Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty-One


The House of Visconti and the Papal States

Between 1368 and 1390, the pope tries to return to Rome, the Viscontis fight to claim the north of Italy, and the papacy divides

POPE URBAN V had returned to Rome, but a single year in the Eternal City had given him a deep appreciation for Avignon.

Italy was seething. South of the Papal States, the Kingdom of Naples was friendly to the pope, but torn by palace intrigues and an ongoing feud with Sicily. The Papal States themselves had been without a head for sixty-five years, ever since the papacy had removed itself to Avignon; the cities within the Papal States were ruling themselves. Control of Rome itself had seesawed violently between Senate and various competing aristocratic families. In the north, the Lombard cities had reverted to their old independent ways, with little interference from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Charles was far more interested in Germany than in the old regnum Italicum of the empire; when he had gone to Rome for his own coronation, he had arrived in the morning, been crowned, and then left without even spending the night in the city.1

In this vacuum, the House of Visconti had expanded.

The Visconti family had begun its rise to power in Milan seven decades before, when the Archbishop of Milan, Ottone Visconti, had maneuvered his nephew Matteo into Milan’s secular government as Captain of the People, leader and spokesman for the merchants and craftsmen. Thirty years later, the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV had appointed Matteo’s grandson Perpetual Lord of Milan, and since then, the House of Visconti had dominated Milan’s politics.2

Milan had also spread its reach outward, claiming to rule the nearby cities of Pavia and Genoa (among others). In 1356, the two brothers Giovanni and Bernabò Visconti had divided the Milanese territory between them; Giovanni was ruling from Milan, Bernabò from the city of Bologna, which he had seized from the Papal States.

Bernabò was a fearsome opponent: a notorious libertine, father of seventeen legitimate and some twenty illegitimate children; an enthusiastic hunter who kept five thousand hunting dogs; a cruel and capricious ruler who had once ordered a deer poacher thrown into his dog kennel to be eaten, and who had executed a young man for confessing that he had “dreamed” of killing one of his master’s game boars. Urban V had excommunicated the Visconti tyrant for his trespass into the Papal States, sending two papal legates with a bull of excommunication to Bologna to confront Bernabò in person. Bernabò had listened, and then had forced the legates to eat the bull—parchment, silk ribbons, lead seals and all. Urban protested; Bernabò retorted, “I would have you know that I am pope, emperor and king in my own domains. God Himself cannot do here what is contrary to my will.”3

That level of defiance was a little over Urban V’s head, and so he appealed to emperor Charles IV, hoping that Charles would provide him with the actual force necessary to drive the man out.

Charles IV agreed, entering Italy in May of 1368 and marching on Milan. Although he was not popular in Italy, he could easily have mustered the other northern Italian cities against the Viscontis; Florence, Padua, and Mantua were all worried about the growing Visconti power. Instead, the emperor allowed the Visconti brothers to buy him off with a good-sized tribute. He then tried to base himself in Lucca, but the people of Lucca, indignant over his pacification of the Visconti tyrants, refused to welcome him.4

Charles IV gave up and went home. Without his support, Urban V lost heart; he was overwhelmed and powerless in Italy, and he began to think longingly of Avignon.

The cardinals knew of his wish to go home; so did most of Rome. The Franciscan nun Birgitta of Vadstena, well known for her mystical revelations, visited the papal court and told the pope that she had received a direct word from the Mother of God. “I led Pope Urban by my prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit from Avignon to Rome . . . ,” she declared, speaking in Mary’s voice. “What did he do to me? He turns his back on me. . . . An evil spirit has brought him to this by deceiving him. He is weary of his divine work and wants his own physical comfort.” If Urban V returned to Avignon, Birgitta prophesied, he would die within the year.5

But Urban was sixty years old, tired and fed up, and perhaps death within the year already seemed likely. He returned to Avignon in September, and died in November after a brief and sudden illness.

His successor was Gregory XI, nephew of Urban’s predecessor Clement VI. Gregory XI was forty-two years old, energetic and politically savvy. He knew that the papacy was in danger of losing the Papal States unless it returned to Rome, but he was aware that he was no more capable of dealing with the Visconti than Urban had been. So, from Avignon, he worked to unify a league of Lombard cities against the Visconti.

This went horribly, disastrously wrong. Gregory XI had hoped that Florence would join the anti-Visconti league, but the papal legate he sent to finalize the alliance swapped sides and took up with the Viscontis. The Florentines, already suspicious of the pope’s motivations, rallied Siena, Lucca, and Pisa against the Papal States. Almost immediately, the conflict mutated into Italians against French, the defense of the homeland against a foreign pope; in ten days, eighty cities and towns joined this antipapal alliance.6


81.1 War in Italy

The nasty, complicated, bloody war that followed saw multiple switchings of sides, including that of the English mercenary John Hawkwood, who fought in turn for Florence, Milan, and Gregory XI; he was in the pope’s pay, though, when he led his men in a sack of the Italian city of Faenza that ended in massacre of the civilians, rape of every woman under the age of sixty, and wholesale looting. A Sienese chronicle says that Hawkwood himself killed at least one young woman, and that a priest with the expedition stood at the gates of Faenza, calling out to the rape victims to submit because “this is good for the army.” A year later, a similar scene unfolded at Cesena, where the pope’s legate Robert of Geneva led an attack in which at least four thousand unarmed citizens were killed: “women, old and young, and sick, and children, and pregnant women, were cut to pieces at the point of a dagger.” Robert himself was heard to shout out, during the attack, “I will have more blood! kill all!—blood, blood!”7

By 1377, both Gregory XI and the antipapal league were sickened by the war, ready to negotiate a peace. On August 21, they agreed to a cease-fire; Gregory XI was still in the middle of messy negotiations with Florence on the one hand and Bernabò Visconti on the other when he died, in March of 1378.

He had come to Rome for the negotiations and drew his last breath there, which finally gave the Roman cardinals the chance to elect an Italian pope. Shouting down their French colleagues, they elevated the Italian-born Bartolomeo Prignano as Pope Urban VI. But the French cardinals, indignant over the new pope’s first months in office (he refused to even visit Avignon, and he was appalled by the luxury in which the cardinals lived; one of his first acts was to decree that they could have only one course at dinner), soon revolted. They left Rome en masse, reassembled at Fonti, declared Urban VI deposed, and elected an antipope: Robert of Geneva, leader of the massacre at Cesena.8

He took the papal name Clement VII and went back to Avignon. The exile of the papacy to France had now developed into something even more disruptive: a dual papacy, one at Rome and one at Avignon, a schism that would last for decades. “King Charles of France acknowledged Clement to be the true Pope,” says Jean Froissart, “as did also the King of Spain, the Earl of Savoy, the Duke of Milan, the Queen of Naples, and the whole of Scotland; but Germany declared itself in favor of Urban, and also Lord Lewis of Flanders. . . . Thus was the Christian world divided, and churches set at variance.”9

Back in Rome, Urban VI (“of a choleric and obstinate disposition,” Froissart says, “and very haughty in the execution of his office”) was not covering himself with glory. He deposed all of the cardinals who had taken part in the election of Clement VII (the “antipope,” according to the Romans) and then quarreled with their replacements. Accusing them of conspiracy, he ordered them tortured and executed; some he had sewn into sacks and drowned.10

He was too occupied with his cardinals to pay much attention to the Italian cities, and warfare blazed out across the north again.

With both pope and German king occupied by their own troubles, the Italian cities ramped up their quarrels with one another. Genoa and Venice, always rivals, restarted their own series of battles; and in 1380, the Venetians destroyed most of the Genoese fleet in a sea battle at Chioggia, a blow from which Genoa never fully recovered. In Milan, Bernabò Visconti’s nephew, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, plotted the overthrow of his uncle; in 1385, he launched an armed raid that took both Bernabò and his two sons prisoner, and declared himself Lord of Milan. When he offered the Milanese drastic tax cuts in return for their support, they acclaimed him at once and forgot about Bernabò. The notorious tyrant died seven months later, still under guard, after eating a big meal sent to him by his nephew.11

Gian Galeazzo then went on a kingdom-building spree, capturing Verona in 1387 and Padua in 1388. Venice and Florence remained free of his reach, but a reappearance of the plague in 1390 weakened both cities. They could not mount any sustained attack on the new Lord of the Realm of Milan. And one after another, Bologna, Assisi, Perugia, Siena, Pisa, and Lucca came under his control.12


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