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A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever – The Miseroni Lapidaries - Part 1

Objects of prestige and the Duchy of Milan during the lifetimes of the Miseroni families

1. Introduction

This is the third and final part of my contribution about jade at the Court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. It tells the history of six generations of lapidary artists, the Miseroni, starting with Francesco in 1460 in Milan and ending with Ferdinand Eusebios’s death in Prague in 1684. Many cups in nephrite jade were made by them for Princes and Emperors and some of them can be still admired today in museums and private collections.

Their lives and the creation of these objects of art were intimately tied to the fortunes of the ruling Houses of the Renaissance and this contribution would have been incomplete without mentioning events and anecdotes of these times.

This contribution takes its roots in the excellent catalogue “Die Kunst des Steinschneidens – Prunkgefässe, Kameen und Comessi aus der Kunstkammer" printed for the exposition held from December 17, 2002 until April 27, 2003 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It has been written by Dr. Rudolf Distelberger, the Director of the Kunst-and-Schatzkammer there and one of the world’s most renowned experts on Renaissance lapidary art. Additional sources of information were Markus Jurziczek, a descendant of Dionysio Miseroni, the well documented books Le Collezioni Gonzaga and Gioielli e Gioiellieri Milanesi by Mrs. P. Venturelli, the database of the Medici Archive Project and many homepages on the Internet to whom sincere thanks are extended.

2. Objects of prestige

Since antiquity, lapidary objects were used by rulers and potentates to enhance their renown and display their riches. In Europe, Pliny de Elder reported the luxury of possessing vessels carved from precious rocks and that the Roman Emperor Nero, declared enemy of the state by the Senate and facing execution by the onrushing centurions, took an ultimate revenge and smashed two goblets in rock crystal so that no one could ever use and admire them once he was dead.

In antique Rome cameos, raised carvings of portraits in layered onyx were extremely popular and considered the ultimate means to reward successful generals or celebrate emperors and their victories.


The Roman Gemma Augustea Cameo. In the upper row, Augustus is posed and dressed as Jupiter and holds a sceptre and augur staff. On his right is Roma, the patroness of the city. Between their heads is a Capricorn, the personal constellation of Augustus. To the left of the throne are allegorical figures: Oecumene (the inhabited Earth), Oceanus (the rivers of the world), and Italia with cornucopia and two boys. Next to Roma stand Augustus great nephew, Germanicus, as well as his step-son and successor to the throne, Tiberius, who is shown descending from a war chariot driven by Victoria. The lower scene shows the erection of a victory monument. Surrounding it are Roman soldiers and the defeated barbarians. The whole scene depicts the victory of the Romans over the Dalmatians. In January 6, 10 A. D., Tiberius, the supreme military commander of the Roman troops, entered Rome. The cameo was first documented in 1246 as part of an inventory of the Cloister Saint Sernin in Toulouse. At the beginning of the 17th century, it came into Habsburg possession through a purchase of Rudolf II (KHM Vienna)


The Roman Eagle Cameo. The eagle, symbol of the power of the Imperium Romanum, stands with outspread wings on a palm branch. In the raised left talon he grips a wreath of oak leaves, which is a depiction of the corona civica (civic crown), an order of great distinction and one which was presented to the Emperor Augustus on 16th January 27 B. C. in gratitude for having saved Rome from the chaos of civil war. The state cameos were in the possession of the imperial treasury in Rome until they were stolen, along with other art treasures, and taken to Byzantium, probably in the 5th century A. D. There they remained until 1204, when they returned to the Occident following the sacking of the city by the Crusaders. The eagle cameo was installed in Aachen Cathedral directly after this, presumably in the ambry of Heinrich II (KHM Vienna)

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Byzantium or Constantinople became the new centre of glyptic art where influences from artists of Persia and later of that of the Fatimid Court in Cairo kept the tradition alive.


Plate in the form of temple made from rock crystal in Byzantium dated to about 500 A.D (Met NYC)


Ewer in rock crystal from an unknown Fatimid craftsmen made in Cairo between 909 to 1171 A.D (V&A London)

Constantinople possessed thus a more or less continuous tradition from antique times in this technically difficult, time-consuming and truly noble art.

The revival of antique stone-carving in Western Europe is probably connected with the fall and sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders, which resulted not only in a great number of objects reaching new owners but also in the resettlement of many artists and entire stone-carving workshops in Western Europe. The Venetians, having financed the transport of the Christian troops there, were eager to extend their commercial domination in the Eastern Mediterranean and reinforce their dominant position as purveyors of luxury goods. Enrico Dandolo, the 41st and blinded doge of Venice, mastermind of the attack on Constantinople, made sure that this position stayed uncontested and that the best gold and silversmiths, jewel workers, iconographers, woodcarvers, and stone and glass workers were relocated to Venice.


The Doge Enrico Dandolo and an illustration of the battle for Constantinople in May 1204.

The presence of sizable number glyptic artisans 60 years later in Venice, the Christallieri and in Paris, Le Cristalliers et Pierriers de pierres naturels, is confirmed by their guild rules which distinguished between two crafts, the arte minuta, or subtle gem cutting, and the arte grossa, which comprised the cutting of vessels out of hardstones. The French artisans saw their activity as à la honorance de Sainte Eglise et des hauts homes, to honour the Holy Church and high placed persons and, to upkeep their reputation, the guild rules in Venice made it quite sure that the ordinary white glass from Murano was not used to fake rock crystal vessels.


The Alienor vase offered by Aliénor of Aquitaine to her husband King Louis VII around 1140 is based on a Persian vessel in rock crystal. The remaining decorations were added few years later by Suger, the Abby of the Royal Saint-Denis Cathedral in France (Le Louvre Paris)

Venice secured an option on the best pieces of Oriental raw material and carvings. Yet it seems certain that a passionate amateur collector of precious stones such as Emperor Friedrich II, with his well-known contacts in the Islamic world, had no difficulty in acquiring the very best for himself and for the imperial workshops in his Norman-Hohenstaufen kingdom of Lower Italy and Sicily. He has probably been helped in this endeavour by lapidary artists from Cairo which fled the turmoil of the collapse of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. These were sourcing their large rock crystals from Madagascar, an island on their trade routes and which the Portuguese saw for the first time only on August 10 of the year 1500.

All these examples of glyptic art, be it cameos in onyx, plates and ewers in rock crystal, or vases in red porphyry, jasper, lapis lazuli, jade or agate became essential items to display the riches not only for their intrinsic material value but for the fact that their material was rare, needed special skills and tools to be worked and thus not accessible to everyone. Already the name crystal had mystic connotations and derives from the Greek crystallos or frozen. For long time clear gems and rock crystals were considered to be a special form of water ice permanently kept frozen by divine intervention and imbibed with secret forces.


Ewer in rock crystal of Saracen style from the 12th century made probably in Sicily for Emperor Friedrich II (Hermitage St. Petersburg)

The inventory in 1295 of the estate of Pope Boniface VIII, a man also consumed with secular power, revealed that he owned two crosses and two reliquary vessels in rock crystal, three chandeliers in rock crystal and jasper and six portable altars in jasper. His private possessions involved 28 vessels, cups and jugs of which 25 where in rock crystal and three in jasper as also 33 uncut rock crystals, nine amethysts and one jasper.


One of the most exquisite ewers in rock crystal in existence and attributed to the 14th century royal workshops in Paris. It was probably part of the dowry of Blanche de Valois, daughter of the French King Charles IV when she married Karl IV of Bohemia in Prague (KHM Vienna)

The purity of the crystal, the beauty of the outline and the cutting precision of this one-handled ewer places it among the most remarkable achievements of arte grossa. Its E-shaped handle is considered the most graceful as well as the most complicated formal solution of the late Middle Ages. In no other vessel of that time was the same perfect regularity of cut and finishing achieved.

In these objects, nature and art blend exquisitely and indissociably together so that one would not fully grasp their beauty if the nature of the material, the design and the skill of the artisans who made it would not be considered an essential part of it.

In the early 1500 the centre of glyptic art shifted from Venice to Milan, which had been able to gain control of the commerce of rock crystals from the nearby Alps. This shift occurred also because the Milanese artists, under the artistic impulse of Leonardo da Vinci, became more inventive and daring concerning the shapes of their works than their counterparts in Venice. The Venetian artists had stayed with a simple geometric faceting technique of objects when they wanted to enhance their beauty wereas the Milanese moulded these hard materials into complex shaped as if it would be soft clay. Venice however was still the place were the jewellers from all around Europe were able to find an abundant supply of rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and pearls coming in either through established Venetian trade channels via the Middle East or via Portuguese merchants from India and the Far East. In addition, emeralds became available through the Spanish conquests in South America and Bohemia itself was furnishing its famous deep red garnets and many of the opaque semiprecious stones.

The Renaissance Movement and the increasing curiosity to understand Nature and its treasures resulted in the rapid growth of Kunst- and Wunderkammern of the Princes which in turn increased competition to secure this or that marvel offered on the market.

These Princes did not hesitate to write insisting letters and missives, offer monetary rewards and nobility titles to those glyptic artisans/merchants which would present their wares with priority to them or still better, move their workshops into their palaces. In a letter dated January 14th 1573, for example, the Duke of Bavaria Albrecht V commanded to Cesare Binagho, a Milanese merchant of such objects, to bring them imperatively first to him in Munich before offering them to the Court of the Medici and of the Savoia!

In view of this intense competition, Dukes, Princes and Emperors decided to lure lapidary artisans directly to their Court and to set up workshops there. In this manner Felipe II of Spain called Giulio and his father Gasparo Miseroni, in 1582 and 1584 respectively, to Madrid to assist in the decoration of the new palaces and churches. Ferdinando I de Medici followed and set up, based on Milanese expertise, in 1588 the Opifico delle pietre dure in Florence which culminated in the interior decoration of the Capella dei Principi by veneers of inlaid hard stones. Rudolf II in Prague engaged in the same year Gasparo’s son Ottavio Miseroni and some of his brothers for semiprecious stone carvings there and completed the team in 1598 with Cosimo and Giovanni Castrucci, also from Milan, for was to become spectacular comessi work.


A work of Comesso in pietre dure from Ferdinando I de Medici’s Opifico in Florence


The Giovanni Castrucci comesso view of the Hradschin Castle in Prague made for Rudolf II (KHM Vienna)


The Capella dei Principi in Florence, planned by Cosimo I de Medici but built from 1604 on the orders of his successor Ferdinando I (shown), is covered by veneers of inlaid hard stones

The competition for rare glyptic art objects was fierce and sometimes Princes, hearing that one of their peers had been able purchased one, wanted an exact and if possible more extravagant copy made for them also.

Such a competition developed when Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni, the brother of Ottavio, engraved a ruby of the size of a finger nail with the Double Headed Imperial Habsburg Eagle showing with on his breast the coat of arms of Rudolf II and being surrounded by the collar of the order of the Golden Fleece. This piece was presented, as introduction of the prowess of the Miseroni workshops, by Count Claudio Trivulzio in 1587 to Rudolf II in Prague. Rudolf II was amazed by this example of their work and engaged the Miseroni brothers in the following year to set up shop there.

The Duke of Mantova, in northern Italy, Vincenzo I di Gonzaga got wind of the details of this work and send to the Miseroni workshop in Milan an emerald with already his coat of arms engraved by another artist. He specifically asked that the collar of the order of the Golden Fleece, awarded recently to him, is to be added and mentioned that he disliked the carving of the left eagle and the disproportionate amount of empty space between the two lower eagles. Miseroni replied that the emerald is marred by defects and any modification or addition would require a complete repolishing of its surface. Not wanting to be responsible for a botched job, as final argument, he did throw in that the cost would double and send it back to the Duke.

Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni finally accepted the job and delivered the modified gem sporting now also the collar of the order of the Golden Fleece in the summer of 1597.


The coat of arms of Rudolf II and of Vicenzo I di Gonzaga, the objects of a lapidary battle in the Miseroni workshop in Milan

The pecuniary value of these Renaissance vessels and inlay art made from precious stones was at the time of their creation much higher than paintings as inventories and associated estimations indicate. For example, the large painting of Titian showing Karl V as the victor of the battle of Mühleberg, was valued after the death of Felipe II only 200 ducats whereas a galley carved from rock crystal was estimated at 500 ducats, and rock crystal vessel in the shape of a rooster at 800 ducats.

A similar situation is reflected by the 1619 inventory of Rudolf II possessions. Whereas the great bronze bust of Rudolf II by Adrien de Vries was valued at 800 Schock Groschen, the small “lion skin” vessel in smoky quartz by Miseroni was valued at 600, an ewer 1,200 and a large plate in jasper at 3,000 Schock Groschen.


The bust of Rudolf II by Adrien de Vries and the 25cm long and 9cm high Lion skin vessel by Ottavio Miseroni in smoky quartz valued 800 and 600 Schock Groschen respectively in 1619 (KHM Vienna)

The low value given to paintings is also expressed by the fact that Michelangelo was able to negotiate with the Pope Julius II only a fee of 6,000 ducats for the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when Albrecht V of Bavaria did not hesitate to pay the same amount for the Galley cup and the Joseph ewer in rock crystal made by the Saracci Brothers in 1579 in Milan.


The Galley cup and the Joseph ewer in rock crystal (Residence Munich) for which Albrecht V of Bavaria (shown) paid Saracci in Milan as much as Michelangelo got from Pope Julius II for the four years he needed to paint the entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel


The Sistine Chapel with the ceiling painted by Michelangelo for 6,000 ducats

Another example of the monies involved in the manufacture of such objects are the 4200 Guilders paid by Prince Karl Eusebius of Liechtenstein in 1639 and covering respectively 1,200 for the smoky quartz crystal and 3,000 Guilders for the labour of Dionysio Miseroni in Prague.


Vase, 37.5cm high, carved from a smoky quartz crystal and for which Karl Eusebius, Prince of Liechtenstein paid 4,200 guilders (Liechtenstein Collection Vaduz)


The Columbian emerald of more than 2,680 carats purchased by Rudolf II and carved by Dionysio Miseroni for a fee of 12,000 Guilders (KHM Vienna), a multiple of what Rembrandt collected (1600 guilders) the same time for his monumental Night watch painting

How rapid these collections expanded can be deduced from the inventories made at the death of the Emperors. In the estate of Emperor Ferdinand I, the creator of the Habsburg Kunstkammer of Vienna, one 4th century shallow dish in agate and 15 vessels in rock crystal are mentioned in the 1564 inventory. At the death of his son Maximilian II, and father of Rudolf II, in 1576 already 60 stone vessels, mostly of rock crystal but also some made from opaque precious stones are now listed.

The inventory of Rudolf II estate, made after his successors’ Matthias I death in 1619, listed 75 objects in rock crystal, 16 in smoky quartz, 4 in amethyst and 111 pieces made in opaque precious stones. About 300 cameos were also present but not officially listed. The inventory of 1750 Schatzkammer in Vienna listed 665 cameos, 274 rock crystal and about 300 opaque stone vessels, cups and jugs.

The inventory of the Schatzkammer in Vienna of 1750 carried out during the reign of Empress Marie Theresa of Austria, listed the presence of 665 cameos, 274 rock crystals and about 300 vessels and vases in opaque stone!


3. The Duchy of Milan during the lifetimes of the Miseroni families

The traces of the Miseroni family can be followed back to 1460 when a Francesco Miseroni is listed in the guild register of Milan as a goldsmith and with a monkey as his emblem. In these times Italy was a patchwork of kingdoms, duchies, city states, republics which, with the territory of the Pope, where fiercely bent to defend their independence and outdo their rivals economically, politically and culturally. The fragmentation of the Italian Peninsula into the Duchy of Savoy, Milan, Mantua, Modena and Ferrara, the Republics of Venice, Genoa, Siena, Lucca and Florence, the Marquisate of Saluzzo, Montferrat, the Kingdoms of Naples, Sicily, the Bishopric of Trent, and the Papal State made these territories politically and economically vulnerable to pressures from their neighbouring kingdoms and empires and prevented, until 1861, the reunification of these territories into a national state, Italy.


The political map of Northern part the future Italy around 1500

Whereas in France, Spain, and England a common interior market developed under the impulse of a strong central power, the Italian cities, although being individually very rich, based their commerce essentially on foreign trade and thus everyone was everyone else’s competitor. Within a given territory only the capital city was allowed to expand its industry and when the regions of northern Europe developed their high volume textile and metalworking industries, their smaller opificio or workshop counterparts in Florence, Milan, Venice, Genoa and others could not compete anymore. Only luxury products based on silk weaving, goldsmithing, glass working, the manufacture of objets d’art, and the know-how of banking and money lending allowed further generation of wealth and a passionate patronage of art.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks and the associated loss of a direct access to the Orient as also the discovery of the Americas in 1492, started to shift the centre of gravity of wealth creation to the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic seaboard. This diminished the importance of the Mediterranean Sea and of the Italian territories, resulting in many of them, about 150 years later, to become second level powers which were absorbed into the Habsburg Empire.

However, until 1650 all these territories experienced an extraordinary bloom of art and culture that bequeathed us with works of utmost beauty. These objects of art and their creation were often political acts destined to enhance the prestige of those who ordered and possessed them. Their existence is closely related to the events happening in these territories in general and Milan especially.

In 1450, the history of Milan became the history of the Sforza Dynasty. Francesco Sforza, the successful condottiere or field commander of the hired troops of the Visconti’s in their wars against rival duchies and republics, was given, as the providential saviour of the day and a siege of Milan, the reign over the Duchy by the senate of the ephemeral Repubblica Ambrosiana of Milan. This short-lived Milanese Republic was formed when, after the heirless death of the last of the Visconti’s Filippo Maria Visconti in 1447, the Duchy was fated to fall under the rule of Alfonso V of Aragon of the Kingdom of Naples and a group of local aristocrats and law men from University of Pavia proclaimed the Republic.


Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447), the last of the Visconti’s, with the Castello and its location straddling, at 11 o’clock, the outer medieval city wall (in green) of Milan. The principal inhabited area of Milan in these times is delimitated by the inner wall (in red)

Francesco Sforza, an illegitimate son of the condottiere Muzio Attendolo, was born near Pisa and passed his youth in Florence and in Ferrara where his father was commanding troops. He took up the same profession and distinguished himself as a successful field commander during wars in southern Italy. There, in 1418, he married Polissena Ruffo, a rich widow of the Montalto family who died at childbirth two years later. After the death of his father he returned to Naples and then followed Guido Torelli, a condottiere in the service of Filippo Maria Visconti, to Milan where he quickly caught the eye of the Duke. In order to bind the talented young man closer to the family, in 1430 Filippo Maria Visconti promised Bianca Maria, his five year old illegitimate daughter (and thus not directly in line of succession) to Francesco. This tie was meant to keep this freewheeling mercenary better under control and away from engaging as a condottiere with the City of Lucca against Florence.

Francesco Sforza, in view of the potential dowry and social advance conferred by such a marriage accepted, and the contract of betrothal was signed in 1432. But due to the youth of the girl, marriage was not immediately forthcoming. Filippo Maria Visconti had then to resort, when Francesco was leading Venetian troops as freelance condottiere against Milan in 1439, to fake an engagement of Bianca Maria to Lionello d’Este so to entice Francesco Sforza to (unsuccessfully) switch sides. After several backs and forth he finally married his 16 year old bride in 1441 in Cremona, a place which Francesco considered safer than Milan and his quite erratic father-in-law. The couple retired to the possessions of Francesco in Jesi in Central Italy. Francesco quickly appreciated the political skills of his young wife and, having to leave home to lead armies, he conferred to his 17 year old wife the government of his possessions with the following laudatory terms...We place at the head of our province our noble and illustrious consort Bianca Maria, we entrust her to whole government of the same province so that with prudence, fairness, mercifulness and magnanimity, virtues which our consort is well endowed by nature and education, she carries out the task.

Bianca helped him well in all the crucial steps of his future career and with her Visconti roots gave Francesco’s subsequent takeover of the government of the Duchy of Milan a certain degree of legitimacy. As a fine politician he also always signed with Francescosforza Visconti so to put in evidence the link to the past dynasty.


Francesco I Sforza, Duke of Milan (1401-1466), and his wife Bianca Maria Visconti (1425-1468), both painted by Bonifacio Bembo. Francesco insisted that he should be painted with the hat he was wearing as condottiere.

Francesco allied himself with the Medici’s in Florence and has been able to give Milan a long period of stability and prosperity which saw, beside other innovations, also the extension of the cultivation of rice in the flood plains surrounding the town and the introduction of mulberry trees and of the sericulture in the duchy. These choices are the origins of the well known saffron spiced risotto Milanese, the famous rice based dish of Milan, and of the Italian silk weaving and printing expertise.

Francesco established also an efficient system of taxation which generated enormous revenues which were invested in making the Sforza Court a cultural centre of the Renaissance culture, extending the Castello Sforzesco, building the Ospedale Maggiore and digging the different naviglio’s or navigable channels from surrounding rivers to the heart of Milan.


An actual view of the Castello Sforzesco which was the seat of the political and military power in Milan until 1880

Apparently sensing his vital forces weaning, Francesco involved Bianca Maria, from 1465 until his death on March 8th of 1466 of an oedema, in the daily running of the Duchy so to prepare a smooth dynastical transition. Their son Galeazzo Maria, the new Duke of Milan, however resented her presence in the daily affairs and started to isolate her more and more. Their relationship degraded and, on the way to her palace in Cremona, Bianca Maria fell ill with high fever and then died in Melegnano, just outside Milan, in October 1468. The story has it that she may have been poisoned by emissaries of his son.

Galeazzo, solicitous only of outward effect, took pride in the beauty of his hands, in the high salaries he paid, in the financial credit he enjoyed, in his treasure of two million pieces of gold, in the distinguished people who surrounded him, and in the army and birds of chase which he maintained. He was a great patron of music and had assembled many composers and singers in Milan.

He was also fond of the sound of his own voice, and spoke well, most fluently, perhaps, when he had the chance of insulting a Venetian ambassador. He was subject to caprices, such as having a room painted with figures in a single night; and, what was worse, to fits of senseless debauchery and of revolting cruelty to his nearest friends. In one of his cruel moments he had a poacher executed by forcing him to swallow an entire hare with fur intact, and a priest, who had predicted a short reign for Galeazzo, was punished by being starved to death.

Galeazzo was also passionate about tennis and the written record of young Galeazzo's first game of tennis is found is in a letter he wrote to his father Francesco Sforza on August 2, 1457 from the Este villa of Belriguardo. The text of the letter implies that it may have been an indoor court probably built under Borso d'Este as Galeazzo wrote that he had been playing tennis and cards because it had been raining. During Galeazzo's reign tennis became the main gambling sport at Court and between 1472 and 1474 he had the first covered tennis court, the Sala della Balla, built in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.


The eight-year-old Galeazzo representing the Sforza of Milan during the triumphal entry of Pope Pius II in the fresco that Benozzo Gozzoli painted in the Medici Chapel. It's theme was the procession of the Holy Kings as also the Rocchetta part of the Castello Sforzesco where the Sala della Balla of Galeazzo was located

The extravagant life style and display of wealth, reported as shocking even by Machiavelli during Galeazzo’s visit to Florence, and an increased taxation of nobles led to his making many enemies in Milan.
The reign of Galeazzo came to an end December 26, 1476 in the Church of Santo Stefano when a conspiracy of Milanese noblemen, angered by his dissolute life style and possibly influenced by Louis XI of France, armed his assassins Carlo Visconti, Gerolamo Olgiati, and Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani.


Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476), son of the founder of the Sforza dynasty and the plaque commemorating his assassination in the church of Santo Stefano of Milan on December 26, 1476

Galeazzo Maria’s son, Giangaleazzo Maria, was only 6 years old when his father was killed. His mother, Bona di Savoia, together with the Chancellor Franscesco Simonetta, called Cicco, assured the regency in his behalf.

Their position was a difficult one as the remaining brothers of Galeazzo, Sforza Maria, Filippo Maria, and Ludovico Maria were trying to grasp the ducal power in Milan. So tense was the situation that Bona and Simonetta build the famous Torre di Bona contiguous to the walls of the Castello Sforzesco as an ultimate refuge in case of physical attacks against them.


Painting showing Bona di Savoia (1449 -1503) with a Saint and the safe haven tower she had built in the Castello Sforzesco

In 1485 the first bout of Black Death ravaged the Duchy causing over 100,000 deaths but did spare Milan proper.

After multiple and changing alliances, a suspicious sudden death of Sforza Maria, the imprisonment of Simonetta, and his execution in Pavia in 1480, Giangaleazzo died the October 20, 1494 in Pavia, allowing Ludovico Maria Sforza, called il Moro due to his dark complexion, to solicit and get the title of Duke of Milan.


Giangaleazzo Maria Sforza (1469-1494) painted as Saint Sebastian by Leonardo da Vinci in 1483 and his wife Isabella of Aragon painted around 1500 by Raphael. The marriage was arranged by his brother Lodovico


Ludovico Sforza’s (1452-1508) portrait by Gian Ambrogio Predis and that of his wife Beatrice d’Este (1475-1497), possibly painted by Leonardo da Vinci as also the Sforza family in prayer with their sons Francesco Maria next to his mother and Massimiliano with his father on the Sforza Altar piece from an unknown artist

Ludovico, less military commander than fine politician, married Beatrice in 1491, the sister of the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este, so to widen his political alliance before taking over the reign of the Duchy of Milan in 1494. Beatrice is considered the most lovable of Renaissance princesses and was the second child of Ercole I d'Este and Eleonora of Aragon. Raised at the Court of Ferrara and educated by leading humanists, Beatrice together with her husband, Lodovico, also a lover of art, science, and literature made the Milanese Court one of the most refined and luxurious in Europe. Beatrice died at the age of 22 at during the birth of the third child.

Ludovico il Moro received the ducal crown from the Milanese nobles on October 22nd 1494 and in the same year he simultaneously encouraged Charles VIII of France, and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I to become involved in Italian politics, hoping to control the two and reap the rewards himself and so starting the Italian Wars.


The lady with an ermine (in Greek gale), the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (1473-1536), from a noble family in Tuscany, by Leonardo da Vinci. She was, from the age of sixteen, for five years at the side of Lodovico and bore him a son, Cesare, the year he married Beatrice. She was removed from the Sforza Court after Lodovico’s marriage and given the Town of Saronno, the Palazzo dal Verme in Milan, and a great sum of money as parting gift

Notwithstanding these dynastically unsettled times, Milan continued to be embellished with new churches and palaces and even its streets were paved by direct order of Galeazzo in 1470, but at the direct expense of the people. In 1482 Leonardo da Vinci made his first sojourn in Milan where he was employed by Ludovico until 1498. Da Vinci had his own workshop and was involved in many civil and military engineering activities as also in the painting of the famous Last Supper in the Convent of St. Maria delle Grazie and in the portraying of many Milanese Nobles. He was actively involved in jewellery design and making all kind of drawings for machinery for their working and polishing. In 1478 he also left us a section of the Codice Atlantico a detailed instruction on how to make and fake much larger and more valuable pearls by starting with small cheap pearls. This involved dissolving them in lemon juice, heating the residue till dryness and mixing the fine powder, together with further ground pearl powder, with egg white. This paste was then formed into the shape of big pearls, the needed hole made with a silver wire or pork bristle and, after careful drying, placed into boiling linseed oil for few hours to harden them. Thereafter they were to be burnished until they had a shiny look. Other contemporary recipes propose that after the linseed oil treatment the pearls should be stuffed for five hours into the crop of pigeons, and after removal, polished with a linen cloth.


Leonardo da Vinci’s Last supper fresco he finished in 1498 in Convent of S. Maria delle Grazie

One commission given to Leonardo by Ludovico was a statue of a 7m high horse in honor of Francesco for which seventy tons of bronze was set aside. But the statue was never cast and the full size clay model, ready in 1493, became, with the fall of Milan to King Charles VIII of France and to the despair of da Vinci, a crossbow practice target of the French soldiers and was completely destroyed.


Sketches by Leonardo da Vinci for his horse statue and the full-size bronze cast made in 1999 by the US based Tallix Art Foundry and now installed in Milan

The Italian Wars were a series of conflicts from 1494 to 1559 that involved, at various times, all the major states of western Europe, such as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, England, Scotland, the Republic of Venice, the Papal States and most of the  city-states of Italy as well as the Ottoman Empire. Originally arising from dynastic disputes over the  Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, the wars rapidly became a general struggle for power and territory among their various participants and were marked by ever changing alliances, counter-alliances and regular betrayals.


The distribution of the political entities at the start of the Italian wars.

Ludovico Sforza, seeking an ally against the  Republic of Venice, encouraged Charles VIII of France to invade Italy, using as a pretext an ancient Angevin claim from his paternal grandmother, Marie of Anjou, to the throne of Naples.

However things did not go as planned for Ludovico, and finding his own position now endangered by the French, he opportunistically joined the fight against Charles VIII, giving his niece Bianca in marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and receiving in return, after a payment of an enormous sum, the long sought imperial investiture of the Duchy of Milan.

When Ferrante I of Naples died in 1494, Charles VIII invaded the peninsula, hoping to use Naples as a base for a crusade against the Turks. For several months, French forces moved through Italy virtually unopposed, since the condottieri armies of the Italian city-states were unable to resist their brutal onslaught and tactics. The condottieri had developed fighting tactics destined more to establish field supremacy, making wealthy prisoners to be ransomed all with the clear intent of minimizing casualties, as they considered war basically as a business not to be imperiled by a future lack of combatants. The sack of Naples finally provoked a reaction and the Holy League was proclaimed against Charles VIII with the signatories being the Republic of Venice, the Duke of Milan, the Pope, the Spanish King, the English King, and Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor effectively cutting him and his army off from France.


Charles VIII, King of France (1470-1498) and Ferrante I of Naples (1423-1494)


Maximilian I (1459-1519) in the famous 1519 portrait by A. Dürer and in that of 1502 painted, together with that of his second wife Bianca Maria Sforza (1472-1510), by Gian Ambrogio de Predis of Milan

Shocked by the new warfare tactics of the French Armies, Lodovico ordered to use the 70 tons of bronze, originally set aside for the horse statue to be cast by Leonardo da Vinci, to make weapons.

In summer 1495 Charles started his retreat from Naples northwards accompanied by a large baggage train carrying all the spoils of the successive sacks of Florence, Rome and Naples. His army was no longer at its best as many of his soldiers were infected by a particularly virulent strain of syphilis which the retreating troops spread ultimately through all Europe giving it, be derivation, aptly the name of French Disease, The decisive battle happened near Fornovo, close to Parma, on July 6th where the troops of the League, strongly motivated by the prospects of capturing the bounty train of Charles VIII, beat the French troops, who had to abandon everything, and under the cover of a truce, hastily retreat to France. The battle, victorious for the Holy League, had catastrophic consequences for the Italian City States and Duchies. Europe then knew from the French and German soldiers in Charles' expedition of an incredibly rich land, divided into easily conquerable principalities, and defended only by mercenary armies that refused to fight at the slightest disadvantage. Italy was to be the scene of a dispute between the main continental powers and where the Italians were left with only a secondary role in their own destiny. Basically only Venice with its exemplary system of government was going to survive the upcoming wars as a completely independent state, but with great difficulties and costs.

Charles VIII died in 1498 and his successor, King Louis XII quickly prepared to reclaim the Duchy of Milan. He mounted a campaign, which under the lead of Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, now Marshall of France and coincidentally educated with Galeazzo Sforza at the Court of the Sforza, drove Ludovico Sforza from Milan in September 1499. Ludovico took refuge with his two sons, Ercole Massimiliano and Francesco II, in Innsbruck at the Court of Maximilian I. When the Milanese population revolted in January 1500 against the French occupation, Ludovico retook Milan with the help of Swiss troops for three months before having again to take refuge outside of Milan in the town of Novara.


Gian Giacomo Trivulzio (1447-1518) the long arm of the French Kings in the Duchy of Milan and the sketch of the funerary monument he ordered for himself from Leonardo da Vinci. A relative of his, Count Claudio Trivulzio, introduced the work of Ottavio Miseroni to Rudolf II in Prague in 1578.

Gian Giacomo Trivulzio then laid siege to Novara, where Ludovico was based. The armies of both sides included Swiss mercenaries or Reisläufer who, as well appreciated and ferocious soldiers, where hired for the yearly fighting season by European potentates. They were the pike-equipped, hard core of many armies and virtually undefeated in battle for over two centuries. The Swiss mercenaries, draining the surplus male population from the Swiss alpine valleys, did not always cherish the idea of fighting each other because sometime it meant to fight a brother or father or son or neighbor from the same village engaged on the opposite side. In this case they made an agreement over the heads of their leaders and decided to leave Novara without a fight.


Nicklaus the Younger (1528-1588) dressed as mercenary and Swiss mercenaries crossing the Alps from the battlefields in Italy, in a 1513 chronicle by Diebold Schilling in Lucerne

When Ludovico tried to leave town hidden in between his Swiss troops he was betrayed by one of them, a soldier from Uri called Hans Turmann, handed over to the French troops the 10th of April 1500 and transferred to France where he died as prisoner in the castle of Loches in 1508.


The Dungeon of the castle of Loches, the state prison of the French Kings, and a small iron cage called fillettes where prisoners were kept suspended from the ceiling during the night hours to prevent any escape


Louis XII, King of France (1462-1515), Charles d’Amboise (1473-1511) his first representative in the Duchy of Milan and Fernando II of Aragon (1452-1516)

In 1501, following the death of Ferrante II of Naples and his succession by his uncle Federico IV, Fernando II of Aragon signed an agreement with Charles VIII successor, Louis XII, who had just successfully asserted his claims to the Duchy of Milan, to partition Naples between them. Campania and the Abruzzi, including Naples itself, were going to Louis XII and Fernando II was taking over Apulia and Calabria. The agreement soon fell apart and very soon Fernando’s general Gonzalo Fernandez de Córdoba el Gran Capitan conquered Naples from the French in 1504.

Pope Julius II (1443-1513), also known as the Warrior Pope in a 1512 portrait by Rafaello and Leonardo Loredan (1436-1521), the Doge of Venice in a portrait of 1501 by Bellini

Meanwhile, Pope Julius II was more and more concerned with curbing the territorial expansion of the Republic of Venice, and in 1508 formed the League of Cambrai, in which France, the Papacy, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire agreed to restrain the Venetians.

Although the League destroyed much of the Venetian army at the battle of Agnadello in 1509, it failed to capture Padua, and in 1510, Julius II, now regarding France as a greater threat, left the League and allied himself with Venice. Following a year of fighting over the Romagna, during which the Veneto-Papal alliance was repeatedly defeated, the Pope proclaimed a Holy League against the French which rapidly grew to include England, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire.

French forces under Gaston de Foix, the successor to Charles d’Amboise at the head of the Duchy of Milan, inflicted an overwhelming defeat on the Spanish army at the Battle of Ravenna in 1512. However, De Foix was killed during the battle and the French were forced to withdraw from Italy again. The Swiss, under the leadership of the Cardinal of Sion descended toward Milan and, after a short siege, captured Milan and, so to redeem their treason against Ludovico, placed Ercole Massimiliano Sforza, his son, on the ducal throne.


Paintings showing the death of the 23 years old Gaston de Foix (1489-1512) in Ravenna when, after the victorious battle, he continued to pursue fleeing Spanish troops and Massimiliano Sforza (1493-1530), son of Ludovico il Moro and Beatrice d’Este

The Holy League, left victorious, fell apart over the subject of dividing the spoils, and in 1513 Venice allied with France, agreeing to partition Lombardy between them.

Louis XII mounted another invasion of Milan, but was defeated at the battle of Novara, which was quickly followed by a series of Holy League victories at La Motta, Guinegate, and Flodden Field, in which the French, Venetian, and Scottish forces were decisively defeated. However, the death of Julius II left the League without effective leadership, and when Louis' successor, Francois I, defeated the Swiss at Marignano in 1515, the League collapsed, and by the treaties of Noyon and Brussels, surrendered to France and Venice the entirety of northern Italy. Milan came once more under French Rule and Ercole Massimiliano Sforza withdrew to Paris, helped by a generous yearly allowance of 30,000 ducats.

The religious tensions caused by the Reformation and Inquisition were increasing also in the Duchy and in 1514, in Como just north of Milan, 300 women from the surrounding alpine valleys where indicted as witches and condemned to be burned at the stake. This was followed by the burning of seven Protestant heretics in 1518 in Milan and of Simona Ostera of Porta Comasina, the neighborhood where the Miserioni’s had their workshops in 1519.

The year 1519 saw also, just 26 years after being brought back from the Antilles by Christopher Colombo, the first planting in the Duchy of Milan of granoturco, corn or Turkish Grain, a connotation given to everything exotic coming to Europe in these times.


Portrait of François I (1494-1547), King of France and host of da Vinci in his castle of Amboise, and an illuminure showing his victorious battle of Marignano in 1515 against the Swiss mercenary soldiers on the right

The coronation of Karl V of Spain to Holy Roman Emperor, a position that Francois I had desired, led to a collapse of the relations between France and the Habsburgs. In 1519, a Spanish invasion of Navarre, nominally a French fief, provided Francois I with a pretext for starting a general war. French forces flooded into Italy and began a campaign to drive Karl V from Naples. The French were however outmatched by the Spanish arquebusiers tactics and suffered a series of crippling defeats at Bicocca and Sesia against Imperial troops under Prospero Colonna and Fernando de Avalos.

In 1524, amid military turmoil, a four year epidemic of the plague, aptly called La Peste di Carlo V, hit Milan this time, leaving nearly 22,000 people dead.

King Francois I personally led a French army into Lombardy in 1525, only to be defeated and captured at the battle of Pavia. Imprisoned in Madrid, Francois I was forced to agree to extensive concessions over his Italian territories. Karl V and Pope Clemente VII sealed an Eternal Alliance on April 1, 1525, to defend the new Duke of Milan Francesco II Sforza, son of Ludovico. However already on November 2 of the same year Francesco II Sforza was accused of treason against Karl V and, under pressure from the Spanish troops under the order of Ferdinando Francesco d’Avalos, took refuge in the Castello Sforzesco where he held out until July the following year, when once again alliances where switched.


Tapestry made by Jan van Orley in 1531 by depicting the Battle of Pavia

In 1526 Pope Clement VII, alarmed at the growing power of the Empire, formed the League of Cognac against Karl V and gave his support to France in an attempt to alter the balance of power in the region and free the Papacy from what many considered to be Imperial domination by the Holy Roman Empire. In 1527 the army of the Holy Roman Emperor defeated the French army in Pavia in northern Italy, but not enough funds were available to pay the soldiers. The 35,000 Imperial troops mutinied and forced their new commander, Charles III Duke of Bourbon, and turned against Francois I because of a long standing dispute about confiscated estates, to lead them towards Rome. Apart from some 6,000 Spaniards under the Duke, the army included some 14,000 Landsknechts of Georg von Frundsberg, Italian infantry led by Fabrizio Maramaldo, Sciarra Colonna and Luigi Gonzaga, and some cavalry under Ferdinando Gonzaga and Philibert, Prince of Chalons.

The troops defending Rome were not at all numerous, consisting of 5,000 militiamen led by Renzo da Ceri and the Papal Swiss Guards. The city's fortifications included massive walls and possessed a good artillery force, which the Imperial army lacked. Duke Charles needed to conquer the city hastily, to avoid the risk of being trapped between the besieged city and the League's army.


Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) and his Swiss guards which, since January 22nd 1506 assure the protection of the pope

On May 6, the Imperial army attacked the walls at the Gianicolo and Vatican Hills. Duke Charles was fatally wounded in the assault, allegedly shot by Benvenuto Cellini, the famous sculptor and goldsmith. The death of the last respected command authority among the army caused any restraint in the soldiers to disappear, and they easily captured the walls of Rome the same day. One of the Swiss Guard's most notable hours occurred at this time. Almost the entire guard was massacred by Imperial troops on the steps of St Peter's Basilica. Of 189 guards on duty only 42 survived, but their bravery ensured that Clement VII escaped to safety, down the passetto di Borgo, a secret sur-elevated passage leading from the Vatican into the Castel Sant’Angelo.


Portrait of Emperor Karl V (1500-1558) painted in 1548 by Titian and Castello Sant’Angelo in Rome where Pope Clement VII took refuge

Karl V was greatly embarrassed and powerless to stop his troops, but he was not displeased by the fact that they had struck decisively against Pope Clement and imprisoned him. Clement VII was to spend the rest of his life trying to avoid further conflicts with Karl V. Under this pressure he took no decisions that could displease the Emperor and therefore did not grant Henry VIII of England an annulment of his marriage with Catharine of Aragon, which was Karl V aunt precipitating the scission of the Church of England from Rome.

This new Fall of Rome marked the end of the Roman Renaissance, damaged the papacy's prestige and freed Karl V hands to act against the Reformation in Germany

With the conclusion of the Treaty of Cambrai, which formally removed Francois I from the war, the League collapsed; Venice made peace with Karl V, while Florence was placed again under the rule of the Medici’s.

Karl V, pursuing Habsburg matrimonial politics continued to weave dynastic links through Europe and arranged in 1533 the marriage, by procurement, of his niece, the 13 year old Christina of Denmark to Francesco II Sforza.


The last Sforza Duke of Milan, Francesco II (1495-1535) and his wife Christina of Denmark (1522-1590), a niece of Emperor Karl V

Marriages by per procurationem were quiet frequent in these times when the noble groom could not or did not want to leave his castle or hometown and travel over uncertain roads across the European continent to meet his bride. A frequent task of painters and engravers of cameos of these times was to prepare miniature portraits of prospective brides so that the groom was able to get a glimpse of physical aspect the potential future-to-be and make a selection, if still possible. For the marriage proper the groom then sends a person of his trust to the ceremony. The envoy, in this case Count Stampa, meets in front of the parents, assembled notables and guests the bride who is waiting in a bed, bares his right leg and inserts it below the bed sheets thus officially and legally consuming the marriage. The two newlyweds met de visu quiet often only many years later.

The inconclusive third war between Karl V and Francois I began with the death of Francesco II Sforza, the duke of Milan in 1535. When Karl V son Philipp II or Felipe II of Spain inherited the duchy, Francois I invaded Italy again, capturing Turin, but failed to take Milan. In response, Karl V invaded Provence by advancing to Aix-en-Provence, but withdrew to Spain rather than attacking the heavily fortified Avignon. The Truce of Nice ended the war, leaving Turin in French hands but effecting no significant change in the map of Italy.

Notwithstanding wars and the Black Death, the population of Milan reached again 79.000 souls in 1542. On the 21st of July of the same year a fire in the house of an artisan making black powder near Porta Comasina, the quarter of Miseroni, caused a tremendous explosion with several nearby houses destroyed and resulting in numerous deaths and wounded. On the 21st of October a supposed witch, Lucia from Lissone, was burned in St. Eustrogio. Lissone was the village where apparently the Miseroni’s came from as Ottavio, ennobled by Rudolf II in Prague took up the reference of Lis(s)one in his name.


The 1572 map view, at eight o’clock, and an actual view of the Church dedicated to St. Eustorgio which brought the reliquaries of the three Magi’s to Milan. The Inquisition tribunal was located in its cloister conveniently located close to the grounds where capital punishments were then carried out

In 1543 Francois I, allying himself with Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire, launched an attack on Nice which was then part of the Duchy of Savoy. A Franco-Ottoman fleet of 140 galleys captured the city of Nice in August 1543, and laid siege to the citadel. The defenders however resisted and the assailants had to leave precipitously when troops of Karl V approached. The French, under François de Vendome, Count d'Enghien, defeated an Imperial army at the Battle of Ceresole or of the Great Slaughter in 1544. But Karl V and Henry VIII of England had started to invade northern France, seizing Boulogne and Soissons so that François de Vendome was forced to send twenty-three companies of Italian and Gascon infantry and nearly half his heavy cavalry, to Picardy and thus was unable to capture Milan. A lack of cooperation between the Imperial and English armies, coupled with increasingly aggressive Ottoman attacks, led Karl V to abandon these conquests, restoring the status quo once again.


Francois I, King of France in a 1524 painting by Jean Clouet and his ally against Karl V, Suleiman I the Great (1494-1566) and Sultan of Constantinople

With the peace of Crespy-en-Laonnois in 1544 between Francois I and Karl V, the latter is forced to cede to France and the Duke Charles de Orleans, son of Francois I, either the Flanders or the Duchy of Milan. Karl V decided to cede Milan but the following year Charles de Orleans died and the transfer of sovereignty never happens.

In 1545 Karl V institutes his son Felipe II as the future ruler of Duchy of Milan. Felipe II makes his triumphal entry in Milan only three years later in 1548.


King Henri II of France (1519-1559) and his enemy and future son-in-law, Felipe II of Spain (1527-1598)

In 1551, Henry II of France, who had succeeded Francois I to the throne, declared war against Karl V with the intent of recapturing Italy and ensuring French, rather than Habsburg domination of European affairs. An early offensive in the Lorraine was successful with the capture of the three episcopal cities of Metz, Toul, and Verdun, but the attempt to assist Siena against Cosimo I de Medici of Florence and ally of Karl V in 1553, resulted in a defeat in the Battle of Marciano della Chiana at the cost of about 4,000 lives.


The Battle of Scannagallo or Marciano, a painting by Giorgio Vasari, in the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence


The bronze statue of Karl V with the theme The Rage dominated by Caesar's valour cast by Leone Leoni in 1553 in Milan and now in the El Prado Museum in Spain and the painted bronze bust of Felipe II made by his son Pompeo Leoni

In 1552, the future Governor of the Low Countries, Ferdinando Alvarez de Toledo and Duke of Alba was entrusted with the command of the army intended to invade France and for several months laid an unsuccessful siege of Metz. As consequence of the success of the French arms in Piedmont, he was hastily made in 1555 commander-in-chief of all the emperor's forces in Italy and nominated Governor of Milan with unlimited executive powers. After the abdication of Karl V he was confirmed in this position by Philip II, who however restrained him from extreme measures and instructed Alba, which in the meantime had subdued the whole Campagna and was at the gates of Rome, to negotiate pace.

Karl V abdication in 1556 split the Habsburg Empire between Felipe II of Spain and Ferdinand I of Austria and shifted the focus of the war to the Flanders, where Felipe II, in conjunction with Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, defeated the French at St. Quentin. England's entry into the war later that year led to the French capture of Calais and the plunder of the Spanish possessions in the Low Countries. Henry II was nonetheless forced to accept the Peace of Chateau-Cambrésis in 1559 in which he renounced any further claims to Milan and Naples.

These interventions consolidated the Spanish domination of the Duchy of Milan until 1714 when, with Treaty of Rastatt, the Spanish Succession Wars came to and end and Milan became a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

In 1559 the first Post Office opened in Milan and three years later, Giuseppe Archimboldo, which we then find later in Vienna and Prague, was working with his father Biagio on the design the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Milan, il Duomo, which construction had started in 1387 and was laboriously finished only 426 years later in 1813. This phase of stained window making continued until 1569 when the famous Glassmaking Master Corrado Mochis from Cologne, in charge of the activity, died in an accidental fire of his workshop.


Map of Milan from 1572 with la Porta Comasina and Miseroni’s quarters roughly at one o’clock


The Cathedral of Milano and one of its stained glass polychromic windows showing Saint Catharina of Alexandria carried to Heaven by the Angels. This is one of the many panes designed by Giuseppe Archimboldo which we find then later in Prague

In July 1576, near Miserioni’s workshop at Porta Comasina, a renewed outbreak of the Black Death, the bubonic plague was reported. This plague is called that of San Carlo, for Bishop Cardinal Carlo Borromeo of Milan active during the period and later declared a saint.


The deadly link - Yersinia Pestis, the plague causing bacterium; the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopsis, the transmitting agent; the black rat Rattus Rattus, the host and an outbreak of plague with the typical black necrosis in humans

When processions with reliquaries, religious services and promises to rebuild churches, if the pest would abate, were without effects, the Milanese population was given 15 days to amass foodstuffs and then was consigned at home, in quarantine, from the 29th of October until the end of January 1577 with further travel restrictions lasting until Easter. The necessary sanitary service during this period was assured by the Capuchin Friars in the 300 bed Lazaretto outside the Porta Orientale. With this drastic measure of restriction of movement, the number of deaths was held to around 17.000 deaths. Milan was declared free of the disease only in July of 1577 and quickly recovered with its population hitting again 106.00 inhabitants in 1580. One of the most prominent victims of the plague of 1576 was Titian which died on the 27th of August, at an age of 99 years, in Venice. The expenses incurred by the Government of Milan to support the population with food and temporary shelter during this period amounted to 192.667 Scudi or the equivalent of 675 kilos of gold. As Felipe II and the Kingdom of Spain was declared bankrupt for the third time, all of these funds had to be raised locally by emptying the government treasury, donations, sales of Church properties and by pawning future tax incomes such as for example the tax on wine!


The typical layout of a lazaretto for plague victims with Capuchin Friars catering for the sick in Vienna and in Milan, near the Porta Orientale just outside the walls of Renaissance Milan (middle). The octagonal San Carlo chapel in the centre of the Lazaretto, now completely surrounded by buildings, is all what is left today

In 1581 we have a report that Margherita, the first daughter of Annibale Fontana and Ippolita Saracchi of the famous Goldsmiths and Stone Carver family, contemporary of the Miseroni’s and residing in San Pietro in Campo, is baptized.

The cultural and architectural life of Milan was strongly influenced in these times by the Frederico Borromeo, scion of a famous Milanese Merchant family, archbishop and cardinal of Milan. Next to initiating the building and renovation of many churches he also build the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana doting it at its inauguration in 1609 with over 12000 manuscripts and 30.000 prints he had collected during his stay in Rome. The site was later expanded to make place for the Pinacoteca to house the statues and paintings also collected by the Cardinal.

The Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition were, encouraged by Felipe II of Spain, also quite active in his Italian territories. Friar Agostino Galamini da Bresighella was in these times his inquisitore generale presiding the Santo Tribunale della Inquisizione on the grounds of the Cloister of S.Eustorgio near Porta Ticinese.

In 1611 a supposed witch, Antonia de Santini, was burned on the stake nearby. A few days later the governor of Milan, Juan de Velasco, send a letter to Francesco de Castro, ambassador of Spain in the Vatican, in which he complained bitterly about the slowness of the Inquisition against witches and describes the very grave situation in Milan apparently overrun by them and other malefic persons! He also approved a project to buy the Torre del Imperatore to house them before their process. As the burning became quite a sought after spectacle, the executions were carried out later-on on a specially made raised platform, a baltresca, so that more people could witness the strangulation of the person before the actual burning on the stake took place.


The Inquisition resulting in frequent executions of women as witches by strangulation and subsequent burning on a pyre

The last two women condemned for witchcraft in Milan where Anna Maria Pamolea, and her servant Margarita Martignona in 1641. The condemnations and executions for witchcraft continued however in the nearby alpine valleys until 1721.

After a period of intense economic activity in Milan from 1613 to 1619, the economy sled into a depression lasting until about 1660. This economic downturn was due in large part of the havoc the Thirty Year War was causing in one of Milan export markets, the Holy Roman Empire coupled with the decline of the political and military might of Spain and of a new and particularly severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in Northern Italy.

This epidemic, often referred to as the Great Plague of Milan was the last and most severe of the outbreaks of bubonic plague that began, when in October, 1347, the Black Death reached for first time European shores in Messina on the Island of Sicily.

The plague came, in this1629 outbreak, with the troops the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II and Louis XIII of France had send over the Alps to fight for the dynastic supremacy over the Monferrato part of the Duchy of Mantova.

On October 22nd 1629, the plague reached the town of Milan again via the Porta Comasina when a Pietro Antonio Lovato, from the parish of S.Babila in Milan, came back to his house and family from the countryside where he had collected or bartered many used cloths from the Imperial soldiers. These were evidently ridden with rat fleas which, when carrying the pest bacteria, become extremely aggressive. The pest bacteria clog the esophagus of the flea preventing the sucked blood to reach its stomach and thus making it extremely hungry. As a result the flea moves in quick succession from one warm blooded animal or human to the next injecting at every bite plague bacteria into the blood stream of the victim.

Pietro Antonio Lovato fell ill within three days of his return, recovered in the Ospedale Maggiore, then died two days later. On his body the barber (at these times also involved in small chirurgical and medical acts) and the chief sanitary officer of the lazaretto discovered many swellings on his left arm and in his armpit i.e. the formation of sores and swellings of lymph nodes typical of the bubonic plague. His family was also immediately quarantined and his house furnishings burned. The city imposed strict public health measures including quarantine, quite effective in 1576, limited travel to the countryside, forbade any access of Imperial soldiers to the town and the importation of goods to the city proper. With these measures and with the help of the cold winter further cases of the plague in the town were prevented. The plague continued however to smolder in the countryside. The major outbreak happened in Milan in February 1630 and was probably facilitated by relaxed health measures during the carnival season and the public festivities held for the celebration the birth of the heir to the Spanish throne, Baltasar Carlos Prince of the Asturias and son of Philipp IV king of Spain on the 17th of October of the previous year. In June 20th 1630, 158 persons died, on a single day, from the plague. The social and commercial tissue within the town quickly broke down, and even the undertakers, the monatti, decimated by the plague became so few that many corpses, a number of 4000 is mentioned, were left unburied in houses and roads and those collected, hastily buried in mass graves outside the town without any funerary service. Due to the then unknown vector of the disease any suspiciously acting person was arrested and accused to be an untore or a an applier of ointments spreading the disease by applying mysterious greases on doors or houses.

This witch-hunt resulted in the well documented arrest on the 21st of June 1630 of Giuglielmo Piazza, a health inspector who was meticulously checking houses for cases of disease. His frequent halts at houses, verifying and rattling at doors and windows raised suspicions and he was arrested as untore. On the 26th after 5 days of torture he confessed (to escape more pain) that he had received the poison, a yellow green paste like frozen oil in the winter, from a barber which he knew only by his first name, a certain Giovanni Giacomo. This barber had approached him and offered him rewards if he would spread this ointment in the neighborhood which he then did on few houses. The barber was quickly identified as Gian Giacomo Mora and arrested.

Indeed small glass vials with an ointment were found in his shop. He however explained that he was preparing this liquid, clandestinely, as a remedy against the plague and that the large vessel with a greasy residue found in his Courtyard was the remainder of soap which he had made to wash bandages and towels he used for his customers. He even revealed the exact composition of the ointment as being a mixture of olive, laurel and stone oil with wax, rosmarine, juniper and sage the other components but to no avail, a responsible for the spreading of the plague had to be found. Under further torture both men accused each other and further persons in high places with their names conveniently suggested by the judges. In the ensuing process both men were condemned to death at the end of July and the sentence carried out on August 1st.On the way two the execution place they were first whipped copiously, strapped back to back on a carriage drawn by oxen and then paraded through many neighborhoods of which also that of the Miseroni’s.


Contemporary print showing the ox cart with the health inspector Giuglielmo Piazza and the barber Gian Giacomo Mora, tied back to back, in front of the barbers shop where their right hand was chopped off en route to their place of execution on Piazza Vetra

When procession arrived at the doors of the shop of the barber they had their right hand chopped off. The procession continued then to the execution grounds near S. Eustorgio and S. Lorenzo, the actual Piazza della Vetra, where they had all their bones broken with a wheel a common capital punishment of these times. With all bones in their members broken they were then “woven” onto the wheel and left agonizing for six hours before their jugular was cut, their body burnt in a pyre and the ashes thrown in a nearby Vetra river. Subsequently the house of the barber was razed and, as warning, a granite stele erected at its place. A plaque, narrating their apparent misdeeds was affixed on the house apposite. This stele, having become the symbol of an evident judicial error, was removed only in 1778 after a prolonged administrative tug of war between the new Austrian administration and the Senate of Milan. The latter was concerned that its removal would confirm the judicial error the Senate had approved about 150 years earlier. The plaque has been salvaged and is now affixed in the Rocchetta Courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco.


The view of San Lorenzo and Piazza Vetra in 1790 and the execution by cudgeling to death or by being broken on the wheel

By the end of the summer 1630, the number of inhabitants of Milan was reduced from about 200,000 to barely 50,000 with many houses, shops and palaces deserted and abandoned. This decrease of population was also aggravated by the fact that whoever had enough fortunes or had secondary residences in the surrounding of Milan, took refuge there, following in this way also the Spanish Administration who set up their temporary offices in the nearby town of Vigevano. This outbreak was followed by a second wave in the spring and summer of 1631. Overall, Milan and its immediate surroundings suffered approximately 180,000 fatalities.

In this fateful year the output from the Miseroni workshop in Milan suddenly ceased and two year later no Miseroni was not anymore listed in the parochial registers in Milan indicating that they have probably also been victims of the Black Death.

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Reader Comments (4)

When processions with reliquaries, religious services and promises to rebuild churches, if the pest would abate, were without effects, the Milanese population was given 15 days to amass foodstuffs and then was consigned at home, in quarantine, from the 29th of October until the end of January 1577 with further travel restrictions lasting until Easter.
May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBathroom Sheffield
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October 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermickmbs
this is very helpful info. of history
November 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjeremy grice
These pictures show the culture of some old community. These are necessary things which tells about the history.
April 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjomthomas101

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