Prospero Colonna, 1452-1523

Prospero Colonna (1452-1523) was a successful Italian commander of the Italian Wars who spent much of the later part of his life fighting against the French, and who rose to command the Imperial armies in Italy at the end of his career.

Colonna came from a powerful Roman family that produced a number of successful generals, and that also tended to interfere in Roman and Papal politics. He was the son of Antonio Colonna, Prince of Salerno and the grandnephew of Pope Martin V. Later in his life the Colonna family became the target of several Popes who were determined to eliminate their power in Rome, and this also played a part in his choice of sides in the Italian Wars.

The first half of Colonna's military career came before the first French invasion triggered the Italian Wars. He fought for Naples during the War of Ferarra (1482-84), opposing Venice and Pope Sixtus IV. This was followed by a revolt of the Neapolitan barons against King Ferdinand I (1485-86). This time Colonna fought for the rebels, who were supported by Pope Innocent VIII.

In 1495 the French burst into the Italian scene when Charles VIII advanced down the entire length of the peninsula in an attempt to conquer the Kingdom of Naples (First Italian War, 1495-96). Colonna fought on both sides during this conflict. At first he served under Charles VIII, and took part in the conquest of Naples in February-May 1495. The easy French success alarmed the Italian powers, and an anti-French League was quickly formed. Colonna joined this League, and helped Ferdinand II of Naples recapture his kingdom later in 1495.

In 1499 the French returned to Italy, this time under Louis XII (Second Italian War, 1499-1503). This war started with a French invasion of Milan, where Louis wanted to replace Duke Ludovico Sforza. Sforza was aware that the French were about to invade and made great efforts to gain allies, but without any great success. Naples promised to send a contingent to help Sforza, to be commanded by Ludovico Sforza, but this force was never actually sent.

The second stage of the Second Italian War began in 1501 when France and Spain invaded Naples, having previously agreed to split the kingdom between them. When the invasion began Prospero and his relative Fabrizio Colonna were in the Neapolitan service. Fabrizio was given command of the garrison of Capua. The city was soon besieged by the French, and fell during surrender negotiations in July 1501. Frederick IV soon decided to give up the fight and went into exile in France.

The Colonna family now had to find a new employer. Their decision was partly made for them. In 1502 the Borgia Pope Alexander VI moved against the Colonna, expelling them from Rome. His son Cesare Borgia, a bitter enemy of the family, was serving in the French army. This really only left the Spanish, and so Fabrizio and Prospero and their men joined the army of Gonsalvo de Cordoba (the 'Grand Captain') in Naples.

Inevitably the French and Spanish fell out over the division of the loot, and fighting between them broke out in Naples. Prospero was part of the Spanish army at Cordoba's great victories at Cerignola (26 April 1503) and The Garigliano (28-29 December 1503), victories that firmly established Spanish rule in Naples.

Colonna spent the rest of his life in the Spanish, and later Imperial service (after Charles I of Castile became the Emperor Charles V).

During the War of the Holy League (1510-1514) Colonna was present at the battle of La Motta (7 October 1513), an Imperial victory over Venice.

His career suffered a setback in 1515 when the new French king Francis I launched his first invasion of Italy. The French used an unexpected route across the Alps, following the Col d'Argentiere. This move caught the Spanish and Imperial forces by surprise. At the time Colonna was commanding a force of Italian cavalry, and he was caught and defeated at Villafranca near Saluzzo. He was captured in this battle and thus missed the major French victory at Marignano (13-14 September 1515).

In 1521 Colonna was made commander in chief of the Imperial forces in Italy. He had command of a joint German, Spanish and Papal army and was faced by a larger French army under Marshal Odet de Lautrec.

Colonna began with a siege of Parma, a key fortress on the eastern borders of Milan. This siege soon bogged down, but while many commanders of the period would either have continued with the siege until it was too late to do anything else or given up and retreated, Colonna made a daring decision. Leaving Parma he outmanoeuvred Lautrec, who clearly hadn't been expecting an attack so late in the year. Milan fell to a surprise attack on 23 November 1521 and Francesco Maria Sforza was installed as Duke. The only blot on the victory was that the castle of Milan held out against the Imperial forces.

Over the winter of 1521-22 Lautrec received reinforcements, but he remained short of money. His Swiss troops insisted that he attacked Colonna's men immediately, or they would leave. Lautrec decided to attack the Imperial base at Bicocca, four miles north of Milan. The resulting battle of La Bicocca (27 April 1522) was a major Imperial victory. Lautrec's Swiss troops were defeated by Colonna's Spanish infantry while Sforza defeated a French cavalry attack. The Swiss lost 3,000 dead in half an hour, and three days later the survivors left the army and retired home. Lautrec and the remaining French troops escaped east into Venetian territory.

This campaign gained Colonna the nickname 'Cunctator' or the 'Delayer', a name originally given to Fabius Maximus, the Roman general who had frustrated Hannibal after his early victories in Italy by refusing to offer battle (the 'Fabian strategy'). This was a little inaccurate - Colonna's manoeuvres had an offensive aim while Fabius was determined to avoid battle at all cost after two Consular armies had been destroyed by Hannibal. It is perhaps most interesting as an example of the revival of interest in the Classical world that was a major feature of the Renaissance.

In the following month Colonna and the Marquis of Pescara attacked Genoa, then in French hands. The port fell on 30 May 1522, removing the last major French foothold in north-western Italy. One negative consequence of this victory was the entry of Andrea Doria into French service, although Francis I quickly alienated him.

In 1523 the French returned to Lombardy, sending a new army commanded by William de Bonnivet, Admiral of France. Bonnivet captured Novara, but through skilful manoeuvring Colonna was able to pin the French in place around Novara from May until September 1523. This gave the Imperial foreccs time to recover, and early in 1524 they drove the French out of Italy yet again. By this time Colonna was dead, having died of an illness on 28 December 1523. He was replaced by Charles de Lannoy, viceroy of Milan, with the Marquis of Pescara as his main military commander.

Colonna was a good example of a successful Italian commander in a period when the conventional view is that Italian leaders were unable to compete with the more aggressive and modern French and Spanish. His career shows that Italian commanders were more than capable of beating French armies when give the right resources.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 November 2014), Prospero Colonna, 1452-1523 ,

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