The Neutrality of Switzerland Between Past and Present
February 22, 2022
On the 500th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of the Renaissance, politicians and historians are divided over the repercussions for the Confederation: start of ‘Swiss neutrality’ or retreat of a small power?
Work of the Master of the Antiphonary
It is useless to look for the locality of Marignano on maps since, in the 19th century, its ancient denomination of Melegnano reappears. However, if not in geography, in the history of 2 nations – France and Switzerland – the name of the town, south-east of Milan, has remained firmly registered for 500 years.
Since, that is, for almost 2 days, on 13 and 14 September 1515, a French and a Confederate army confronted each other in the plain between San Donato, Zivido di San Giuliano and Melegnano, giving rise to one of the bloodiest clashes of the first phase of the Wars of Italy (1494-1559): 6,000 French and 10,000 Swiss fallen out of about 30,000 fighters from one army and 25,000 from the other army. The victory of the arms of Francis I of Valois-Angoulême returns to France the Duchy of Milan, lost by the predecessor Louis XII of Valois-Orléans in 1512, and marks the end of the recent age of concordant military engagement in Lombardy for the cantons of the Confederation.
It had been uncoordinated for a long time and started a century ahead with infiltrations into the northern lands of the Milanese area: the purchase of Bellinzona by the Cantons Uri and Sottoselva in 1419, then stolen from them by the Visconti in 1422; the Uranian occupation of Leventina (1439) and the de jure annexationof the valley (1480); the dedication of the Blenio valley to Uri (1495) at the time of the Sforza. Chased out by the French Ludovico il Moro, it was the turn of Louis XII, the new Duke of Milan, to give the Uranians, by allears, the Val Riviera (1499) and undergo the secession of Bellinzona, which was handed over to Sottoselva, Schwyz, Uri (1500). After inconclusive Swiss sieges of Lugano (1501) and Locarno (1503), the king – mired in the Neapolitan area – then resigned himself to ceding de jure Blenio and Bellinzona, letting the borders between the Confederation and the Milanese (1503). It was then the anti-French Holy League of Julius II to solicit other Swiss enterprises: the Chiasserzug (1510) and the Winterzug (1511) had led to brief occupations of Varese and the threat to Milan,
Objective resumed, however, with the Pavierzug (1512), which saw the Cantons pursuing a finally unanimous policy within a powerful anti-French coalition with imperials, pontiffs, Castilian-Aragonese and Venetians. Placed on the Milanese throne Massimiliano Sforza son of the Moor, to the Swiss Confederation – raised by the 8 Cantons Sottoselva, Schwyz and Uri (1291), Lucerne (1332), Zurich (1351), Glarus and Zug (1352) and Bern (1353) to 12 Cantoni, with Friborg and Solothurn (1481) and Basel and Schaffhausen (1501) – it was easy to obtain Ossola, Valmaggia, Locarnese and Luganese (1512), and from here to take de facto Valtravaglia, Valcuvia and Mendrisiotto (1513), subjecting the whole Lombardy, occupied by its own garrisons, to greedy bounties. The duchy arose as foreseeable upon the return of the forces of Louis XII, only thanks to the still unanimous rise of 12,000 men the Swiss managed to prevail at Ariotta, in the Novara area, at the price of only 1500 fallen against 7000 French out of 16,000 (6 June 1513); restructuring itself, upon the accession of Appenzell, into the league of the 13 Cantons (1513).
However, that success was already fading 2 years later, with the descent of Francesco I, not because of the outcome of Marignano, but because of the background. The disagreements over an expansionism no longer shared were revealed by the signing of the treaty of Gallarate (8 September 1515) by the captains of Berne, Friborg and Solothurn (8 September 1515) with a surrender clause, for one million crowns, of the last annexes; moreover, the battle to which they were pushed by Matthäus Schiner, bishop of Sion, owner of the fat fief of Vigevano, sanctioned the dissensions between the confederates, part of which returned to Bellinzona already on the eve.
Rejected by Glarus, Schwyz and Uri, then reconfirmed (in Geneva on 7 November 1515) by Appenzell, Bern, Friborg, Glarus, Lucerne, Solothurn, Sottoselva, Zug and rejected by Basel, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Uri and Zurich, the treaty of Gallarate was finally replaced by the ‘perpetual’ peace of Friborg (29 November 1516), in which, with an ambiguous formula, France left the conquests of 1512-13 as a pledge to the Cantons, barring a future ransom, and they undertook to supply it with the fearsome mercenaries experimented in Marignano, accepting a sort of French ‘protectorate’ over the Confederation, which lasted until 1792.
As the 500th approaches, Switzerland has seen a controversy that is only apparently out of date on that past. Simplifying, historians accuse the right of making myth with the motto ex clade salus (“salvation from the defeat”, recalling the hard but salutary defeat of 1515) a neutrality that they claim was born then and that they consider saving, while those circles accuse the adversaries of demolish the ‘founding value’ of neutrality to counterpoise it with a lethal Europeanism for Swiss traditions. The harshness of the comparison certainly contributed to the popularity of the theme: the Tages Anzeiger, according to Swiss newspaper, with the ‘fish’ of 1 April 2015 – focused on the location of the true date of the battle at 13 September 1513 following “new studies” – has aroused unanimous reactions of disbelief on a story, it is evident, now internalized. But the confrontation of extreme positions has also ended up marginalizing the most weighted historiography, based on sources and the international comparison of the results of the investigations.
According to these, Marignano does not at all mark the beginning of a ‘neutrality’, anachronistic already in the term: Swiss troops are on the side of the Empire in the siege of French Milan in 1516; with the help of Friborg and Valais, the Canton of Bern annexed the Savoyard Vaud in 1536; the supply of mercenaries to France resembles everything but equidistance.
It is true, however, that the Confederation as such will never again take the field from 1515, closing itself off in a practice of cautious distrust of war-torn Europe: this is also a consequence of the further rift inserted in the cantonal team by the Reform of 1522 and by the ‘intolerance of the classes excluded from the government and from pensions, which resulted in 5 wars’ of religion’ (Kappel 1530 and 1531, Villmergen 1656 and 1712, Sonderbund 1847) and in campaign revolts against cities and sovereign cantons (1653, 1723, 1755, etc.).
In short, Marignano, defined according to Francesco Guicciardini “battle of the giants” by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, Milanese protagonist of the victory, in equal admiration of the losers and winners, would have symbolic value in the history of Switzerland to be a watershed between its consolidation and settlement in the concert European. Established, it has been mentioned, only in the wake of great powers, from 1512, with unitary ambitions of domination in transalpine lands, outside the genuinely Swiss German-speaking plateau, the Confederation d ‘ ancien régime soon experimented – relegated to garrisons, detested for taxation, abandoned by its allies – the inadequacy to stand up, on its own, the sophisticated Milanese.
In the choice preceding the battle, whose influence in this is nil, to keep only a few limiting Lombard valleys in order to escape unscathed – and loaded with money – from the Italian adventure, the limited scope of the fact of arms in itself of Marignano is summarized., the collapse of the destiny of the “new Romans” envisioned in 1507 for the Swiss by Machiavelli and the explicit admission of the political-military limits of one’s own country, too inhomogeneous for too great ambitions.