Monica Azzolini. The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan. I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History Series. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. Illustrations. 370 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-06663-2.
Reviewed by William Burns (The George Washington University)
Published on H-Italy (May, 2014)
Commissioned by Matt Vester
Much of the work done on astrology in the Renaissance has focused on theory of the stars and astrologers, as opposed to their patrons and other consumers of astrological information and how they took--or ignored--astrological advice. Now Monica Azzolini has given us a history of astrology at the Milanese court from the point of view of the Sforza dynasty, which included some of the most eager patrons of astrologers and collectors of astrological predictions and interpretations during the entire period. She interweaves the well-known story of the rise and downfall of the Sforzas with their reliance on astrology, painting a picture of a ruling house whose consultations with the students of the stars was as regular as their consultations with physicians (who were indeed often the same people). Azzolini's principal sources are the Milanese archives, although she draws from an impressive range of manuscript collections and archives throughout Italy and Europe. Unlike many historians of astrology, who emerge from the history of science or magic or popular culture, her grounding is firmly in political history, and on several occasions in the book, she loses sight of astrology in her detailed recountings of Sforza intrigues.
Astrology was not merely a court phenomenon, but was grounded in Milanese society. The study of astrology was institutionalized at the University of Pavia, an institution with close links to the Milanese government. Azzolini examines the teaching of astrology at Pavia, something made difficult by the very spotty survival of records from the university. She finds that the humanist rejection of Arabic science had not affected the common use made of Arab astrological authorities in the fifteenth century. Renaissance astrologers made no strong distinction between the ancient authorities, foremost among them Ptolemy, and subsequent Arab writers. Azzolini identifies a "corpus astrologicum" made up of classic, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin authorities, and gives a basic explanation of some of the most common astrological techniques during the period. The astrologers she discusses, she claims, were not frauds, but conscientious practitioners of a mathematical discipline that operated by a set of rules which set bounds to interpretation.
Court astrologers frequently left little trace in the printed literature which dominates our understanding of early modern astrology, whether it be the elaborate treatise or the common almanac. Court astrologers' work was directed not at a mass audience or even their professional peers but at individuals in power. They consulted on a huge range of issues, from the health and character of the ruler and his family to the setting of the dates for marriages, journeys, wars, and other political undertakings. They sent unsolicitied predictions and readings as gifts, sometimes in beautiful and elaborate manuscripts, in the way of seekers of patronage in the period. Court astrologers predicted the future, with varying degrees of success, but surprisingly few were discredited by failed predictions.
Azzolini focuses on different themes in her examination of the Milanese rulers and their relationships to astrology. The founder of the dynasty, the condottiere Francesco Sforza, inherited an interest in astrology from the previous Visconti rulers and particularly from his wife, Bianca Maria Visconti. However, Francesco was not the avid consumer of astrological services that many of his contemporaries, and his Sforza successors, would be, and Bianca Maria was the principal patron of astrologers in the family. Francesco's son Galeazzo Maria Sforza was keenly aware of the political impact of astrological prediction, both in his belief in the power of the stars and in his belief that the unauthorized circulation of astrological information constituted a political danger. His attempts to control the circulation of astrological information was in vain, however, as his murder was preceded by astrological predictions of his violent death. The reign of Galeazzo Maria's sickly son, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, by contrast, provides Azzolini with an opportunity to discuss the role of astrology in understanding illness and death. Much of the understanding of his illnesses and treatments rested on a Galenic/astrological concept of "critical days." The role of astrology in the life of Gian Galeazzo's uncle, puppet master and successor Lodovico Sforza "Il Moro," was as a guide to a future of mounting uncertainties eventually culminating in disaster. He was particularly dependent on an astrologer and physician named Ambrogio Varesi da Rosate, who has fallen into obscurity due to not publishing anything. Varesi determined the best dates for everything including Lodovico's wedding to Beatrice d'Este. The fact that Beatrice gave birth to a healthy boy a year after the wedding cemented Varesi in Lodovico's esteem. Lodovico continued to rely on Varesi's advice, but the fall of Lodovico led to the fall of Varesi, forced to confess to murdering Gain Galeazzo. Lodovico's ultimate failure contributed to his image as a man helplessly in thrall to astrology. The greatest Milanese astrologer of the sixteenth century, Girolamo Cardano, was particularly scornful of Lodovico's gullibility. Cardano also condemned Varesi as an ignoramus in astrology, a reflection not only of Varesi's failure but also of the differences between Cardano and Varesi as astrologers. Like many sixteenth-century astrologers, Cardano rejected the eclecticism of Renaissance courtly astrology in favor of a classicizing return to Ptolemy.
The book is nicely made for a reasonable price, particularly considering that it includes over a dozen illustrations. However, the index, while thorough, contains some inaccuracies. It will be of interest to historians of early modern astrology or Italian Renaissance court culture. One hopes to see further studies of individual courts and their relationship to astrology as good as this one.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-italy.
William Burns. Review of Azzolini, Monica, The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan.
H-Italy, H-Net Reviews.
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