Within the notorious Visconti family, the brothers Giovanni Maria (1388-1412) and Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447) stood out for their cruelty. Giovanni Maria didn’t interfere in state affairs, as long as he could let his ferocious dogs take care of criminals. His fits of temper often resulted in mass executions. Filippo Maria, on the other hand, screamed with terror at the sight of a bare sword. He was pathologically suspicious.

Filippo Maria was born in Milan on September 23, 1392 as the youngest son of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402) and Caterina Visconti (±1360-1404, to the right). His parents were first cousins; Caterina was a daughter of Gian Galeazzo’s uncle Barnabo Visconti (±1323-1385). The marriage had united the Visconti lands.
Filippo was 10 year old, when his father died of the plague, and his elder brother, Giovanni Maria, became Duke of Milan. The regency was headed by their mother, Caterina1. One of the members of the regency council, Francesco Barbavara of Novara, became Caterina’s lover, but the other members of the council didn’t appreciate their relationship. In 1404, a revolt broke out and the two brothers were seized. Their mother was imprisoned and poisoned. Afterwards, the condottieri Facino Cane (±1350-1412) became regent. He used to keep his troops loyal by allowing them pillage and rapine.

As long as Giovanni Maria (to the right) kept his nose out of state affairs, he could do what he liked with prisoners of the state. Like his maternal grandfather, Giovanni Maria loved dogs and the chase. One of his delights was to throw state criminals - even children - to dogs, that were especially trained to tear them into bits and eat their flesh. The accused was given a few minutes head-start, and a promise of freedom should he escape, but nobody ever escaped. It was even rumoured that Giovanni Maria took out a few dogs in the dark of night to hunt down stray wanderers in the streets of Milan. Giovanni Maria was very impatient and, during in his reign, executions became hurried affairs. His fits of temper often resulted in mass executions. Once, when the people of Milan were outside the palace yelling “peace, peace”, he sent out his mercenaries to slaughter a couple of hundred of them. Subsequently, the words “war” and “peace”2 were forbidden. Giovanni Maria even changed the church service from “give us peace” to “give us tranquillity”.

As a younger son, Filippo Maria was send to the castle of Padua. As he grew up, he became a nervous and superstitious young man. His youthful pastimes were football and volleyball, dice, chess and the Homeric game of knucklebones. Cards were his great love.

wife Beatrice di Tenda In the spring of 1412, the regent, Facino Cane, was struck with a fatal illness. On May 16, Giovanni Maria was stabbed to death at the door of a church. Francesco “Carmagnola” Bussone (±1385-1432), a condottieri, secured the duchy of Milan for 19-year-old Filippo Maria. One of Filippo Maria's first acts as Duke was to have his brother’s murderers tortured and executed. To acquire Facino Cane’s fortune, Filippo Maria married his widow, Beatrice Balbo Lascaris of Tenda (1372-1418, to the right), who was more than 10 years his senior. Soon, however, Filippo tired of his elder wife. When a page was said to have been sitting near his wife’s bed, the Duke had both the page and his wife tortured. The page, Michele Orombello, confessed, but Beatrice protested her innocence to the end. Nevertheless, Filippo declared her guilty and had her and her maids executed. In 1425, Filippo’s mistress, Agnese del Maino, gave birth to a daughter, Bianca Maria. Two years later, Filippo married Maria of Savoy (†1469). When a dog howled during their wedding night, Filippo had Maria imprisoned.

Filippo Maria lived in seclusion in the red fortress of Porta Giovia in Milan, refusing to receive visitors. He even refused to see the Emperor Sigismond on his visit to Milan. Dreading death, Filippo screamed with terror at the sight of a bare sword. Like his father, Filippo was terrified of thunderstorms and used to hide from them under bedclothes. He used to change rooms several times a night and always slept sideways across the bed. Filippo was cruel, treacherous, cowardly, shy and superstitious. He is described as “repulsively ugly and grossly fat” with a receding chin, snub nose, a bull neck and deformed feet and legs. He had to lean on a staff or page to rise from his seat. Despite his protruding eyes, Filippo Maria was nearly blind.

Filippo Maria reigned successfully for 30 years. He once said: “I care less for my body than my soul, but I put my government before body or soul.”  He employed the best generals and waged many successful wars, without ever seeing a battle. Carmagnola defeated the Swiss in 1422. Subsequently, the harbour of Genoa was conquered. In 1435, the Genoese fleet captured King Alfonso of Aragon and Sicily (1394-1458) and his brother. Filippo received them courteously in Milan. He arranged that their captivity was a pleasant one and saw much of them. Soon, Alfonso managed to convince him that they could better be allies. Filippo Maria released his prisoner and returned his ships to him. Daughter Bianca Maria Visconti

Francisco Sforza (1401-1466), one of the greatest condottieri of his time, fought for Milan in the Romagna. In the period 1428-30, he had been imprisoned by Filippo, but in 1433 they reconciled and Francisco3 was engaged to Filippo’s 8-year-old daughter, Bianca Maria. Filippo postponed the marriage, because he feared Sforza’s ambition. Although Sforza was more than 20 years her senior, Bianca Maria (to the right) refused 2 other offers of marriage, because she preferred Francisco. His charm was great, and his eloquence and powers of persuasion were proverbial. They were finally married in October 14414. Two years later, Bianca Maria gave birth to a son, called Galeazzo Maria (1444-1476)5 on Filippo Maria’s request.

On August 13, 1447, Filippo died of a combination of malaria and dysentery in his castle of Zobbia. So seldom was Filippo Maria seen by the people of Milan, that when his body was brought to the city for the funeral, the crowds gathered to see what the tyrant had looked like. He hadn’t arranged the succession and left no will, but his son-in-law, Francesco Sforza, conquered the Duchy of Milan in 1450.

Copyright © 2008 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.


1 The regency included Caterina Visconti, Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua, Pandolfo Malatesta and others.
2 In Italian: “pace” and “querra”.
3 Sforza’s first wife, Polissena Ruffo (†1420), had died after 2 years of marriage.
4 Both Bianca Maria and Francisco Sforza were born out of wedlock.
5 Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476) enjoyed torturing and mutilating with his own hands. Once, he had one of his favourites nailed up inside a chest and sat down listening to the dying man’s moans.


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