The first records of the Borromei family are from the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century, where they were firmly part of of the ranks of the new ‘middle class’ of San Miniato al Tedesco.
With a branch of the family already in Padua, it is not easy to explain why one of them should move to a small Tuscan hill town. All that is known about the first, Borromeo, is that he was dead by 1319. His heir was Franco or Francesco (d. 1344) who had four surviving children: Berardino (fl. 1313-25); Gherardo (fl. 1319-66); Lazzaro or Lazzerino; and Jacopo (fl. 1336-72). It was this generation and their children who moved rapidly into public office-holding within San Miniato.
Here, we follow the careers of two of the sons of Lazzaro di Borromeo, Filippo and Berardino, whose descendants were to found major international banking houses in Milan, Venice and Florence. We start with Filippo di Lazzaro, beginning with his marriage, his part in San Miniato’s revolt against Florentine rule in 1367-70, then the family ‘Diaspora’ that followed the defeat of the rebels, and Filippo’s execution in 1370.
By the time of the rebellion Filippo was a wealthy man. His goods and possessions in Florence in 1370 were valued at over 2,000 florins (roughly £280 sterling in terms of the gold content of the florin and the English gold noble at this point). In 1375 his goods and possessions in Sanminiatese territory were listed as more than 1,200 staiora of arable land (360 acres or 146 hectares), more than 24 houses and farmhouses, two towers and a mill on the river Elsa. Sanminiatese records before 1368 also show that one of his main sources of income came from money lending and Filippo had obviously invested the profits in building up a very substantial landed estate.
He had made a significant marriage, to Talda Lascaris di Tenda, the elder sister of Beatrice Lascaris di Tenda who married first Facino Cane, a leading condottiere in the service of the Visconti rulers of Milan and then, after Cane’s death in 1412, Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan. Filippo di Lazzaro’s marriage goes a long way towards explaining what happened to his family after 1370, since Milan was to become the refuge for some of his children, and perhaps to his political motives in joining the rebellion against Florence in 1367, which eventually resulted in Filippo’s execution and in his family’s exile.
Florence took its revenge on the ringleaders by having them executed. Among them was ser Filippo di Lazzaro, the grandson of Borromeo (d. 1319). His widow, Talda and her children fled initially to Padua, where one of her sons, Andrea, was already studying law. Read more about his career, and those of his brothers Borromeo and Alessandro. For the Borromei family of Milan, the ancestors of today’s Borromeo Arese family, Filippo di Lazzaro’s last two children, Giovanni di Filippo and Margherita di Filippo were the most important.
Giovanni remained in Milan after the flight from San Miniato in 1370. He acquired Milanese citizenship in 1395 and became treasurer general of the city. His wealth came from trade, internally, nationally and internationally, and from the profits of exchange banking, and he was able to make large loans. He was, however, without a legitimate heir and turned to the extended Borromei family for a solution to the problem. His sister, Margherita, had married Giacomo Vitaliano of Padua, a member of an ancient and distinguished family who had been ambassador from Padua to Venice.
Their son Vitaliano, born between 1387 and 1391, was adopted by Giovanni as his heir, taking the surname Borromei at about the time of his early marriage to Ambrogina da Fagnano between 1406 and 1408. Vitaliano acquired Milanese citizenship in 1416 and thanks to his adopted father he became ducal treasurer in 1418. There then followed a close association with the duke, Filippo Maria, with Giovanni always acting as his guarantor because of his vast wealth. When Vitaliano became treasurer in 1426-27, for example, Giovanni provided two thirds of the capital. The partnership between Giovanni and Vitaliano was to last until the former’s death in 1431 when his adopted son inherited his father’s great wealth. Although Vitaliano was to found branches of the Milanese bank at Bruges, London and Barcelona in the 1430s, this did not stop his financial support for Duke Filippo Maria until the latter’s death in 1447. Loyalty to the Visconti brought Vitaliano rich rewards but the duke’s death without a direct heir threw Milan into turmoil.
A three-sided struggle for power developed between Francesco Sforza, commander of the Milanese army, Alfonso of Aragon, king of Naples, Filippo Maria’s nominated heir, and the Golden Ambrosian Republic, created by the citizens of Milan themselves. Vitaliano played a double game, outwardly supporting the Republic but secretly conspiring with Sforza to make him duke of Milan. When this was discovered, Vitaliano had to leave Milan in a great hurry, retiring to his castle at Angera. Until his death in 1449 he continued to provide valuable financial support to Sforza who was now prepared to seize the duchy of Milan for himself, something he accomplished in 1450.
Vitaliano had three legitimate sons, Filippo, Giacomo and Venturino, and an illegitimate son, Giovanni Andrea, ‘il Prevosto’.
Born in 1419, Filippo became involved in his father’s banks in Milan, Bruges, London and Barcelona which were all named Filippo Borromei e compagni (partners). Filippo was one of the six citizens who formally offered the title of duke of Milan to Sforza and he continued his father’s policy of supporting him financially to ensure that all the family held on to everything it had been granted by duke Filippo Maria and Sforza himself.
During the 1450s, however, and perhaps because of the acute crisis in the Milanese economy during the mid-fifteenth century, Filippo began to concentrate his commercial activities on Genoa. He had become a Genoese citizen in 1450 and between then and his death in 1464 he built up investments of £Genoese65-75,000 in the Banco di San Giorgio, Genoa’s premier financial institution. At his funeral in 1464 Francesco Filefio, the noted Milanese humanist, delivered the eulogy but a bitter inheritance dispute broke out between his two sons, Giovanni and Vitaliano II, which was later made all the worse by the involvement of Lodovico il Moro Sforza (1452-1508) who wished to break the power of the Borromei in Milan. That he did not succeed can best be seen by the continued involvement of the Borromei in Milanese politics in the following centuries.
The astonishing rise of the Borromei family in the late fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries means casting our net wide. Franco Borromei (d. 1346) had three other sons, ser Berardino, Gherardo and Jacopo.
Ser Berardino (d. by 1325) married Gemma, daughter of the late Lastro di Pino, at an uncertain date. They had two sons, ser Francesco (fl. 1327-92) and Niccolò (fl. 1325-70). Little is known about Niccolò except that he was involved in the government of San Miniato and in 1370 was arrested with other members of the family accused of having supported the rebellion of 1368. Ser Francesco also took an active part in the government of San Miniato and had two sons by his marriage to Lencia di Lippo di Contro, Bartolomeo (fl. 1356-93) and Domenico (fl. 1356).
In 1356 Bartolomeo and Domenico and their uncle ser Filippo applied for Florentine citizenship and the right to live in the city provided they acquired property there worth 2,000 florins. However, Bartolomeo joined the rebels in 1368 and in 1370 was forced to flee to Pisa with his sons Francesco, Piero and Lodovico and his grandchildren Alessandro, Borromeo and Giovanni. Bartolomeo was condemned in absentia by the Florentines in 1370 and seems to have lived in Pisa until the end of his life. His sons and grand-children would be active in banking activity in Florence, Pisa and Genoa.
In his Serpent of Division (1422), the English poet John Lydgate wrote this on the fate of men and women:
The froward Dame of Chaunce hath no respecte of persons, she spareth neither Emperour nor King, but from the hiest place of honor she makes him fall lowe, wherby his fall is more infamous.
It is a familiar topos, the Wheel of Fortune that brings men and women both high and low and could be applied to the Borromei family between 1300 and 1367-70. The failure of the rebellion against Florence drove many of the family from San Miniato, first to Padua, Pisa and Milan and then also to Venice and Florence, establishing themselves solidly in their new homes in the last decade of the fourteenth century and the first of the fifteenth.
There were, of course, still Borromei in San Miniato after 1370 and at least until 1432 when the final Sanminiatese revolt against Florentine rule saw the confiscation of all the family property in the commune. But their fate was to rise elsewhere and remain high throughout the next six-and-a-half centuries. In just over a century the family had moved from provincial insignificance to the verge of great wealth and social prestige. It is a remarkable story.