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Milan, City of Splendour and War 1277-1515

Milan’s most important business street had no displays of velvet cloaks, bright bolts of silk, or cloth-of-gold. It was a dusty, smoky street, made hot by the fires of forges and filled with the din of hammers shaping steel — the Street of the Armourers. Milan made the finest armour in the world. In the Middle Ages, the crusaders came there for chain mail and it was said that entire armies were outfitted in a few days. Later, the fashions of war changed. Knights wore heavy suits of jointed steel plates that covered them from head to toe and elegant helmets, gilded, engraved and topped with plumes. The Milanese armourers became artists at molding and carving metal, their sales men were welcomed in every court in Europe and the Street of the Armourers became busier than ever. Armour was the right specialty for Milan, for the city and its rulers seemed to specialize in everything warlike and violent. The dukes of Milan were iron-fisted tyrants, who loved displays of splendour and sometimes cruelty. They did not hide their power like the cautious Medici in Florence. Indeed, they made a show of their strength and wealth. It discouraged invaders, rivals and over-ambitious relatives. The dukes’ domain was rich and as large as any state in Italy. The fertile plain of Lombardy, which lay between the Apennine Mountains and the Alps, attracted as many would-be conquerors as farmers. The prosperous little Lombard towns that the dukes overpowered were quarrelsome and the noblemen of Lombardy never stopped stirring up revolts. To hold on to their dukedom, the rulers of Milan employed the toughest warriors in Italy. They frightened their subjects with harsh laws, rewarded them with pageants and impressed them with magnificent palaces. Splendour, fear and power — these were the specialties of …

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The Sound of Bells and Trumpets in Europe 1300 – 1600

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Bells and trumpets sounded across Europe in the time that men would call the Middle Ages. Knights in glistening armour rode forth to serve God and their kings; life was like a stately procession winding through a landscape marked by castles and cathedrals. Each man knew his place. He was a prince, a knight, a squire, a priest, a craftsman, or a serf. He wore the clothes that belonged to his rank — the armour and family emblems of a nobleman, the robes of a churchman, or the rough wool jerkin of a serf. He lived according to an age-old set of rules — the knightly code of chivalry, the vows of a monk, or the duties of a serf to the lord who owned the land he farmed. Such, it was said, was the will of God. It seemed impossible to imagine that life could ever be any different and indeed, almost no one remembered that it had been different in the past. In Athens, once the most beautiful and exciting city in the world, the palaces and temples of the Greeks were vacant ruins, overgrown with weeds. In Rome, the vast arenas and the Senate House were silent. The Forum, the ancient gathering place of Roman throngs and center of the greatest empire man had known was now a cow pasture. Hidden away in the castles and cathedral libraries, manuscripts that held the science, poetry and wisdom of two thousand years of life and discovery lay dusty and unread. All this, too, it was said, was the will of God. To the men of the Middle Ages, ruins taught a lesson: life was short, the works of mankind soon fell to dust and a man’s time on earth should be spent only in preparing for death and what came …

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