these groups, known as Action Squads, had already been fighting for. The first of these Action Squads were formed immediately after World War I ended and Italian veterans saw their country slipping into chaos, the rewards they had been promised denied them and a rise in communist subversion. In 1919 they were organized as a part of what was originally known as the ‘Fighting Fascists’ which, in 1922, officially became the National Fascist Party. They wore black shirts and spent their time fighting communists, socialists and others they regarded as a threat to the Italian nation.

Blackshirts' 'dagger salute'
On February 1, 1923 the Action Squads were formally renamed and reorganized as the MVSN or ‘National Security Volunteer Militia’, effectively the private army of the Fascist Party. Because of the later “Pact of Steel” and Axis alliance many have been tempted to draw parallels between them and elements of the Nazi Party in Germany, often comparing them, unfavorably, to the Nazi SS. However, to do so is to misunderstand the entire nature of the MVSN which, if we have to compare them to something in the Nazi Party, would have been more similar to the SA rather than the SS. The MVSN was not nor was it ever intended to be an elite guard but rather as a national, political militia as its title implies. After Mussolini came to power the MVSN became an official part of the establishment, often referred to as the fourth branch of the armed forces, consisting of members of the Fascist Party who were often too young or too old for regular military service.

The MVSN had its own organization and its own rank structure, both based on the old Roman army with legions, cohorts, centuries and so on rather than regiments, battalions and companies. As part of the Fascist Party, Mussolini considered them to be his own, however, after the MVSN became part of the established power structure Blackshirt units often found themselves commanded by former army officers who were more royalist than purely Fascist in their ultimate loyalty. Their nominal supreme commander was, of course, Mussolini who held the rank of “First Corporal of Honor”, the rank of “Corporal of Honor” being an honorary rank for important people, Hitler was given such an honorary rank after the regimes became allies. However, after becoming part of the armed services, members of the MVSN were required to swear allegiance to the King of Italy rather than to “God and the Italian homeland” as they had in the past. They also found themselves with little to do as an internal security force as the regular police and Carabinieri already had that job under control.

Musketeers of the Duce
This then led to the MVSN being used as an auxiliary military force rather than simply being used in political displays at home. In 1923 the first Blackshirts were sent to Libya as part of the pacification campaign against Senussi rebels who were attacking Italian colonists; the Islamic terrorists of the day. Of course, they still acted as reserve security personnel at home and a special unit served as the official bodyguard of Mussolini, known as the ‘Musketeers of the Duce’. Again, however, these should not be compared to the SS Adolf Hitler Life Guards of Nazi Germany as the ‘Musketeers of the Duce’ was effectively a ceremonial guard with membership being handed out as a form of recognition for prestigious party members. To have your most elite warriors guarding the leader of the country, as in the LSSAH, would have seemed rather a waste in Italy. Other MVSN personnel were also trained for special duties such as those tasked with anti-aircraft defense starting in 1927.

1930 saw MVSN legions attached to army divisions, who they would depend on for support facilities and they saw their first really large-scale combat with the outbreak of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War in 1935 following an Ethiopian attack on an Italian outpost. Mussolini hoped to make the war a showcase for his Fascist troops and the MVSN was set to play a major part in the campaign with overall field command of the war being entrusted to the veteran general and MVSN leader Emilio De Bono. However, General De Bono waged a slow and cautious campaign and, considering the economic sanctions placed on Italy by the League of Nations, this was something Italy could not afford as the League was counting on the Italian economy collapsing and perhaps bringing down the Fascist regime before the formidable task of taking and pacifying an area as immense as Ethiopia could be achieved. So, Emilio De Bono was promoted to Marshal of Italy and replaced with General Pietro Badoglio who waged a much more aggressive, if more costly, campaign that brought rapid success. Within seven months Ethiopia was conquered and Mussolini proudly announced the birth of a new Roman empire with Vittorio Emanuele III raised to the status of “Re-Imperatore”.

With this victory and the first battlefield test for the MVSN the legions were demobilized and the militiamen sent home. However, that same year, Spain erupted into civil war and the leader of the nationalists, Francisco Franco, immediately called on Mussolini for help. The Kingdom of Italy would contribute the largest number of foreign forces to the Spanish Civil War and the MVSN was the first source of recruits for the Italian volunteer forces sent to aid the nationalists in Spain. Although not fighting in their own legions, the MVSN forces in the “Volunteer Troops Corps” saw extensive service in Spain and suffered heavy causalities. 1937 saw the formation of the first Blackshirt divisions, in Spain, though they eventually had to be amalgamated due to the losses they suffered in vicious combat, eventually forming mixed Italo-Spanish units before the final victory of the nationalists in 1939. Shortly after the war, when the self-appointed “King” of Albania defaulted on his considerable debts to Italy, Albania was occupied by Italian forces and the first Albanian Fascist Militia was formed. Four regular MVSN divisions were also sent to Libya with the rising threat of war.

When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War II in 1940 the MVSN saw action on every front. The French Alps, Libya, Egypt, East Africa, Greece, Yugoslavia and Russia, the MVSN participated in every campaign. In Italian East Africa local units were raised and after the conquest of Yugoslavia there were additional units established for foreign fighters, particularly the Croatians. However, the British counter-offensive out of Egypt practically wiped out the Blackshirt legions in north Africa and the few in East Africa were, of course, lost with the eventual Allied counter-offensive. Those that remained were mostly detailed to garrison duty in Greece and Yugoslavia and it was in the former Yugoslavia that they became involved in the bitter partisan warfare that characterized that region. There were also the Blackshirts who were sent to Russia but it was also determined that some reorganization was in order to form a hard-core from the MVSN that would be the equivalent of the German Waffen-SS rather than the “weekend warriors” that the Fascist militia had generally been. The result was the “M” Battalions.

"M" Battalion insignia
It was on October 1, 1941 that the “M” Battalions were officially established. These were the “cream of the crop”, the elite troops of the MVSN, taking the best and most experienced elements, originally drawn mostly from the best veterans of the hard, bitter fighting in Greece. They also had an ideological commitment to Fascism that was brought to the forefront in the vicious fighting against communism in the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. The “M” Battalions fought mostly in these theaters, though some were given special training for the invasion of Malta which, of course, was never ultimately attempted. A special guard division within the “M” Battalions was also formed that was equipped with 24 tanks and 12 self-propelled guns (“tank destroyers”) from Germany which were much more effective than most Italian models. However, that division was not formed until June of 1943 and the following month saw the Allied invasion of Sicily (which saw the death of MVSN General Enrico Francisci) and the dismissal of Mussolini by King Vittorio Emanuele III, his replacement by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the armistice with the Allies and the German occupation of much of Italy.

That was the end of the MVSN as an organization of the Kingdom of Italy, the organization being officially abolished by the royal government on December 6, 1943. A few days later, on December 8, there was, though, a successor organization formed after the establishment of the German-backed Italian Social Republic in northern Italy. This was the Republican National Guard (GNR) which grouped together all pro-Fascist security personnel loyal to Mussolini. They were engaged mostly in the bitter and often merciless anti-partisan warfare behind the front lines. The following year saw the Fascist Party revert back to the old Action Squads of their earliest days as the desperate war situation had by then left only the most fanatical, die-hard Fascists in the ranks, still supporting the dying regime. These Blackshirt remnants held out until the final surrender of the Axis forces in Italy in 1945.