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Thursday, 7 December 2017

Azzone Visconti - ruler of Milan

Nobleman who used family power to bring prosperity to the city


Azzone Visconti's rule saw Milan prosper and expand in the early 14th century
Azzone Visconti's rule saw Milan prosper and
expand in the early 14th century
Azzone Visconti, a nobleman sometimes described as the founder of the state of Milan and who brought prosperity to the city in the 14th century, was born on this day in 1302 in Ferrara.

The Visconti family ruled Lombardy and Milan from 1277 to 1457 before the family line ended and, after a brief period as a republic, the Sforza family took control.

Azzone was the son of Galeazzo I Visconti and Beatrice d’Este, the daughter of the Marquis of Ferrara.

Galeazzo was descendant from Ottone Visconti, who had first taken control of Milan for the family in 1277, when he was made Archbishop of Milan by Pope Urban IV but found himself opposed by the Della Torre family, who had expected Martino della Torre to be given the title.

Ottone was barred from entering the city until he defeated Napoleone della Torre in a battle and, apart from a brief period in which forces loyal to Guido della Torre drove out Galeazzo’s father, Matteo, the Visconti family held power for the next 170 years.

Ambrogio Ficino's 1590 painting of the apparition  of St Ambrose at the Battle of Parabiago
Ambrogio Ficino's 1590 painting of the apparition
 of St Ambrose at the Battle of Parabiago
A crisis faced the Visconti rule in 1328 when Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor – known in Italian as Ludovico il Bavaro – had Galeazzo and other members of the family arrested following the death of Galeazzo’s younger brother, Stefano, in a suspected assassination.  Azzone’s uncle, Marco, was said to have betrayed Galeazzo by passing on information that implicated his brother at the heart of the plot.

Ludovico confiscated the Visconti territories, handing control of the smaller cities in Lombardy to local families. It proved the end of Galeazzo, who died later in the year.  On their release, Azzone was involved in a power struggle with Marco for control of Milan.

Azzone gained the upper hand when, with the help of another uncle, he raised the sum of 60,000 florins which he paid Ludovico for the title of Imperial Vicar of Milan, which effectively made him the ruler of the city.  When Marco was killed soon afterwards, Azzone was named as the chief suspect, although he was never prosecuted.

This development angered Pope John XXII, who excommunicated Azzone. As a solution, Azzone was forced to submit to the Pope and renounce his Imperial Vicariate, reaching a compromise under which he retained political power under the title of Lord of Milan.

Azzone’s rule lasted only nine years until his death in 1339 from gout, but during that time he enhanced the wealth and power of the city.

By joining the League of Castelbaldo, he brought the Lombardy cities of Bergamo, Novara, Cremona, Como, Lodi, Piacenza and Brescia back under the rule of Milan, establishing the city’s predominance in the region.

The bell tower of the church of San Gottardo in Corte in Milan
The bell tower of the church of San
Gottardo in Corte in Milan
He also defeated a plot to unseat him by his uncle, Lodrisio, who escaped a crackdown that saw several accomplices arrested and locked up un prison in the Castle of Monza but suffered defeat in the Battle of Parabiago, where a Milanese army led by another uncle, Luchino, was said to have been facing defeat but was saved by the divine intervention in the form of an apparition of St Ambrose on horseback, which caused the enemy army to flee.

Away from the battlefield, Azzone Visconti is credited with beginning an artistic renewal of Milan.

He rebuilt the Palazzo del Broletto Vecchio, opposite the Duomo, formerly the municipal seat, as Visconti palace - later the Royal Palace - and moved the town hall to the Palazzo della Ragione.

Azzone commissioned the Cremonese architect Francesco Pecorari to construct the church of San Gottardo in Corte, with an octagonal bell tower, which remains today, that was probably inspired by the drawings Giotto made for the bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

He hired Giotto himself to execute a number of frescoes in the Visconti palace, although none remain today.  His commitment to the architectural embellishment of Milan continued under his successors, notably with work beginning on the magnificent Duomo in 1386 under the rule of Gian Galeazzo Visconti.

Azzone was also credited with rebuilding the city of Lecco, at the southern end of the eastern fork of Lago di Como, known as Lago di Lecco. The city had been destroyed by his grandfather, Matteo, in 1296.

The monumental tomb of Azzone Visconti
The monumental tomb of Azzone Visconti
Travel tip:

The church of San Gottardo in Corte can be found in Via Francesco Pecorari, just a few yards from the Duomo. Built as a ducal chapel, it was originally dedicated to the Blessed Virgin but Azzone, who had gout, later changed the dedication to St. Gotthard of Hildesheim, patron of those with gout. The interior has been partially restored but in the original church part of the a fresco of the Crucifixion, thought to have been painted by a pupil of Giotto remains, along with the monumental tomb sculpted for Azzone by the Pisan sculptor Giovanni di Balduccio.

The Palazzo della Ragione in Piazza Mercanti
The Palazzo della Ragione in Piazza Mercanti
Travel tip:

The Palazzo della Ragione (Palace of Reason), which Azzone established as Milan’s town hall, is located in Piazza Mercanti, just off Piazza del Duomo, facing the Loggia degli Osii. It also served as a judicial seat. Built between 1228 and 1233 for the podestà (chief magistrate) of Milan, Oldrado da Tresseno. It maintained a central role in the administrative and public life of the city Milan until 1773, when it was enlarged to accommodate legal archives.  Between 1866 and 1870, the building hosted the headquarters of the Banca Popolare di Milano, a major Milanese bank, but returned to its function as house of legal archives until 1970.



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