The Visconti Family
The history of Milan from 1277 – 1447 was dominated by the reign of the Visconti family who ruled as lords of the region, in Italy. The family was believed to have obtained the hereditary office of the Viscount of Milan in the 11th century and popular belief has it that the surname by which they were known came from the word ‘viscount’ which meant a lesser noble or count.
This celebrated family owned estates on Lakes Como and Maggiore and as most people believe, descended from King Desiderius.
The family grew to real power from minor nobility when Pope Urban IV appointed Ottone Visconti (1207-95) as archbishop of Milan (1277) in order to subdue to influence of the ruling Della Torre family, who were the established leaders of a popular party. Ottone did not disappoint the Pope in achieving this goal but went even beyond to defeat the Della Torre at the Battle of Desio in 1277 and take control over the temporal powers of the archbishops of Milan. Then to consolidate the power that he had won from the battle and keep it secure within the family, Ottone ensured his grand nephew Matteo was elected captain of the people in 1287. Ottone’s efforts after this were mainly directed towards the advancement of his relative, so that the nephew could remain in power. Ottone died at the age of 80 in 1295.
Matteo I Visconti (1255- 1322), born at Invoria succeeded his uncle to rule Milan. The Visconti troubles from the Della Torre family were far from over, as they succeeded to send Matteo into exile from 1302-1310 and forced him to take refuge at Verona. His consistent loyalty to the throne impressed the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII who assisted Matteo to return and become the imperial vicar of Lombardy. Matteo was an able general and brought under his rule more Lombard cities like Piacenza, Tortona, Pavia, Bergamo, Vercelli,
Cremona and Alessandro. His rule was a prudent mix of diplomacy and bribery but his downfall came when he crossed swords with Pope John XXII over an appointment of an archbishop at Milan. This resulted in the excommunication of Matteo I in 1322. Though his son, Galeazzo I Visconti (1277-1328) took over from him on abdication, Matteo died the same year at Cresenzago the same year, as the events took toll on his health. He left behind other sons too namely Marco, Lucchino, Giovanni and Stepheno.
The high point of Galeazzo I’s rule ( 1322 – 1328) was the defeat that he inflicted on the Holy Army sent by pope against the Visconti at Vaprio on the Adda (1324). Emperor Louis the Bavarian assisted him in this mission. Though he continued his struggle against the popes and Guelphs, Galeazzo was put in prison at Monza by the emperor on suspicion that he was attempting to hammer a peace treaty with the church. The timely intervention of a friend Castruccio Castracane, fortunately cleared his name and bought his release. His son Azzone Visconti borne by his wife, Beatrice d’Este, succeeded him.
Azzone Visconti (1302- 1339) brought stability to the state by consolidation, furthering the borders of Milanese territories and most importantly making peace with the pope. He bought the title of the Imperial Vicar from the same emperor who imprisoned his father at Monza. He improved the administration of his estates and is remembered for having built the octagonal tower of S Gottardo. After he died his uncles Lucchino and Giovanni were proclaimed dukes. Marco the other uncle, who led a band of Germans and conquered Pisa and Lucca died in 1329 – rumored to have been murdered by Azzone.
Lucchino Visconti (1292-1349) ruled adding more territory by conquest in Piedmont, Tuscany and Ticino canton of Switzerland. He proved to be an efficient and able ruler but his weakness was his jealous and cruel nature that was borne especially by his close relatives. He was poisoned to death, by his wife, Isabella Fieschi in 1349.
Giovanni Visconti (1290-1354), was next in line to rule and became the lord of the city from 1349 –1354. He governed with remarkable success and established the rule of his family on the whole of northern Italy with the exception of Piedmont, Verona, Mantua, Ferrara and Venice before he died, in what was just five years from the time he took over. When he passed away the Milanese possessions went to his three nephews, namely Matteo II Visconti (1319-55), Galeazzo II Visconti (1320-78) and Bernabo Visconti (1323-85).
Matteo II Visconti did not display any leadership qualities and instead shocked the people to the low depths of immorality that he could stoop to. Matteo II was reportedly poisoned to death by his brothers, who later divided his share amongst them and settled to rule the state jointly with unexpected ability.
Galeazzo II Visconti was a good-looking man, fond of art and literature. He held his court at Pavia and was an admirer of Petrarch. He was responsible for setting up the university and library of Pavia and acclaimed to be a skilled diplomat who transformed various communal lordships into an organized state. He died in 1378
Bernabo Visconti took over from here but his reign was fraught with heavy taxes that greatly burdened the people. These were collected to pay for all the battles the state waged against popes Innocent VI, Urban V, as well as the cities of Florence, Venice and Savoy. Bernabo also fought Charles IV who lost his fiefdom. Bernabo’s end was a humiliating one in prison for which his nephew Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402), son of Galeazzo II, was responsible.
Gian Galeazzo Visconti, proved to be the most powerful amongst the Visconti family rulers. He became the joint ruler of the Milanese areas after his father passed away and took sole charge of the region on the death of his uncle, that he engineered by imprisonment. Many of his works made the people later remember him for centuries, like the Cathedral of Milan, the Certosa, the university and library of Pavia that he brought improvements to and the bridge across the Ticino. His great ambition was to usher the whole of Italy under the rule of the Visconti. He took Verona in 1387 and the next year was successful in conquering Padua. Shortly the entire Lombardy was under his command, so he set his sight on Tuscany thereafter. He bought the town of Pisa and captured Siena. He was acclaimed to be the richest prince of his time. He seemed unstoppable until when on an assault on Florence, he succumbed to an attack of plague. He was 55 years old and the year 1402.
His sons Giovanni Maria Visconti (1389-1412) and Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447) were too young to take over the reins of the duchy after their father’s death and hence were put under the care of condottiere Facino Cane de Cesale but in the meantime as they grew up many of their father’s conquests were taken away by greedy and selfish generals and political chaos ruled in their duchy.
Giovanni Maria Visconti became Duke of Milan in 1402, though his mother looked after his duties till he reached his adulthood. There was a streak of cruelty in both brothers that it even led to the assassination of Giovanni in 1412.
Filippo Maria Visconti, the second brother succeeded as the Duke of Milan. It was widely believed his intolerable and insensitive behavior was due to his extreme consciousness of his ugly exterior. Despite these drawbacks he proved to be a successful ruler and recaptured many parts of his fathers original duchy. He married the widow of Facino Cane to receive a large sum as dowry. He died in 1447 to be the last Visconti in the direct male desendent, thus bringing to an end the famed line of the Visconti family as rulers in Milan.
His son-in-law Francesco Sforza, husband of his only child and heir, Bianca Maria, succeeded Filippo Maria Visconti to the duchy after an Ambrosian Republic (1447-50) that survived a short span of life collapsed.
The heraldic crest of the Visconti family consisted of a serpent swallowing a baby. It was often used beside a cross, representing the early crusaders from Milan. Even today the two symbols are used by the automakers Alfa Romeo of Milan, as the hood ornament on the vehicles they manufacture. The serpent too has become familiar in general, as a widely used Milanese symbol.