Galeazzo Maria Sforza - Duke of Milan | Italy On This Day

24 January 2020

Galeazzo Maria Sforza - Duke of Milan

Effective leader with dark side



Piero Pollaiuolo's portrait of Galeazzo, which is kept by Uffizi in Florence
Piero Pollaiuolo's portrait of Galeazzo,
which is kept by Uffizi in Florence
Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who became the second member of the Sforza family to take the title Duke of Milan, was born on this day in 1444 in Fermo, in what is now the Marche region.

Sforza was an effective ruler but is often remembered as a tyrant with a cruel streak.  He ruled Milan for just 10 years before he was assassinated in 1476.

In that time, Galeazzo did much to boost the economy of Milan and the wider area of Lombardia. He introduced measures to promote and protect the work of Lombard craftsmen and boosted agriculture by the introduction of jasmine farming and rice cultivation. Farsightedly, he realised that a healthy population was a more productive one and expanded the health institutions started by his father, Francesco Sforza.  He minted a new silver coin, the Testone, which carried an image of his profile on the reverse.

He saw to it that work on Milan’s cathedral, which had started almost 100 years earlier, continued to progress, and took over the construction of a major hospital that his father had wanted to see built.

Galeazzo was also a major patron of music, attracting composers and musicians not just in Italy but from northern Europe, especially the Franco-Flemish areas of present day Belgium and Holland. Alexander Agricola, Johannes Martini, Loyset Compère, and Gaspar van Weerbeke all had their standing boosted by their association with the Sforza court, where they composed masses, motets and secular music.

The Testone coin, bearing the image of Galeazzo Maria Sforza on the reverse
The Testone coin, bearing the image
of Galeazzo Maria Sforza on the reverse
He was also a patron of the arts, although this was mainly connected with the extravagant decoration and embellishment of the vast Castello Sforzesco. The castle had been built by his father, Francesco, but he and Galeazzo’s mother, Bianca Maria Visconti, chose to live in the more modest Corte d’Arengo rather than be seen to flaunt their wealth.

Such considerations were dismissed by Galeazzo, who decided the castle was a suitable home for him and his family and hired two Florentine architects of particular note, Bartolomeo Gadio and Benedetto Ferrini, to oversee the restructuring of the Ducal Court, Rocchetta courtyard and his own private accommodation.

He commissioned the Ducal Chapel, built in 1471, and engaged artists of considerable reputation such as Bonifacio Bembo, Giacomino Vismara and Stefano de Fedeli.  The chapel’s extraordinary decoration, with much use of pure gold, makes it one of the masterpieces of Sforza art.

A skilled soldier, Galeazzo was called back from a military expedition in France at the time of his father’s death and hundreds of Milanese turned out to acclaim him as the new Duke when he returned to the city. It was not long before his ruthless streak emerged, however. At first ruling jointly with his mother, he soon took steps to relegate her to a much less influential position and it was not long before she moved to Cremona, where she had considerable support.  It is said that she was in contact with Ferdinand I of Naples, an enemy of Galeazzo, and after she became ill and died in 1468 there were suspicions that Galeazzo had ordered his agents to poison her.

Part of the sumptuously decorated ceiling of the Ducal Chapel
Part of the sumptuously decorated
ceiling of the Ducal Chapel
If that were true, it would have been consistent with the stories of cruelty that have been associated with Galeazzo, who is said to have taken delight in condemning those who offended him to agonizing deaths and subjecting his enemies to torture.  A womaniser, he allegedly raped the wives and daughters of Milanese noblemen, confident that they would be too fearful for their own safety to raise objections.

However, his excesses and cruelties eventually cost him his life when three of high-ranking officials in his court, Carlo Visconti, Gerolamo Olgiati and Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani, conspired to assassinate him.  All three had motives, Lampugnani’s stemming from a land dispute that cost him a considerable part of his fortune, Olgiati’s from political differences, and Visconti’s from suspicions that Galeazzo had raped his daughter.

Their plot came to fruition on 26 December, the feast of Santo Stefano, when Galeazzo attended the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore to celebrate the saint.  When Galeazzo arrived, Lampugnani knelt before him in the atrium but then rose suddenly and stabbed him in the groin and chest. Visconti and Olgiati joined in, plunging their own weapons into the body of the Duke, who was soon dead.

Lampugnani himself was killed by one of Galeazzo’s guards, while Visconti and Olgiati were caught and executed within days.  Galeazzo was succeeded as Duke of Milan by Gian Galeazzo Sforza, the first-born of his four legitimate children, although for five years, until his majority, Milan was governed by his mother, Bona of Savoy.

The inner courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, which Galeazzo Maria Sforza turned into his luxurious home
The inner courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan,
which Galeazzo Maria Sforza turned into his luxurious home
Travel tip:

The Castello Sforzesco is one of the main sights for visitors to Milan, situated to the northwest of the city centre, with the Parco Sempione behind it. Francesco Sforza built it on the site of the Castello di Porta Giova, which had been the main residence in the city of the Visconti family, from which Francesco was descended. The Viscontis ruled Milan for 170 years. Renovated and enlarged a number of times in subsequent centuries, it became one of the largest citadels in Europe and now houses several museums and art collections.

The Basilica of Santo Stefano Maggiore in Milan, the scene of Galeazzo Maria Sforza's assassination
The Basilica of Santo Stefano Maggiore in Milan, the
scene of Galeazzo Maria Sforza's assassination
Travel tip:

The Basilica of Santo Stafano Maggiore can be found in Piazza Santo Stefano, to the southeast of Milan’s centro storico, just a few minutes’ walk from the Duomo. Although it dates back to the fifth century, the present structure was built in 1075 in Romanesque style.  It contains the relics of at least eight saints. As well as being the scene of the death of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, an event which is commemorated with a plaque in the atrium, the church also witnessed the baptism, in 1571, of the painter Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio.

Also on this day:

41AD: The assassination of Roman Emperor Caligula

1705: The birth of the castrato singer Farinelli, acknowledged as music’s first ‘superstar’

1916: The birth of actor Arnoldo Foà

1947: The birth of footballer Giorgio Chinaglia


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