Arts & Entertainment

The Last Dukes of Milan

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History is never dead; every day we walk among the machinations and designs of those before us. Some historical persons had larger impacts than others, and for Milan, those persons are found in the Sforza family. 

For both visitors and residents of Milan, Castello Sforzesco stands as a daunting monument to the city’s long and varied history. On the face of the Torre del Filarete, which looms in front of a large fountain flooded with people at its edges and a statue of Garibaldi guarding the piazza, one can find a coat-of-arms drawn into quarters, split between a black eagle and a sinister biscione (large snake) eating a man. This symbol and variations of it can be found throughout the castle, around Milan and other Lombard cities, and even in some company logos, such as Alfa-Romero’s. This is the standard of the Sforza family, a dynasty whose brief rule of Milan set the city on a path towards the renown and influence it retains to this day.  

To understand the Sforza family, we should start with Milan’s beginnings as a medieval polity. After the fall of Ancient Rome, Mediolanum, as Milan was known at the time, emerged from the Dark Ages an important trading hub and shield between Italy and the rest of Northern Europe. Under the nominal rule of the Holy Roman Empire, the city struggled for dominance against its neighbors, such as Pavia and Mantua, as well as against the Emperor. Eventually, the Visconti family took over the city in 1277, with their standard of the biscione flying over Milan for nearly 200 years. However, in 1450, the mercenary Francesco Sforza married the Visconti duke’s daughter and conquered the city. 

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Francesco was the son of Muzio Attendolo, a farmer-turned-soldier who attained great fortunes fighting for various lords in Italy. The son saw opportunity in marrying into the declining Visconti family and once in power established a steadfast duchy in Lombardy, a new regional power on par with the Medicis’ Florence and the Papal States. However, one of his successors, Ludovico il Moro, ushered in Milan’s golden age. 

After a power struggle with his nephew for the ducal throne, Ludovico took control in 1494 and brought forward Milan’s ascent into the Renaissance. Establishing a court of a quality like that of French kings, Ludovico surrounded himself with intellectuals and artists from all over Europe. Most famous of these members is Leonardo da Vinci, who painted The Last Supper under commission from Il Moro. Da Vinci would remain in Sforza’s employ until 1499, painting several murals and artworks in Castello Sforzesco, and designing various architectural features for Milan. Other city projects also flourished under Ludovico, including progress on the canals, the Castello of course, and, more importantly, Il Duomo. All these building projects would remain in the heart of the historical centre of Milan to this day.  

Ludovico’s reign was overshadowed by the disastrous Italian Wars, in which the Kingdoms of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire fought for control over the Italian peninsula. This long and convoluted conflict was brought about by Ludovico himself, after he invited the French to assist fighting his enemies in Italy. Eventually, this decision saw the final Sforza duke ousted by the Spanish in 1535, marking a period of foreign domination for Milan for the next three centuries, which ended with the Unification of Italy in 1861. 

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Despite their removal from history, the Sforza left their imprint on the spirit of Milan. It was under this dynasty that Milan emerged as an important core of Western culture. The first Milanese printing press even arrived during their reign. Despite the overbearing foreign dominions, Milan continued to produce scholars and architects inspired by the Renaissance traditions established by Ludovico in his ducal court. Beyond Milan, other members and descendants of the Sforza, such as Caterina Sforza, Beatrice D’Este, and Giuseppe Sforza Cesarini Savelli, continued to contribute to public life in Italy, sponsoring the arts, piazzas, forts, and more. 

Unless you are a history aficionado, you are not going to often hear about Il Moro or the Italian Wars in a conversation at the coffee machine. Regardless, as residents of Milan and as university students, we should know how our host city came to be. The Sforza are one small aspect of Milan’s history, but their work firmly established the city as one of the significant centers of Europe. In terms of cultural and political output, Milan still today creates standards and trends that the rest of Italy follows. So next time you are walking on Via Francesco Sforza or picnicking on the castle grounds, be sure to give a simple nod of acknowledgement to some of the contributors to Milan. 

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