Chapter 10: Italy and the Mediterranean lose centrality

10.1 The fight for Italian hegemony—Italy divided and under attack

At the beginning of the 15th century, the political structure of Italy was still uncertain with many centers of power. Moreover, around the Mediterranean no single major power had emerged. The rising Turkish Ottoman supremacy was still very uncertain—battling fellow Muslims on the south; Serbs, Albanians, Hungarians, and Poles in the north—while Byzantium, though weakened, seemed impregnable[1].

France was fighting with the English, and the Germans were struggling among themselves, while in Spain, two Christian kingdoms were still dividing their land with a Muslim state in the south of the Iberian peninsula.

In the situation Italy was just emerging from a process of timid concentration of power. Smaller communes were being absorbed in larger entities, which although not yet states, were introducing more territorial rule. One important element was the internal troubles in Genoa, until the late 14th century the most powerful maritime republic in Italy but then defeated in the battle of Chioggia in 1380. That started the unhindered ascendancy of Venice in the seas, taking over many Genoese posts and ports in the east, and after that Venice also started expanding inland. This expansion brought a clash with Milan, until then the undisputed ruler of the land routes from Italy to Germany and France.

At the same time some of the smaller city-states were disappearing or weakening and were being absorbed by the main players in the Peninsula. In this period the mechanic of wars in Italy also changed. From armies soldiered by common people who defended their homes, the richer city-states moved to armies made of mercenaries paid by merchants unwilling to shed blood to defend themselves. Mercenary armies also brought two new features to Italian politics in the late 14th and early 15th century. Mercenary were paid only if they fought so they had an incentive in stoking fires; however they had no incentive and stomach for tough fights, besides the total end of an enemy would bring the end of all future commissions. So this fueled the already corrosive and permanent acrimony between city-states. Fights were constant and mostly inconclusive.

This pattern seemed to change with the political decline of Genoa since 1380s, that shelved a previously major political player and with the beginning of vast new set of wars in the 1420s. In 1423 the wars in Lombardy began, which were fought in four campaigns and went on until the Treaty of Lodi in 1454—interestingly, almost the year after the fall of Constantinople at the hands of Ottomans and the victory of the French over the English in the Hundred Years War. Venice, embroiled in an existential conflict with Milan, did not have the awareness or the disposition to stand by Byzantium besieged by the Turks, as it had done many times in the past, and also Byzantine had grown less wary of the Islamic Turks while still very suspicious of the fellow Christian Latins, who had sacked the city more than two centuries before.

In the course of this long Italian war, out of a collection of city-states five major Italian territorial powers emerged: Venice, Milan, Florence, the Papal States, and Naples. They would make up the map of Italy for the remainder of the 15th century and the beginning of the Italian Wars at the turn of the 16th century. Important cultural centers of Tuscany and northern Italy—Siena, Pisa, Urbino, Mantua, and Ferrara—became politically marginalized. On the other hand neither these wars nor the following one in the 16th century brought about political unification of the peninsula, as envisioned by Machiavelli and some Italian princes.

In the 1423–1454 battles, Florence played a crucial role, first siding with Venice, when this city was weaker, and then shifting allegiance to Milan when Venice turned stronger. The balance of power that emerged in 1454, with no single state prevailing on any other, resulted in a period of stability lasting 40 years. During this time, there was a mutual pledge of non-aggression between the five Italian powers, sometimes known as the Italic League.

Even though there was frequent tension between Milan and Naples, the peace held remarkably well until the outbreak of the Italian Wars in 1494, when Milan called upon the king of France to press his claim on the kingdom of Naples. By then another momentous change had taken place. The year before the Genoese Columbus had returned to Spain announcing he had discovered a new route to the Indies going around the backs of the Turks, who were monopolizing the silk and spice trade with Far East through their growing control of the eastern Mediterranean.

In the Italian conflicts of the 15th century rules of war were to change with intervention of mercenaries changed with hired mercenaries—professional hands guided by ambitious men, the condottieri, who would switch sides according to the pay and convenience.

Defense was more important than attack, and in fact engineers like Michelangelo and Leonardo conceived reinforcements and devices to buttress the city walls. Gunpowder was introduced and better metal forging came about to make better cannons. The mercenaries were keen to skirmish but avoided bloody battles and loved taking cities and looting them. Common people who had grown rich and could afford the payment could avoid fighting, but de facto more and more surrendered the destiny of city-states to forces unreliable both in fighting and loyalty. The powerful infantries that had time and again defeated the German imperial forces were being sapped and depleted, and were to leave Italy basically defenseless when the seasoned French troops stormed through the peninsula in 1494.

Moreover the end of rivalry between Genoa and Venice and the beginning of the inland expansion of Venice brought a new focus on Italian policies and war. The main concern was not to gain or keep routes in the Mediterranean but expand the Italian territorial foothold. This was possibly because of two reasons. In the Mediterranean no power was able to break or massively limit the Italian lucrative hold on trade with the rest of Europe, and in Italy Venice security was being threatened by new ambitions of cities like Milan or Florence.

But at the time of the Peace of Lodi in 1454, a foreign invasion seemed impossible, and what emerged for the first time was the consciously expressed European political principle of balance of power, an idea that even now shapes international political thinking. In fact, the idea emerging after 1454 was that a balance of power was the preferable outcome in any large political scenario. The balance of power was better than the emergence of a dominant power conquering everybody else.

What also emerged was the very active role of the papacy in the political affairs of the peninsula. Ruling the growing Papal States and with a special hand in the affairs of Florence at times, the papacy had reached the peak of its power in Europe. Also the pontiff state, which could not be the conquering power because of its spiritual mandate, could better enhance its role within the framework of a balance of power extended as far as possible.

The only limit to the pope’s power was the emergence of Turkish Empire, which was soon to monopolize all Islam forces and drive them as a unitary force against Christians and mainly against the Italians who were dominating the Mediterranean.

10.2 The rise of the Ottoman power

The Ottoman Turks grew in power through a slow but constant war of attrition with Byzantium, which lasted for over a century and a half, from when the first Ottoman ruler took power in 1299 until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. During this period, the Ottomans gained control of both Anatolia and the Balkans, and de facto surrounded Byzantium on two sides. In this way they started to advance into Europe up to Hungary and Poland, aided by the weakness of the Bulgarian Empire, which had protected the Byzantine flank in Europe for centuries.

The Ottomans were original one of the small Muslim Turkic emirates in Asia Minor[2] and grew to some prominence after the Seljuk defeated the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert in 1073. This important step occurred when the Seljuk were consumed by the rivalry with the Byzantines and the Fatimid Empire in Egypt in the 13th century. Between 1300 and 1326 the Ottomans managed to expand their footprint in Anatolia, conquering several important Byzantine forts.

In the following years Turks allied themselves with factions of the Byzantine court and in return in the middle of the 14th century gained a foothold in the peninsula of Gallipoli. From there, with a modernized army, they proceeded to expand into Thracia against the Byzantines and Bulgars. It was the first systemic attempt to conquer Europe from the Balkans by the Muslims, who were being kept at bay until then by Byzantium ruling the Dardanelles. The Turks conquered Thracia, which placed the Ottomans strategically astride all of the major overland communication routes linking Constantinople to the Balkans’ frontiers and facilitating their increased military operations. In addition, control of the highways in Thrace isolated Byzantium from direct overland contact with any of its potential allies in the Balkans or Western Europe. Byzantine Emperor John V was forced to sign an unfavorable treaty with Orhan in 1356 that recognized his Thracian losses.

In 1362 the Turks conquered the historic city of Adrianople in Thracia and moved the capital there, hinting at a strategic switch from Asia to Europe. From that moment the Byzantine Empire’s situation became strategically precarious. Contact between Constantinople and the two other European regions of the Byzantine Empire was possible only by means of a tenuous sea route through the Dardanelles, kept open by the Italian maritime powers of Venice and Genoa. In other words the Byzantine dependence on Italian goodwill increased, and thus Byzantine fortunes could wane and wax following Italian fortunes. In many ways, with the rivalry between Genoa and Venice Constantinople could play up with the competition between the two. With the decline of Genoa at the end of the 14th century the Byzantine were deprived of a very important political element, and Venice could conversely better play between the Ottomans and the Byzantines.

The weakened Byzantine Empire no longer possessed the resources to defeat the Ottomans on its own, and concerted action on the part of the Byzantines, often divided by civil war, was impossible. The survival of Constantinople itself depended on its legendary defensive walls and the lack of an Ottoman navy. Bulgaria under in decline, with power divided between rival pretenders to the throne and crippled by Hungarian attacks.

The Serb state was also weak, and Greek cities were eager to become free of their Slavic yoke. In all this the Ottomans had a fairly easy opportunity. Although the Bulgars and Serbs were engaged in a series of wars, the Ottomans routed their European enemies, while Byzantium, Venice, and Genoa embroiled in their own fights kept aloof. At the end of the 14th century, the Turks were basically lords of the Balkans and well established on the route to central European plains that were so far controlled by the Hungarians. Moreover, at the turn of the century, the Turks descended into Greece itself and took it over, while expanding their power over modern Romania.

The seemingly unstoppable march of the Ottomans in the Balkans bunged after the fellow Turkic Timur Lenk came to the Middle East and totally routed the Ottomans in the battle of Ankara in 1402. For about a decade the Ottomans were thrown into disarray, and the empire fell into chaos.

In 1413 Mehmed Çelebi won the internal power struggle of the Ottoman court, and crowned himself Mehmed I in Edirne (Adrianople). He made his the duty to restore the Ottoman Empire to its former glory, and he started by moving the capital from Bursa to Adrianople. He faced a delicate political situation in the Balkans, where his Bulgarian, Serbian, Wallachian, and Byzantine vassals were now virtually independent. The Albanian tribes were uniting into a single state, and Bosnia remained completely independent, as did Moldavia. Hungary retained territorial ambitions in the Balkans, and Venice held numerous Balkan coastal possessions.

Mehmed generally resorted to diplomacy rather than militancy in dealing with the situation. He pushed the old territories to accept formal Ottoman vassalage. Seeing a return of the unity and might of the Ottoman Empire and lacking strong leadership and ambition of their own, the territories obliged. Mehmed conducted only one actual war with the Europeans, a short and indecisive conflict with Venice, which as we saw was more concerned on the Italian front with rival city states.

The expansion started again with his successor, Murad II, who in 1422 laid siege to Constantinople for several months and lifted it only after forcing the Byzantine emperor, to pay additional tribute. But Murad also went to war with Venice over Thessalonica in 1420 and was beaten, proving to the Turks the force of the Italian state (then embroiled in a war with Milan, no less) and prompting Serbia and Hungary to ally themselves with Venice. Pope Martin V encouraged other Christian states to join the war against the Ottomans, though only Austria sent troops to the Balkans.

A new war started in the Balkans, but the Serbs first and the Hungarians later were crushed by the Turks. In 1430 a large Ottoman fleet attacked Salonika by surprise. The Venetians signed a peace treaty in 1432, which gave the Ottomans the city of Salonika and the surrounding land. Meanwhile, the war between Serbia, Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire had come to a standstill in 1441, when the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, Albania, and the Jandarid and Karamanid emirates in eastern Anatola intervened against the Ottomans. In the following years the Turks suffered a series of setbacks in the Balkans and were retrenching their positions.

Things did not look up for the Ottomans when in 1452 Mehmed II came to the Ottoman throne. But by conquering and annexing the emirate of Karamanid (May–June 1451) and renewing the peace treaties with Venice (September 10) and Hungary (November 20), Mehmed II proved his skills both on the military and the political fronts.

He then made capturing Constantinople his priority, believing that it would solidify his power, as Constantinople had proved to be a thorn in the side of the Turks for a century. As long as Constantinople remained in Christian hands, his enemies could use it as either a potential base for splitting the empire at its center or as an excuse for the Christian West’s continued military efforts. Constantinople’s location also made it the natural “middleman” for both land and sea trade between the eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia, and possessing the city would ensure immense wealth.

Just as important, Constantinople was a fabled imperial city, and its capture and possession would bestow untold prestige on its conqueror, who would be seen by Muslims as a hero, achieving what his Arab and Seljuk predecessors had failed for centuries, and by Muslims and Christians alike as a great and powerful emperor. Without Constantinople the Ottoman rule both in Europe and Anatolia was fragile and under pressure from the growing ambitions of the Christians and the rival Islamic lords in and out of the empire.

10.3 The Turkish conquest of Constantinople

As Italy was still in the final crucial phases of its war and the rest of Europe thought had bigger fish to fry, Mehmed started his two-year preparation for his attempt on the Byzantine capital. He built a navy to cut the city off from outside help by sea; he purchased an arsenal of large cannons from the Hungarian gunsmith Urban; he sealed the Bosphorus north of the city by erecting a powerful fortress on its European shore to prevent succor from arriving from the Black Sea; and he meticulously concentrated in Thrace every available military unit in his lands. A trade agreement with Venice prevented the Venetians from intervening on behalf of the Byzantines. Venice was crucial because it had proved to be the only power able stand up effectively against the Turks and coordinate the efforts of Christian lords in the Balkans[3].

It is unclear why Venice agreed to estrange itself from a war in Constantinople, although they were more sucked in the Italian fights. Possibly a series of different considerations were at work. Constantinople had never fallen, so why would Mehmed II succeed where many others for centuries had failed?

Moreover, the Venetians may have underestimated the ambitions of the Ottomans and the larger implications for the Christian and Muslim worlds with the fall of the Constantinople. After all, the time of the Crusades had faded, and Islamic and Christian countries had fought at cross-alliances many times, so the Ottomans could be just that. Besides Mehmed could end up crushed in the war, something that would bring the end of Ottoman Empire, already in difficulty as we saw, and a power vacuum in Balkans, where Venice rivaled Hungary and the Serb lords. In other words the extreme volatility of the general situation might have led Venice and the then-strong Italian states to stay on the fence in this momentous historical situation.

In fact when Mehmed proposed to siege Constantinople in 1452, most of his council, and especially the grand vizier, was against it and criticized the sultan for being too rash and overconfident in his abilities. But the sultan overruled them and ordered preparations be made for war. The siege started in April 1453 and the formerly impregnable land walls were breached after two months of constant pounding by heavy artillery.

Constantinople, for a millennium considered by many Europeans the divinely ordained capital of the Christian Roman Empire, fell to Mehmed and was transformed into what many Muslims considered the divinely ordained capital of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Mehmed gave himself the title “Kaiser-i-Rum,” Roman Caesar, and modeled the state after the old Byzantine Empire, thinking of himself as the successor to the Roman throne. Later, when he invaded Otranto, his goal was to capture Rome and reunite the Roman Empire for the first time since 755, when the Lombard had captured Ravenna, the Byzantine capital in Italy. That is, the Turkish emperor styled himself as an Islamic successor to Caesar.

Moreover after taking the city, the sultan soon ordered all looting to stop, so the Islamic invaders treated the Christian city better than the Latin Christians did with the sack of 1204. After that sack, the Black Plague between 1346 and 1349 killed almost half of Constantinople’s inhabitants. Far from being its heyday, Constantinople in 1453 was severely depopulated as a result of the general economic and territorial decline of the empire. In fact, the city then was almost a series of walled villages separated by vast fields and encircled by the fifth-century Theodosian walls.

After the conquest of the old imperial Roman capital, Mehmed started a chain of military campaigns, lasting until 1463 that established a solid military line of defense along the Danube and the Adriatic against Hungary and Venice. He conquered the silver and gold mines in Serbia and besieged the Hungarians in Belgrade. He then quelled the Albanians who had remained a problem for a few years under the leadership of Skanderbeg, a military leader who styled his name after that of Alexander the Great, and with Venetian support, as the Italian city was growing wary of the Turkish expansion in the western Balkans. In 1459, the Turks took Athens, and a year later all of Greece was conquered, with the exception of a few Venetians outposts. In 1461 Mehmed went to deal with a Wallachian incursion into Bulgaria led by Voievod Vlad III Dracula, a renegade Ottoman vassal, whose life was be the inspiration for the fiction on vampire Dracula.

In 1465 the Venetians patched together an anti-Ottoman alliance with Hungary and Skanderbeg. The war went on until 1479, and Venice managed to stave off the Turkish approach in the Adriatic Sea and conquered a number of Aegean islands, just off Anatolia, but it experienced some terrifying Ottoman raids in its northeastern Italian holdings. Hungarian King Matthias injected a new player into the struggles with the Ottomans by securing an alliance with Moldavian Voievod Stefan the Great (1457–1504). After years of neglect, a broad coalition of Christian interests was taking form to stop the Turkish advance in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean.

To this Mehmed responded by taking the fight directly to Italy and styling himself as the successor to the Byzantine emperor, attempting, as Justinian did before him, to gain control of Italy. That have been a monumental turning point in Europe. In 1480 Mehmed dispatched an army to Italy that marched toward Rome to punish the pope for supporting Venice and assorted anti-Ottoman coalitions. The invasion force captured Otranto and was preparing to advance further inland when news of the sultan’s death in 1481 halted their plans. By then the conquest of the Balkans essentially was complete and the Turkish invasion in Otranto was a dramatic warning for the Europeans. The fight with the Turks had become an existential struggle, much like some seven hundred years before. However at the end of the 15th century, although Byzantium was no more, Europe overall and Italy in particular were much stronger.

On the other hand, the strength of Europe had grown to rely on the commerce with the Silk Road, and the fall of Constantinople and general encroachment of the Turks in the Balkans and Middle East severed the main overland trade link between Europe and Asia. As a result more Europeans began to seriously consider the possibility of reaching Asia by sea, as was the case with Columbus’s travel to the Americas in 1492 and Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of India and Africa in 1498.

Their discoveries in the long term strengthened the economy and power of European nations and contributed isolating Turkey, which was losing revenues from trade between the Far East and Europe. Yes, Europeans continued to trade through Constantinople into the 16th century but high prices increasingly propelled the search for alternative sources of supply that did not pass through the intermediaries of the Ottomans and, to a lesser extent, the Safavids and Mamelukes. Ultimately the newly acquired control and monopoly of this trade sapped Turkish strength and further stimulated dynamic European response.

Lastly the fall of Constantinople corresponded with a conscious rise of Moscow and the Russians there as a sort of third Rome. In fact Russian claims to Byzantine heritage clashed with the Ottoman Empire’s own claim. Such conflict in ideology only stimulated the fight between the Russian and Ottoman empires, with the 18th and 19th centuries seeing Russian armies slowly approach Constantinople. Stefan Dušan, the tsar of Serbia, and Ivan Alexander, the tsar of Bulgaria, both made similar claims, regarding themselves as legitimate heirs to the Roman Empire.

Of those the lasting claim was of course the Russian one, as they were Christian, like Byzantines. And unlike smaller claimants in Serbia or Bulgaria, they soon buttressed their ambition with a sprawling empire.

10.4 Bypassing the monopoly of Turkey: the discovery of America

Possibly without the fall of Constantinople and more so without the attack to Otranto and the conquest of the Balkans, nobody would have financed Columbus’s attempt to reach the Indies from the west. This bold vision would have long term consequences but at the time didn’t weaken the Turkish hold on the Mediterranean and their expensive tariffs on trade, which financed their aggressive military policies. The Turks, as we shall see, banked on the new conquest to bring the fight closer to Italy. The combination of these two elements—the discovery of alternatives to routes through the eastern Mediterranean and the growing power of the Turks in the 16th century—eventually marginalized the Mediterranean, which then fatally in time weakened the Turks, slowly depriving them of an important source of income, trade and the new riches from America, and what came to be their traditional enemies, the motley coalition of Italian powers clustered around the pope, Venice, and the Spanish-Genoese alliance.

It was the end of an era that had started four or five centuries before with the Mongol Empire’s hegemony over Asia. Then Europeans had long enjoyed a safe land passage, the Silk Road to the Indies and China, which was the source of valuable goods such as spices, silk, and opiates. With the fall of Constantinople, the land route became much more difficult and dangerous. Portuguese navigators tried to find a sea route to Asia. In 1470 the Florentine astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli suggested to the Portuguese king that sailing west would be a quicker way to reach the China and the Spice Islands than the route around Africa. The Portuguese at that time had developed a passage to Asia by sailing around Africa, a safer route that followed the coastline, possibly taken also by the Phoenicians. A major breakthrough was achieved in 1488 (eight years after the Turks arrived in Otranto), when Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope in what is now South Africa. Meanwhile, in the 1480s, Columbus had picked up Toscanelli’s suggestion and proposed the Portuguese a plan to reach the Indies by sailing west across the Atlantic. However, Dias’s discovery had shifted the interest of Portuguese seafaring to the southeast passage, which complicated Columbus’s proposals significantly[4].

What Toscanelli and Columbus proposed was extremely daring. Although most educated Westerners at least since the time of Aristotle understood that the Earth was spherical, many more popular views concurred with the notion that the Earth was flat. This compounded the difficulty of daring to cross a wide-open ocean without any land for an uncertain period of time. Some wrong assumptions and faulty calculations made Columbus estimate that the distance to Japan from the Canary Islands, whose existence was reported in previous centuries by the Latin travelers, at about 3,700 km. No ship in the 15th century could have carried enough food and fresh water for such a long voyage, and the dangers involved in navigating through the uncharted ocean would have been formidable. Most European navigators reasonably concluded that a westward voyage from Europe to Asia was unfeasible.

Columbus had traveled from Portugal to both Genoa and Venice, but received encouragement from neither. Christopher Columbus also dispatched his brother Bartholomew to the court of Henry VII of England to inquire whether the English crown might sponsor his expedition, also without success.

The Spanish Catholic monarchs, however, having completed an expensive war in the Iberian peninsula that had expelled the last Muslims from Western Europe, were eager to obtain a competitive edge over other European countries in the quest for trade with the Indies. Columbus’s project, though farfetched, held the promise of such an advantage.

The Spanish financed the first voyage and upon his return they financed three larger voyages, which brought an enormous amount of direct and indirect wealth and changed the whole dynamic of the world.

It is hard to put in a few words the gigantic revolution brought about by the discovery of America. There was the enormous amount of gold and silver that changed the economy of the time, and the new plants that created an unprecedented amount of food in Europe, potatoes and corn firstly. There was the development and conquest of immense expanses of land.

But most importantly, over the next half millennium, it started an unprecedented drive for expansion, which since the beginning was motivated by wild crave of conquest and the pious desire of spread religious salvation (religious and political expansion as we saw went hand-in-hand for Christians and Muslims), which shaped the world so far.

This drive eventually marginalized the Mediterranean, which in turn brought on the decline of the Turkish Empire and Italy. Both in retrospect seem to have suffocated from their own greed and lack of vision. The Turks halted lucrative trade and by imposing high tariffs, which encouraged a search of alternatives. Although the new monopoly of trade brought significant short-term gains, in the long run it excluded Turkey from the far more profitable developments of trade and exploration in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Similarly, Italy declined. The Italian states managed for two more centuries to hang on to their influence in the Mediterranean trade with Europe, which didn’t simply hinge on the Silk Road. But the marginalization of the Mediterranean altogether weakened Italy, especially in comparison with the growing strength of other European countries projecting into the Atlantic. Curiously although the plan for a sea voyage straight across the ocean was first envisioned by Italians, no Italian state had the foresight to back it. This might have been also for geographical reasons. Italy sits right in the middle of a crossroads between Europe, Asia, and Africa, but far from the Atlantic.

In any case, right at the time of the discovery of America, and when the Turkish threat was slightly subdued, Italy plunged into an internecine war that was to lead to foreign intervention in the peninsula. These foreigners eventually conquered Italy and put the Italian interests in closer alignment with those of Europe.

Moreover, as the fall of Constantinople caused the end of the political clout of Eastern Christianity, the unbound religious might of Rome in the Christian world was to be challenged with a new division of Christianity brought about by the reformation movement of Martin Luther.

10.5 The great divisions of the Italian states

In the last decade of the 15th century, the old rivalry between Milan and Venice flared up again. This time the conflict was no longer limited to Italy: the wily Ludovico Sforza of Milan sought an ally against Venice outside of the Italian balance of power and encouraged Charles VIII of France to invade the peninsula, using a French claim to the throne of Naples as a pretext. When Ferdinand I of Naples died in 1494, Charles VIII broke into Italy possibly hoping also to use Naples as a base for a crusade against the Turks. For several months, French troops moved through Italy virtually unopposed, since the condottieri armies were unable or unwilling to resist them. The French marched to Naples, which tried to fight back and thus was bombarded and sacked.

As a result of Charles VIII’s expedition, the small states of Italy were shown once and for all to be both rich and comparatively weak, which sowed the seeds of more wars to come. In fact the individual Italian states, although rich, could not field armies comparable to those of the great feudal monarchies of Europe in numbers and equipment, which although militarily strong were also cash poor. The new French ambitions however triggered a reaction among the city-states of northern Italy and they formed the League of Venice on March 31, 1495. It comprised of all the main Italian and European powers who were concerned that the control of Italy would give the French an unbridled advantage in continental politics. In the league were the Holy Roman Empire, the Duchy of Milan, Spain, the Papal States, the Republic of Florence, the Duchy of Mantua, and the Republic of Venice. This coalition effectively cut Charles’s army off from returning to France[5]. The French then had to fight their way back home from Italy, which they reached after the inconclusive battle of Fornovo.

This first expedition did not achieve the French goals, but neither were the Italian states able to show enough force to deter future foreign interventions. In fact in many ways the first invasion had broken the balance of power in Italy, which was the hinge of a larger balance of power in Europe and proved that Italy was the new battlefield of European interests. Military strong, large European states could hope for a slice of the rich and weak Italian cake.

In this situation, the French descended again in 1499, this time moving on some new dynastic pretense. They invaded Lombardy and seized its capital, Milan. They also renewed the old ambitions over Naples. The French intervention contrasted and interfered with the previous involvement of the German emperor in a conflict between Florence and Pisa. The Germans sided with Pisa, while the French favored Florence, their old bankers. In the ensuing war the French failed to subdue Pisa but negotiated with Spain to divide Naples between themselves. The division did not work out, the Spanish and French clashed in southern Italy, and eventually the French were defeated in 1503 at the Battle of Cerignola. Naples was left under the control of a Spanish viceroy. So a rising foreign power, just recently blessed with the new riches of the discovery of America, was now master of about half of Italy, the part that was most immediately under Turkish threat.

Meanwhile, Pope Julius II was not too concerned about the devoutly religious Spanish in Italy, nor about the Turks, who we shall see had turned their attention to the east. The pope was more worried about the territorial expansion of Venice in northern Italy. The maritime city was also fresh off a diplomatic and military success against the Ottomans and might come to a dominant position over the land and sea in Italy. The pope was not alone in his fear of Venetian territorial ambitions. Also German emperor Maximilian was upset with the Venetian seizure of Duchy of Friuli, in the northeast of Italy. Furthermore, King Louis XII of France, who was firmly established in Milan since 1500, saw Venice as a threat to his position. Lastly, Naples resented the fact that Venice held a number of towns in southern Italy along the Adriatic coast.

The pope then masterminded the League of Cambrai on December 10, 1508, in which France, the papacy, Spain, Ferrara, and the Holy Roman Empire agreed to restrain the Venetians. The league won against Venice, but did not route it, and as happened so many times in the past, allegiances changed. The French were now more worried about the pope and sided with Venice. Then the pope called all European powers, including England, in the war against the French and hired a massive force of Swiss mercenaries, then known to be the most formidable warriors in Europe. It was a veritable European power struggle fought in Italy, over Italy, the most prized possession of the Mediterranean. Battles went on with continuous changes of fortune and allegiances until the death of the pope in 1513 and the French king, in 1515. The new French king, Francis I, then won against the papal alliance in 1515, and all of northern Italy was split between France and Venice.

On June 28, 1519, Charles V of Spain was elevated to Holy Roman emperor, despite the ambitions of Francis. Rivalry between the two kings was to become a main political factor in the following decades.

Charles in theory was the greatest sovereign of the western world. He had the huge riches of America, Naples, Spain, and the German Empire. However, things were more difficult under the surface. Martin Luther’s push for religious reformation was gaining momentum in Germany, and the German princes, resentful of Charles’s power, were supporting Luther in attempting to break from Rome and thus from their Catholic emperor. On the other side, surrounded by enemies on all fronts, Francis and had to fight for his life and sought even the help of the Turkish “infidels”. In 1521 Spain took Milan from the French and in the ensuing war Francis was captured in battle in 1525.

The Turks, now under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent gave an ultimatum to Spain for the release of King Francis and then invaded Hungary, beating the Spanish-Germans in 1526. Francis was released but surrendered his claims to Italy, Flanders, and Burgundy.

Yet the pope, now worried about the excessive power of Charles, organized a major alliance against Spain. The formidable new league of all powers in Europe failed miserably in 1529, and Charles became the true master of Italy—and of Europe. In other words, now under threat on many fronts, with a more volatile situation in Italy and strengthening states in Europe, the Pope found more difficult to hold a balance of power in the continent that would favor his influence.

Francis then took action again in 1536 in alliance with some smaller Italian states and the Turks. The intervention of the Turks in the war was not significant, but enough to curb Charles’s drive. Afterward, since Francis failed to secure a certain victory, he entered into a closer alliance with Suleiman in 1542. For the first time, a pair of Christian and Islamic great powers acted in coordinated attacks. They assaulted the Genoese city of Nice and allowed the Turkish fleet to quarter in Toulon for winter. Yet even this “unholy” alliance failed to defeated Charles, although it was enough to maintain France’s overall clout.

In 1547 Francis died, and in 1556 Charles abdicated, leaving Spain (with Portugal) to his son and Germany to his brother. The two entities of the empire would gradually drift apart. But then the main concern in Europe was the rise of Protestant states in the north, against Catholic ones in the south. Moreover, Spain and Italy had concentrated on the Turkish advance on the Mediterranean. So Catholic Europe, with Italy as its center, was taken on two fronts: political and religious.

The extensive and violent Italian wars brought about a revolution in military affairs. Walled cities, which in the past could resist for months, now could be taken in days or even hours thanks to the new iron-forged cannons and siege tactics. Culverins and bombards mounted on wheeled carriages were deployed against an enemy stronghold immediately after arrival.

The infantry fielded new pike and shot formations made of lighter pikemen (replacing heavy halberds) and harquebusiers. In Italy field artillery became an indispensable part of any first-rate army. Charles’s army also used horses to pull cannons rather than the oxen used previously. French cannons, forged with the methods used in casting bronze church bells, achieved a lightness and mobility previously unheard of.

Perhaps the most important improvement the French made to cannons, however, was the creation of the iron cannonball. Before the Italian Wars, artillery fired stone balls that often shattered on impact. The invention of the water mill allowed furnaces to generate enough heat to melt iron to be smelted into cannonballs. With this technology, Charles’s army could level, in a matter of hours, castles that had formerly resisted sieges for months and years. Wars become thus faster and more effective.

10.6 Martin Luther’s reforms and the break in the unity of Western Christianity

Martin Luther traditionally sets the official beginning of the Reformation with the publication in 1517 of the 95 theses. His theses are part of a long tradition of heretics like Peter Waldo and reformers like Saint Francis, all criticizing the excessive wealth of the church. However, Luther this time enjoyed a political situation in Germany in which princes were looking for a cause to coalesce against the growing centralization power under Emperor Charles. Also, unlike other reformers, Luther brought in a formidable theoretical arsenal, the most powerful instrument in religious clashes. Therefore, Rome met, for the first time since the break with the Greek church, a true theological challenge that shattered the conscience of many intellectuals of the time, and did not simply appeal mainly to the poor laymen, as was the case with Waldo and other theologically simpler heretics.

Luther criticized the selling of indulgences, insisting that the pope had no authority over purgatory (the theory at the time was that people could buy “forgiveness,” or indulgences, from the pope, who would intercede with God to shorten the time in purgatory for the sinners) and that the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the gospel (a sinner could also pray to a saint, who similarly could intercede with God over purgatory)[6]. Against all this Luther based his theory on Augustine and largely discarded the rationalism of Thomas, that was difficult to understand for laymen and common people. He insisted on the necessity of the rediscovery of Jesus in our lives and that salvation was obtained by faith alone, not with rational process, that was confined to mundane affairs.

The new movement within Germany diversified almost immediately, and other reform impulses arose also inspired by Luther but independently of him. The largest two groupings of the new fragmented Christian world were the Lutherans and Calvinists. Lutheran churches were founded in Germany, the Baltics, and Scandinavia, but also spread in France, Switzerland, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Scotland.

After 1547, the new movement of reformation decisively influenced the Church of England under Edward VI and Elizabeth I, although the national church had been made independent under Henry VIII in the early 1530s for political rather than religious reasons. The Reformation also definitively broke the unity of the once-formidable German Empire and set the premise for a division lasting until today in what is presently largely Catholic southern Germany, centered on Austria, and mostly protestant northern Germany, which was then centered on group of defiant principalities.

Besides the two main groupings, there were also reformation movements throughout continental Europe, known as the Radical Reformation, which also opposed Luther’s new pact with the princes.

On a technological level the spread of the printing press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the new vernacular languages. Luther translated the Bible into German making it for the first time directly accessible to common people who can then interpret it as they saw fit, without the mediation and guidance of a priest, as it happened for centuries with the Catholic and Orthodox.

People started to fully understand the liturgy of the religious celebration away from the “magic” of Latin, incomprehensible for many. By 1530, over 10,000 publications are known, with a total of ten million copies. The Reformation was thus a media revolution. Luther had also a small catechism for laymen and large catechism for pastors, spreading a systemic form of education through his church, something that was later imitated in a more organized form by the Catholics. This also brought the spread of national languages and further separated European territories, previously bound together by the common use of Latin.

The Catholic Church responded with what the Protestants called the Counter-Reformation. In this the well-organized newly established order of the Jesuits played a great role. The Jesuits were also tasked with spreading Catholicism around the world in non Christian places, and thus came to Asia, in India, South East, China and Japan. In general, northern Europe, with the most notably exceptions of Ireland and Poland, came under the influence of Protestantism. Southern Europe remained Roman Catholic, while Central Europe was a site of a fierce conflict. This culminated in the Thirty Years’ War, between 1618 and 1648, which left the continent devastated.

Shortly after that, the Turkish threat had been checked at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, but it was not totally resolved. In this situation southern Catholic Europe had to fight until the end of the 17th century on two fronts, the Protestant and the Muslim, both very dangerous for the political and religious survival of the Catholic states.

The reform largely abolished the church hierarchy (also unlike the Orthodox Church, still organized around the powerful patriarchs), which gave power to the Protestant princes, who did not have to respond to the Pope and were wresting their independence from the Emperor, but it also deprived the church of a systemic instrument to control its faithful. The call for a personal search for Jesus aroused peasants’ revolts, which were crushed by the Protestant princes.

The reform also enhanced the role of many local princes to act independently from any authority, basing their decisions on their own conscience, and thus pushed for the creation of modern states, which evolved from the old medieval principalities and kingdoms. These were now territories totally independent from a central European authority, be it that of the emperor or that of the pope.

The success of the Reformation was also due to two new compelling factors: the advance of the Turks, which made Catholic forces concentrate on the major evil of Suleiman, king of the strongest empire in the Western world of the time; and the dramatic weakening of the pope because of the Spanish intervention in Italy. Possibly without these two elements, the German princes would have been more hesitant to protect and encourage Luther, and he might have ended up like Saint Francis, a positive energy for the change of Europe and Catholicism which might be holding still the continent together.

On the other hand, diverging forces had been on the rise for decades. France’s ascent and the long, uneasy peace of the German princes also proved that European regions were firmly opposed to a greater role of a Spanish-German rule powered by the American riches. In this, the reform provided the necessary leaven.

Here Italy was just a priced pawn in a larger game, a very important piece still and in the 16th century almost the central piece, in stopping the Turkish and Reformation advances. But it was no longer almost the only piece, as it had almost been in the 14th and 15th centuries.

10.7 The European new Ethical split, wealth and poverty

One of the unexpected results of the spread and consolidation of the Protestant Reform in Northern Europe was the entrenchment of an ethical divide on the continent about the morality of wealth. Northern Europe started considering the acquisition of wealth as a concrete sign of the grace of God. As men could not act to save themselves through actions and deeds, but God chose on whom bestow his grace, there was little that men could actively do to save themselves. Then, the acquisition of wealth and success in businesses and human venture could become an indication of the grace God. God was looking after a certain person and thus was granting him good fortune.

This religious sense transformed personal and social behavior. People turned to business to see if they were blessed by God, and money was no longer the old “devil’s dirt,” as Christian doctrine labeled it for centuries, but became proof of the grace of God. In return for this grace, people so blessed didn’t have to flaunt this wealth, which anyway arrived not because they deserved it, not as compensation for their good deeds, but just because of the grace of God. Money, begot by the grace of God, could not go to charities either, because it would breed laziness in people who were anyway not blessed by God with good fortune. Therefore money had to be reinvested and generate more money.

As Max Weber put it, “the Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage[7].”

This in turn created the ethical basis and motivation for the growth of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution in Northern Europe. The new ethics also broke an old prejudice about time and money. Charging interest, a crucial element of finance, was frowned upon because Christians should not profit from time, as time belongs to God. Then Florence, as we saw, devised complex procedure that played with exchange rates to charge interest on money loaned, or let Jews, as non-Christians, do the unethical yet de facto necessary business of money lending. With the decline over time of the ethical prejudice against making money on money, and conversely investment becoming considered the ethical thing to do with money (one should not spend it nor give it to charities), the money market radically changed. Money lending was no longer confined to Jewish communities and Christian bankers no longer had to hide behind different exchange rates. Money lending, the basis for modern finance, could come out into the open and become almost an act of God.

But a very different phenomenon occurred in Southern Europe and in Italy, which had been so far the cradle of development for the merchant class of the continent. The Catholic Church, reacting to the Reformation, paid attention to the underclass of people who were left out by the accumulation of wealth. The poor and the weak were not outcast from the grace of God, but were the people almost blessed with earthly suffering, which would help them to stay pure and easily enter paradise after death. An important task of the rich was then to look after the sufferings of the poor and help them gain the rewards necessary to obtain the grace of God. Therefore an ethical stability came into place. God had a design for everybody, the poor and the rich. The poor should not feel angry about their fate, as there was an ultimate reward for it, and the rich should look after the poor, possibly with the help of the church, which underscored its centrality in the mediation between rich and poor.

The poor in the Protestant world either looked for chances to become rich, believing that God may help them to change their fate, or they started new radical egalitarian movements, like the Anabaptists, that believed communities should work together and share their wealth.

In the Catholic world the rich conversely relied on charity and the church to keep the poor from becoming too unhappy and keep them in their place. This created the ideal of a social stability where the rich had no real motive to reinvest and risk their capital, and the poor had equally no motive to strive to change their destiny but to rely on the good will of God, through the actions of the local rich or the church. In this there was an important element. In Northern Europe poverty was gradually frown upon, and it came with an ethical stigma: the concrete proof of the lack of grace of God. In Southern Europe poverty became just the opposite, the proof of the grace of God, something to be sought to avoid the inevitable temptations of vices, corruption, and debauchery derived from wealth. Poverty, sought or been born into, was thus a blessing.

Of course, interactions between Northern and Southern Europe were always strong and constant, and this is a simplification of complex dynamics. But starting with the 17th century we can see the beginning of an ethical divide in which individuals in each society were encouraged to or discouraged from acting in different ways.

The grand social stability was a positive element for large, ambitious transcontinental empires like those of Spain, Portugal, and France. Active social dynamism conversely could help and actually helped the smaller Dutch and northern German communities, under siege first from the Spanish then from the French, to survive and thrive. Very interestingly, the UK, a budding empire at the time, born in competition with Spain and France, adopted a religious model of a church that was the closest to the Catholic model in the Protestant world.

10.8 The Turkish advance in the Mediterranean

The decline of Italy also sped up in the 16th century because of the massive effort to check the Turkish expansion, which after the fall of Constantinople had clearly become the largest threat to Europe. The sultan was claiming to reestablish a new “Roman Empire” around the Mediterranean and intervened in European affairs, de facto saving the French against a much stronger Spanish-German Empire. At that moment the peninsula, and Rome in particular, was keen to preserve its power and religion, and was thinking not of a Mediterranean Roman Empire, which would in theory be its own roots. It was then clearly Europe versus Asia and Africa.

In fact in the middle of the 16th century Turkey was the mightiest empire in the Mediterranean since the Romans. After the difficulties the Turks encountered in the Balkans at the turn of the 16th century, Sultan Selim I (1512–1520) expanded dramatically the empire’s eastern and southern frontiers by defeating Shah Ismail of Persia, established Ottoman rule in Egypt, and created a naval presence on the Red Sea. In a few years, the Turks were the almost absolute masters of the Muslim world, by toppling the power of their two great rivals, Persia and the Mameluks in Egypt. That meant also that European powers could not effectively play Muslim states against the Turks, like the Turks had been playing the French or Venice against the massive ambition of Spain.

After securing its eastern and southern front, the Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–1566) turned again to the west. They captured Belgrade in 1521, conquered the southern and central parts of the Kingdom of Hungary, and laid siege to Vienna in 1529 but failed to take the city. In the east, the Turks pushed the Persians further east by taking Baghdad from them in 1535, gaining control of Mesopotamia and naval access to the Persian Gulf. The Ottomans did not conquer the Persian Empire the way Arabs did. The Persians continued to be a nuisance on the eastern front, but for many years were no longer a major security concern. In many respects, the expansionist strategy of the Turks seemed modeled on that of the Byzantines of the resurgence, but it was blessed with much greater success[8].

One reason for the Turkish success was the powerful alliance with the French, who conquered Nice (1543) and Corsica (1553) with the active support of Turkish forces commanded by the Ottoman admirals Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha and Turgut Reis, and the rise of the Protestants.

It was a global competition. The Portuguese had been trying to go around Turkey and play some Asian powers against Turkey in the way the sultan was using France. The Portuguese had established bases and alliances in Aden, but the sultan defeated them in 1559 in a war that furthered the Ottoman rule along the southeast African coast to the horn of Africa. This also increased its influence in the Indian Ocean to join its close ally the Ajuran Empire in Somalia in competing against the Portuguese.

The empire established a navy in the Red Sea that succeeded, at least for a while, in countering Portuguese influence on the spice trade. During this period, the Turks also vied with the emerging European powers in the Indian Ocean. Fleets, with soldiers and arms, were sent to support Muslim rulers in Kenya and Aceh in North Sumatra and to defend the Ottoman spice and slave trades. In Aceh, the Ottomans built a fortress and supplied it with huge cannons. The Dutch Protestants were at first helped by the Ottomans in their struggle against Catholic Spain.

But the main battle was waged in the Mediterranean, where the Turks advanced westward. In 1538, the fleet of Charles V was defeated at the Battle of Preveza, securing the eastern Mediterranean for the Turks for 33 years. Francis I asked for help from Suleiman, who then sent a fleet that managed to retake Naples from them. In this battle, Venice, wary of the Genoese now firmly in the Spanish camp, was playing carefully with the Turks. But the general push of the Ottomans deprived Venice of its chain of islands in the Mediterranean. They fell into Turkish hands one after the other.

By 1566, on the eve of the battle of Lepanto, the Turkish Empire’s population totaled about 15 million people extending over three continents and it had become the dominant naval force of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Turkish hold on the Mediterranean, especially in the east and south part, had become unbreakable in the middle of the 16th century. Around 1565 the Spanish took Manila in the Philippines, previously dominated by Chinese traders. The city was to become the center of the Spanish spice and silk commerce with Asia. But then the Spanish brought their Asian wares to Europe, sailing to Mexico and then through the Atlantic. A new Silk Road had been established through the American continent. It was a longer route, but safer and cheaper politically than bringing Asian goods through the Turkish controlled Middle East and the Mediterranean.

The new American route to Europe was totally out of Turkish control, and it would eventually contribute to sapping resources and power from the Ottomans. The growing complicated routes and games of the international commerce might have been a reason for the Turks to be prudent, but the Ottomans felt they were unstoppable and pushed against the Venetians, guilty of playing on too many sides.

The reaction was that the cool relations between papacy and Venice warmed, and the pope promoted a Christian coalition in Famagusta in Cyprus, which was being besieged by the Turks in early 1571, subsequent to the fall of Nicosia and other Venetian possessions in Cyprus in 1570. The coalition failed to save Famagusta but met the Turks at Lepanto on October 7, 1571. The battle was massive. The Turks lost about 70 galleys and had some 15,000 casualties, against about 7,500 losses on the Christian front. The Turks were defeated but in no significant manner because soon after the Christian coalition dissolved, with the Venetians wary of being with the Genoese, a Spanish protectorate. Venice had to wrest itself from the alliance to remain independent and not fall under the Spanish.

For the Ottomans Lepanto was a moment of great concern, since they had lost no major naval encounter since the 15th century. The defeat was mourned as an act of God, a punishment for arrogance. Yet the Ottomans rebuilt their navy with a massive effort, by largely imitating the successful Venetian galeasses, in a very short time. By 1572, about six months after the defeat, more than 150 galleys and 8 galleasses, in total 250 ships, had been set to sail, including eight of the largest capital ships ever seen in the Mediterranean. With this new fleet, the Ottoman Empire was able to reassert its supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. On March 7, 1573 the Venetians thus recognized by treaty the Ottoman possession of Cyprus, unwilling to risk being swallowed by Spain, and the Ottoman navy attacked the geographically vulnerable coasts of Sicily and southern Italy.

Then still many factors may have contributed to stymie further Mediterranean expansion of the Turks: The Persians restarted the push on the east, a generation of expert sailors and bowmen had been lost, and it would take years to retrain enough experienced soldiers. Moreover, Christians backed by the Venetians had proved able to check the Ottomans, and a second defeat soon after Lepanto could prove disastrous for the Turkish Emperor, which just between 1510 and 1520 had gone through a period of civil wars.

In any case, even though they had become more careful, the Ottomans, aided by the French, were able to extend their power over all of the coast of North Africa up to Gibraltar in the 1570s. Then basically all Mediterranean trade was in their hands. With this their offensive for Europe took a different strategy over the next century: the Turks tried to climb Europe from the Balkans. In this the Italians were boxed in, while only states with coasts directly on the Atlantic could freely trade with America and Asia. Europe and Italy had taken a different route.

10.9 The rise of Russia as the third Rome

With the fall of Constantinople another yet previously unremarkable kingdom claimed its legacy, Russia. Better than the Muslim Turks, the Russians had an alphabet derived from Greek and their religion was also an offspring of Greek Orthodoxy, with church leaders, patriarchs, closely bond to the ruler.

The Russian ambitions in the 16th century, when they first emerged from obscurity to play a role in European politics, were based on 15th-century efforts to unify formerly divided Slav principalities and push back the powerful Lithuanians in the north. Then the fall of Constantinople and the death of the last Greek Orthodox Christian emperor contributed to this idea of Moscow as the “New Rome” and the seat of Orthodox Christianity.[9] Moreover, shedding the former Mongol influence, with Ivan III’s (January 22, 1440–October 27, 1505) marriage to Sophia Palaiologina, the niece of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos in 1472, the Moscow court adopted Byzantine terms, rituals, titles, and emblems, such as the double-headed eagle, which survives as the coat of arms of Russia. Ivan proclaimed his absolute sovereignty over all Russian princes and nobles. Refusing further tribute to the Tatars, Ivan initiated a series of attacks that opened the way for the complete defeat of the declining Golden Horde, now divided into several Khanates and possessions.

The first Russian ruler to officially crown himself “tsar,” derived from Caesar, was Ivan IV, the Terrible (who reigned 1533–1584).

Ivan assumed the throne in 1547 and, reflecting Moscow’s new imperial claims, his coronation was a ritual modeled after those of the Byzantine emperors. With the continuing assistance of a group of boyars, in the 1550s Ivan declared a new legal code, revamped the military, and reorganized local government. He expanded also in the south, fighting the Tatars without clear conclusions. When the combination of military losses, epidemics, poor harvests weakened Russia, the Tatars, based in Crimea, sacked the central Russian regions and burned down Moscow in 1571, at the same time as Lepanto.

Yet the Russians pushed back a coalition of Swedish-Lithuanian forces and later in the early 17th century they faced a growing Polish threat from the west. But none of these challenges stopped the expansion of the rule of the new Caesars from northeastern of Europe. Moreover at the early 17th century, when the Ming Dynasty in China was under the threat of the growing power of the Manchus, masters of the northern regions, Russians were expanding in Siberia. It is very likely that the Manchus were drawn into the conquest of the much more important and rich China, and lost track of the vast yet deserted Siberian plains and forests. In 1648, in the same years the Manchus took over Ming China, the Russians opened the passage between America and Asia, and a few years later, Russians had reached the Amur River and the outskirts of the Chinese Empire.

After a period of conflict with the Qing Dynasty, when the Russians sided with some Mongol tribes resentful of the Manchu dominance, Russia made peace with then Manchu China in 1689. With the Treaty of Nerchinsk, Russia ceded its claims to the Amur Valley, but it gained access to the region east of Lake Baikal and the trade route to Beijing. Peace with China strengthened the initial breakthrough to the Pacific that had been made in the middle of the century. More importantly, at a time when the Mediterranean had become a Turkish lake and Italy was squeezed on all sides by Spanish, French, Germans, and Turks, the Russians had opened a new trade route from China to the Baltics, ending in the increasingly independent north German cities of the old Hanseatic league.

China could then be reached through the north (via Russia, Scandinavia, and northern Germany) or via the Atlantic. Italy at this point, in the 17th century, did not count much anymore. But it would be still a few centuries before Italy and the world came to fully realize what had happened.

[1] For this section see Arfaioli, Maurizio. The Black Bands of Giovanni: Infantry and Diplomacy During the Italian Wars (1526–1528). Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2005.

[2] See for this part see Holt, Peter Malcolm, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis. The Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge University Press, 1977. 231–232. Shaw, Ezel Kural. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Cambridge University Press, 1977. 5–7.

[3] For this section see Fletcher, Richard A. The Cross and the Crescent. Penguin Group, 2005. Harris, Jonathan. Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium. Hambledon/Continuum, 2007. Harris, Jonathan. The End of Byzantium. Yale University Press, 2010.

[4] See Cohen, J.M. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters and Dispatches with Connecting Narrative Drawn from the Life of the Admiral by His Son Hernando Colon and Others. London UK: Penguin Classics, 1969.

[5] For this section see Arfaioli, Maurizio. The Black Bands of Giovanni: Infantry and Diplomacy During the Italian Wars (1526–1528). Pisa: Pisa University Press, Edizioni Plus, 2005.

Arnold, Thomas F. The Renaissance at War. Smithsonian History of Warfare, edited by John Keegan New York: Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2006.

[6] See Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation (Second ed.). Oxford University Press, 2012. Patrick, James. Renaissance and Reformation. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2007.

[7] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings. Penguin, 2002. 181.

[8] See for this section Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. And Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe. Basic Books, 2009.

[9] For this section see Modernizing Muscovy: Reform and Social Change in Seventeenth Century Russia. Eds. Jarmo Kotilaine and Marshall Poe. Routledge, 2004.