Among the many precious treasures contained within the Duomo di Milano is a monument whose extraordinary beauty attracts all those who enter the Cathedral. Located in a rather remote position, it appears to conceal an ancient and mysterious history. It is the spectacular funerary monument to Gian Giacomo Medici, aka “Il Medeghino”, a characteristic figure who lived during the first half of the 16th century, a daring soldier of fortune and astute figure of political intrigue, the older brother of Pope Pius IV and uncle to Carlo Borromeo, whose life story could not be more different from that of his holy nephew.The Medeghino's sepulchre, the work of Leone Leoni, located in the Duomo's southern transept, near the altar dedicated to San Giovanni Bono, gives us the chance to briefly retrace the history of this masterpiece and the undoubtedly fascinating life story of this man of arms.
Gian Giacomo Medici was born in Milan in 1498, and according to some sources in 1495.His father, Bernardino, was a tax collector, while his mother, Cecilia, was born of another rather ignoble family. In addition to Gian Giacomo, the couple had three other children: the first, Giovanni Angelo, became Pope Pius IV; the second, Margherita, married Count Giberto II Borromeo and gave birth to Carlo Borromeo; the third, Clara, married the Austrian aristocrat Wolf Dietrich von Ems zu Hohenems, a recruiter and commander of the Landsknecht.
The nickname “Medeghino”, or rather "little Medici", was perhaps due to his small stature and was even used by him to sign certain documents.
There is no evidence of a connection to the Florentine Medici family, though first Clement VII and then Cosimo I, in recognition of Gian Giacomo's military service, or perhaps in order to ensure favours from the future Pope Pius IV, alluded on more than one occasion to a family relationship with the Medici of Milan, ultimately being granted, probably with Giovan Angelo's appointment to cardinal in 1549, use of the family coat of arms: six balls on a field of gold.
Beginning with the fortified castle near Lierna, which fell victim to pirate attacks, but above all known for his indomitable anti-French sentiment, in just a few years the Medeghino became the undisputed ruler of the Lariana region, to the point that the Sforza family, in order to regain possession of the domains located on the banks of Lake Como, were forced to negotiate a pact. His political masterpiece was undoubtedly the treaty negotiated on 1 March 1532: the Medeghino, giving up Lecco and Musso for 35,000 shields, in return obtained the Marquisate of Marignano with amnesty for all of his militiamen.
Summarizing all of his accomplishments in just a few lines is impossible:among the many, over the following years, he was paid by the Spanish to fight in Hungary against the Turks, even being appointed Viceroy of Bohemia. Upon his return to Italy he took possession of Parma and, in 1553, the Duke of Tuscany appealed to him once again, "the most astute man to be found in the profession of war" (as written by the Muratori), in order to lay siege to Siena.
He always remained in the good graces of Charles V, even in difficult situations, like when he conspired against him on the same field. He died in 1555 in Milan, possibly the victim of a political plot.
The task of constructing a funerary monument to Gian Giacomo was given to artist Leone Leoni by Pope Pius IV in 1560. It's important to note that Leoni worked in the Duomo not as an employee of the Veneranda Fabbrica, but autonomously, answering directly to the pope, the brother of the deceased.
The beautiful bronze statues and the other sculptural elements are framed within an architectural structure made of white marble and enhanced by six spotted-marble columns.The statue of the military captain in armour occupies the central compartment;the lateral compartments contain, at a lower a level, the statues of the Militia and of the Peace, above which two bas-reliefs represent the Adda and Ticino rivers, on the banks of which the Medeghino won important victories. The upper register of the monument is divided into "boxes" framed by small pilasters, which terminate in the tympanum of the Medici coat of arms. Below the tympanum is the bas-relief of the Nativity of Christ; Next to the monument, two great columns (made from the same black veined marble as the two smaller central ones) support small statues depicting Hunger and Prudence.
The monument was initially attributed to Michelangelo by Vasari: but modern experts have now determined it to be the work of Leoni: Michelangelo's style is definitely the basis of this masterpiece, which for decades remained the quintessential model for the sculptors working within the Duomo.
Of the many mysteries which this marble conceals, there remains one that no one will ever be able to solve: what did the holy Archbishop Carlo Borromeo think of his unscrupulous uncle?