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Duchy of Milan - 1176-1535

Milan was the first of the Italian towns to undergo the transformation from a commune to a country. The greater part of this portion of Italy, after the fall of the Western Empire, was successively possessed by the Heruli, Ostrogoths, Greeks, and Lombards. In 774, Charlemagne annexed it to the empire of the Franks. From 888 it generally belonged to the Germans, until the erection of the Republic of Milan, in 1150. In 1395, it became a Duchy, and in 1535, came into the possession of the Emperor Charles V.

After many bloody wars with Frederick Barbarossa, Milan and the Lombard League won their independence of the German Emperor by the battle of Lignano in 1176 and the Peace of Constance in 1183. The Duchy of Milan, under the renowned families of Visconti and Sforza, afterward became powerful in Northern Italy. Milan, which was ruled by the family of Visconti, in the process of time acquired nearly the whole of Lombardy. The ruler of Milan and its territory received the title of Duke from the Emperor of Germany.

Azzo of the Visconti family bought Milan in 1328 from Louis of Bavaria. His uncle Lucchino succeeded, but was murdered in 1349 by a wife against whose life he had been plotting. Lucchino's brother John, archbishop of Milan, now assumed the lordship of the city, and extended the power of the Visconti over the whole of North Italy, with the exception of Piedmont, Verona, Mantua, Ferrara, and Venice. The greatness of the family dates from the reign of this masterful prelate. He died in 1354, and his heritage was divided between three members of his house, Matteo, Bernabo, and Galeazzo. In the next year Matteo, being judged incompetent to rule, was assassinated by order of his brothers, who made an equal partition of their subject cities - Bernabo residing in Milan, Galeazzo in Pavia.

The power of the Visconti was eventually concentrated in the hands of one of its members, Gian Galeazza. Galeazzo was the wealthiest and most magnificent Italian of his epoch. He married his daughter Violante to the duke of Clarence, and his son Gian Galeazzo to a daughter of King John of France. When he died in 1378, this son resolved to reunite the domains of the Visconti; and, with this object in view, he plotted and executed the murder of his uncle Bernabo. Gian Galeazzo thus became by one stroke the most formidable of Italian despots. Immured in his castle at Pavia, accumulating wealth by systematical taxation and methodical economy, he organized the mercenary troops who eagerly took service under so good a paymaster; and, by directing their operations from his cabinet, he threatened the whole of Italy with conquest. The last scions of the Delia Scala family still reigned in Verona, the last Carraresi in Padua; the Estensi were powerful in Ferrara, the Gonzaghi in Mantua.

Gian Galeazzo, partly by force and partly by intrigue, discredited these minor despots, pushed his dominion to the very verge of Venice, and, aving subjected Lombardy to his sway, proceeded to attack Tuscany. Pisa and Perugia were threatened with extinction, and Florence dreaded the advance of the Visconti arms, when the plague suddenly cut short his career of treachery and conquest in the year 1402.

Seven years before his death Gian Galeazzo bought the title of duke of Milan and count of Pavia from the emperor Wenceslaus, and there is no doubt that he was aiming at the sovereignty of Italy. But no sooner was he dead than the essential weakness of an artificial state, built up by cunning and perfidious policy, with the aid of bought troops, dignified by no dynastic title, and consolidated by no sense of loyalty, became apparent. Gian Galeazzo's duchy was a masterpiece of mechanical contrivance, the creation of a scheming intellect and lawless will. When the mind which had planned it was withdrawn, it fell to pieces, and the very hands which had been used to build it helped to scatter its fragments. The Visconti's own generals, Facino Cane, Pandulfo Malatesia, Jacopo dal Verme, Gabrino Kondulo, Ottobon Terzo, seized upon the tyranny of several Lombard cities. In others the petty tyrants whom the Visconti had uprooted reappeared. The Estensi recovered their grasp upon Ferrara, and the Gonzaghi upon Mantua. Venice strengthened herself between the Adriatic and the Alps. Florence reassumed her Tuscan hegemony. Other communes which still preserved the shadow of independence, like Perugia and Bologna, began once more to dream of republican freedom under their own leading families.

Meanwhile Gian Galeazzo had left two sons, Giovanni Maria and Filippo Maria. Giovanni, a monster of cruelty and lust, was assassinated by some Milanese nobles in 1412; and now Filippo set about rebuilding his father's duchy. Herein he was aided by the troops of Facino Cane, who, dying opportunely at this period, left considerable wealth, a well-trained band of mercenaries and a widow, Beatrice di Tenda. Filippo married and then beheaded Beatrice after a mock trial for adultery, having used her money and her influence in reuniting several subject cities to the crown of Milan. He subsequently spent a long, suspicious, secret and incomprehensible career in the attempt to piece together Gian Galeazzo's Lombard state, and to carry out his schemes of Italian conquest. In this endeavor he met with vigorous opponents. Venice and Florence, strong in the strength of their resentful oligarchies, offered a determined resistance; nor was Filippo equal in ability to his father. His infernal cunning often defeated its own aims, checkmating him at the point of achievement by suggestions of duplicity or terror. In the course of Filippo's wars with Florence and Venice, the greatest generals of tins age were formed - Francesco Carmagnola. who was beheaded between the columns at Venice in 1432 ; Niccolo Piccinino, who died at Milan in 1444; and Francesco Sforza, who survived to seize his master's heritage in 1450.

On the death of the last Milanese duke of the family of Visconti, in 1450, the government of the duchy was bestowed on Francisco Sforza. Son of Attendolo Sforza, this Francesco received the hand of Filippo's natural daughter, Bianca, as a reward for past service and a pledge of future support. When the Visconti dynasty ended by the duke's death in 1447, he pretended to espouse the cause of the Milanese republic, which was then re-established; but he played his cards so subtly as to make himself, by the help of Cosimo de' Medici in Florence, duke de facto if not de jure. Francesco Sforza was the only condottiero among many aspiring to be tyrants who planted himself firmly on a throne of first-rate importance. Once seated in the duchy of Milan, lie displayed rare qualities as a ruler; for he not only entered into the spirit of the age, which required humanity and culture from a despot, but he also knew how to curb his desire for territory. The conception of confederated Italy found in him a vigorous supporter. Thus the limitation of the Milanese duchy under Filippo Maria Visconti, and its consolidation under Francesco Sforza, were equally effectual in preparing the balance of power to which Italian politics now tended.

In 1500, the Duchy of Milan was subdued by Louis XII, King of France, and the Milanese duke, Louis Moro, was kept a prisoner for ten years; but the French were finally driven away and Moro was restored to his dukedom. In 1515 King Francis I. of France conquered Milan by defeating the Swiss and Milanese in the battle of Marignano, "the Battle of the Giants"; but in 1525 Francis I was defeated and taken prisoner by the Spaniards, who governed Milan thereafter for two centuries, until 1714, after which the House of Austria held possession of the duchy until 1866.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:01:03 ZULU