Category Archives: Milan

1432: Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola, scheming condottiero

Italian mercenary Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on this date in 1432.

A successful condottiero was defined by a mixture of battlefield success and cutthroat scheming, and it was his clumsiness with the latter that did in Carmagnola.

His name denotes his origin, from a town in the Piedmont where despite his low birth, his talents raised him to a command for Filippo Maria Visconti‘s brutally successful campaign* to reunite his father’s divided patrimony and make the Duchy of Milan a peninsular power.

So you might think that Carmagnola stood to reap ample rewards for fastening himself to a rising star. But Visconti, perhaps fearing the prospect of a subordinate accumulating enough power to mount a coup d’etat, used a niggardly hand with the emoluments that his general was anticipating — and this led Carmagnola to ditch the Duchy and make an arrangement with its rival, Venice.

The turncoat had the satisfaction of smashing his former Milanese mates at the 1427 Battle of Maclodio, a battle that helped to achieve for Serene Republic its largest-ever Italian territorial expanse.

But his failure to follow up the victory aggressively soon tested the patience of his new patrons. After a short interval of peace, Venice resumed war with Milan in 1431, and here Carmagnola dilated unacceptably (Italian link), failing to advance on Cremona and instead proposing to winter his army — in August.

The Venetian Council of Ten also caught wind that Carmagnola was maintaining a secret correspondence with Milan and exploring the prospect of changing teams yet again.

Determined to have done with the snake, it summoned him back to Venice under the pretense of convening a war council for the 1432 campaign season. He arrived to find that it was too late in the day to meet the Doge, but as he started for his gondola to retire one of the Venetian gentlemen who had been sent to meet him instead directed his steps away.

“That is not my way,” Carmagnola objected.

“Yes, yes, this is your right path,” the man insisted — and Bussone, beholding him gesturing to the yawning gate of the Piombi dungeon, could only exclaim, “I am lost!”


The arrest of Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola

He was beheaded as a traitor between the scenic columns of San Marco and San Todaro. His widow returned to Milan and eventually repatriated the late commander’s remains to his native soil.

* Carmagnola left a nasty legacy to the world’s architectural heritage during this time by collapsing the Trezzo sull’Adda Bridge, the widest-spanning single-arch bridge ever built before the industrial age.

1477: Gerolamo Olgiati, ducal assassin


Dramatization of events in this post for the video game-derived film Assassin’s Creed: Lineage.

On this date in 1477, the assassins of the Duke of Milan suffered bitter death for fame eternal.

Famous for both his astute political machinations and for cruelty verging on the sadistic, Galeazzo Maria Sforza inherited leadership of Milan in at the age of 22 with the passing of his father, the great condottiero Francesco Sforza.

Francesco, the founder of the Sforza dynasty, had dynastically married himself to one Bianca Maria Visconti, a daughter of Milan’s previous ruling house.* But not all of the Visconti were at home with the Sforza.

A brash young man of that noble family, Carlo Visconti, as full of humanistic idealism as he was of bile for the licentious Duke’s alleged violation of his sister, joined a conspiracy also compassing two other gentlemen, Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani and Gerolamo Olgiati, to do Galeazzo Sforza to death.

At a St. Stephen’s Day service in a basilica christened to Stephen Lampugnani approached the prince feigning supplication for some audience, then produced a hidden blade and stabbed Galeazzo Sforza. Visconti and Olgiati then rushed on Sforza as well and before anyone realized what was happening the Duke, croaking some half-heard invocation of Mary, was falling dead on the church floor.


Illustration of Galeazzo Sforza’s murder on the title page of a 1476 Lament for the Duke decrying the assassination.

Pandemonium ensued, and in the ensuing helter-skelter, Sforza’s bodyguards fell on Lampugnani and killed him on the spot, while Olgiati managed to escape.**

“It now only remains for us to consider those dangers which follow after the execution of a plot,” Machiavelli mused in his “Of Conspiracies” typology of his Discourses. “These in fact resolve themselves into one, namely, that some should survive who will avenge the death of the murdered prince. The part of avenger is likely to be assumed by a son, a brother, or other kinsman of the deceased.”

Well, yeah.

The assassins of the Duke of Milan appear not to have burdened themselves overmuch with advance consideration of this danger, possibly indulging the dream of Brutus that by a dagger’s stroke alone they could restore the lost republic.

Needless to say, this beautiful hope vanished in the bloody revenge carnival that actually ensued the murder. Just a few days after the assassination, having taken refuge with a priest — his justly frightened family had closed its door on him and needed to make theatrical denunciations of his treason for their own safety — Olgiati was captured, put to a torturous interrogation, and publicly butchered. He had outlived the Duke by only a week, and his gashed carcass was hung up in sections around town by way of warning. The rotting heads of the conspirators remained impaled on lances on the city’s bell tower well into the 1490s.

According once again to Machiavelli, Olgiati “exhibited no less composure at his death than resolution in his previous conduct, for being stripped of his apparel, and in the hands of the executioner, who stood by with the sword unsheathed, ready to deprive him of life, he repeated the following words, in the Latin tongue, in which he was well versed

“‘Mors acerba, fama perpetua, stabit vetus memoria facti.'”

That is,

‘Death is bitter but fame is eternal, and the memory of the deed will endure.’

This attempt, quixotic and doomed, to depose an Italian tyrant by murdering him in church might well have formed the blueprint for a similar plot in Florence in 1478, the Pazzi conspiracy. That version was even less successful than its Milanese predecessor: at least Olgiati and company could say that they actually managed to kill their target before everything else hit the fan.

And republic or not, Sforza’s murder did shake up the polity. It put the Duchy of Milan in the hands of his wife, as the unsteady regent of a seven-year-old heir. A few years later, the late duke’s brother Ludovico displaced the regent and effectively bossed Milan until the French imprisoned him in 1500 during the Italian Wars.

While he had the run of the place, Ludovico Sforza commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci a monumental equestrian statue in memory of his brother that da Vinci never finished.† Quite strangely, the master’s notes were plumbed by a 20th century Pennsylvania airline pilot who dedicated the latter part of his life to actually casting “Leonardo’s Horse”.

* The names Visconti and Sforza are also associated with some of the earliest tarot decks and among the first to introduce to playing cards the use of trionfi, or “triumph” cards — that is, “trumps”. One can readily purchase present-day reprints of this historic pack.

** There is a positively maddening inconsistency, thus far irresolvable for this author, between accounts (here’s one example | and another) asserting that Carlo Visconti was slain by Sforza’s bodyguards directly after the assassination, and other accounts (like Gregory Lubkin’s 1994 history of Sforza’s Milan) that put Visconti on the scaffold beside Olgiati.

† Da Vinci’s ponderously slow progress on this high-profile project led Michelangelo to cattily impugn the rival artist’s bronze-casting aptitude.