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The House of Sforza

The story of the House of Sforza begins with the birth of a girl.

With no sons, Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan, raised his daughter, Bianca, as the Visconti heir. She was given a humanist education, became a keen hunter, and read extensively. Her gender made her an imperfect successor, but an excellent prospective wife. By marrying her to one of his condottieri, Visconti could ensure an allegiance that strengthened Milan’s position in Italian politics. After an eleven-year betrothal, dissolved at least twice, Visconti watched his only child marry Francesco Sforza, a mercenary general twenty-four years her senior. 

Six years after they were wed, Visconti died. Much to everyone’s shock, Francesco and Bianca had not been named his heirs. Instead, that honour went to the King of Naples, Alfonso of Aragon. The Milanese saw this as an opportunity. They seized control of the city and turned the duchy into a republic, named for their patron saint, St. Ambrose. Rebellion, however, made for a weak city and Venice subsequently attacked, with the Holy Roman Empire quickly claiming the city. Chaos ensued. 

A Force to be Reckoned With

In desperate need of military help, the Milanese hired Sforza and his army. Bianca urged him not to accept the newly formed Ambrosian Republic’s title of Captain General, but Sforza did so anyway. For three years, he fought for Milan, recovering their territory. But while Sforza was in Pavia, the Venetians attacked Cremona. Bianca donned a suit of armour and fought alongside her troops, defending the city and gaining fame as a warrior woman. 

Milan betrayed them. As Bianca and Francesco fought to free Milan from enemy clutches, the city entered a peace treaty with the maritime republic. Enraged, Sforza turned his troops around and lay siege to the city itself. Insurrections broke out. Famine claimed lives. The senate had no choice but to surrender. 

On 26th February 1450, Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti, rode into Milan as the Duke and Duchess. 

Under Sforza rule, Milan thrived. Sforza founded the Ospedale Maggiore – one of the oldest hospitals in all Italy; initiated a new taxation system which proved a great success for his government; and created a new network of canals. He also restored the Palazzo Ducale and filled his court with learning and culture. The Milanese grew to love him. 

Sforza also became the first Italian ruler to conduct extensive diplomacy outside of the peninsula to counter the threat of outside states (specifically France). The policies he instigated kept these foreign powers out of Italian politics for the rest of the century. In fact, his friendship with Cosimo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence (learn more about the Medici here), led to the signing of the Peace of Lodi, an agreement made between Venice and Milan. He would later join the Italian League, which declared peace between the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Venice, the Papal States, the Republic of Florence and the Kingdom of Naples.

Bianca was no bystander. She had already proved herself in administration and diplomacy, and as Duchess she helped to recover her father’s assets, made sure their children were well educated in all areas, and was involved in state affairs and finances. She also personally offered help to the poor women in the city. Whenever Sforza was at war or ill (he suffered from gout and dropsy), she stood as Regent of Milan. 

The Whim of a Madman

Success, however, cannot be inherited. 

When Francesco Sforza died in March 1466, Bianca took control of the city. Their eldest son, Galeazzo, had been away at war, and Bianca acted as regent until he returned to succeed his father. 

At first, their relationship was a good one, but power corrupted Galeazzo, who soon stopped taking advice from his mother. He turned against her, and Bianca moved to Cremona. Later that year, when she returned to Milan for the marriage of Galeazzo to Dorotea Gonzaga, daughter of the Marquis of Mantua, Bianca fell ill. Her fever led quickly to her death. Rumours spread that Galeazzo had poisoned her, though Bernardino Corio claimed she “died of natural ungratefulness more than poison.” 

Back in 1460, there had been rumours an alliance was forming between the House of Sforza and the French royal family. When Dorotea died in 1466, this alliance was solidified with Bona of Savoy marrying the Duke. 

Where, on one hand, Galeazzo cultivated some of the greatest musical minds and gathered the most significant musical ensembles in Europe, with his other he was cruel. When a farmer caught a hare during a hunting ban, Galeazzo forced him to swallow the creature whole, suffocating himself. When an astrologer predicted the date of his death, Galeazzo had him bricked alive. When Pietro Drego conversed with Galeazzo’s mistress, he was accused of forgery and had his hands cut off before being buried alive. Galeazzo’s reputation grew darker by the day, and he slowly began to dismantle everything his parents had worked for. 

On the feast day of Saint Stephen, three men waited for Galeazzo to arrive at mass. He was stabbed to death in a scene that inspired the Pazzi Conspiracy against the Medici years later. 

The Usurper

Gian Galeazzo Sforza succeeded his father. He was a sickly creature, and only seven when he was made Duke of Milan. Galeazzo’s brother, Ludovico, became his regent. In 1488, Gian was married to Isabella of Aragon. Three years later, Ludovico usurped them, moving the couple to the Visconti Castle in Pavia. 

When Ludovico married his wife, Beatrice d’Este, Isabella gave birth to a son: Francesco Maria. Realising this threatened his claim on the duchy, Ludovico began to find ways to strengthen his hold on Milan. He began by sending Isabella’s retinue back to Naples with a paltry allowance, and hiring Leonardo da Vinci to create pageants in honour of Beatrice. He also made Beatrice the Ducal Ambassador to Venice, making her the most powerful woman at court, and took responsibility for Francesco Maria, staking claim over his education and isolating him from his parents. 

But displacing Isabella was not enough for Ludovico. He was desperate to ensure she could not move against him and therefore made a move that would devastate Italy. To nullify the threat of Isabella’s father, Ludovico allied himself with Emperor Maximilian and King Charles VIII of France. Both promised to recognise Ludovico as the Duke of Milan, legitimising him. Blinded by this promise, Ludovico encouraged the latter to attack Naples. 

Gian Galeazzo, meanwhile, succumbed in agony from his illness, and Ludovico was proclaimed the new, official, ruler of Milan. Similar to his brother before him, Ludovico was accused of poisoning his nephew: this is unlikely given Gian Galeazzo had been suffering from stomach pains since he was thirteen and Ludovico had been known to shower him with gifts. Gian Galeazzo had also refused to take care of himself, continuing to drink excessively and indulge in a notoriously active sex life, despite warnings from his physicians. 

Ludovico fell from grace. 

Two years into his official rule of Milan, his children Leone and Bianca Giovanna died. Milan’s situation grew dire. The duchy was on the verge of financial collapse, and with no money, there was no army. Whispers of an uprising began. The next year, Beatrice also died. Ludovico – who may have suffered a stroke and lost the use of his hand – was inconsolable with grief. He tried to confirm his wedding vows with Beatrice at her funeral, then imposed a law proclaiming no one could mention or grieve her. He fasted on Tuesdays, the day of her death, visited her tomb twice daily, used her coat of arms instead of his own, and had a room redecorated all in black in which he could mourn her privately. 

Meanwhile, Charles VIII died childless, and the rise of his successor, Louis XII, resulted in Ludovico fleeing Milan and entering exile. Louis XII proved to be an enemy of Isabella, too. With promises of taking her son to France to marry his daughter, uniting them forever, Louis forced Francesco Maria into a monastery, removing him as a threat. Mother and son never saw each other again. Eventually, Ludovico was taken prisoner in France, his instability growing beyond anyone’s control. 

Ludovico’s son, Maximilian, would eventually become the Duke of Milan, supported by the Swiss militia. His reign, however, lasted only three years before the French reclaimed Milan. In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, drove the French out and restored the Sforza dynasty. Ludovico’s second son, Francesco II, remained Duke of Milan until his death. He was childless. Milan reverted to the emperor, beginning a period of Spanish rule in Milan. 

A Final Note

The word ‘sforza’ mean ‘force’, and the Sforza men lived up to their name. They forced their way in, claimed a duchy, and, in doing so, changed the political landscape of the entire country. But what about the women?

Bianca Maria Visconti, whose strength, intellect, altruism, and ferocity matched that of her husband, ensured her grandchildren nurtured their warrior heritage.  For example, Caterina Sforza, who lived up to her grandmother’s name, storming the Castel Sant’Angelo while heavily pregnant (read more about her here). Bona of Savoy, who successfully banished Ludovico from Milan for a few years before his return in 1479 when he seized power. Beatrice d’Este, who destroyed her husband in death. Isabella of Aragon, rather than her husband, who was the one who needed to be taken out of the equation for Ludovico to truly gain control. The Sforza women, each forces of nature, lived up to their name and birthright.


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