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Italian noble families on coins – Part 1

In this blog series, we will explore the most famous Italian noble families of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and their coins. We will look at how did they rose to power, what are their heraldic symbols and some of the coins we have in our collection. In this part we will be looking at Visconti and Sforza families, as well as Este family that had connections to many European ruling houses.

Visconti of Milan

The Visconti were the most powerful family in Milan until the early Renaissance period. Their rise to power started in the late 11th century with Ottone Visconti who is said to have had a close relationship with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. The founder of the Visconti lordship of Milan was the archbishop named Ottone as well, who took control of the city from the rival Della Torre family in 1277 AD, establishing Visconti power. They ruled Milan from 1277 to 1447 AD, initially as Lords and later as Dukes, from 1395 AD, when Gian Galeazzo Visconti sought to expand his interests in Northern Italy and Tuscany.

The Visconti coat of arms quite memorable in heraldry and adorns the historical buildings all around Milan. It depicts the so-called biscione, an animal variously interpreted as grass snake, viper or basilisk devouring a human, a male youth. The biscione remained associated with the Duchy of Milan even after the Visconti main line ceased to exist.

Coat of arms of the Visconti

Visconti rule in Milan ended with the death of Filippo Maria Visconti in 1447 AD. His daughter Bianca Maria married into the Sforza family, so he was succeeded by his son-in-law Francesco I Sforza, who established the rule of the Sforza dynasty in Milan.

A silver Grosso of Filippo Maria Visconti, the last Visconti ruler of Milan

Sforza of Milan

As the heirs of Visconti, Sforza family came to power in Milan in 1447 AD and ruled the Duchy of Milan until 1535 AD, when the last member of the main branch died. The Sforza coat of arms incorporated the Visconti biscione and an Imperial eagle. They also ruled Pesaro, Bari, Cotignola and Caravaggio. The founder of the dynasty was Muzio Attendolo Sforza, who was the father of the first Sforza ruler of Milan, Francesco I Sforza. Through marriage, they sought to align themselves with Borgia family, albeit unsuccessfully since the Borgias were quick to annul the marriage when the need for the alliance ceased. The Sforza court was notable for its patronage of artists, even taking Leonardo Da Vinci into their service. Ludovico Sforza (1494-99 AD) was the famed patron of Leonardo and many other artists,

marking the richest period of the Milanese Renaissance. Ludovico is known as the man who commissioned The Last Supper, one of Da Vinci’s most famous works.

The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, commissioned by Ludovico Sforza in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

One of the most notable members of the family and the most notorious was Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1468-76 AD), the 5th Duke of Milan. He was known as the ruthless tyrant towards his subjects, even ousting his own mother from Milan, which they ruled jointly in his first years as the Duke. He was an abuser and torturer, which ultimately led to his assassination in 1476 AD, when he was executed by three high-ranking officials of his court in St. Stephen’s church, the day after Christmas.

Este of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio

Villa d’Este in Tivoli, one of the masterpieces of Renaissance architecture and landscaping.

The family of Este are one of the most prolific noble families, with ties all over Europe. The house of Este is divided in two main branches: the elder branch and the younger branch. The elder branch, known as the Younger House of Welf (Guelph), produced the Dukes of Bavaria, Dukes of Saxony and Dukes of Brunswick – Lüneburg. The latter became styled as the Electors of Hanover and it is from them that the British Hanoverian monarchs were descended.

The younger branch of the house of Este is the Italian side which included rulers of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio. They were descendants of Fulco d’Este and were known as Margraves of Este from the 12th century onwards. The came to lordships of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio in the 13th century, as well as becoming hereditary papal vicars in the 14th century. They were based in the city of Este until 1240 AD, when they made Ferrara their capital. Under their rule, the city blossomed into a cultural centre, renowned for music and prominent patronage of arts.

At the very end of the 16th century, Estensi lost Ferrara. Among the several Dukes of Modena who followed in the 17th century, Francesco I (1629–58 AD) was the most important. He came to the throne during the turbulent period of the Thirty Years’ War and chose alliances that he thought would help him restore Ferrara. He was initially allied to Spain, then to France. He died tragically from malaria, on the battlefield, fighting against the Spaniards. Photo:

A silver ½ Lira of Francesco I d’Este, Duke of Modena and Reggio.

Written by Ema Sikic (


  • Hale, J. R. (1981), A concise encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance, Thames & Hudson

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