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The Campaigns of 1494-1495 in the Italian South: Ottoman Threat, Spanish Preparations, and Jewish Gold

The Campaigns of 1494-1495 in the Italian South: Ottoman Threat, Spanish Preparations, and Jewish Gold

By Nadia Zeldes

Mediterraneo in armi (secc. XV-XVIII) – Tomo I, ed. Rossella Cancila (Palermo, 2007)

Introduction: Studies concerning the reign of the Catholic monarchs usually end in 1492 as it is the year of the discovery of the New World, the conquest of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, and the expulsion of the Jews. Thus, the later years of their reign are often ignored, though they were crucial for building the Spanish position in the Mediterranean for centuries to come. The beginning of this period is characterized by war and preparations for war against both France and the Ottoman Empire.

The descent of Charles VIII of France into Italy in 1494 to assert his dynastic rights over the Kingdom of Naples precipitated a series of events that ended in Spanish dominance in Italian politics, a situation that in modern times led Benedetto Croce to the conclusion that Spanish armies and Spanish spirit overwhelmed Italy: «La Spagna parve allora invadere l’Italia non solo con le sue armi, ma con tutto il suo spirito nazionale». The fact that the Spanish monarchs already ruled Sicily and the adjacent islands played a crucial part in these developments. Between 1494 and 1511 the Spanish army used Sicily as a base in the wars in the Kingdom of Naples, in North Africa, and the expedition to the island of Cephalonia. According to the Spanish historian Luis Suárez Fernández, the war in the kingdom of Naples was not solely the beginning of international Spanish diplomacy but also the birth of Spanish foreign military force, headed at that time by two figures: Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (the ‘Gran Capitán’) and Galceran de Resquesens, Count of Trivento. The documents cited below show that the period of 1494-1495 was crucial in the building up of Spanish forces in the Italian south, even before the creation of the Holy League against France, concluded in 31 March 1495 between Spain, Pope Alexander VI, Maximilian of Austria, Milan and Venice. One of the considerations that led to the gathering of a Spanish army and navy in Sicily and in South Italy in this period was the estimation that a possible attack by the Turks was imminent. It should be noted that while the war against the French in South Italy is a well-studied subject, Spanish policies towards the Ottomans in this period are almost totally disregarded.

This paper would like to focus on the years 1494-1495 and the preparations for war that took place then. Several hitherto unpublished documents, to be discussed in the following pages, throw light on these preparations and attest to the strategic importance of Sicily, the war’s intended aims and the monetary sources used to finance the coming war. At least in part, the funds came from the money extracted from the Jews during the expulsion from Sicily.

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