Ambitious and successful, cruel and paranoid, the Visconti ruled Lombardy for more than 150 years (1277 -1447), an era marked by political upheaval and instability. Constant battles between warring states, ambitious condottieri with their eyes firmly fixed on a princely acquisition or a better offer from another ruler, callous despotic rulers and outbreaks of the plague featured prominently during this period.
Histories often dwell on the intricate details and dates of deals, reversals, betrayals and reprisals in the battle for power in Northern Italy: this is hard going and tedious reading for many. It’s no wonder that most Renaissance scholars gravitate towards Florentine history, a safe and fertile ground for research. Florence was blessed with relative order (once the Guelfs and Ghibellines had settled their disputes), prudent and astute bankers, graceful and relatively modest buildings, as well as talented architects, artists, writers and poets. The prolific documentation pumped out by the Humanist writers of the Republic gave rise to an historical obsession with Florence. The Renaissance history books on my shelves reinforce this idea: Milan, one of the Big 5 of Italy during that era (the others being Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples) receives scant attention.
During the Visconti era, the following cities came under their rule: Bergamo, Novara , Cremona, Como, Lodi, Piacenza and Brescia, as well as Pavia, and smaller towns nearby. With each new acquisition came more cash flow, more gold florins to spend on castles and palaces. They brought a period of wealth and glory to Milan and, like other dictators and warlords of the period, extracted hefty taxes from the locals, not only to build and maintain their castles and lifestyle, but to continue to pay the condottieri ( mercenaries). Often famous, admired and wealthy in their own right, the condottieri commanded private armies to fight territorial battles as well as providing the Visconti with personal protection. It is estimated that half of all gathered revenue was spent on this. As the saying goes, paranoia is just being careful, and you can never be too careful.
The Visconti rulers were feared, not loved, and their cruelty was legendary. One of the early Visconti, Bernabò, was passionate about boar hunting: anyone who interfered with it was put to death by torture:
‘ The terrified people were forced to maintain 5,000 boar hounds, with strict responsiblity for their health and safety.’¹
A later member of the family, Giovanni Maria Visconti, was famed for his dogs though not so much for hunting but for tearing human bodies.
‘ In 1409, when war was going on, and the starving populace cried to him in the streets, Pace! Pace! he let lose his mercenaries upon them and 200 lives were sacrificed; under penalty of the gallows it was forbidden to utter the words pace and guerra.‘²
On the side of grandeur, Giangaleazzo Visconti founded the extraordinary convent, the Certosa of Pavia, the cathedral of Milan, considered at the time to be the most splendid of all churches in Christendom and the Palace in Pavia, ‘the most magnificent of princely buildings of Europe’. He became Duke of Milan in 1395 and before his death was hoping to become the ruler of the Kingdom of Italy. The Visconti were extremely ambitious.
As mentioned above, a high level of paranoia was another feature of their rule, which is often noted in the behaviour of the last Visconti, Filippo Maria:
‘All the resources of the state were devoted to the one end of securing his personal safety, though happily his cruel egotism did not degenerate into a thirst for blood. He lived in the Citadel in Milan, surrounded by magnificent gardens, arbours and lawns. For years he never set foot in the city, only making excursions to the country….. by flotilla which, drawn by the swiftest horses, conducted him along canals constructed for the purpose…..Whoever entered the citadel was watched by a hundred eyes and it was forbidden to stand at the window, lest signs should be given to those without.’³
Servants distrusted each other while highly paid condottieri were watched by spies. Despite this level of neurosis and court intrigue, he managed to conduct long periods of war and dealt successfully with political affairs of the day.
Beatrice de Tende, Fillip Maria’s wife, was said to have been an intelligent woman who concerned herself with the current affairs of state. Despite this and her own wealth, territory and military strength which she brought to the marriage, Filippo Maria had her accused, on trumped-up charges, of adultery with a young troubadour, and despite her confession of innocence, she was beheaded, along with her two maids and the young musician.
If travelling to Milan and through Lombardy, plan to spend at least a day in Vigevano, una città ideale, one of the most beautiful Italian cities in northern Italy, bastion of the Visconti and Sforza, and probably much more accessible than Milan. A tour of the castle takes some hours and can be booked when purchasing your ticket.
Background music for this post: the Saltarello, a dance originally from Italy in the late 14th century, the word deriving from the verb ‘saltare’, to jump. I include this as a reminder that some rather nice things went on during that period also.
Notes of the old fashioned kind.
¹ Jacob Burckhardt The Civilisation of The Renaissance in Italy. 1860. Phaidon Press, edition 1955, pp.7-8
² Jacob Burckhardt, ibid, p 8
³Jacob Burckhardt, Ibid, pp 23-4
My interest in the Visconti and Sforza was aroused many years ago when teaching Renaissance history. I recall that the Dukes of Milano were not given much time; back then, the Medici claimed all the limelight. During my visit to Pavia, Vigevano and the small towns and villages along the Via Francigena, my interested was reignited. Guided by Stefania and Lorenza Costa Barbé, and the excellent young castle guide in Viegevano who spoke such magnificently lucid Italian, I’m now looking for some modern social histories of that era. Recommendations are sought.