BMCR 2020.07.10

Pier Candido Decembrio. Lives of the Milanese tyrants

, , Pier Candido Decembrio. Lives of the Milanese tyrants. The I Tatti Renaissance library, 88. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. liii, 339 p.. ISBN 9780674987524. $29.95.

This book offers the first English translation and a new Latin edition of two biographical works by the Milanese humanist Pier Candido Decembrio. Decembrio was born in Ferrara but spent most of the first half of the fifteenth century serving as a secretary to Duke Filippo Maria Visconti and then to the Ambrosian Republic. In those roles he was active as a translator of Latin texts into the vernacular and wrote various original works. After the death of Filippo Maria Visconti in 1447 Decembrio turned to writing the Life of Filippo Maria Visconti. Decembrio left Milan before the city fell to the armies of Francesco Sforza. Decembrio established himself at the papal court, even as he continued to serve as an intermediary of sorts between Rome and Milan. During the early 1460s Decembrio attempted to win the patronage of Francesco Sforza. To this end he wrote his Deeds of Francesco Sforza. The ploy did not work. Eventually Decembrio returned to Milan, but mostly as a private citizen, and was buried in the church of Sant’Ambrogio.

This volume contains Decembrio’s biographies of two of the most important rulers in fifteenth-century Italy. Filippo Maria Visconti rose to power after the collapse of the empire of his father, Giangaleazzo Visconti, who died unexpectedly in 1402. From the fragments of his father’s territories Filippo Maria pieced back together a large northern Italian state. Visconti’s own efforts to expand his influence inevitably drew him into conflicts with other Italian powers, especially Florence and Venice, which were likewise looking for new territory. The political history of the Italian peninsula between 1420 and 1447 is largely the story of the conflicts between Visconti and his allies versus the Venetians and Florentines. In 1447 Visconti died without an obvious heir. Upon his death an independent republic was established in Milan. Rival claimants to the city contested the republic and thus more war ensued. Eventually in 1450 the Florentine-backed mercenary captain Francesco Sforza conquered the city. Sforza claimed Milan was legitimately his because he was married to Bianca Maria Visconti, Filippo Maria’s only daughter. Sforza managed to hold onto Milan and pass it to his heir upon his own death in 1466.

Both Visconti and Sforza have suffered from the traditional focus of English-language scholarship on Florence (the Italian scholarly tradition is, of course, very different). Since Filippo Maria was a frequent Florentine antagonist, older historiography has tended to view him as a tyrant second only to Giangaleazzo Visconti in his attempts to banish freedom from Italy. In more recent years, as scholars have moved beyond Florence and older historiographical assumptions, Filippo Maria has not generated many historiographical revisions. One problem has been, until recently, the general neglect of Milan in English-language scholarship, another that the Visconti archives were already largely destroyed during the fifteenth century. The riches of the source material and the Florentine friendship of Francesco Sforza and his heirs has led to more favorable and, at least somewhat more frequent treatments. Scholars have unpacked various aspects of Sforza’s statecraft and the society over which he ruled. However, the number of studies by Anglophone scholars should not be overstated and remains much smaller than on other areas of Italy around the same time.[1] The edition, notes, and translation of these two texts is, thus, a welcome contribution to continue and perhaps spur further historiographical corrections.

This book makes more widely available two texts which, although previously available in their original Latin, were nevertheless difficult to read through. Both texts were edited and included in Ludovico Muratori’s famous Rerum Italicarum Scriptores in their original Latin. More recently the texts appeared in the learned mid-twentieth century edition of Giuseppe Petraglione, Attilio Butti, and Felice Fossati.[2] However, these and other earlier editions did not rely upon all the most relevant surviving manuscript witnesses, and in some cases were so packed with contextual notes and corrections that Decembrio’s texts became “virtually unreadable (257).” The Latin text of both biographies in this new edition is based upon a new examination of witnesses approved by Decembrio himself and other relevant manuscripts. The result is a new edition that will become the standard reference point for these texts.

The texts themselves provide a fascinating insight into two extremely different approaches to fifteenth-century biography. Decembrio’s Life of Filippo Maria Visconti is heavily indebted to the content and style of Suetonius. The translator and author of the notes, Gary Ianziti, describes Decembrio’s use of Suetonius to structure his text, its chapters, and even individual sentences. In following Suetonius’ method, Decembrio provides details about Filippo Maria’s statecraft and wars, but also intimate personal details. Filippo Maria, for example, was obsessive about the control of information and paranoid about the loyalty of those around him. Some details were controversial: for example, Decembrio’s contemporary Leonello d’Este urged him to be more cryptic about the dukes relations with young boys, letters which are included in this volume. Decembrio was able to approach his Life in this largely even-handed way because of his past and present historical circumstances. As a long-time secretary to the Duke he was privy to both the public and the intimate details that fill the pages of the biography. Simultaneously, when writing the text he was then working for republican patrons who viewed the Visconti line as at an end. The result is a truly fascinating portrait of a man so often viewed in the historiography as simply the greedy antagonist of Florence and Venice. The Latin edition is well edited, the translation is readable, and the notes provide enough information to follow the text without being overwhelming.

The Deeds of Francesco Sforza was written under very different circumstances and for different reasons. The result is a dramatically different text The Suetonian format of the Life of Filippo Maria Visconti is replaced by a much more standard panegyrical narrative of Francesco Sforza’s major military accomplishments. Here, Sforza is the greatest military commander of his day and the heroic savior of Milan. The fame of Francesco Sforza, like that of Alexander the Great, has overshadowed that of his capable father. In other examples, Sforza meets with much success during his long career before conquering Milan in his late forties. Upon his conquest the Milanese were in awe at the great man in their midst. They asked each other if they had seen Sforza, in a scene very much like a celebrity sighting today. Decembrio was neither in Milan nor an insider at Sforza’s court, and thus as a biography, the text has a distance and generalness not found in the Life of Filippo Maria Visconti. But the work nevertheless remains fascinating. Decembrio took pains to construct an historical narrative that legitimated Sforza’s conquests, a point made by Ianziti. Decembrio is careful to   emphasize Sforza’s formally invested titles, his marriage to Bianca Maria Visconti, and the justness of his causes. Additionally, as an outsider to Sforza’s court, Decembrio takes explicit and implicit aim at other writers employed by Sforza, such as Francesco Filelfo. These passages provide insights into humanist networks, competition, and the craft of writing humanist history, all topics of continuing interest to historians and literary scholars.

This book makes available yet another important Latin text and English translation from the ‘Lost Continent’ of humanist literature. It follows the format of all other volumes in the I Tatti Renaissance Library: that is, a new or the best available edition of the original Latin, a careful translation, and enough notes and contextual information for readers to follow and appreciate the text. These biographies provide a very different perspective on Milan and that city’s rulers from those presented by Florentine or Venetian apologists, and thus a welcome incentive to continue an historiographical correction in Anglophone scholarship. But, even more than that, Decembrio’s Life of Filippo Maria Visconti in particular is genuinely enjoyable to read, and could easily find its way into the hands of undergraduates or even members of the public interested in Renaissance Italy.


[1] A sample of recent studies in English on Milan are Andrea Gamberini, ed., A Companion to Late Medieval and Early Modern Milan (Leiden, 2015); F. Conti, Witchcraft, Superstition, and Observant Franciscan Preachers: Pastoral Approach and Intellectual Debate in Renaissance Milan (Turnout, 2015); Brian Richardson, “Memorializing Living Saints in the Milanese Convent of Santa Marta in the Late Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Century,” in Nuns’ Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Antwerp Dialogue, ed. by Virginia Blanton, Veronica O’Mara, Virginia Blanton, and Patricia Stoop, pp. 209-25 (Turnout, 2018); Andrea Gamberini, The Clash of Legitimacies. The State-Building Process in Late Medieval Lombardy (Oxford, 2018); Josh Brown, “The Influence of Milan on the Development of the Lombard Koiné in Fifteenth-Century Italy: The Letters of Elisabetta of Pavia,” Quaderni d’Italianistica 38, no. 1 (2017, published in 2018): 131-52; Luciano Piffanelli, “Crossing Boundaries. Reconsidering the Question of the Spheres of Influence between Florence and Milan: A Problem of Territoriality in Renaissance Italy,” Viator 49, no. 3 (2018, published in 2019): 245-75.

[2] For a full discussion of the manuscripts and earlier editions of the text, see pp. 257-68. The earlier editions of these works are found at Ludovico Antonio Muratori, ed., Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 20 (Milan, 1731, cols. 981-1046; and at Attilio Butti, Felice Fossati, Giuseppe Petraglione, eds., Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, 2nd series, vol. 20, part 1 (Bologna, 1925-58), 1-989.