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Piazza Duomo, Milan

Origins and History of Milan

Map - Duchy of Milan
The city of Milan is in the region of Lombardy, which sits on the southern Swiss border. It is just north of Emilia-Romagna in the Padan Plain, which is watered by the Po, Ticino, and Adda rivers. The original founders of the city were called the Insubres, inhabiting the area since about 400 BC, possibly earlier. They were invaded and conquered by the Romans under the consul Calvus, calling the place "Mediolanum," which means "in the midst of the plain." The area supported an abundance of agriculture and husbandry, and sat on an important trade road network across northern Italy.
Historic Map of Milan

Historic Map of Milan, c. 1600. Click on historic map for a larger view.

Mediolanum became a vicariate of the Empire under Constantine, and this Roman period was marked by the growth of civic developments like theaters, schools, and a solid governing body. Diocletian moved the capitol of the Western Roman Empire from Rome to Mediolanum in 286 AD indicating its importance, wealth, and position in the Empire. From Milan Constantine published the Edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense), a letter signed by emperors Constantine (western empire) and Licinius (eastern empire) that proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman Empire. There followed a period of building and practical arts in which Milan attained the apex of its ancient power and prestige.
View from the Duomo, Milan

The patron saint of the city, bishop St. Ambrose was an early ecclesiastical authority, and one of the four original Doctors of the Church. In 402 the city was taken by the Goths, and the seat of imperial power was moved to Ravenna. Mediolanum was captured and reduced again, this time by Attila and the Huns in 452, further distancing the city from Imperial rule. After the Gothic Wars of 534-554, the city was invaded and the country laid waste by the Germanic Lombard invaders, and Pavia was established as the capitol of the Kingdom of Italy (572). The Lombards effectively and finally drove the Byzantine Empire from northern Italy and Tuscany, with the exception of Ravenna and sections of central Italy destined to become the Papal States. In 774 Milan was conquered by the Franks under Charlemagne, who took the title King of the Lombards in addition to King of the Franks, making him the first Holy Roman Emperor after he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in 800.

Milan became the most powerful and economically prosperous city of northern Italy, if not the entire peninsula between the 9th and 14th centuries. As Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa) prepared to take control of Italy, the northern cities banded together in an alliance between Milan, Mantua, Cremona, Bologna, Venice, Verona, and Parma (among several others) to drive him back out. Milan and the pope formed the nucleus of this Lombard League which resulted in the Peace of Constance, which stipulated that the cities would be fiefs of and owe allegiance to the Empire, but retain full control over their own territories. This policy contributed to the many pro-papal versus pro-imperial conflicts known as the Guelph and Ghibelline wars in Italy.

The city of Milan was ruled by high-ranking imperial officials called podestàs (derived from the Latin potestas which means power). The bitter conflicts between the Guelphs and Ghibellines for control of the city resulted in the capture of power by the Visconti family in 1277. They remained signore (lords) of the city until the Sforza takeover in the mid 15th century.

Piazza Duomo, Milan
Piazza Duomo, Milan
Castello Sforzesca, Milan
Sforza Castle-Fortress (Rocca Sforzesca)

Milan Under the Visconti-Sforza

The first Visconti duke, Gian Galeazzo, was invested with the duchy in 1395. Please follow the internal link for an introduction to the story of the House of Sforza during the Renaissance. The Ambrosian Republic existed after the death of Filippo Maria Sforza, but was dismantled when Francesco Sforza conquered Milan in 1450. The flowering of the early Renaissance under auspices of the brilliant military leader, and famous condottiero, MIlan's importance continued well into the early 16th century just before Milan fell to the French during the Italian Wars (1499-1504). Francesco Sforza and Bianca Visconti ruled the city and defended its domains skillfully in contrast to the typical warring factions and bloody feuds prevailing in other city-states. Sforza beautified the city, strengthened its borders, improved its agricultural systems, and maintained a much-needed peace. During this time, the city's public works were modernized, the Ospedal Maggiore was built (now houses the University of Milan), and set the court on a path to become a renowned center for the arts and learning under the later dukes.

Galeazzo II Maria Sforza & Bona of savoy
Francesco's son, Galeazzo Maria Sforza ruled Milan from 1466 until his assassination in 1476. Under his generous patronage of the arts, Milan's royal court became famous for its chapel, which drew composers from all over Europe. His extravagant court and short rule was typical of a Renaissance prince, and though despotic, his reputation is only marred by his noted cruelty towards his enemies and sometimes his courtiers (rumour had it that he forced his courtiers to allow him to sleep with their wives). His unexpected death led to the placement of his heir Gian Galeazzo on the Milanese throne at the age of seven. Gian Galeazzo Sforza was the sixth and least potent duke of Milan. His uncle Ludovico Maria Sforza, fourth son of Francesco Sforza ruled as Regent of Milan until Gian Galeazzo's early death. According to Guicciardini, although his untimely death was blamed on "immoderate coitus" many across Italy thought it was due to poison, "administered though his uncle's [Ludovico Sforza] machinations. (History of Italy) This has not been proven. In any event, Gian Galeazzo was thought by his courtiers and in general as being weak in mind, body, and spirit.

Galeazzo Maria SforzaGian Galeazzo's mother, duchess Bona, ruled as regent with her advisor Cecco Simonetta, who maneuvered the regency to exclude the four brothers of the late duke (Sforza, Filippo, Ascanio, and Ludovico). After some factional disputes, the brothers were exiled from Milan. Inter-regional wars and shifting balance of power between the pope, Florence, Milan and Venice led to the succession of Ludovico to his fallen brother Sforza's estate, the duchy of Bari (a Neapolitan principality) in 1479. Ludovico became the head of the anti-Cecco Simonetta party. Ludovico and his commander, the famed condottiero Roberto Sanseverino, gained support from the many cities surrounding Milan, and was eventually invited back to Milan by Bona, who was at odds with Simonetta over her public affair with one of her servants. Bona of Savoy, Duchess of Milan (1468-1480)

The reconciliation between the duke Gian Galeazzo and his uncle Ludovico was achieved. Bona and Simonetta were out. Simonetta reportedly said, "Most illustrious Duchess [Bona], I shall lose my head, and you, ere long, will lose the State." (Ady p. 121). The unfortunate advisor was put to death by armed supporters of Ludovico. Thus the usurpation, to be finalized at the death of the young duke, had begun.

The Tumultous 15th Century

Certosa di Pavia

The Certosa di Pavia, the church monastery complex built by the Visconti-Sforza was decorated and improved by Ludovico Maria Sforza. The tomb of Ludovico and Beatrice are housed within its beautifully frescoed walls
Castello SforzescoDuke Gian Galeazzo II married his cousin Isabella of Aragon, granddaughter of Ferdinand (Ferrante) I, King of Naples in 1489. The ducal couple were relegated to the background as Ludovico established himself, his bride, and his young sons as the real power family. This was seen as a hostile takeover, and later there were rumors of Ludovico having his nephew poisoned so as to be duke in name as well as deed. The duchess Isabella, also cousin to Beatrice d'Este (through their grandfather, Ferrante I) was an intelligent and headstrong princess who was forced to play a subordinate role in affairs at court, and retired to her duchy of Bari in 1499.
At right is the imposing tower at the main gate of the magnificent Sforza Castle, "Rocca Sforzesca" where Beatrice and Ludovico held court. Milan was one of the wealthiest duchies in Italy, and its cultured and vibrant court was a magnet for the best artists, architects, and military heroes of the day including the Sanseverino brothers, Leonardo da Vinci, and the architect Donato Bramante.

The Brilliant Court of Ludovico Sforza and Beatrice d'Este

Ludovico Maria Sforza was the fourth son of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Sforza. He ruled as regent (after Bona moved to Savoy) from 1481 to 1494. During the early years of his rule he began to attract the best military and artistic minds to court. The most notable of these, of course, is Leonardo da Vinci. For the court, da Vinci served as military engineer, musical entertainer, designer of pageants, unofficial court painter, and all-around fellow genius and Study for Equestrian Statue (da Vinci)companion to the de facto duke. Ludovico's own brilliance, noted by his contemporaries from an tender age, was what set him apart from other rulers of his day. Ludovico had it all: he was intelligent, gallant, physically strong, brave, diplomatic, and ruthless. he was a true renaissance man. Some da Vinci scholars think this noble personality is was what drew the artist to Milan. Milan was said to have possessed the largest treasury and annual revenue in Europe, after France and Venice. As the power of Ludovico grew, the wealth and prosperity of the duchy reached heights unheard of before; the new Golden Age of Milan had begun.

Ludovico improved farming and husbandry, built roads, bridges, and canals to water vast areas, and built magnificent palaces, churches, and other civic improvements. His rule was stable, his borders secure, and his commonwealth prosperous. All things flourished which allowed his treasury to grow exponentially. The illustrious and powerful House of Este desired an alliance with Ludovico and Milan. A friendship between Ferrara and Milan would create an effective buffer from Venice to the northeast. Ludovico married Beatrice d'Este in 1491. With her presence, Milan's court life became more refined and a mecca for intellectual pursuits and lively festivities. She was an avid huntress and probably the most fashionable princess of the age, along with her sister Isabella d'Este, the Marquesa of Mantua. The ducal couple had two sons, Maximilian and Francesco, who later ruled Milan briefly after the Italian Wars with France.

Ludovico Maria Sforza Il Moro," Duke of Milan
Sala delle Asse, Castello Sforzesca (Milan)

The famous Sala delle Asse, painted with a complex pattern of trees and allegorical emblems by Leonardo da Vinci.
click on image for larger view
Beatrice d'Este (Ambrosio de Predis, c. 1490)

Ludovico Maria Sforza Detail of the Sala delle Asse(below) Beatrice d'Este
Regent from 1481 - 1494 Duke from 1494 - 1501 Ludovico Maria (il Moro) Sforza, de facto Duke of Milan from c. 1480 when he became Regent of Milan after the assassination of Galeazzo Maria in 1476). He was formally invested with the duchy by the Emperor Maximilian I with the support of leading Milanese nobles in 1495.
Sala delle Asse, (detail) Beatrice d'Este, Duchess of Bari from her marriage in 1491, then Duchess of Milan upon Ludovico's assumption of the crown, 1494 until her untimely death in 1497. Considered the most charming and lovely princess in Italy, Beatrice's court naturally lured many poets and musicians of note.

The Borgias: Allies and Enemies

The years leading up to the papacy ofAlexander VI were rife with conflict, however, Italy remained at peace largely due to the efforts and successes of Lorenzo de Medici as arbiter of Italian relations and balance of power. According to Guicciardini, his skilled diplomacy, pro-peace alliances and enlightened policies kept foreign threats at bay (France and Spain). In 1492 Lorenzo de Medici was dead and a new power dawned at Rome when Alexander VI was elected to the papacy with the backing of the powerful Ascanio Sforza. From then on, the map of Italian alliances was in a constant state of change. First Venice, Milan and the papacy were in league against Naples, then just months later, Ludovico was thrown in bed with France as Charles VIII made peace with all of his enemies, Spain, France and Emperor Frederick III. The pope, with his alleigance to Spain through the marriages of Juan and Joffre to the royal house of Aragon, was then firmly attached to Naples by 1493. The Sforza alliance had run its course.

The Italian Wars

Maximilian I succeeded his father as Holy Roman Emperor, and married Ludovico's neice. Naples and the pope were faced off aganist France and Milan. There was no stopping Charles VIII from walking through Florence and entering Naples. Once there, the political scene changed yet again, with Ludovico whole-heartedly turning against France after seeing the ease with which France took Naples. Ludovico now feared for his rule of Milan. The famous "League of Venice" or Holy League of 31 March 1495 was formed against the Turk, although in reality the major powers of Venice, Milan, the pope, the Empire, and Spain, and were in league against France. Charles VIII retreated to France from Naples in fear of the Holy League, and on 6 July 1495 was driven over the Alps at the Battle of Fornovo. The outcome of this first bout of the Italian Wars gave Ludovico, for a time, the prominence and legitimacy he desired, ironically, though he was one of the original supporters of the French invasion that led to the fall of the Sforza in Milan.Tomb of Ludovico Sforza & Beatrice d'Este The next four years in Milan under the Sforza were to herald the end of most of the independent Italian city-states. With the death of Beatrice (tomb at right) in 1497 and the conquest of the Romagna under the Borgia, Ludovico's road to creating a unified nothern Italian kingdom was blocked forever.

The Fall of il Moro

After the death of Charles VIII in 1498, Louis, duke of Orleans became Louis XII, king of France. He initiated the second phase of the Italian Wars by invading Milan, driving out Ludovico where he took refuge at Innsbruck, the court of Maximilian and his neice Bianca. Ludovico retured to Milan with an army of Swiss mercenarries in February of 1500. After the seige of Novara, he was taken prisoner and died in a French prison in 1508, after an attempt to escape. The duchy was later restored to the Sforza, ruled by Maximilian in 1513-1515 until it was taken yet again by the French under Francis I. Following the short rule of Maximilian, Milan was taken from France by Charles V after the battle fo Pavia (1525) to be ruled by Francesco Sforza, who married Cristina of Denmark (neice of Charles V), then absorbed by the Holy Roman Empire after Francesco's death in 1535 .

Milan and the House of Sforza Photos:

Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan
Bona of Savoy, Duchess of Milan (1468-1480)
Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan (born 24 January 1444 - ruled 1466 - 26 December 1476)
Bona of Savoy
Duchess Consort of Milan (1468-1480)
Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan (Bonifacio Bembo, c. 1460) Bianca Maria (Visconti) Sforza
Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan (born 23 July 1401, ruled 1450 - 8 March 1466)
Bianca Maria Visconti (born 31 March 1425 - 28
October 1468)

Please add more Milan images to the Milan Album

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milano

History of Italy, Francesco Guicciardini

A Renaissance Court: Milan Under Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Gregory Lubkin
A History of Milan under the Sforza, Cecilia Mary Ady
Beatrice d'Este, Duchess of Milan, Julia Cartwright Ady
Isabella d'Este, marchioness of Mantua: A Study of the Renaissance, Julia Cartwright Ady
Catherine Sforza, Pier Desidero Paolini
Caterina Sforza: A Renaissance Virago, Ernst Briesach

Historical Profiles:

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