The Biscione of Milan: A Serpent’s Tale Weaving Through History

In the realm of heraldry, where symbols hold profound meaning and tell tales of dynasties and cities, one captivating charge stands out—the biscione. Also known as the “big grass snake” or the vipera, this iconic emblem has become synonymous with the city of Milan, leaving its indelible mark on the rich tapestry of history and culture.

Biscione of Milan

The association of the biscione with Milan dates back to the rise of the influential Visconti family, who gained control over the city in 1277. Bonvesin da la Riva, in his renowned work “De magnalibus urbis Mediolani” (On the Marvels of the City of Milan), records the biscione as a Visconti symbol as early as the end of the 13th century. It is believed that the inspiration for the symbol came from a bronzed serpent, brought to Milan from Constantinople by Archbishop Arnolf II of Arsago in the 11th century.

One of the oldest depictions of the biscione can be found adorning the Great Hall of the Visconti Castle of Angera. Painted at the end of the 13th century, these frescoes celebrate Archbishop Ottone Visconti’s victory over the rival Della Torre family. Within the pendentives of the hall, the viper swallowing a small human figure can be marvelled at, capturing the essence of the biscione’s enigmatic allure.

Despite the decline of the Visconti lineage in the 15th century, the biscione continued to be associated with the Duchy of Milan. The House of Sforza, who succeeded the Visconti rule, proudly incorporated the symbol into their armorial, ensuring its enduring legacy.

Today, the biscione remains a powerful symbol for the city of Milan, embraced by various organizations rooted in its rich heritage. Football club Inter Milan proudly displays the biscione, and it has adorned their away shirts in notable seasons. Renowned automobile manufacturer Alfa Romeo, often referred to as the “House of the Biscione,” features the emblem within its logo, symbolically impaled with a red cross on a white background, paying homage to the flag of Milan. Espresso machine manufacturer Bezzera also incorporates the biscione in its logo, symbolizing the city’s vibrant identity.

Beyond Milan, a similar design can be found in the seals of Hungarian nobleman Nicholas I Garai, depicting a crowned snake devouring a sovereign’s orb. The symbol is also present in the coats of arms of the towns of Sanok in Poland and Pruzhany in Belarus, commemorating the marriage of Bona Sforza to Sigismund I of Poland during the time when both towns were part of Poland–Lithuania.

The allure of the biscione extends beyond heraldry and civic pride. The band Lacuna Coil, known for their captivating music, incorporated the biscione into the artwork for their album cover “Black Anima” and limited edition tarot cards, adding a touch of mysticism and intrigue.

Comparable to the biscione are depictions of the Hindu deity Matsya and the Old Testament prophet Jonah being swallowed by a serpent-like Leviathan. These parallels reflect the universal fascination with the intertwining of human and serpentine imagery, spanning cultures and myths throughout history.

Etymologically, the word “biscione” is derived from the Italian term “biscia,” meaning “grass snake.” It serves as a masculine augmentative of the feminine word, evoking a sense of grandeur and power. The biscione charge depicts an azure serpent on a silver background, depicted in the act of either devouring or giving birth to a human—a sight both awe-inspiring and mysterious.

The biscione’s journey through time stands as a testament to the enduring power of symbols in shaping identity and captivating the imagination. Whether it graces a football jersey or adorns the crest of a noble lineage, the biscione remains a potent reminder of Milan’s rich history and cultural heritage. So, the next time you encounter the elegant serpent of Milan, let its enchanting presence remind you of the stories it carries and the generations it has inspired.

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