When the Visconti family rule came to an end in 1447 due to lack of direct male heirs in the line of succession, there was a brief period of uncertainty and chaos in Milan, while the Ambrosian Republic attempted to step into the power vacuum that existed and take charge. In 1450, Fransesco Sforza (1401-1466), the son-in-law of the last ruling Visconti, Filippo Maria, laid siege to Milan and the city finally surrendered to him. He thus began as the first duke of the Sforza dynasty, in Milan, Italy. He made an able and respected ruler of Milan under whose administration and reign the people of Milan were very happy. He modernized the city, introduced a novel tax system that collected much money for the coffers and with this he encouraged culture and learning amongst the people. His court became the center of renaissance and made the duchy proud.
Fransesco Sforza was the son of a mercenary, Muzeo Attendola Sforza, who was the founder of the Sforza House. The family nickname aptly meant ‘strength or force’. Attendola came from a peasant family and was born in 1369 at Cotignola at Romagna. He chose to train as a condottiere – a soldier who could be hired for money to fight on behalf of some kingdom or duchy – by training and taking command over the very band of adventurers who happened to kidnap him for ransom. Attendola later served under Joanna II of Naples and also fought bravely for Pope Martin V in a battle against the Spaniards. The Viscontis too employed his services whenever they felt the need. He was drowned when on a military expedition in 1424.
His son Fransesco Sforza carried on the family name from then onwards, even followed his father’s footsteps in the profession and took charge of the troops Attendola commanded. He continued to be in the employ of the Viscontis but at one point mutual distrust between the two soured the relationship and made them part, when Fransesco who was in the employ of Queen Giovanna of Naples, was thought to be betraying his masters in a war against the Venetians. Then Filippo Visconti, the last duke of the dynasty sorely needed the services of Fransesco Sforza, so recalled him with the promise that Filippo would even reward the soldier with the hand of his only child Bianca Maria, in marriage. The game plan worked to lure Fransesco but it took many more years for the marriage to take place since the two men, still viewed each other with deep suspicion and distrust.
Finally when Fransesco and Bianca Maria were married he received Pontremoli and Cremona as dowry and the promise that he would be made the next duke. The union resulted in four children but Fransesco had many illicit relationships as well that gave him numerous illegitimate children.
The highlight of his reign was the close friendship, the duke had with the ruler of Florence, Cosimo di’ Medici. This cemented an alliance called, the Peace of Lodi that brought great stability in much of Italy till it was in force.
Fransesco’s exercised great authority over Lombardy, as well as regions south of Po and even Genoa besides his own duchy Milan. He brought glory to Italy by rebuilding the fortress of Porta Giovio, connecting Milan and Adda with canal Martesena and constructing the Great Hospital. It could be said to the duke’s credit that Italian scholars and Greek exiles thrived in his court and their work was greatly appreciated. His own daughter was known widely for her Latin discourses. Though Fransesco Sforza proved to be such a loved and capable leader, most of his descendents were cruel, as well as mentally imbalanced to say the least, doing his name great discredit in the years that followed.
Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476), his son was an example. He took charge of the duchy on his father’s demise but his inhumane behavior was abhorrent to everybody. He was assassinated in 1476 just 10 years after he became duke, in hope that the death would incite a popular uprising in Milan. Three noblemen, who claimed to be reenacting the drama of Julius Caesar, murdered him on the steps of the Milan Chapel! Though considered a despotic ruler, Galeazzo introduced novel practices like, building of irrigation canals for cultivation of rice, giving impetus to trade and commerce and encouraging the growth of art and culture by extending his patronage to them.
Gian Galeazzo Sforza (1469-1494), his son who was only 7 years old at the time of his father’s death, became duke of Milan. His uncle Lodovico Sforza ruled on his young nephew’s behalf and eventually wrested all power in his own hands and became the ruler himself, though in name only it was his nephew who was the duke. Gian married Isabella of Naples and had two children. He died in 1494, and if rumor is to be believed, poisoned by his uncle Lodovico Sforza, who now became the undisputed ruler of Milan, bringing to an end another Sforza era of deceit and intrigue.
The year he officially took over as duke, Ludovico Maria Sforza (ruled 1494 –99) encouraged Charles VIII of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I to participate in the internal politics of Italy, hoping to personally gain from this move but instead the Italian Wars erupted. This provoked Ludovico to seek the support of Maximilian I against Charles VIII by offering his niece Bianca in marriage to the former.
Though Ludovico managed to defeat the French in the Battle of Fornovo in 1495, within 4 years he faced a rout from Milan by the new French king, Lois XII. The French later attacked Novara where Ludovico was based. The Swiss mercenaries who made up of a large part of both sides of the two armies did not relish shedding blood of their own men by waging war with each other and hence vacated Novara after handing over Ludovico to the French in 1500, who later died imprisoned in a castle at Loches in 1508.
Lodovico Sforza was the object of undisguised contempt of many for being the root of destruction of Italy at that time. He was greedy, eternally plotting and planning to serve his own devices. Eventually this trait in him spelt his doom and encouraged the control of foreign powers over Italy.
Despite all his bad traits, people also remember him for encouraging art and being patron to the famous Leonardo da Vinci and other artists. The world-renowned painting, The Last Supper, was painted by the Master, Leonardo da Vinci during Ludovico’s time as a gift to a church on behalf of the duke. The Italian wars affected the work of the master artist in more ways than one. It is widely known that the 70 tons of bronze, da Vinci had painfully collected to craft the masterpiece horse statue, Gran Cavallo, was taken away to instead fashion arms to defend Milan!
The Swiss restored the dukedom of Milan to Ludovico’s son, Maximilian Sforza. He was the Duke of Milan between the occupations of Louis XII of France 1500 and Francis I of France 1515 but after the departure of the French, the rule of the Sforza family was sporadic and lasted only till 1535. The French imprisoned Maximilian in 1515.
Another son of Ludovico Sforza, by name Fransesco II Maria Sforza (1522-35) returned to Milan to claim the duchy after the French were defeated in 1522. He ruled until he died in 1535 bringing to an end the ducal line in Milan for the Sforza House. Charles V and the Habsburg took control of Milan from then on. Charles himself was a descendent of the Viscontis, through the daughter of Bernabo. Milan went under the control of Austria after the War of Spanish Succession and remained so until Napoleon III routed the Austrians from Milan and the city became again a part of new Italy.