The Life of Valentina Visconti
Valentina was born too soon to have owned a trionfi deck; but she is immortalized in a twentieth-century Italian deck. Her intensely dramatic life illuminates the late gothic period that gave birth to tarot.
Valentina was born in 1366 in the newly constructed Visconti castle in Pavia. It was one of the most beautiful and livable late medieval castles. Humanists held discussions in the library, and the scriptorium produced the illuminated manuscripts that were one of the glories of Lombard art. Petrarch, who was in residence from 1353 to 1361 wrote to his friend Boccaccio, “the huge palace situated on the highest point of the city, an admirable building which cost a vast amount….built by a man who surpasses others in many ways….I am convinced that with your good taste in such matters, you would declare this to be the most noble product of modern art”.
Valentina’s father was the future first hereditary Duke of Milan, Giangaleazzo Visconti. Her mother was Isabella of Valois, sister of King Charles V of France. Valentina’s mother died in childbirth when Valentina was six, so she was raised by her father’s mother, Bianca of Savoy.
Valentina enjoyed a happy childhood with a kind grandmother and an indulgent father who provided her with a good education. She was intelligent, spoke four languages, loved books and spent many happy hours in her father’s impressive library. Two miniature portraits of her exist. One shows her accepting the gift of a book from its creator; the other shows her intent on a conversation with her physician/astrologer.
In 1385, Valentina’s father overthrew and eventually poisoned his uncle Bernabò, who was also his wife’s father (Giangaleazzo’s second wife was his first cousin). Thanks to some well-timed fratricide in the previous generation, the way was cleared for Giangaleazzo and his descendants to have sole and supreme power in Milan and the towns and territories it controlled. (Incest and murder are recurring themes in many aristocratic families of the time – the Visconti weren’t the least bit squeamish about them.) A few months after Bernabò’s downfall, his granddaughter, Isabeau of Bavaria, married King Charles VI of France.
Giangaleazzo needed an important ally at the French court to counterbalance Isabeau’s influence, so he immediately undertook negotiations to marry his daughter to the king’s brother, Louis of Touraine, the Duke of Orléans. Since Valentina’s mother was the king’s aunt, Louis was Valentina’s first cousin. The Pope, as usual, was happy to accept a hefty fee for turning a blind eye to such blatant incest.
In 1387, Valentina was married by proxy to Louis; but they did not meet for nearly two years while Giangaleazzo (left) amassed her huge dowry. The duke’s money was being siphoned off in a war with Verona, so it took him over a year to scrape the dowry together by squeezing the people with onerous taxes. The final haul was a truckload of 450,000 gold florins along with several towns in Piedmont, including Asti.
A provision of the marriage contract caused Valentina’s name to be cursed down to the present, even though she had nothing to do with the negotiations. It stated that if a Visconti duke had no direct male heir, Milan would pass to Valentina’s male heir. In an astounding moment of short-sightedness, Giangaleazzo couldn’t imagine this happening. But neither of his two legitimate sons had male heirs, so the dukedom came into the possession of Francesco Sforza, the husband of an illegitimate granddaughter. The French didn’t forget that contract and used it as a basis for invading Italy at the end of the fifteenth century, ending Italy’s political independence for the next 350 years.
June 1389, Valentina set out from Milan to meet her husband in a suburb of Paris. The procession of 1300 knights was led by Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua. Two separate escorts were responsible for the safety of the gold florins and of her trousseau which included many books, her harp, jewels, and gowns embroidered with thousands of pearls and diamonds. One jewel held the insignia of a white dove in gold sun rays which Petrarch had designed for Valentina’s father when he was a boy. There were furnishings for complete rooms, silver dining sets, bed hangings, and gold boudoir ornaments. The triumphal progression through the countryside flaunted the wealth of the duchy of Milan and the personal wealth of the Visconti. Along the way, the procession stopped in the town of Asti for several days of recreation while participating in the annual Palio (horse races and other entertainments).
At the French Court
The marriage was finalized near Paris in August, 1389. Valentina and Louis had eight children, five of whom died in childhood. Their oldest son and heir, Charles, Duke of Orléans, was the leader of the anti-Burgundian Armignac faction during the civil war of the early fifteenth century. His son became Louis XII of France who used Valentina’s marriage contract as an excuse to invade Italy at the end of the fifteenth century.
Shortly after Valentina’s arrival in Paris, her brother-in-law, King Charles VI (left), began showing signs of serious mental instability. It appears he suffered from a sudden onset of paranoid schizophrenia which left him raving mad for months at a time between short periods of lucidity. This set off a ferocious contest for control of the king during his periods of madness. Valentina and her husband always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up the losers.
By all accounts, Valentina was a lovely person, and neither her peers nor her servants had a bad thing to say about her. She and King Charles developed a special rapport. During his periods of madness he was always happy to see her and her presence calmed him; while he viciously insulted and rejected his wife, Queen Isabeau. For many people this was too much of a coincidence. Rumors circulated that she used witchcraft to bring on the king’s madness and was continuing to use witchcraft to bind him to her emotionally.
A popular stereotype at the French court throughout the middle ages was the foreign-born poisoner-princess. Valentina was the perfect foil for these projections, thanks to her family’s reputation for sorcery, heresy and poisoning. Valentina had barely arrived in France when Eustace Deschamps, prolific poet and diplomat in the king’s service, wrote ballads where he refers to her family’s fondness for solving political situations with poison, and expresses fears she might bring the habit with her to France.
In 1393, Louis was proclaimed regent if the King should die while his heir was still a minor. Shortly after this, Louis was responsible for an accidental fire during a ball where four courtiers were killed (Le Bal des Ardents, left). The king and several courtiers had dressed up in shaggy costumes and cavorted about the banquet hall like wild men. Great precautions had been taken to keep torches and candles away from the costumes. But Louis arrived late and didn’t get the memo, so he approached the costumed group torch in hand, with tragic results. The Duchess of Berry saved the king by throwing her train over him and hustling him out of the room. Naturally, some people thought Louis deliberately tried to kill the king so he could assume powers as regent.
Rumors about Valentina’s involvement in witchcraft and sorcery continued to spread thanks to the Queen and the Burgundy faction at court. The Queen had a deep, poisonous hatred of Giangaleazzo Visconti and all his family, since her grandfather was the Bernabò whom Giangaleazzo had deposed, ruining the fortunes of that branch of Visconti family. This personal hatred was shared by Jean Froissart (1337-1405) a poet and author of an important Arthurian romance, whose chronicles are an important source for 14th century French history. Unfortunately, he never let facts get in the way of his opinions and prejudices; and he was under the protection of the Duke of Burgundy. Frossart is responsible for much of Valentina’s bad reputation.
The witchcraft rumors were plausible since it seemed suspiciously convenient that the king went mad shortly after Valentina arrived at court. These stories were backed up by the popular belief that the Lombards routinely used poison and witchcraft in their political intrigues. Froissart emphasized that Giangaleazzo and Valentina were crazed with the ambition to make her the Queen of France. In March 1396 these rumors reached a critical mass, a mob surrounded Valentina’s house, and she went into exile with her children. Valentina was able to keep her rank and property, but she had to remain in the countryside and never set foot in Paris.
The Orléans-Burgundy Rivalry
Bitter hatred between two cousins created turmoil in France for over a half-century and altered the fate of Valentina and her descendants. John of Burgundy (d 1419) was a nephew of King Charles V, and Louis d’Orléans (d. 1407) was the king’s son. The cousins shared a grandfather, King John II, but were polar opposites. Louis was tall, good looking, accomplished, a snappy dresser, and very likable. John was short, toad-like, a slob, suspicious and cruel. His domains and standing army in Burgundy and Flanders constituted a virtual rival kingdom. But Louis had his own power base as regent for the King when he was mentally incapacitated; and he was most likely the queen’s lover.
Stories circulated through the court about Louis seducing John’s wife and John vowing to kill his cousin in revenge. John began his campaign against Louis by spreading rumors that Louis’ wife used witchcraft to control the king. When John’s father died in 1404 and he became the Duke of Burgundy, he immediately began planning Louis’ murder. First, he spent a few years spreading defamatory stories about Louis that were actually rather truthful. During the king’s periods of madness, Louis siphoned huge amounts of money from the treasury to support his lavish lifestyle, then imposed oppressive taxes on the populace. John portrayed Louis as a debauched oppressor of the people while portraying himself as a compassionate friend of the oppressed. The plan was to make Louis so despised that the people would rejoice when he died.
In 1407, John of Burgundy’s hired assassins brutally murdered Louis in a dark Parisian street. John confessed to the murder then fled to his own domain. His propaganda war worked. Many people believed Louis deserved to die, and that John had actually done the nation a favor by getting rid of him. Depending on the state of the king’s mind, Burgundy was either rehabilitated or treated as a criminal. His status flipped several times depending on who had the king’s ear and was manipulating him.
Valentina was in exile in her chateau in Blois when the murder took place and didn’t hear of her husband’s death until after the funeral. Several months later, on her deathbed, she made her oldest son Charles, age 13 and now the Duke of Orléans, vow to avenge his father’s death.
The rivalry between the followers of Burgundy and of Orléans erupted into the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war from 1407 to 1435. The King of England took advantage of the turmoil, revived the Hundred Years’ War and marched into France in 1415, trouncing the French army at Agincourt. The Duke of Burgundy sat out Agincourt in Flanders, but Charles of Orléans, age 20, was taken prisoner and spent the next twenty-five years in the Tower of London writing melancholy poetry.
France was plunged into decades of misery with the English army and the rivals in the civil war taking turns pillaging and plundering the countryside. The paranoid Duke of Burgundy instituted a reign of terror in Paris. Joan of Arc finally turned the tide in 1429, and the Hundred Years War officially ended in 1453.
Charles of Orléans was released from English captivity in 1440 at age forty-six on condition that he not avenge his father’s death. He married Marie of Cleves who gave him two daughters and one son who became King Louis XII. Charles lived to an advanced age keeping busy as a patron of the arts.
Louis XII (reigned 1462 to 1515) succeeded to the French throne when his cousin, Charles VIII, died with no heirs. He was also Duke of Milan and King of Naples thanks to successful military interventions in Italy. The hereditary Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, asked for French help with a military threat from Venice, then he switched sides and betrayed the French. Louis developed an intense personal hatred of Ludovico and decided to claim the Duchy of Milan under the terms of his grandmother Valentina’s marriage contract. The French army marched through Lombardy terrorizing and slaughtering entire towns. Milan went back and forth between France and Sforza for a few years, with Ludovico leaving town with his tail between his legs whenever things didn’t go his way. In 1500, Ludovico was captured and spent the rest of his life in a French prison. Milan became the base for Louis’ incursions into Naples.
Louis was a popular, reform-minded king. He had three wives, but no son who survived childhood. When Louis died in 1515 the French crown went to a collateral branch of the family and Valentina’s lineage came to an end.
My impression of Valentina is of a dignified, intellectual woman who preferred books and intelligent conversation to court revelry. She wasn’t a schemer who stirred up court intrigues. Yet her very presence incited lies, slander, poisonous jealousy, and enough hatred to start a civil war. I hope this kind, educated lady found peace among her beloved books during her exile in the countryside.
I’m intrigued by the fact that Valentina and Christine de Pisan both resided at the French court from 1389 to 1396. For me, Christine is the patron saint of women who live by their wits and their pen. She was a self-taught intellectual, prolific writer and outspoken feminist who sounds very contemporary. She elbowed her way into the male-dominated intellectual life of late 14th-century France and supported herself and her family with her writing. I wonder if Christine and Valentina, two book-loving intellectuals born less than a year apart, befriended each other at the court of Charles VI.
Valentina’s marriage procession from Milan to Paris inspired a tarocchi deck published in Italy in 1982. Read about it here.
Chamberlin, E.R. The Count of Virtue: Giangaleazzo Visconti Duke of Milan. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1965.
Famiglietti, R.C. Royal Intrigue: Crisis at the Court of Charles VI 1392-1420.
Focuses on Charles’ madness, the assassinations of Louis d’Orléans and John the Fearless.
I haven’t read this book but have read a favorable review.
Jager, Eric. Blood Royal. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014.
An historical account of the plot to murder Louis d’Orléans and the subsequent investigation that reads like a thriller.
Kaplan, Stuart. Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. II, pp. 53-75. Stamford: U.S. Games, Inc., 1986.
Marchandisse, Alain. Milan, les Viscontis, l’union de Valentine et de Louis d’Orléans, vus par Froissart et par les auteurs contemporains. Accademia.edu, 2004. Accessed August 2018.
Illustrations are from various 14th-century illuminated manuscripts.