This dissertation examines the portraiture of the Visconti, the rulers of Milan from 1277 to 1447, and their successors, the Sforza, from 1450 to 1499, when the city was invaded by Louis XII. It is the first comprehensive analysis to encompass the effigies of the entire Visconti dynasty and those of the Sforza up to the end of the fifteenth century. This study demonstrates that the Visconti provided significant models of portraiture and propaganda for the Sforza and traces the changing function of ducal imagery within the political context of the reigns of the individual rulers. I argue that the Visconti and the Sforza adopted innovative and influential portrait forms and modes of circulating their images to the widest spectrum of people, citizens and rulers, in Milan and throughout Italy. Filippo Maria Visconti, who was probably the earliest patron of Pisanello’s portrait medals, and Francesco Sforza, who was the first ruler since antiquity to issue a coin bearing a realistic effigy, both revived ancient forms of portraiture that were reproducible, portable, and easy to disseminate. The patronage of both dukes immediately initiated trends among other Italian rulers.
Influenced by the prolific portraiture in the manuscripts of the French courts, to which they were closely tied through marriage, the Milanese rulers employed manuscript illumination as a primary vehicle of official portraiture to a degree not found elsewhere in Italy. Beginning in the 1460s, these images served to legitimize Francesco Sforza’s unfounded claims to the Milanese duchy and to respond to specific political crises. Francesco, his successors, and their consorts commissioned numerous family effigies to decorate literary works written by court humanists. These manuscripts were preserved in the ducal library where they were exhibited to dignitaries and rulers. The flourishing of Sforza illuminated portraits in the early 1460s predates the period, beginning in the late 1460s to early 1470s, when rulers of other Italian courts began commissioning more images of themselves to adorn their manuscripts. Just as Francesco’s coinage prompted other rulers to commission their own numismatic effigies within a year, his illuminated portraits may have influenced the flourishing of this genre elsewhere in Italy. Furthermore, certain forms of portraiture in the Visconti and Sforza manuscripts seem to have provided models for those at the other courts.
Because few monumental painted images of the Visconti and the Sforza survive, an examination of this corpus of illuminated images is essential to understanding stylistic developments in Milanese portraiture as a whole. This analysis integrates illuminated manuscripts, painting, coins, medals and sculpture, and demonstrates the multi-media activities of several Milanese court portraitists, whose oeuvres are reconstructed. By examining these portrait types and humanist literary works in relation to the political circumstances of the rulers who commissioned them, this study explores the role and function of various forms of propaganda at the Milanese court.