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27 Jul

Italian City-States of Venice, Milan, Florence and Genoa (13th – 15th c.)

Northern Italy at the beginning of the 13th century was dominated by the city-states of Venice, Milan, Florence and Genoa which competed with each other for supremacy. The history of north Italian city-states in the 13th century was also marked by the political division into two opposing fractions: Guelphs and Ghibellines who supported, respectively, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

The Visconti family established itself as a ruling dynasty in Milan by the end of the 13th century. The Visconti rule in Milan started with the archbishop Ottone Visconti who defeated the rival Della Torre family and was recognized as Signore, the lord of the city in 1277. History of Milan under the Visconti family (from 1277 to 1477) was characterized by territorial expansion which reached its zenith with the conquest of Verona and Padua in 1387/1388 by Signore Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1385-1402). Gian Galeazzo established his influence over Tuscany and received the title Duke of Milan from Wenceslaus, King of the Romans in 1395. Filippo Maria Visconti (1412-1447) who succeeded his brother Gian Maria Visconti after his assassination in 1412 continued his predecessor’s policy and started a war against Venice and Florence.

Portrait of Francesco Sforza by Bonifacio Bembo

Francesco Sforza

Filippo Maria Visconti died without a male heir in 1447 and was succeeded by Francesco I Sforza (1450-1466), husband of Gian Maria’s daughter and heiress Bianca Maria. Francesco Sforza established friendly relations with other northern Italian cities and ended the war with Venice. He signed the Peace of Lodi which confirmed him as Duke of Milan and restored Venice’s territories in Northern Italy including Brescia and Bergamo. The Peace of Lodi also created a balance of power among Venice, Milan, Naples, Florence and the Papal States until 1494 when France under Charles VIII interfered in Italian affairs and provoked the Italian Wars (1494-1559).

Venice reached its zenith after the Fourth Crusade and extended its domain to Istria, coast of Dalmatia, southern Adriatic, Ionian islands and Aegean islands including Crete. Venice became the leading European sea power by the end of the 14th century and captured most part of the Duchy of Milan after the death of the last male in line of the House of Visconti in 1447.

Next to Venice and Milan, the city-states of Genoa, Pisa, Lucca, Siena and Florence played an important role at the beginning of the 13th century as well. Pisa was about to became one of the most powerful Mediterranean trade powers when it captured Corsica and Sardinia from the Saracens in the first half of the 11th century. However, it became inferior to other northern Italian city-states after the defeat against Genoese fleet in the Battle of Meloria in 1284. Genoa gained Corsica and superiority in the western Mediterranean trade but the Genoese were decisively defeated by Venice in 1381.

History of Florence in the 13th century was marked by internal strife between the Guelphs and Ghibellines who fought for control over the city. Guelphs defeated the Ghibellines by the end of 13th century but they split into two warring fractions: the Whites and the Blacks that were led, respectively, by Vieri de’ Cerchi and Corso Donati. The war between the Whites and the Blacks resulted in the defeat and expulsion of the Whites Guelphs (including Dante Alighieri). However, the political disturbances did not hinder the rise of Florence as one of the most powerful cities in Medieval Europe.

Portrait of Lorenzo de Medici by Agnolo Bronzino

Lorenzo de Medici

Florence reached its height under the Medici family which assumed power in 1434 when Cosmo de’ Medici or Cosimo the Elder (1434-1464) overthrown the Albizzi family (1382-1434) and became the gran maestro, an unofficial head of Florence. Cosimo was after his death succeeded by his son Piero (1464-1469) who was succeeded by Lorenzo de’ Medici, also known as the Lorenzo the Magnificent (1469-1494). Lorenzo the Magnificent made Florence the cultural center of Italy by patronizing scholars, artists and poets, and commissioning the best Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli.

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