Visconti, Agnes (c. 1365–1391)

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Visconti, Agnes (c. 1365–1391)

Italian noblewoman . Name variations: Agnese; Agnesina; Agnes Gonzaga. Born around 1365 in Milan; beheaded in February 1391 in Mantua (some sources cite 1395); daughter of Bernabo Visconti, lord of Milan (r. 1354–1385), and Beatrice della Scala (1340–1384); sister of Catherine Visconti (c. 1360–1404) and Virida Visconti (c. 1354–1414); married Francesco Gonzaga (1366–1407), 4th captain general of Mantua (r. 1382–1407) and lord of Mantua (r. 1388–1407), in 1381; children: daughter Alda Visconti (b. 1391).

Agnes Visconti was born into the ruling family of Milan, one of 15 children of Bernabo Visconti and Beatrice della Scala . In 1381, her parents arranged a marriage for her with Francesco Gonzaga, heir to Ludovico, ruler of the city-state of Mantua and a powerful player in Italian politics. Agnes' dowry of 50,000 gold florins demonstrates her family's wealth, as well as their desire to secure a political alliance with the Gonzaga. The wedding, symbolic of a new friendship between Milan and Mantua, was celebrated in August in Milan. Both Agnes and her new husband were about 15 years old. Ten years later, their only child, Alda, was born.

In the late 1380s, Agnes was caught up in the Visconti family's political struggles. In 1385, her father Bernabo was overthrown by her cousin Gian Galeazzo Visconti. Francesco Gonzaga quickly forgot about his alliance with Bernabo, who soon died in prison, and sought an alliance with Gian Galeazzo instead. Agnes despised Gian Galeazzo for deposing her father and causing his death, and deeply resented Francesco's alliance with her hated cousin. After Francesco became lord of Mantua in 1388, he made several treaties with Gian Galeazzo, helping him maintain control of Milan against Agnes' dispossessed brothers. Agnes' resentment of her husband's ally and her open rejoicing at his defeats put Francesco in an awkward diplomatic position. Her hostility also led her to break off relations with Gian Galeazzo's wife, her sister Catherine Visconti , who seems to have supported his actions as a wife was expected to do.

Agnes' refusal to put the Gonzagas' interests before her own, coupled with her failure to bear sons to secure the succession, led her into a precarious position at the Mantuan court. It is perhaps unsurprising that by 1390 scandals involving Agnes were spreading there. It was rumored that she was plotting with her brothers against Gian Galeazzo and his allies. Late in 1390, Gian Galeazzo himself contributed to these rumors. He told Francesco that he had evidence that Agnes was conspiring to kill her husband. Apparently inclined to believe the story, Francesco had Agnes, along with several of her retinue, arrested and confined to her apartments in January 1391. She was charged not with conspiracy, however, but with adultery. A young courtier, Vicenzo da Scandiano, was arrested and under torture confessed to an affair with Agnes. Given the hostile political climate of the Gonzaga court towards Agnes and Gian Galeazzo's role in her arrest, however, Agnes' guilt is at the very least questionable.

In February, Agnes and Vicenzo were found guilty of adultery and sentenced to death. Agnes was beheaded on February 7, while her supposed lover was strangled in prison. Francesco Gonzaga's real motivations and involvement in Agnes' downfall are difficult to ascertain. There is little evidence that he had any affection for his wife during their marriage, and he had responded quickly to Gian Galeazzo's accusations against Agnes. Further, he married Margherita Malatesta (Margherita Gonzaga ) within a few months of Agnes' execution. Yet some witnesses reported that he was overcome with grief after the execution and locked himself in his room for days. He did turn against Gian Galeazzo Visconti soon after, suggesting that he now believed Gian Galeazzo had used him in a plot against Agnes. In 1397, Francesco sent an army to attack Milan, giving as his reason the unavenged death of Agnes. Whether this was an honest motivation or simply a pretext for war remains unclear.

sources:

de Mesquita, D.M. Bueno. Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941.

Muir, Dorothy. A History of Milan Under the Visconti. London: Methuen, 1924.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California