Once upon a time, in the early 16th century CE, Italy was an unstable land with many kingdoms and powers trying to prevail on the scene. As a result, the Italian territory soon became a contested terrain leading to clashes and battles known as the ‘Italian Wars’ that lasted for about half a century.
Today, in Milano stands a building that bears the memory of these past times: the Bicocca of Arcimboldi.
This historical landmark is a vital example of a 15th-century suburban villa. It was the rural residence and farmhouse of the Arcimboldi family, one of Milan’s most famous patrician families under the Sforza’s kingdom.
However, only some know that the famous and bloody Battle of the Bicocca occurred right in the vicinity of this renaissance landmark.
In 1522, the Lombard capital Milano was in imperial hands, precisely under the control of the alliance between Charles V, who commanded a vast kingdom from Austria to Spain, and Pope Leo X, head of the Papal States. They were joined by the forces of the Duchy of Milan, intent on defending their territories. This coalition, led by the leader of the papal state Prospero Colonna, was opposed by the armies of the French King Francis I, commanded by General Odet de Foix (Laucret) and the numerous and fearsome Swiss pikemen serving under the French flag.
The two armies came into close contact in 1522 CE, when the French and Swiss troops approached and tried to conquer Milan, re-establishing their king’s power in Lombardy.
To prevent this, imperial Spanish and Austrian soldiers imposed themselves outside the gates of Milan to the north. Under the orders of General Colonna, they held the ground here next to this villa, intent on barring the way to the invaders.
Nearby today’s Bicocca villa, and in the homonymous neighbourhood on 27 April 1522, this very ground witnessed the Spanish army of Charles V of Habsburg against the French army of Francis I of Valois (allied with the Serenissima Republic of Venice and Giovanni Delle Bande Nere) during the Fourth Italian War (1521-1526).
At that time, the Bicocca area was rural, eight kilometres away from the walls of Milan, in today’s Fulvio Testi street, the access road to Milan. The Spanish were well protected near the Bicocca Degli Arcimboldi building by an embankment. The French troops were coming from Monza (from the north) and were presumably positioned where the CentroSarca shopping mall is today.
Discontent arising from missing payments among the lines of Swiss mercenaries led to tensions in the French camp. In fact, it was the Swiss mercenaries who, without following the orders of the French commanders, hastened a rash attack on the morning of 27 April 1522. Although aware of the unfavourable terrain and perhaps impatient to receive their pay or just overconfident in their strength, they were plunged into a disadvantageous situation. So the Swiss attacked the embankment defended by the Spaniards without waiting for the French artillery’s support and ended up mowing by the firearms of the arquebuses of the fearsome battalions of Spanish Tercios and Landsknechts.
This episode compromised the fate of the battle. The rearguard of the French army, given the direction the battle had taken, was partially or not even launched into the fray. As a result, the victory went to the imperial militias against the French, who suffered heavy losses. Between 3,000 and 7,000 men were left on the ground.
According to some, the Battle of Bicocca marked a turning point in the art of warfare. The decisive role played by the Spanish arquebuses in stopping the reckless charges of the numerous Swiss infantrymen established the beginning of an era dominated by a new military tactic.
The outcome of the Battle of Bicocca would also profoundly mark the history of the Duchy of Milan. The French defeat at the Bicocca was the prelude to the failure of the King of France at Pavia (1525). This failure forced the French to finally abandon Milan, which would be ruled by the Spanish for over a century and a half.
Because of the heavy loss at the Bicocca, the famous french saying “C’est une bicoque” symbolises defeat.
On the other hand, the word ‘bicoca’ entered the Spanish language, meaning a bargain or something acquired at little cost.