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The biscione[a] ("grass snake"), also less commonly known as the vipera[b] ("viper"), is a heraldic charge showing on argent an azure serpent in the act of consuming a human (usually a child and sometimes described as a Moor or an Ottoman Turk). It is a historic symbol of the city of Milan.
The charge became associated with the city after the Visconti family gained control over Milan 1277; Bonvesin da la Riva records it in his De magnalibus urbis Mediolani (On the Marvels of the City of Milan) as a Visconti symbol no later than the end of the 13th century. The symbol may have been derived from a bronzed serpent brought to Milan from Constantinople by Arnolf II of Arsago (Archbishop of Milan 998-1018) in the 11th century.
One of the oldest depictions of the Biscione is in the Great Hall of the Visconti Castle of Angera. The hall was painted at the end of the 13th century with frescoes celebrating Archbishop Ottone Visconti's victory against the rival family of the Della Torre. The viper swallowing a small human figure is depicted in the pendentives of the hall.
The biscione remained associated with the Duchy of Milan even after the Visconti line died out in the 15th century. The House of Sforza incorporated the symbol into their armorial after taking the duchy.
As a symbol of Milan, the biscione is used by multiple organizations associated with or based in the city. Football club Inter Milan is commonly represented by a biscione, the team's 2010–11 away shirt and 2021–22 home and away shirt prominently featured the symbol. Milan-based auto manufacturer Alfa Romeo (also known as the Casa del Biscione, Italian for "House of the Biscione" or "Biscione['s] marque") includes a biscione in its logo impaled with a red cross on white (derived from the flag of Milan), as does espresso machine manufacturer Bezzera. Silvio Berlusconi, who was born and remains based in Milan, uses stylized biscione symbols in the logos for his companies Mediaset and Fininvest (with the child replaced by a flower); his residential zones Milano Due and Milano Tre and the Mediaset-owned television channel Canale 5 all also use biscione-inspired imagery.
Outside Milan, a similar design is found in the seals of the Hungarian nobleman Nicholas I Garai, palatine to the King of Hungary (1375–1385). Here the crowned snake devours a sovereign's orb, rather than a human. The arms of the towns of Sanok in Poland and Pruzhany in Belarus also feature the symbol, honoring the marriage of Bona Sforza to Sigismund I of Poland while both towns were part of Poland–Lithuania.
Comparable to the biscione are some depictions of the Hindu deity Matsya. While his form is referred to as anthropomorphically having a humanoid upper half, and his lower half as that of a fish, some depictions show him with his upper body emerging from the mouth of a fish. In early Christian art of the catacombs, the Old Testament prophet Jonah is depicted as a man being swallowed by a serpent-like Leviathan, a sea creature of Hebrew myth.
Coats of arms, flags and symbols bearing the biscione
The early arms of the Duchy of Milan under the House of Visconti. The coronet on the snake distinguishes this variant from the plain arms of the Visconti family.
The flag of the Duchy of Milan, also featuring two biscioni and two Imperial Eagles.
Bona Sforza's seal, bearing similarities to the other Sforza symbols.
The arms of Ortensio Visconti, Bishop of Lodi.
The coat of arms (the flag is very similar) of Sanok, bearing the biscione due to Bona Sforza.
The official seal of Pruzany (also featured in its flag), also bearing the biscione due to Bona.
- Reina (2018), p. 68
- Reina (2018), p. 69
- Dunlop (2009), p. 168
- Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles (1909). A Complete Guide to Heraldry: Illustrated by Nine Plates and Nearly 800 Other Designs. London: T.C. & E.C. Jack. ISBN 0-517-26643-1. LCCN 09023803. Page 257
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