The Medieval Review 12.02.28

Jane Black. Absolutism in Renaissance Milan, Plenitude of Power under the Visconti and the Sforza 1329-1535. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii, 300. $110. ISBN 978-0-19-956529-0. . .

Reviewed by:

Sharon Dale
Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

With the work of Giorgio Chittolini and Francesca Leverotti and their scholarly progeny including Andrea Gamberini, Francesca Cengarle, and Claudia Storti Storchi, the historiography of Lombardy and in particular, that of its Visconti and Sforza rulers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, has blossomed. Jane Black's Absolutism in Renaissance Milan is a welcome and significant contribution to the field. Black focuses her study on a single concept that was fundamental to Visconti and Sforza rule: plenitude of power--meaning authority above the law, the right to override any law if the need arose.

Chapter One is devoted to defining plenitude of power and examining its diffusion. Prior to its adoption by the Visconti, plenitude of power was the established prerogative of the pope and emperor. The origin of the term, however, as Black demonstrates, began as a casual phrase in a papal assignment of a vicariate in the fifth century. By the twelfth century, plenitude of power denoted the pope's spiritual supremacy. The pope's role as lawgiver led inexorably to an enhanced jurisdiction in the secular realm. Thus, Innocent III could proclaim that he could make "dispensations above the law" (10). In the next century, such power was routinely being claimed by both the emperor and other secular rulers and justified by legal commentators. By the early fourteenth century the latter held that the fullness of power of the emperor was unquestioned. Even if the emperor ordered an innocent man to hang, the emperor's judgment was presumed to be correct. Simply put, the emperor was above the law. As Black demonstrates, Baldo degli Ubaldi, a Perugian lawyer who taught for many years at the University of Pavia, represented a watershed in juridical thinking on the subject at the end of the fourteenth century. Thereafter, the determination of when plenitude of power became tyranny was continuously debated by lawyers and judges. By the mid-fifteenth century, the presumptions of plenitudo potestatis were being seriously challenged, as jurists struggled to find ways to limit its reach and by the end of that century it had been largely abandoned as a legal argument. In large measure the debate surrounding plenitude of power intersected with the justification of Visconti and, later, Sforza authority in Milan.

Chapter Two examines the early Visconti lords and their claims to plenitude of power. Its appeal for secular rulers is patently obvious. Being above the law has undeniable benefits. The Visconti were not the first signori to assert this power; the Scaliger rulers of Verona among others had done so earlier, but the Visconti seem to have relied on its sole authority as the evidence of their own legitimacy. Importantly, the Visconti initially asserted that plenitude of power was granted to them neither by pope nor emperor but solely by their subjects. Thus, for example, Azzone Visconti was made signore for life by the people of Vercelli and could exercise lordship, power and jurisdiction "to do as he pleased, 'with or without cause'" (48). This was in accordance with legal thought of the day: Marsilius of Padua found the source of plenitude of power to reside in the people. Signorolo degli Omodei, granting the Visconti a de facto royal status, famously wrote, "what pleases the prince [i.e. the Visconti lord] has the force of law" (60). Angelo degli Baldi argued that in their territories the Visconti enjoyed the same powers as the emperor, including plenitude of power. Nonetheless, Bernabò and Galeazzo II Visconti were less certain that such plenitude of power was sufficient for their claims to legitimacy and enthusiastically sought the imperial vicariate as the symbol of their authority. Both papal and imperial vicariates had been regularly granted to earlier Visconti, however the imperial title was perhaps most significant to Giangaleazzo Visconti, who received the ducal investiture from Wenceslaus in 1395.

Chapter 3 is devoted to the imperial investiture and its long, sometimes odd legacy. Giangaleazzo's kidnapping of Bernabò in 1385 and the consolidation of the latter's territory under his own rule created a legal problem for Giangaleazzo for whom law and legal precedent were important veneers of legitimate authority. The ducal investiture superceded any territorial grants made to Bernabò and was soon made hereditary to Giangaleazzo's heirs, but his death in 1402 demonstrated the tissue thin reality of Visconti pretensions to absolute power. Visconti-held cities fell back to local signorial families, were claimed by various condottieri formerly loyal to the Visconti (sometimes financially supported by Venice as in the case of Pandolfo Malatesta in Bergamo and Brescia), or were torn apart by civil war often incited by Florence. By the time Filippo Maria Visconti (Giangaleazzo's younger legitimate son) came to power in 1412 after his brother's assassination, his authority barely extended beyond Pavia. Yet, within ten years, a vast Visconti state was reborn. Diplomacy, cash, military prowess all aided the reintegration of the state. Did the pretensions of the ducal title also contribute? Partially. Black asserts that while the duchy was permanent, the possession of the duchy was always precarious for the Visconti and their successors, the Sforza. Moreover, imperial recognition was a prerequisite for the restoration of Visconti authority; Filippo Maria did not receive the imperial imprimatur until 1426. In the absence of imperial validation, Filippo Maria liberally invoked plenitude of power.

With Filippo Maria's demise in 1447, the Consiglio Generale of Milan, which had for over a century formally conferred power on successive Visconti lords, now transferred that authority to a republic, the governing authority of which claimed its legitimacy as deriving from the ducal investiture; that is, the duchy was intact and in the hands of the people. Black emphasizes the enduring significance of the otherwise unstable and short-lived Ambrosian republic: By uniting communal rights gained in the wake of the Peace of Constance with imperial privileges, the Milanese established a credible government. When in 1450 Francesco Sforza (natural son of the condottiere Muzio Attendolo and the husband of Filippo Maria Visconti's only heir, the legitimized Bianca Maria), seized military control of Milan, the Milanese people transferred communal authority to him. By his death in 1466, Francesco had succeeded in rebranding the Visconti state a Sforza one. His legal authority to rule came from popular sovereignty; however, he too actively sought the imperial reassertion of the ducal title. This was no easy feat as the emperor Frederick III vigorously resisted multiple entreaties, and it was not until 1494 that the emperor Maximilian fully affirmed and invested Ludovico il Moro, Francesco's grandson, with the ducal title.

Following her summary of the arc of Visconti-Sforza rule, Black returns to the role of legal opinion in asserting and maintaining the pretensions of plenitude of power in Chapter Four. The most important of these opinions, by Paolo da Castro, repeated verbatim language from Giangaleazzo's second ducal investiture of 1396 that unequivocally granted him and his successors power that superseded any other rulers who recognized imperial authority; in the ducal land the Visconti could act with plenitude of power as the emperor might act. Francesco Sforza had no imperial investiture. Plenitude of power was the rationale for his authority--but with an interesting wrinkle--since his power was granted by popular sovereignty, the duke now no longer governed in the name of the emperor. He was in fact a "fully sovereign ruler." Thus, just as Bartolus of Sassoferrato in the Trecento had laid out the legal case for the independent status of the Italian city-state, Alessandro Tartagni now claimed that the Sforza duke did not recognize the emperor as his ruler and therefore had status equivalent to the pope or the kings of France and England. If Tartagni's arguments were somewhat factually twisted, legal opinion was clear that the emperor could not rule in the duchy of Milan and that plenitude of power resided in the transfer of sovereignty from the people to the duke. In fact, the 1396 investiture made clear that Milan was an imperial fief, thus the duke was not, nor could not be fully independent.

Ludovico il Moro's receipt of the long sought imperial investiture was something of a setback to ducal power since the duke now recognized the authority of the emperor to invest him. The complications of diplomacy greatly affected legal opinion in this period. Thus, the influential jurist Filippo Decio, an apologist for French power, wrote persuasively against Ludovico il Moro Sforza's legitimacy, arguing that acts decreed by Sforza before 1494 had no legal validity since the ducal title was only affirmed then. Sforza loyalists, in contrast, saw no diminution of ducal sovereignty after the 1494 investiture. Sforza had not recognized imperial authority before 1494 and, therefore, was independent of the emperor's reach; with the 1494 investiture, the emperor transferred all his own authority to the duke. They argued that regardless of the investiture, plenitude of power was extricable from ducal rule.

In Chapter Five, Black examines the limitations of plenitude of power as it was practiced under the Visconti and Sforza. She rightly emphasizes that in legal theory plenitude of power was a means to achieve justice by tempering the law. The Visconti wanted, above all, to be perceived as legitimate rulers and had argued fairly consistently that their control of a city brought both peace and justice. Yet, excessive use of plenitude of power, which overrode fundamental rights, threatened both the exercise of justice and the image of legitimacy. While they frequently granted individual concessions or exceptions to laws the Visconti and Sforza were aware of the dangers of arbitrary power and they generally exercised it judiciously. One important use of such exceptions was in the political sphere. Exemptions from taxation, amnesties for political crimes, and lifting restrictions on foreign ownership of property were politically expedient means of asserting plenitude of power. Its most common use was in derogations, declaring inapplicable laws that contradicted a ruler's own acts. In other words, for the Visconti, decrees trumped laws. An extreme example of this was Giangaleazzo's blanket repeal of all laws passed by Bernabò Visconti in Milan after the latter's overthrow.

Legal rejection of ducal absolutism is the subject of Chapter Six. While Baldo degli Ubaldi upheld plenitude of power generally he realized its limitations. In one legal opinion he concluded that on one side there is equity and on the other is supreme power. Some legal thinkers argued that as long as the Visconti were acting in the name of the emperor they were not fully independent rulers and thus could not truly have plenitude of power. Other lawyers held that the rule of law could not be overturned by plenitude of power without a clearly proven just cause. Black traces the gradual pushback against plenitude of power amongst legal thinkers in the early fifteenth century, focusing on such writers as Raffaele Fulgosio and Francesco Corte. For the latter, plenitude of power was inevitably associated with injustice. The two periods of French rule over Milan (1499 to 1512 and 1515 to 1522), introduced French legal precedents with their stronger protection for individual rights into legal opinions. Thus, the French king Francis I acting as the duke of Milan was roundly criticized by lawyers for attempting to sell feudal rights in Asti, whose inhabitants would thereby be divested of property and liberty. Some writers, such as Giasone del Maiano, argued in favor of the authority of the emperor over any powers of the French king in Milan. Increasingly, writers were returning to the Trecento idea that the misuse of plenitude of power was tyranny. By the early sixteenth century, Milanese jurists were ready to jettison the concept altogether, arguing in favor of protecting the independence and liberty of communities. Giovanni Nevizzano even argued that papal plenitude of power was conditional and should be used sparingly and only when it would do no harm. Andrea Alciato drove the nail into the coffin: Plenitude of power was an abuse. He further argued that submission of people to a ruler did not mean that they were subject to that ruler's uncontrolled power. They submitted only to realize more effective government.

Black summarizes the tortured (and confusing) history of Milan in the early sixteenth century until its eventual absorption into the Habsburg family patrimony. The latter was an ironic result of Giangaleazzo's 1395 ducal investiture. When Francesco II, the Habsburg duke, transferred the right to pass judgments to the Milanese Senate, itself a legacy of French rule, plenitude of power lost its significance. The Senate was charged with the obligation to judge on the basis of "facts alone." That the same body was soon charged with abuse of power and corruption reminds us that abuse of power has many sources.

In her conclusion, Black notes some of the paradoxes of plenitude of power: It came into use for the Visconti as a means for them to obtain powers which republics took for granted. If a city-state did not wield plenitude of power per se, since it was the prerogative of a personal ruler, it was a given that republican city-states had communal rights equivalent to that of any personal ruler. Another paradox was that the decline of the legal justification for plenitude of power coincided with the rise of absolute monarchy in France. Italian jurists such as Alciato influenced French thought regarding the restraints on absolutism. In the end, plenitude of power, sought in order to prove legitimate rule, was unable to be separated from injustice and, thus, served to undermine the very government it was thought to bolster.

One of the virtues of the book is to further the Chittolini model of the Visconti state, not as an absolute tyranny as had been asserted by Florentine propagandists of the fifteenth century and echoed even by some modern writers. Rather, Visconti rule was one of constant negotiation, pivoting, and accommodating to political and juridical reality. Bringing to life the otherwise dry world of legal opinions, Jane Black succeeds admirably in illuminating an important and heretofore unexamined principle of governance.