Visconti, Catherine (c. 1360–1404)

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Visconti, Catherine (c. 1360–1404)

Duchess and regent of Milan. Name variations: Caterina Visconti; Caterina di Bernabo Visconti. Born around 1360 in Milan; died in October 1404 in Monza, Italy; daughter of Barnabas, Barnabo or Bernabo Visconti, lord of Milan (r. 1354–1385), and Beatrice della Scala (1340–1384); sister of Virida Visconti (c. 1354–1414) and Agnes Visconti (c. 1365–1391); married her cousin Giangaleazzo or Gian Galeazzo Visconti, later 1st duke of Milan (r. 1396–1402), in November 1380; children: Gian Maria Visconti (1388 or 1389–1412), duke of Milan (r. 1402–1412); Filippo Maria Visconti (1392–1447), duke of Milan (r. 1402–1447). Gian Galeazzo was first married to Isabelle of France (1349–1372), daughter of John II, king of France, and Bona of Bohemia . He also had many illegitimate children, including son Gabriele Maria Visconti with Agnese Mantegazza and possibly two other sons with a woman named Lusotta .

Catherine Visconti was the third daughter born to Bernabo Visconti and Beatrice della Scala , rulers of Lombardy in northern Italy. She grew up in a large household in the fortress of Milan, being a middle child of 15. Like those of most of her siblings, Catherine's marriage was arranged when she was a child by her parents for their political benefit. In Catherine's case, the husband chosen for her was Gian Galeazzo Visconti, count of Pavia, her first cousin and her father's political rival. He was 30 years old and already a widower when his marriage to 20-year-old Catherine was celebrated in November 1380. It was well known that Gian Galeazzo coveted Bernabo's position as lord of Milan; Bernabo in turn wanted to add Gian Galeazzo's lands to his own. He coerced Gian Galeazzo into the marriage alliance, seeking to use his daughter Catherine as a sort of spy on Gian Galeazzo's movements. But as it turned out, Catherine was much more of an asset to her husband than to her father.

Far from resenting the wife imposed on him by his uncle, Gian Galeazzo came to trust her judgment and loyalty, and to appreciate Catherine's intelligence and political skills. Nor did his marriage prevent Gian Galeazzo from continuing to plot means of overthrowing his father-inlaw, now with Catherine's assistance. She was a consistent aid to him in his constant attempts to conquer neighboring Italian city-states. Unlike many aristocratic women, Catherine advised her husband on policy issues and was given some authority in his administration, responsible for appointing state officials. She also fulfilled the responsibilities more common to aristocratic women, presiding over the court of Pavia and patronizing artists and writers.

In 1384, Catherine's mother Beatrice died. As her mother's heir, Catherine had a legitimate claim to rule the city of Verona. After a protracted struggle, the Veronese finally accepted Catherine as their rightful ruler, adding to the couple's growing power. The next year Gian Galeazzo finally realized his long-held dream of overthrowing Bernabo Visconti. He captured the elderly ruler and declared himself lord of Milan and ruler of Lombardy. The Milanese accepted Gian Galeazzo's rule with little resistance; Catherine's father died in prison a few months later.

Catherine had her first child, Giovanni Maria, in 1388. Her second son, Filippo Maria, was born four years later. Catherine also acted as a foster mother for her numerous young brothers and sisters, whom she had brought to Pavia after her mother's death. Gian Galeazzo was remarkably different in his personal life than most Italian aristocrats. He was close to his children (he had four with his first wife Isabelle of France [1349–1372]) and preferred to remain with his wife and family in Pavia rather than accompany his troops into battle. In fact, he and Catherine lived so secluded a life but experienced such an increase in political power that it was commonly believed he practiced black magic in secret. This suspicion was only heightened in 1395 when the Holy Roman emperor created Milan as a duchy and named Gian Galeazzo the first duke of Milan.

In 1402, Gian Galeazzo died after a brief illness. He had named Catherine to be regent for their ten-year-old son Giovanni Maria, who became the second duke of Milan. Catherine and her advisors attempted to keep the news of Gian Galeazzo's death a secret, fearing that Milan's many enemies would attack the city-state when they found out its lord was only a young boy. This is, in fact, exactly what happened. Catherine and her sons spent most of the next two years besieged in their fortress in Milan, attempting to fight off one invading army after another. Their short-lived success is attributed to conflicts between Milan's enemies, each of whom wanted to conquer Milan for himself.

As regent, Catherine negotiated with various noble families, seeking assistance, but in the end she could not build enough alliances to save the Milanese state for her son; Milan simply had too many enemies. In 1404, Giovanni Maria turned against his mother and took the reins of government himself. Only 16 years old, he was an incompetent and inexperienced leader, and hastened Milan's fall. Catherine fled Milan but her son had her captured and imprisoned at Monza to prevent her from exercising her influence. She died at Monza only a few months later, in November 1404. It was commonly believed that she had been murdered on her son's orders. Fearing a popular reaction against him, Giovanni had the castellan of Monza executed on charges of murdering the duchess. This satisfied few of the Milanese, who remembered the reign of Gian Galeazzo and Catherine as a time of prosperity, pride, and peace for Lombardy.


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

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Visconti, Catherine (c. 1360–1404)

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