Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua (1466-1519) was an Italian general best known for commanding the Italian army at the battle of Fornovo in 1495 when he was commander of the armies of Venice, but who also spent many years in the French service as well as briefly fighting for the Pope.
Francesco was the son of Marquess Federico I Gonzaga of Mantua. His father died in 1484 when Francesco was eighteen, and Francesco inherited his titles.
In 1489 Gonzaga became commander of the armies of Venice, a post he held until 1498.
In 1490 Gonzaga married Isabella d'Esta, one of the most famous women of the Italian Renaissance, a patrol of the arts and regent of Mantua during the frequent absences of Francesco, and during the minority of their son.
In 1494 Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, marking the start of the long period of the Italian Wars. His main aim was to enforce his claim to the kingdom of Naples, but as his powerful army moved south it caused great disruption wherever it went. In April French envoys reached Mantua asking for free passage for the French army as they moved south. Gonzaga refused as he felt this wasn't compatible with his role as commander of the Venetian army.
At first the French met little resistance, but the easy conquest of Naples worried the Italian powers and early in 1495 a league was formed against them, which included the Pope, the Spanish, Venice and Milan. Gonzaga was appointed captain of the armies of the league. He was thus the command of the league army at the Battle of Fornovo (6 July 1495), an unsuccessful attempt to stop Charles VIII during his retreat from Naples.
Gonzaga then went on to besiege the Duke of Orleans (the future Louis XII) at Novara. Orleans was forced to surrender before Charles could rescue him, and the war soon came to an end. Charles retreated back across the Alps, and his intervention in Italy appeared to have achieved little. In 1496 Venice sent an army south to help Ferdinand II, king of Naples, regain control of the rest of his kingdom, where French garrisons were still holding out. Ironically the French commander was Gilbert Montpensier, Gonzaga's brother-in-law, married to his sister Clara. By the autumn of 1496 the war was over, and Gonzaga was able to return home.
After the war was over Gonzaga began to fall out of favour in Venice, where he was believed to be too close to the French. His time as captain-general of the Venetian army ended in 1498, just before the outbreak of the Second Italian War (Italian War of Louis XII, 1499-1503).
In 1498 Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan, agreed an alliance with the Emperor Maximilian, as part of his efforts to protect himself against the danger of French invasion. Gonzaga was offered the post of commander of the allied army, but he was unhappy that he wouldn't also be captain-general of the Milanese army. At the start of 1499 he accepted the post, but soon after this France and Venice agreed an anti-Milan alliance. The relationship between Gonzaga and Ludovico was poor, Gonzaga's pay was in arrears, and he still had some hope of returning to Venetian service. In May 1499 he entered into secret negotiations with Louis XII of France, and he was present later in the year when Louis made his triumphal entry into Milan. In the following year, when Ludovico made a brief return to Milan, Gonzaga refused to commit himself and managed to avoid being dragged down with him (Second Italian War).
In 1502 Gonzaga began a long-standing relationship with Lucrezia Borgia (not his first affair). Although this caused some tension in their marriage, Francesco and Isabella had eight children, four of them born after the start of the affair. The marriage broke down in around 1512, probably due to Francesco's jealously when his wife turned out to be a more able diplomat and ruler than he had been.
In 1502 Gonzaga also entered the service of Louis XII of France, at least in part to protect his duchy against the ambitions of Cesar Borgia, then at the height of his power. In the following year Cesar's father Pope Alexander VI died, and his power quickly collapsed.
In 1503 Gonzaga was present with the Franco-Italian army that was campaigning against the Spanish in Naples. The army was commanded by Louis de la Trémoille, but after he fell ill Gonzaga took command of the army. He soon grew tired of his new role, and resigned on the grounds of illness late in the autumn of 1503. A few weeks later Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (El Gran Capitán) won his great victory on the Garigliano (28-29 December 1503), shattering the French position in Naples.
In May 1505 Machiavelli came to Mantua to offer Gonzaga the post of captain-general of the armies of the Republic of Florence. His mission was unsuccessful, largely because Florence couldn't match the pay offered by Venice, but it did show the high regard in which Gonzaga was held at the time. I
In 1506 he entered the service of Pope Julius II, who was busy re-conquering lost parts of the Papal States. In October he was appointed lieutenant-general of the Papal armies, just before the conquest of Bologne.
In 1507 Louis XII returned to Italy to put down a revolt in Genoa. Gonzaga joined the French army and took part in the resulting siege of Genoa, where he enhanced his reputation.
In 1508 Pope Julius II formed the League of Cambrai, aimed at reducing the power of Venice. Gonzaga joined the league and the resulting War of the League of Cambrai saw the Venetians suffer a major defeat at Agnadello (14 May 1509).
On 17 July 1509 Gonzaga was captured by the Venetians while leading troops to join the Imperial forces about to besiege Padua (August-September 1509). He was held prisoner in Venice until his wife was able to convince Pope Julius II to intervene. He was released in July 1510, while his ten-year-old son Federico was sent to Rome as a hostage (where he was treated very well by the Pope). After his release Gonzaga was hostile towards Venice for the rest of his life, and turned down a number of offers of command of their army.
Francesco died on the evening of 29 March 1519. He was succeeded by his son Federico, long since released from Roman captivity.