«The Fascination of Gold»

Perishable Iron Warriors and the Rise of the Condottieri: When Big Men of War Business took over, e.g. in Milan between 1412 and 1447

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Though the military importance of knights was a thing of the past, the duke of Milan had himself depicted in shining armor. This podcast considers the relevance of chivalry and tournament at the beginning of the early modern period.

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Milan. We are somewhere between 1412 and 1447 A.D.

 

No, the Lord of Milan, Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, definitely did not go to war like this any more, with this heavy knight's armour, a helmet on his head that robbed him of any vision on the battlefield. At the beginning of the 15th century, there was no longer any need for knights in a proper war.

 

However, these iron warriors were still great figures at the big festivals. Knights' tournaments had developed into a noble sport, in which all those that took part had rank and breeding, or at least a lot of money.

 

Filippo Maria Visconti had all of that. He belonged to the ruling Milanese Visconti family, who had been controlling the city since the 13th century.

 

Their crest, a snake swallowing a person or perhaps even spitting it out again, was known throughout Italy at the time. It will probably be familiar to car fans since it is still part of the Alfa Romeo logo today, and alludes to the make's Milanese origins.

 

Filippo Maria Visconti was the younger son of Duke Gian Galeazzo. When his older brother was assassinated, he took over the government. He was a talented politician, who had plenty of money to draw on. He had acquired a large part of it by marriage. The widow of one of his Condottieri brought almost half a million florins into their marriage. At the time, this was a tremendoous sum of money.

 

The Condottieri were the new gentlemen of Italy, big businessmen when it came to war. They hired huge troops of mercenaries who they rented out for an unbelievable amount of money.

 

Many a city, many a ruler was ruined by his Condottiere arrears. Filippo Maria Visconti also employed such competent specialists for warfare, of course. He wanted nothing to do with this business himself. Men such as Francesco Sforza fought battles for the fat Filippo Maria Visconti.

 

There is nothing of this to be seen on our coins. The Milanese Duke portrayed himself as his subjects would like to have seen him, sporty, a victor, in politics as well as in the arena.

On his head he is wearing a tournament helmet. Such helmets drastically restricted the field of vision, but gave optimum protection to the head and the neck. On top of this, they were adorned with extravagant helmet decoration.

 

Helmet decoration was made of perishable material, wood, fabric and feathers. It was impractical for battle, but not for a tournament, at which the spectators easily recognised their favourites by their helmet decoration.

 

Naturally, Filippo Maria wore the Visconti crest on his helmet, with the man-eating snake.

It must have been an impressive sight when such an armoured horseman took on his enemies on his horse. It was a blaze of colours, which this coin doesn't give us any idea of.

 

The horses were clothed in heavy, richly-adorned, colourful blankets which at least offered them some protection. The riders carried painted shields. Behind them, their colourfully-clad knaves presented the crest on a flag.

 

Even if such a tournament looks like a terrible mess to our eyes, the spectators at the time knew the rules exactly and passed expert judgement on the participants' skill and failure.

 

Of course our Filippo Maria Visconti did not need to worry about this. He was the Duke, the lord of the city, and the judges would know to acknowledge that. However, Filippo Maria was probably clever enough not to compete in the tournament himself, and to send soldiers in his colours instead.

 

But his gold coin, or as we numismatists say, the fiorino d’oro, is completely dominated by the tournament. On the back it also shows a tournament helmet with a crest. To the left and right you can see the Duke's initials, FI for Filippo and MA for Maria. The circumscription refers to his title DVX MEDIOLANI - Duke of Milan.

 

Filippo Maria Visconti carried this title for 35 years, which was an exceptionally long time for the Renaissance era. But he did not have a son, "only" a daughter. She married the Condottiere Francesco Sforza, who therefore succeeded his father-in-law as lord of Milan.