Avoiding a Massacre

In 1494 the sleepy town of Sutri (pictured), near Viterbo, was menaced by Charles VIII and his army. The town was then in the control of Virginio Orsini who at first came out of Rome towards Viterbo to secure his lands but finding the French already there came to an agreement with the king in order to prevent the loss of his lands to his hated Colonna rivals.[1] Unfortunately, some French troops attempted to sack the city but their violence was stemmed by the prompt actions of the local lawyer Giovanni Francesco Arcoate whose memory was celebrated in the Memoratu apprime digna in adventu Caroli Francorum Regis in Italia published posthumously in 1514. Arcoate declared that the reader would find an account of the ‘advent of Charles, king of the French, in Italy, the advance of his people on unfortunate Sutri, the dreadful prodigies, [and] the scarcely believable work of fortitude accomplished by the inhabitants of Sutri during the transit of the French.’[2] The book, which also includes a reprint of his oration to Julius II and poems in praise of Arcoate by his son and other local humanists, stands as a striking humanist memorial and as an intriguing witness to the long-forgotten assault by the French on Sutri.

The first part of the book is formed by an oration addressed by Arcoate to Charles VIII ‘by which he was freed immediately from extinction’.[3] In this section he addresses Charles with respect but accuses Charles’ troops of ignoring royal orders and breaking into Sutri through one of its gates and threatening it with fire and the sword. This inglorious act of rebellion was met quite correctly, in Arcoate’s view, with a patriotic defense that led to his imprisonment and torture. He outlines the reasons why he should be set free. Those who kill are prosecuted with death as homicides and the laws make absolutely no distinction among homicides, and to harm a man or to ambush men is wicked (nefas).[4] All divine and human laws, he writes, permit strength to be repelled to avoid injury and what could be more reasonable or just, indeed worthy of eternal memory, than to free one’s homeland from military destruction and to defend one’s family from a rape and massacre with horrible laments taking place before one’s eyes? The king should enforce military discipline or he will be unable to ensure victory as the example of Roman discipline demonstrates. He also reminds the king of the virtues, again held by the Romans, which a king ought to possess: principally Justice, Fortitude, Magnanimity, and Liberality. He draws a broader lesson linked to the king’s intention to move against the Turks which, he says, is well known throughout Italy. The Turks have occupied by force Christian lands without provocation and it is right by holy laws to defend them and not only just but necessary for the king to wage war on them. The lengthy disquisition here on the crimes of the Turks, and their essentially irredeemable nature, which justifies war and the recuperation of Jerusalem, may have been added or expanded to suit the heightened crusade rhetoric of Fifth Lateran Council, which was in session when the work was published. The language used here certainly resembles that found in the pamphlets and orations on the need for a crusade which were issued at the time and suggests why the work may have been printed in Rome twenty years after the events it describes.

In a similar vein, in an oration addressed to Julius II and originally published in 1503, Arcoate praises the pope as a man of outstanding virtues sent by providence at a time of great troubles for the Church, with so many Christians harmed or threatened by the Turks. The people of Sutri offer their loyalty to the pope and Arcoate recalls the arrival of Charles and his army at Sutri in 1494 when they insolently and with ferocity broke into the city with most terrible cries and against law and that which is right (‘contra ius fasque’) cruelly put the place to fire and sword. Modestly claiming to desire to convey to the pope the truth of the matter rather than to speak arrogantly Arcoate asserts that he fought patriotically to defend his town.[6] The French Cardinal of San Dionysio (Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas) brokered a contract (foedus) for peace between the two sides but then the army entered, shattering the pact and apprehended Arcoate unarmed and disguised in the habit of a Franciscan in the Franciscan church. He was put in chains and his son fled to Julius, who had some authority with the king, and pleaded for his life. His life was restored and he was liberated and he now praised Julius and asked for his services to be recalled as well as those of his father Angelo.[7]

Giovanni Poggio, the Florentine orator, testified to Arcoate’s virtues and his actions during the attack by forty Frenchman on Sutri, noting that he ordered guards to be put on the town gates to prevent the entry of armed men, but the French, a very proud people, broke in and he was seized by the ‘barbarians’ against the terms of the pact and against justice disguised in a Franciscan habit. Fearful for his life he spoke with eloquence in Latin since he himself did not know French and the king ordered him to be freed.[8] Francesco Tito Sutrino, an orator, also provides details of the event in 1495 with note of a miracle of the Virgin at a new shrine at Monte Bono warning of danger like Cassandra before Troy. The example of Israel and the Midians is recalled, as well as other Old Testament incidents, but Arcoate leads the defense like Horatio.[9] A number of verses comparing him to classical heroes by various authors follow,[10] but the major production in this part of the book is Girolamo Amphion Arcoate’s Arcuantiados, an epic work in four books describing the actions of Giovanni Francesco in the guise of Camillus who had repelled the Gauls after they sacked Rome in 490 BC.[11]

The averted massacre at Sutri was a minor incident of the Italian Wars given an epic treatment. Arcoate’s actions have long been forgotten but the image of the local lawyer standing up to Charles VIII and reminding him of his duties is an appealing one, and a much happier episode of the wars than most with which this blog has been concerned.


Primary Source

Arcoate, Giovanni Francesco. Memoratu apprime digna in adventu Caroli Francorum regis in Italiam per Io. Franciscum Arcuantem Sutrinum iureco. et Hieronymum Amphionium Arcuantem filium. Rome: Per Etienne Guillery and Ercole Nani, 12 July 1514

Secondary Sources

Labande-Mailfert, Yvonne. Charles VIII et son milieu (1470-1498): la jeunesse au pouvoir. Paris: C. Klincksieck, 1975

Negri, Paolo. ‘Le missioni di Pandolfo Collenuccio a papa Alessandro VI (1494-1498)’. Archivio della Reale Società Romana di Storia Patria, 33 (1910): 333-439

[1] Labande-Mailfert, Charles VIII, 302. On the French occupation of Viterbo and advance into papal lands, and the report that the Orsini and Colonna had come to an agreement with Charles to rob the territory, see the dispatch of the Ferrarese ambassador from Rome dated 30 November 1494: Negri, ‘Missioni’, 427-8.

[2] ‘adventum Caroli francorum regis in Italiam, successumque ad Sutrium eius gentis infaustum, horrendaque prodigia, ac vix credibile fortitudinis opus in transitu gallorum Sutrii perpetratum invenies.’ Arcoate, Memoratu, fol. iiv. On Arcoate’s death and burial far from Sutri see the epitaph in ibid., fol. xliiv.

[3] ‘Iohannis Francisci Arcuantis de Arcu iurisconsulti Sutrini ad Carolum octavum Francorum Regem pro se ipso habita Oratio ob quam confestim ab interitu liberatus.’ Ibid., fols. iiiiv-xxxviir.

[4] ‘Occidendi sunt inquiunt homicidae, legibus hoc asseverantibus morte mulctandi, homicidia nullatenus distinguentes. Non te fugit iustissime Rex quod ex hominum animis ac voluntatibus leges maleficia metiuntur. Alterum laedere hominem homini insidiari (cognationem inter nos quondam natura cum constituerit) nefas esse declarantes.’ Ibid., fol. vir-v. Note contrasting use of ‘fas’ at ibid., fol. xlr.

[5] ‘Romani vero qui ab conditae urbis primordiis (ut historias percurrentibus pervidere licet) tam cum vicinis quam cum longinquis populis ac nationibus, antequam ad arma prorumperent praemissis semper legatis quaestum iniurias resque repetitum hoc est qui illatas conquerentur iniurias, ablataque si qua essent ut restituerentur expostularent qui iuste semper, recte, sancte, rite, moderate, sapienter, nunquam alios provocando sed semper illatas iniurias ulciscendo et vindicando iustitia duce susceperunt bella. Ad postremum innumeris insignibus, incredibilibusque victoriis tantum quantum numquam fuit ab initio mundi tam diuturnum sibi imperium peperere.’ Ibid., fol. xixr.

[6] ‘Quos solus ego (quod quidem non arroganter dictum existimetur est enim ut te non latet notissima veritas) caeteris fugientibus armatus occurrens gloriosusque nihil esse ducens quam fortiter strenueque pugnando pro patriae salute mortem occumbere cum ipsorum non parva strage suffragante aliquantulum loci eminentia eieci, salutemque patriae defendi.’ Ibid., fols. xxxviir-xliir (quotation at fol. xlr).

[7] Ibid., fols. xlr-xliv.

[8] Ibid., fols. xliiv-xliiiir.

[9] Ibid., fols. xliiiir-xlviv.

[10] Ibid., fols. xlviv-xlixv.

[11] Ibid., fols. lr-lxxxixr.