- Principal city of the Lombard plain from late Roman times through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In the 12th century, when the cities of northern Italy resisted the efforts of the German Holy Roman Emperors to establish control over the region, Milan led the resistance. In 1162, after a two-year siege, the Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa) ordered the city levelled to the ground. But it soon re-covered and resumed its role as head of the anti-imperial Lombard League. In the 13th century, Milan was the scene of an internal power struggle between two aristocratic clans, the Della Torre and Visconti families. In 1277 the Visconti faction, in the person of their candidate for the archbishopric of the city, Ottone Visconti, gained control, and Archbishop Ottone succeeded in getting his great-nephew, Matteo Visconti, elected as commander of the local armed forces. In effect Matteo became lord of the city and was able to keep his office even after the archbishop's death.With one brief interruption, the Visconti family managed to main-tain its power over the city, while also purchasing from the German emperors a series of local and regional titles that gave them a claim to political authority beyond the city's borders. In 1317 Matteo as-sumed the title of dominus (lord or signore) of Milan. The citizens' own council in 1330 confirmed this title for his descendant Azzo. Un-der the greatest figure of the dynasty, Giangaleazzo Visconti (ruled 1378-1402), the ruler engaged in an aggressive policy of conquest and diplomacy that made Milan the greatest power in northern Italy. Giangaleazzo married his children into both the French and the En-glish ruling families and in 1395, again for a cash payment, received from the emperor the title of duke of Milan. Giangaleazzo's ambi-tions made Milanese territorial expansion a threat to Italy's two most important surviving republics, Venice and Florence. Although his sudden death in 1402 caused a temporary period of weakness, Milan remained a powerful state, and under his second son, Filippo Maria, fear of Milanese expansion again drove the two republics into an al-liance that claimed to uphold Italian liberty against Milanese "tyranny."Filippo Maria died in 1447, leaving no legitimate heirs and only an illegitimate daughter to claim his throne. The citizens of Milan de-clared the ducal title abrogated and their old republican constitution restored. Unfortunately for them, other powers, especially Venice, rushed in to seize whatever territories they could, and the king of France claimed the ducal throne on the basis of his descent from one of Giangaleazzo's daughters. The republican government hired Francesco Sforza, the ablest of the Italian mercenary generals (con-dottieri), to defend the city. But Sforza was married to the illegitimate daughter of the last Visconti duke and soon seized power, declared himself and his wife hereditary duke and duchess, and continued the monarchical system established by the Visconti.The seizure of power by Sforza precipitated a military and diplo-matic crisis that was resolved by the decision of the leading political figure at Florence, Cosimo de'Medici, to oppose the efforts of Venice and the papacy to overthrow Sforza and seize Milanese terri-tory. Fearing French or imperial intervention in Milan, Cosimo aban-doned traditional Florentine alliances with Venice and the papacy and accepted Sforza's control over Milan. Together, he and Sforza, sup-ported by the king of Naples, compelled the other two major states to sign the Peace of Lodi (1454) and enter an Italian League (1455) that sought to prevent conflict among the Italian states and thus to dis-courage foreign intervention.Sforza retained his duchy down to his death in 1465 and passed the title on to his incompetent son Galeazzo Maria, who was assassinated in 1476. Even then, the throne was preserved for Galeazzo Maria's young son, under the regency of his mother. But the young duke's un-cle, Ludovico Sforza, nicknamed il Moro ("the Moor"), forced him-self into the position of regent and refused to surrender control to his nephew. Ludovico sought to block the emergence of an alliance against his usurpation by encouraging the ambitious young king of France, Charles VIII, to enforce his dynastic claim to the throne of Naples. The resulting French invasion of Italy and temporary con-quest of Naples in 1494 marked a new and disastrous stage in the po-litical life of Italy, which ended by becoming a battleground for a long struggle between France and Spain for control of the peninsula.At first, Ludovico Sforza seemed to have been the greatest winner, since the French invasion prevented the other Italian powers from forming a coalition against him. But in 1498 the French throne came into the hands of Charles VIII'S cousin Louis XII (1498-1515), who was directly descended from a Visconti princess. The new king de-cided to enforce not only his claim to Naples but also his hereditary claim to Milan, and his invasion in 1499 led to French occupation of Milan and the brief establishment of a French-controlled regime there. Ludovico Sforza ended his life as a prisoner in France. The French were unable to retain control of Milan for very long. The Ital-ian powers, aided by King Ferdinand of Spain, restored the Sforza dynasty to power. King Francis I of France (1515-1547) recon-quered Milan in 1515 and held the duchy until his disastrous defeat by the imperial army at Pavia in 1525. Then the Sforza dukes re-turned, but only as pawns of Spanish power, and when Francesco II Sforza died in 1535, the Emperor Charles V claimed the duchy as an imperial fief and made it part of the Habsburg empire. It remained subject to the Spanish crown until the 18th century.In cultural terms, Milan could not match the innovative record of the rival city of Florence, but from the time of Giangaleazzo Visconti in the late 14th century, the Milanese court employed humanists as secretaries and propagandists and encouraged humanistic scholarship and education. The Sforza court in the later 15th century was a gen-erous patron of the arts. The original designer of the new basilica of St. Peter at Rome, Donato Bramante, began his career in Milan, and Leonardo da Vinci painted his Last Supper for a monastery near Mi-lan and was employed by the Sforza rulers as a military engineer and architect. The Sforza dukes also were generous patrons of music and created a ducal choir that was involved in many musical innovations and employed a number of the greatest Renaissance composers, of whom Josquin des Prez was the most famous.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.