Roi_Louis_XII_de_FranceLouis XII (Wikimedia)

Like his predecessor, Charles VIII, King Louis XII of France invaded Naples, having arranged a secret treaty with Ferdinand II of Aragon to divide the kingdom. Conquering the Duchy of Milan in 1500, his army moved on to Naples where he was proclaimed king in 1501. His control of Naples did not last long, as Clara Erskine Clement describes:

Such an alliance as that of Ferdinand and Louis XII. of Spain and France could scarcely endure for long, or be advantageous to either country during its existence. After a series of misunderstandings and quarrels, actual hostilities began in 1502; and, the French army being defeated in four battles in eighteen months, the kingdom of Naples became an absolute possession of Spain.

This result may be said to have been brought about by Gousalvo da Cordova, one of the most brilliant and interesting men of his time, whose character and achievements have made him the hero of romance as well as of history. The “Great Captain” il gran capitano or el gran capitan he is called; and he was also great in other important positions. He proved himself a most skilful organizer, and entirely changed the service of his army, the more successfully to oppose the tactics of the French.

For further details we turn to another work that focuses on the rulers of southern Italy, The Rulers of the South (1900), by Francis Marion Crawford:

It was at this time that Charles the Eighth conceived the idea of seizing the kingdom of Naples, and his incessant wars in Italy, in which Gonzalvo de Cordova, who led the Spanish armies, earned the surname of the Great Captain, led directly to the treaty of Granada made in 1500 between King Ferdinand and Lewis the Twelfth of France, Charles’s successor. By that agreement the two sovereigns allied themselves in order to take the kingdom of Naples from Frederick the Fourth, who was King Ferdinand’s first cousin once removed. Ferdinand’s chief ground for this act of spoliation was that the unfortunate King Frederick of Naples had invoked the help of the Turks against his enemies. It was agreed, therefore, that Ferdinand, who was already king of Sicily, should have Apulia and Calabria, and that Lewis the Twelfth should take Naples with its royal title, the latter being readily confirmed by Pope Alexander the Sixth, the too famous Borgia Pope. Gonzalvo de Cordova was at that time the vassal of King Frederick, and in order to escape the charge of treason he immediately renounced the territory of Monte Sant’ Angelo in the kingdom of Naples. The success of the joint armies of Gonzalvo and the Duke of Nemours was all that either could desire, but it was impossible that their respective sovereigns should long remain in accord, and the captains soon quarrelled about the boundaries of the conquered provinces. The French having occupied Melfi, Gonzalvo de Cordova retorted by seizing places already taken for King Lewis, and he established himself in Barletta, and soon inflicted a defeat upon his enemies, taking prisoner the Duke of Nemours’ colleague. It was at this time, in the year 1503, that the famous encounter took place known in history as the Sfida di Barletta, in which, on the thirteenth of February, thirteen Italian knights fought as many Frenchmen in tournament in the sight of both armies, and beat them.

The celebrated fight was brought about in the following manner. The account I give is taken from Zurita’s ‘Annals of Aragon,’ and seems to be as accurate as any. It chanced that in a skirmish near Barletta a number of the French were taken prisoners, and among them was a certain knight, called de la Motte; and while he was captive, he began to boast that the French were better men than the Italians, whereupon a great discussion arose, and the Italian knights went to Gonzalvo de Cordova, begging him that they might have a chance of defending their national honour, which they considered that de la Motte had assailed. The result was that thirteen Italian knights, chief of whom was Ettore Fieramosca of Capua, met an equal number of French champions, on the understanding that each vanquished knight should pay one hundred ducats for his liberty, and lose his horse and arms. The Duke of Nemours could not or would not give surety that the lists should be undisturbed, but Gonzalvo replied that he would protect them, and marched out all his army, horse and foot, to a place five miles from Barletta and encamped there, between Andria and Corato. A monument marks the spot to‑day.a For the Italians, Prospero Colonna appeared as second; the French chose for theirs the most honourable knight of any age, the famous Bayard; the judges marked out the ground, and the tournament began. It was a windy day and the gale was in the Italians’ favour, as the parties rode at each other, first at a foot pace and then at a trot. Zurita says that they hardly broke into a canter as they met; nevertheless, all the lances were broken on both sides, but most of the French knights dropped the stumps of theirs. Not a horse was killed, not a knight was thrown, and they at once attacked each other with short arms, some using their axes, and some their swords, as they pleased. The French defended themselves stoutly, but the Italians fought so valiantly and with such perfect agreement among themselves, that in the space of one hour — not six, as some have said, — the French were driven across the line and therefore forced to surrender. One of their knights lay dead on the field, and one was severely wounded, but only one of the Italians was slightly hurt. The French champions were led back to Barletta by their victors with huge rejoicings, and the thirteen Italians supped at Gonzalvo de Cordova’s own table.

The moral effect of such a victory was great, and the success was followed shortly by a more substantial one in the great battle of Cerignola, where the Duke of Nemours died of his wounds; and in the following year the last of the French were driven to take shelter in Gaeta, which more than once, and even in 1860, was the last refuge of those who had held Naples. The unfortunate King Frederick died of grief, and Ferdinand the Catholic was master of all southern Italy.