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  • The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan by Monica Azzolini
  • Michael A. Ryan
Monica Azzolini. The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013. xiii + 370 pp. Ill. $49.95 (978-0-674-06663-2).

The intersection of astrology with the construction of political power is the focus of Monica Azzolini’s The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan. In her excellent book, Azzolini demonstrates that astrology in late medieval Italian courts, far from being some mere pastime or plaything, was central toward the fashioning of authority among members of the Italian political elite. This was especially so during a time of significant crisis, as the Italian peninsula found itself on the brink of external invasion at the waning of the fifteenth century. In particular, Azzolini studies how astrology was crucial within the world of the Sforza dukes of Milan. These Renaissance princes held astrologers in high esteem and patronized them to such an extent that every political and medical decision they enacted was done solely after extensive consultation with their resident court astrologer. A historian of science, Azzolini breaks new ground in fifteenth-century political history with her meticulous archival research.

Over the course of five chapters, Azzolini traces this deep connection between astrology and Renaissance political praxis. She primarily analyzes the private letters exchanged between the dukes and their astrologers, plus the graduation papers of those students from the University of Pavia, which provided the Sforza dukes with their astrologers, although she also investigates imagery from late medieval and early modern manuscripts and incunabula. Her first chapter goes into extensive detail about both the scientific curriculum of study for astrologers trained at the University of Pavia and the techniques and principles that astrologers learned to cast horoscopes and genitures, as well as to diagnose and treat maladies. Her second chapter delves deeply into the sensitive role that astrological prognostications played in the political world of the Renaissance. This information was a double-edged sword, used to counsel a Renaissance prince and to provide valuable secret information for his enemies. Chapter 3, an in-depth study of the sickly, intemperate, and cruel Galeazzo Maria Sforza, demonstrates the role of astrological medicine in attempts to restore his health, along with the duke’s attempt to control the production and circulation of astrological prognostications about him on the eve of his 1476 assassination.

Readers of this journal will find the fourth chapter of Azzolini’s book particularly germane, as Azzolini demonstrates the centrality of physician–astrologers within the Sforza court, those individuals who operated within the two disciplines, dispensing in equal amounts astrological medicine or astrological political advice when the heavens were most auspicious. Physician–astrologers such as Ambrogio Varesi da Rosate, specifically, were invaluable advisers for the Sforza dukes and occupied positions of prestige and power within their court. These physician– astrologers’ fortunes, however, waxed and waned with those of their noble patrons. For instance, the rise and fall of the astrologer Varesi was tied directly to the shifting fortunes of Ludovico Sforza, the focus of the fifth chapter of Azzolini’s study and, for all intents and purposes, the last of the Sforza dukes. Ludovico’s increasing [End Page 380] reliance upon Varesi to chart his every move, which sometimes bordered on the irrational, reflected his growing insecurity about the future. This culminated in the 1494 descent of the French in Italian affairs and the foreign occupation of Milan in 1499. Disgraced, Ludovico eventually fled Milan to later be incarcerated, ushering in a dour period when the arts and sciences suffered in Milan and studies at the University of Pavia languished. As his patron’s fortunes collapsed, so did Varesi’s, as he fell into ignominy, losing his possessions and his property.

Scholars of premodern astrology, broadly, and those who work on the juncture of astrology, medicine, and political authority, specifically, will find a treasure trove of materials in Azzolini’s splendid book. In addition to being very familiar with the extant scholarly, especially Italian, secondary literature, Azzolini distills a great quantity of detailed information via her lucid and accessible prose...


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pp. 380-381
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