THE VISCONTI DOMINATION
The signing of the peace of Constance in 1183 secured autonomy for the Communes in Northern Italy. The commune institutions underwent a general crisis due to power struggles between the different families. The vicissitudes of Milan saw the conflict between two rival families of feudal origin: the Della Torre, who ruled over the Valsassina and the province of Lecco, and the Visconti, land owners in the Verbano area.
Ottone Visconti, who had already been archbishop of Milan under Pope Urbano IV (1262), succeeded in wresting control of the city from the ruling Napo Della Torre, whom he defeated in Desio in 1277.
The Visconti family seized power and ruled until 1447. Despite the opposition party led by the Della Torre family, the skilled diplomat Ottone managed to have his grand-nephew and successor Matteo Visconti elected 'Capitano del Popolo' (captain of the people).
Farsighted and a skilled politician, Matteo legitimised the reign of the Visconti. With the help of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, he became imperial vicar. He established his over lordship in all Lombard cities and was proclaimed 'Dominus Generalis'. In order to ennoble the family, which was of ancient origin but had no title except for that of viscount, from which the name is derived, Matteo Visconti arranged the marriage of his son Galeazzo to Beatrice d'Este and had his daughters married to very important politicians of that time.
The reign of Matteo Visconti was a particularly prosperous period, during which Milan experienced great commercial expansion in Piacenza, Bergamo, Como, Cremona, Alessandria, Tortona, Pavia, Vercelli and Novara. Although he was not such a skilled diplomat as his father had been, Matteo Visconti's successor Galeazzo, 1st duke of Milan, who had already been collaborating with his father as 'Capitano del Popolo', continued to rule over the new lands, which he gave to his son Azzone.
According to the chronicles of that era, Azzone Visconti took power in Lodi and Brescia. He consolidated the state, made peace with the pope, and increased the Milanese territories. Milan's culture and art prospered under Azzone. In fact, he boosted economy with the building of bridges, markets, sewers, and paved streets. He had the city walls and gates enhanced with defensive elements, as well as with sculptures by the Tuscan artist Giovanni di Balduccio, while Giotto was called in to paint the frescos inside the Ducal Residence. At his untimely death, his two uncles, Luchino and Giovanni, were proclaimed dukes.
Luchino Visconti continued his predecessor's military conquests, acquiring territory in Piedmont and in the provinces of Parma and Crema. He also boosted economy by supporting agricultural activities, in particular water meadows and viticulture, horse breeding and the manufacturing of fabrics and arms.
At Luchino's death, his brother Giovanni Visconti, formerly archbishop of Milan, took power and continued to extend the State by acquiring the city of Bologna, very important to have access to central Italy. He was proclaimed Duke of Genoa, which played a key role for trade thanks to an important sea access. He also acquired territories in the present Ticino canton, Switzerland, in particular the area between Locarno and Bellinzona, which provided access to Northern Europe. He concluded alliances with the other Italian States by arranging strategic marriages.
At his death, the Milanese State was divided among his three nephews Matteo II, Galeazzo II and Bernab˛ Visconti. Matteo II married the daughter of the Gonzaga of Mantua; Bernab˛ married Regina Della Scala, daughter of the Duke of Verona, Galeazzo II Bianca di Savoia. At Matteo's death, his two brothers divided his possessions.
A coalition was formed against the Visconti by the Pope. Genoa was freed; Bologna went to the papal State. Galeazzo II held his court at Pavia, where he had a luxury residence built.
After the reunification of the Milanese possessions under the ambitious and short-tempered Bernab˛ Visconti, Gian Galeazzo, the son of Galeazzo II, by skilful diplomacy, managed to win the favour of the population and of the neighbouring States. He arrested his uncle and cousins, and then took power in 1385. Left the sole ruler of all Visconti possessions, Gian Galeazzo reformed and centralized the government and promoted the arts, industries and trade. During his reign the cathedral of Milan and the Certosa of Pavia were begun. He embarked on a systematic program of conquest, first in Verona, Padova, Feltre and Belluno, then in central Italy. In 1395, he obtained the title of 'Dux Mediolani', an investiture as hereditary duke of Milan, from Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.
During the regency of Gian Galeazzo's widow for her son, Giovanni Maria Visconti, 1389-1412, many cities were lost and political chaos prevailed. On reaching his majority Giovanni Maria revealed himself a dissolute and cruel ruler. He was assassinated, and the duchy passed to his brother, Filippo Maria Visconti, 1392-1447, who employed both diplomacy and force to restore the duchy. In his wars with Venice and Florence he was at first aided, then opposed, by a military leader, Francesco Bussone known as 'the Carmagnola'. His daughter and sole heir, Bianca Maria, married Francesco I Sforza, who became duke of Milan after the fall of the short-lived Ambrosian Republic, set up after Filippo Maria's death in 1447, and, by his valour and sagacity, one of the most powerful leaders of his time. He entered the service of the Pope and defeated the Milanese army in Soncino.