Collecting Women: Three French Kings and Manuscripts of Empire in the Italian Wars

TitleCollecting Women: Three French Kings and Manuscripts of Empire in the Italian Wars
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsGagné, John
JournalI Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance
Date Published03/2017

In April 1494, Galeazzo Sanseverino entered Lyon with a team of two hundred horses and a riot of diplomatic gifts. His father-in-law Ludovico Sforza, Milan’s de facto duke, had charged him with making the case for war to France’s twenty-three-year-old king Charles VIII. A successful French invasion of Naples would supplant Milan’s Aragonese foes and reframe Italian politics in Ludovico’s favor. Galeazzo, a dazzling courtier and athletic horseman, charmed the sovereign in short order. As a show of affinity, Charles invited Galeazzo to join him in his private chambers and took “one of his young ladies by the hand, saying that he wished to give her to Galeazzo as his mistress; then he chose another for himself, and each of them conversed with his lady for a good two hours.” With this gesture, the king cemented an alliance between France and Milan by positioning women as objects of exchange. Four months later, Charles VIII crossed the Alps with his army. In both flesh and paint, women surrounded the French monarch on his military expedition. Mistresses constituted rather than challenged the patriarchal system of privilege in fifteenth-century courts through interchanges exactly like this one. It was a system in which husbands colluded as well, offering their wives to rulers in the expectation of tightening their affiliations. This essay unpacks that dynamic around 1500, when courtly women—individually, or in bands often labeled brigate—welcomed France’s invading kings to Italy. Often overlooked, these women, and a strain of visual culture built around them, help us to recover the way that international war brought traffic in women and visions of territorial expansion together into turbulent collaboration.

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