War & Peace: Art in Ducal Milan

Written by Joshua Al-Najar.

Art was a key tool for renaissance cities to disseminate ideas and fashion an identity in a pluralistic, competitive society. Scholarship has tended to focus on the programmes undertaken in republics, such as Florence and Venice – perhaps less considered is how dynastic systems were able to deploy the Renaissance’s lessons in the form of state art. One prominent example is Milan, a duchy, where humanism, classical learning and heritage guided the patronage of art to strengthen the authority of the ruling duke. This was a response to the perceived vulnerabilities of this approach to rule. 

Authority and status were conveyed using classical learning in the art of ducal Milan with deeply distinct motives. Where republican regimes used themes tied to civic humanism, the Dukes of Milan deployed the lessons of antiquity in the creation of ‘renaissance magnificence’. This concept was ultimately rooted in individualistic veneration and regarded the act of conspicuous spending on elaborate works as a display of virtue; as such, patronage of sumptuous artworks could be used to the heighten the status of the individual patron, as well as being considered to ‘better’ the city generally. Jane Black identifies the root of this rationale in the neo-Platonic tradition, where outward beauty was thought to reflect inward virtue. This concept could be suited to regimes such as the Duchy of Milan, where power was concentrated in an individual, dynastic ruler, rather than a faceless office.

Louis Green diverts from the work of Black, by suggesting that the emergence of renaissance magnificence was not linked to the typically accepted neo-Platonic tradition. Instead, he points to a political, Aristotelian-style explanation as demonstrated by Azzone Viscont’s attempts to display authority in 14th century Milan. Azzone, one of the last tyrant strongmen, had rapidly assembled a series of territories in northern Italy that lacked cultural continuity; one method by which this could be achieved was a programme of artistic works that centred around Visconti’s unifying role as ruler, and patron. The success of Visconti’s magnificence was memorialised by his theological adviser, Galvano Fiamma, who recorded in his Opusculum de rebus gestis ab azone, Luchino et Johanne Viceomitibus (1334-5) that:

Azzo Visconti, considering himself to have made peace with the church and to be freed from all his enemies, resolved in his heartto make his house glorious, for the Philosopher says in the fourth book of the Ethics, that it is a work of magnificence to construct a dignified house.

Fiamma clearly outlines the political advantages to a ruler who was willing to invest in lavish surroundings. In addition, his reference to Aristotle’s Ethics mounts support for the explanation of magnificence advised by Green.

Visconti put renaissance magnificence into practice, as he embarked upon an extensive programme of artistic patronage that celebrated the Duke on an individual basis. As part of the rejuvenation, the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin was renovated in gold and blue enamel detailing, as well as an enormous, elaborate tomb for himself (Fig. I). However, it was in the secular space of the Ducal Palace that Visconti sought to heighten his status in overt terms.  In the main hall of the re-purposed Palazzo del Broletto Vecchio, Visconti commissioned a series of paintings – of which no extant examples survive – that are believed to have been the work of Giotto di Bondone. The works are thematically linked to concepts of war, strength and military success; these would have been ideal themes for a strong-arm ruler, such as Visconti, to emphasise in artistic works. Personally, Visconti had numerous military successes, and had regained many territories that his grandfather Matteo I Visconti had lost in the Late-Mediaeval period. Therefore, pictorial references to war would have reminded beholders of Azzone’s numerous successes.  Visconti appears physically in the painting too, alongside historical nation-builders, such as Charlemagne and Aeneas. By juxtaposing himself with the legendary Trojan, Visconti incorporates himself into the ranks of an ancient, heroic tradition as well as displaying the classical refinement of his court. 

This process continued under the patronage of Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-76), who embellished his own personal status in the renovation of the Castello di Pavia. Though it would later be destroyed by the French in the early 16th century, numerous literary records attest to the various paintings that adorned the castle. Stefano Breventano, a Milanese chronicler, recorded that the palace was ‘the loveliest building that could be seen in those days’. A series of frescoes designed for the galleries of the Piano Nobile show conformity with typical, princely activity: the Duke taking petitioners; the duke and duchess engaging in falconry; and lastly, the duke effortlessly killing a stag during a hunt. The last of these scenes demonstrate the Duke’s engagement with what would later be called sprezzatura, by Baldissare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528). The duke’s effortless demeanour whilst showing great skill is an attempt to convince the beholder of his individual supremacy.

However, behind this veneer of princely status was an unpopular, tentative leader. Galeazzo Maria Sforza had shown little authority within diplomatic and military spheres, and thus, attempted to create a commanding figure in visual art. Sforza attempted to assert his authority and amplify his status by giving his rule a veneer of legitimacy; technically, the Sforzas had conquered Milan in the 1450s. In his attempts to legitimise his regime, Sforza tried to provide visual links to the preceding Visconti line.

Unlike at Venice, where historical reference was made to the city’s achievements as a whole, Sforza continued the artistic legacy of the Viscontis in an attempt at dynastic continuity. This attempt is reflected in a letter from the Ducal secretary, Cicco Simmonetta dated from August 1469, that details a number of restorative works to be undertaken by Bonifacio Bembo. Cicco commented on the ‘maintenance of the old paintings’, as Bembo was instructed to carefully conserve the decorative panels from the era of the Visconti (Fig. II). This included numerous tissone, with a flaming branch and bucket that had served as an emblem for Filippo Maria Visconti – who happened to be Sforza’s maternal grandfather. Evelyn Welch has suggested that Sforza sought to extol his links to the previous regime by carefully conserving its symbols and iconography. The tisonne was incorporated into the decoration of the ducal apartments. Welch understates the significance of this move – in this period, nominally private rooms such as bedrooms would have essentially functioned as public spaces, receiving petitioners and housing illustrious guests. Therefore, providing pictorial reference to these links would aid in the transition of power to the Sforza regime and make up for deficiencies elsewhere. Sforza juxtaposed these images with that of his personal court, in an attempt to bond the two. Ultimately, Sforza’s attempt to generate authority through artistic continuity failed: Breventano remarked that he was a “lustful, unpopular duke” which may go some way in explaining his assassination in 1476 by a group of Milanese officials.

Milan was a city where heritage, antiquity and mythmaking were crucial in artistic patronage. Ultimately, this was geared towards the specific anxieties that accompanied a dynastic regime, where power was concentrated in the individual.


A black and white photo of a building

Description automatically generated
Figure I : Reconstruction of the Tomb of Azzone Visconti by G. Giulini.

A double photo of a building

Description automatically generated
Figure II: Restored section of decorative panels (1468-9), Castello di Pavia, Pavia.

Source: Green, L., ʻGalvano Fiamma, Azzone Visconti and the Revival of the Classical Theory of Magnificenceʼ, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 53 (1990), 10.

Source: Evelyn Samuels Welch, ʻGaleazzo Maria Sforza and the Castello di Pavia, 1469ʼ, Art Bulletin, 71 (1989), 361. 


Black, Jane. Absolutism in Renaissance Milan : Plenitude of Power under the Visconti and the Sforza, 1329-1535. Oxford, [England] ; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Dooley, Brendan. “M Onica A Zzolini . The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan.” The American Historical Review 119, no. 3 (2014): 1004-005.

Green, L., ʻGalvano Fiamma, Azzone Visconti and the Revival of the Classical Theory of Magnificenceʼ, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 53 (1990).

Norbert Hulse & Wolfgang Wolters, The Art of Renaissance Venicearchitecture, sculpture and painting (1990).

Richardson, Carol M., and Open University. Locating Renaissance Art. Renaissance Art Reconsidered; v. 2. New Haven [Conn.] ; London: Yale University Press in Association with The Open University, 2007.

Ruggiero, Guido, and Wiley InterScience. A Companion to the Worlds of the Renaissance. Blackwell Companions to History. Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2007.

Evelyn Samuels Welch, ʻGaleazzo Maria Sforza and the Castello di Pavia, 1469ʼ, Art Bulletin, 71 (1989), pp. 352-75.

Welch, Evelyn S. Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1995.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: