Galeazzo II, dying in 1378, bequeathed his share of the Milanese realm to his son Giangaleazzo Visconti, who continued to use Pavia as a capital. Here was a man who would have warmed Machiavelli’s heart. Immersed in the great library of his palace, taking care of a delicate constitution, winning his subjects by moderate taxation, attending church with impressive piety, filling his court with priests and monks, he was the last prince in Italy whom diplomats would have suspected of planning to unite the entire peninsula under his rule. Yet this was the ambition that seethed in his brain; he pursued it to the end of his life, and almost realized it; and in its service he used craft, treachery, and murder as if he had studied the unwritten Prince with reverence, and had never heard of Christ.
Meanwhile his uncle Bernabò was ruling the other half of the Visconti realm from Milan. Bernabò was a candid villain; he taxed his subjects to the edge of endurance, compelled the peasantry to keep and feed the five thousand hounds that he used in the chase, and stilled resentment by announcing that criminals would be tortured for forty days. He laughed at Giangaleazzo’s piety, and schemed how to dispose of him and make himself master of all the Visconti heritage. Gian, equipped with the spies necessary to any competent government, learned of these plans. He arranged a meeting with Bernabò, who came conveniently with two sons; Gian’s secret guard arrested all three, and apparently poisoned Bernabò (1385). Gian now ruled Milan, Novara, Pavia, Piacenza, Parma, Cremona, and Brescia. In 1387 he took Verona, in 1389 Padua; in 1399 he shocked Florence by buying Pisa for 200,000 florins; in 1400 Perugia, Assisi, and Siena, in 1401 Lucca and Bologna, submitted to his generals; and Gian was master of nearly all north Italy from Novara to the Adriatic. The Papal States were now weakened by the Schism (1378–1417) that had followed the return of the papacy from Avignon. Gian played pope against rival pope, and dreamed of absorbing all the lands of the Church. Then he would send his armies against Naples; his control of Pisa and other outlets would force Florence into submission; Venice alone would remain unbound, but helpless against a united Italy. However in 1402 Giangaleazzo, aged fifty-one, died.
All this time he had hardly moved from Pavia or Milan. He liked intrigue better than war, and achieved by subtlety more than his generals won for him by arms. Nor could these political enterprises exhaust the fertility of his mind. He issued a code of laws including the regulation of public health and the compulsory isolation of infectious disease.7 He built the Castello of Pavia, and began the Certosa di Pavia and the cathedral of Milan. He called Manuel Chrysoloras to the chair of Greek in the University of Milan, fostered the University of Pavia, helped poets, artists, scholars, and philosophers, and relished their company. He extended the Naviglio Grande, or Great Canal, from Milan to Pavia, thereby opening an inland waterway across the breadth of Italy from the Alps through Milan and the Po to the Adriatic Sea, and providing irrigation for thousands of acres of soil. The agriculture and commerce so promoted encouraged industry; Milan began to rival Florence in woolen goods; her smiths made weapons and armor for warriors throughout western Europe; in one crisis two master armorers forged arms for six thousand soldiers in a few days.8 In 1314 the silk weavers of Lucca, impoverished by faction and war, had migrated by hundreds to Milan; by 1400 the silk industry was well developed there, and moralists complained that clothing had become shamefully beautiful. Giangaleazzo protected this flourishing economy with wise administration, equable justice, and reliable currency, and a tolerable taxation that extended to clergy and nobility as well as laymen and commoners. Under his prodding the postal service was expanded; in 1425 over a hundred horses were regularly employed by the post; private correspondence was accepted at post offices, and traveled all day—in emergency, all night as well. In 1423 Florence had an annual state revenue of 4,000,000 gold florins ($100,000,000), Venice 11,000,000, Milan 12,000,000.9 Kings were glad to have their sons and daughters marry into the Visconti family. Emperor Wenceslas merely crowned fact with form when (1395) he gave imperial sanction and legitimacy to Gian’s title of duke, and invested him and his heirs with the duchy of Milan “forever.”
This proved to be fifty-two years. Gian’s oldest son, Gianmaria Visconti,* was thirteen when his father died (1402). The generals who had led Gian’s victorious armies competed for the regency. While they fought for Milan, Italy resumed her fragmentation: Florence recaptured Pisa; Venice took Verona, Vicenza, and Padua; Siena, Perugia, and Bologna submitted to individual despots. Italy was as before, and worse, for Gianmaria, leaving the government to oppressive regents, devoted himself to his dogs, trained them to eat human flesh, and joyfully watched them feed on the live men whom he had condemned as political offenders or social criminals.10 In 1412 three nobles stabbed him to death.
His brother Filippo Maria Visconti seemed to have inherited the subtle intelligence, the patient industry, the ambitious and farseeing policies of his father. But what had been sedentary courage in Giangaleazzo became in Filippo sedentary timidity, a perpetual fear of assassination, a haunting belief in universal human perfidy. He shut himself up in the castle of Porta Giovia at Milan, ate and grew fat, cherished superstitions and astrologers, and yet by pure craft remained to the end of his long reign the absolute master of his country, his generals, and even of his family. He married Beatrice Tenda for her money, and condemned her to death for infidelity. He married Maria of Savoy, kept her secluded from all but her ladies in waiting, brooded over his lack of a son, took a mistress, and became partly human in his affection for the pretty daughter Bianca who was born of this liaison. He continued his father’s patronage of learning, called noted scholars to the University of Pavia, and gave commissions to Brunellesco and the incomparable medalist Pisanello. He ruled Milan with efficient autocracy, suppressing faction, maintaining order, protecting peasants against feudal exactions, and merchants against brigandage. By deft diplomacy and adroit manipulation of his armies he restored to Milanese allegiance Parma and Piacenza, all of Lombardy to Brescia, all the lands between Milan and the Alps; and in 1421 he persuaded the Genoese that his dictatorship was milder than their civil wars. He encouraged marriages between rival families, so ending many feuds. For a hundred petty tyrannies he set up one; and the population, shorn of liberty but free from internal strife, grumbled, prospered, and multiplied.
He had a flair for finding able generals; suspected them all of wishing to replace him; played them off against one another; and kept war brewing in the hope of regaining all that his father had won and his brother had lost. A breed of powerfulcondottierideveloped in his wars with Venice and Florence: Gattamelata, Colleoni, Carmagnola, Braccio, Fortebraccio, Montone, Piccinino, Muzio Attendolo…. Muzio was a country lad, one of a large family of male and female fighters; he won the cognomen Sforza by the strength of body and will with which he served Queen Joanna II of Naples; he lost her favor and was thrown into prison; his sister, in full armor, forced his jailers to set him free; he was given command of one of the Milanese armies, but was drowned soon afterward while crossing a stream (1424). His bastard son, then twenty-two, leaped into his father’s place, and fought and married his way to a throne.