The Italian despot Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan (1351-1402), succeeded in conquering most of northern Italy in his ambitious attempt to place the entire Italian peninsula under his control.
Gian Galeazzo Visconti was born on Oct. 16, 1351. He was the only son of Galeazzo II, who ruled the family's Milanese territories jointly with his brother Bernabò. As a boy, Gian Galeazzo was plagued by a delicate constitution that caused him to spend more time with books than in sports. He spent his youth learning the art of ruling from his studies and from his father, and he remained physically timid and sedentary all his life.
Galeazzo II died on Aug. 4, 1378, bequeathing to his son his portion of the Milanese possessions. Gian Galeazzo made Pavia the base of his rule, as his father had before him. His uncle Bernabò, controlling the other half of the territory from Milan, was an unabashed villain. He taxed oppressively, and when his subjects grumbled, he publicly declared that all criminals would be tortured for 40 days. Bernabò plotted to dispose of Gian Galeazzo, who carefully gave his uncle the impression—through the withdrawn, peaceful, and religious tenor of his life at Pavia—that he would be an easy victim. Bernabò foolishly underestimated his nephew, and when Gian Galeazzo sent him an invitation to visit him in Pavia, he accepted it and was promptly imprisoned there along with two sons. On Dec. 19, 1385, Gian Galeazzo had his uncle poisoned, acquiring by this act exclusive control of the entire city-state of Milan.
The craftiness of Visconti's apparently insignificant personality now began to show itself. Hiring able mercenary generals because he chose not to lead troops himself, he set out to conquer Italy. His armies subdued Verona and Vicenza in 1387 and Padua in 1389. Emboldened by these victories, he sought the title of duke from the Emperor Wenceslaus and received it in 1395 for the sum of 100, 000 florins. Meanwhile, Visconti's soldiers continued to advance, taking Pisa in 1399, Perugia, Assisi, and Siena in 1400, and Lucca and Bologna in 1401. The Papal States, prostrated by the Great Schism, could offer no serious resistance, and there was little reason to doubt that Visconti, in possession of almost all of northern Italy, would realize his further ambitions of subduing Florence, the papal territories, and all of southern Italy as well.
A wily man, remaining always at his capital, Visconti did not exhaust his skills in foreign conquests. He gained a deserved reputation as an able administrator when he promulgated a new law code that included advanced health regulations and when he introduced an efficient bureaucracy into the structure of Milanese government. His clerks kept careful ledgers, and the treasury of Milan became the richest in Italy.
Visconti used these riches prudently. He started work on the Cathedral of Milan, a massive monument of Italian Gothic architecture that is still the most imposing building in the city. He began the Certosa of Pavia (a famous monastic house) and stimulated the growth of the library of Pavia. He called the famous Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras to the University of Milan and furthered the development of the University of Pavia. Visconti patronized writers and painters, and he improved the economy of his state with a system of canals for irrigation.
Having become the most feared and powerful of Italian tyrants, Visconti was ready, in 1402, for the completion of his greatest enterprise, the conquest of the rest of Italy. The city of Florence bravely delayed the advance of his armies, but there seemed little doubt of his ultimate victory. Only the intervention of the plague prevented it. The disease struck Lombardy with sudden fury, and its most illustrious victim was Visconti. He died on Sept. 3, 1402, and his conquests did not outlast him by a single day. They became, ironically, the booty of the mercenaries he had hired. His internal reforms, in the political and economic life of his state, were less spectacular but more enduring.
The fullest treatment of Visconti in English is D. M. Bueno de Mesquita, Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, 1351-1402 (1941). A lively and objective account of him appears in Dorothy Muir, A History of Milan under the Visconti (1924). For the hostilities with Florence consult Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance (2 vols., 1955).