V. THE SFORZAS: 1450–1500

Francesco Sforza was the ideal of Renaissance soldiers: tall, handsome, athletic, brave; the best runner, jumper, wrestler in his army; sleeping little, marching bareheaded winter and summer; winning the devotion of his men by sharing their hardships and rations, and leading them to lucrative victories by strategy and tactics rather than by superior numbers or arms. So unrivaled was his reputation that enemy forces, on more than one occasion, laid down their arms at sight of him, and greeted him with uncovered heads as the greatest general of his time. Ambitious to found a state of his own, he allowed no scruple to hinder his policy; he fought alternately for Milan, Florence, and Venice until Filippo won his loyalty by giving him Bianca in marriage, with Cremona and Pontremoli as her dowry (1441). When, six years later, Filippo died heirless, bringing the Visconti dynasty to an end, Francesco felt that the dowry should include Milan.

The Milanese thought differently; they proclaimed a republic named Ambrosian from the masterful bishop who had chastened Theodosius and converted Augustine a thousand years before. But the rival factions in the city could not agree; the dependencies of Milan snatched the opportunity to declare themselves free; some of them fell before Venetian arms; danger was imminent of a Venetian or Florentine attack; moreover the Duke of Orléans, the Emperor Frederick III, and King Alfonso of Aragon all claimed Milan as their own. In this crisis a deputation sought Sforza, gave him Brescia, and begged him to defend Milan. He fought off its enemies with resourceful energy; but when the new government made peace with Venice without consulting him he turned his troops against the Republic, besieged Milan to the edge of starvation, accepted its surrender, entered the city amid the acclamations of a hungry populace, and dulled the lust for liberty by distributing bread. A general assembly was summoned, composed of one man from each household; it invested him with the ducal authority over the protests of the Emperor, and the Sforza dynasty began its brief and brilliant career (1450).

His elevation did not change his character. He continued to live simply and to work hard. Now and then he was cruel or treacherous, alleging the good of the state as his excuse; generally he was a man of justice and humanity. He suffered from a lawless sensitivity to the beauty of women. His accomplished wife killed his mistress, and then forgave him; she bore him eight children, advised him wisely in politics, and won the people to his rule by succoring the needy and protecting the oppressed. His administration of the state was as competent as his leadership of its armies. The social order that he enforced brought back to the city a prosperity that dimmed the memory of its suffering and its fitful liberty. As a citadel against revolt or siege he began to build the enormous Castello Sforzesco. He cut new canals through the land, organized public works, and built the Ospedale Maggiore, or Great Hospital. He brought the humanist Filelfo to Milan, and encouraged education, scholarship, and art; he lured Vincenzo Foppa from Brescia to develop a school of painting. Threatened by the intrigues of Venice, Naples, and France, he held them all at bay by winning the decisive support and firm friendship of Cosimo de’ Medici. He disarmed Naples by wedding his daughter Ippolita to Ferdinand’s son Alfonso; he checkmated the Duke of Orléans by signing an alliance with Louis XI of France. Some nobles continued to seek his death and his power, but the success of his government disordered their plans, and he lived to die, in peace, the traditional death of generals (1466).

Born to the purple, his son Galeazzo Maria Sforza never knew the discipline of poverty and struggle. He gave himself up to pleasure, luxury, and pomp, seduced with special relish the wives of his friends, and punished opposition with a cruelty that seemed to have descended to him, deviously and mysteriously, through the kindly Bianca from the hot Visconti blood. The people of Milan, inured to absolute rule, offered no resistance to his despotism, but private vengeance punished what public terror brooked. Girolamo Olgiati grieved over a sister seduced and then discarded by the Duke; Giovanni Lampugnani thought himself despoiled of property by the same lord; together with Carlo Visconti they had been trained by Niccolò Monteno in Roman history and ideals, including tyrannicide from Brutus to Brutus. After imploring the help of the saints, the three youths entered the church of St. Stephen, where Galeazzo was worshiping, and stabbed him to death (1476). Lampugnani and Visconti were killed on the spot. Olgiati was tortured till almost every bone in his body was broken or torn from its socket; he was then flayed alive; but to his last breath he refused to repent, called upon pagan heroes and Christian saints to approve his deed, and died with a classic and Renaissance phrase on his lips: Mors acerba, fama perpetua—”Death is bitter, but fame is everlasting.”11

Galeazzo left his throne to a seven-year-old boy, Giangaleazzo Sforza. For three chaotic years Guelf and Ghibelline factions competed in force and fraud to capture the regency. The victor was one of the most colorful and complex personalities in all the crowded gallery of the Renaissance. Lodovico Sforza was the fourth of Francesco Sforza’s sons. His father gave him the cognomen Mauro; his contemporaries jokingly transformed this into il Moro—“the Moor”—because of his dark hair and eyes; he himself good-humoredly accepted the nickname, and Moorish emblems and costumes became popular at his court. Other wits found in the name a synonym for the mulberry tree (in Italian, moro); this too became a symbol for him, made the mulberry color fashionable in Milan, and provided a theme and motive for some of Leonardo’s decorations in the Castello rooms. Lodovico’s chief teacher was the scholar Filelfo, who gave him a rich grounding in the classics; but his mother Bianca warned the humanist that “we have princes to educate, not merely scholars”; and she saw to it that her sons should also be skilled in the arts of government and war. Lodovico was seldom physically brave; but in him the intelligence of the Visconti freed itself from their cruelty, and with all his faults and sins, he became one of the most civilized men in history.

He was not handsome; like most great men, he was spared this distracting handicap. His face was too full, his nose too long and curved, his chin too ample, his lips too firmly closed; and yet in the profile attributed to Boltraffio, in the busts in Lyons and the Louvre, there is a quiet strength in the features, a sensitive intelligence, an almost soft refinement. He earned the reputation of being the craftiest diplomat of his time, sometimes vacillating, often devious, not always scrupulous, occasionally unfaithful; these were the common faults of Renaissance diplomacy; perhaps they are the hard necessities of all diplomacy. Nevertheless few Renaissance princes equaled him in mercy and generosity; cruelty was against his grain, and countless men and women enjoyed his beneficence. Mild and courteous, sensually susceptible to every beauty and every art, imaginative and emotional and yet rarely losing perspective or his temper, skeptical and superstitious, the master of millions and the slave of his astrologer—all this was Lodovico, the unstable culminating heir of clashing strains.

For thirteen years (1481–94) he governed Milan as regent for his nephew. Giangaleazzo Sforza was a timid retiring spirit, dreading the responsibilities of rule; he was subject to frequent illness, and incapable of serious affairs —incapacissimo, Guicciardini called him; he gave himself to amusement or idleness, and gladly left the administration of the state to the uncle whom he admired with envy and trusted with doubt. Lodovico resigned to him all the pomp and splendor of the ducal title and office; it was Gian who sat on the throne, received homage, and lived in regal luxury. But his wife, Isabella of Aragon, resented Lodovico’s retention of power, urged Gian to take the reins of office in his own hands, and begged her father Alfonso, heir to the throne of Naples, to come with his army and give her the powers of an actual ruler.

Lodovico governed efficiently. Around his summer cottage at Vigevano he developed a vast experimental farm and cattle-breeding station; experiments were made there in cultivating rice, the vine, and the mulberry tree; the dairies made butter and cheese of such excellence as even Italy had never known before; the fields and hills pastured 28,000 oxen, cows, buffaloes, sheep, and goats; the spacious stables sheltered the stallions and mares that bred the finest horses in Europe. Meanwhile, in Milan, the silk industry employed twenty thousand workers, and captured many foreign markets from Florence. Ironmongers, goldsmiths, woodcarvers, enamelers, potters, mosaicists, glass painters, perfumers, embroiderers, tapestry weavers, and makers of musical instruments contributed to the busy din of Milanese industry, adorned the palaces and personages of the court with ornaments, and exported sufficient surplus to pay for the softer luxuries that came from the East. To ease the traffic of men and goods, and “give the people more light and air,”12 Lodovico had the principal streets widened; the avenues leading to the Castello were lined with palaces and gardens for the aristocracy; and the great cathedral, which now took its definitive form, rose as a rival focus of the city’s throbbing life. Milan had in 1492 a population of some 128,000 souls.13 It prospered under Lodovico as not even under Giangaleazzo Visconti, but complaints were heard that the profits of this flourishing economy went rather to strengthen the regent and glorify his court than to raise the populace from its immemorial poverty. Householders groaned at the heavy taxes, and riots of protest disturbed Cremona and Lodi. Lodovico answered that he needed the money to build new hospitals and care for the sick, to support the universities of Pavia and Milan, to finance experiments in agriculture, breeding, and industry, and to impress with the art and lavish magnificence of his court ambassadors whose governments respected only those states that were rich and strong.

Milan was not convinced, but it seemed to share Lodovico’s happiness when he brought to it as his bride the tenderest and most lovable of the Ferrara princesses (1491). He made no pretense that he could match the vivacious virginity of Beatrice d’Este; he was already thirty-nine, and had served a number of mistresses, who had given him two sons and a daughter—the gentle Bianca whom he loved as his father had loved the passionate lady from whom she took her name. Beatrice raised no difficulties about these usual preparations of the Renaissance male for monogamy; but when she reached Milan she was shocked to find her lord’s latest mistress, the beautiful Cecilia Gallerani, still lodged in a Castello suite. Worse yet, Lodovico continued to visit Cecilia for two months after his marriage; he explained to the Ferrarese ambassador that he had not the heart to send away the cultured poetess who had so graciously entertained his body and soul. Beatrice threatened to return to Ferrara; Lodovico yielded, and persuaded Count Bergamini to marry Cecilia.

Beatrice was a girl of fourteen when she came to Lodovico. She was not especially pretty; her charm lay in the innocent gaiety with which she approached and appropriated life. She had grown up at Naples and learned its joyous ways; she had left it before it could spoil her guilelessness, but it had imparted to her a carefree extravagance which now, in the lap of Lodovico’s wealth, so indulged itself that Milan caller her amantissima del lusso— madly in love with luxury.14 Everybody forgave her, for she diffused such innocent merriment—“spending day and night,” reports a contemporary chronicler,15 “in singing and dancing and all manner of delights”—that the whole court caught her spirit, and joy was unconfined. The grave Lodovico, some months after their marriage, fell in love with her, and confessed for a while that all power and wisdom were negligible things beside his new felicity. Under his care she added graces of mind to the lure of her youthful esprit: she learned to make Latin speeches, dizzied her head with affairs of state, and at times served her lord well as an irresistible ambassadress. Her letters to her still more famous sister, Isabella d’Este, are fragrant flowers in the Machiavellian jungle of Renaissance strife.16

With playful Beatrice to lead the dance, and hard-working Lodovico to pay the bills, the court of Milan became now the most splendid not only in Italy but in all Europe. The Castello Sforzesco expanded to its fullest glory, with its majestic central tower, its endless maze of luxurious rooms, its inlaid floors, its stained-glass windows, its embroidered cushions and Persian carpets, its tapestries telling again the legends of Troy and Rome; here a ceiling by Leonardo, there a statue by Cristoforo Solari or Cristoforo Romano, and almost everywhere some luscious relic of Greek or Roman or Italian art. In that resplendent setting scholars mingled with warriors, poets with philosophers, artists with generals, and all with women whose natural charms were enhanced by every refinement of cosmetics, jewelry, and dress. The men, even the soldiers, were carefully coiffured and richly garbed. Orchestras played a combination of musical instruments, and song filled the halls. While Florence trembled before Savonarola and burned the vanities of love and art, music and loose morals reigned in Lodovico’s capital. Husbands connived at their wives’ amours in exchange for their own excursions.17 Masked balls were frequent, and a thousand gay costumes covered a multitude of sins. Men and women danced and sang as if poverty were not stalking the city walls, as if France were not planning to invade Italy, as if Naples were not plotting the ruin of Milan.

Bernardino Corio, who came from his native Como to this court, described it with classic flourishes in his lively Historia di Milano (c. 1500):

The court of our princes was splendid exceedingly, full of new fashions, dresses, and delights. Nevertheless, at this time virtue was so much lauded on every side that Minerva had set up great rivalry with Venus, and each sought to make her school the most brilliant. To that of Cupid came the most beautiful youths. Fathers yielded to it their daughters, husbands their wives, brothers their sisters, and so thoughtlessly did they thus flock to the amorous hall that it was reckoned a stupendous thing by those who had understanding. Minerva, she too, sought with all her might to adorn her gentle Academy. Wherefore that glorious and most illustrious Prince Lodovico Sforza had called into his pay—as far as from the uttermost parts of Europe—men most excellent in knowledge and art. Here was the learning of Greece, here Latin verse and prose flourished resplendently, here were the poetic Muses; hither the masters of the sculptor’s art and those foremost in painting had gathered from distant countries, and here songs and sweet sounds of every kind and such dulcet harmonies were heard, that they seemed to have descended from Heaven itself upon this excelling court.17a

Perhaps it was Beatrice who, in the fervor of maternal love, brought disaster to Lodovico and Italy. In 1493 she bore him a son, who was named Maximilian after his godfather, the heir apparent to the Imperial throne. Beatrice wondered what her future, and the boy’s, would be should Lodovico die. For her lord had no legal right to rule Milan; Giangaleazzo Sforza, with Neapolitan aid, might at any moment depose, exile, or kill him; and if Gian should manage to have a son, the duchy would presumably descend to that son, regardless of Lodovico’s fate. Lodovico, sympathizing with these worries, sent a secret embassy to King Maximilian, offering him his niece, Bianca Maria Sforza, in marriage, with a tempting dowry of 400,000 ducats ($5,000,000), provided that Maximilian, on becoming emperor, would confer upon Lodovico the title and powers of duke of Milan. Maximilian agreed. We should add that the emperors, who had given the ducal title to the ruling Visconti, had refused to sanction its assumption by the Sforzas. Legally Milan was still subject to Imperial authority.

Giangaleazzo was too busy with his dogs and doctors to bother his head with these developments, but his fuming Isabella sensed their trend, and renewed her pleas to her father. In January, 1494, Alfonso became King of Naples, and adopted a policy frankly hostile to the regent of Milan. Pope Alexander VI was not only allied with Naples, he was anxious to unite the town of Forlì—then ruled by a Sforza—with other cities in a powerful papal state. Lorenzo de’ Medici, who had been friendly to Lodovico, had died in 1492. Driven to desperate measures to protect himself, Lodovico allied Milan with France, and consented to give Charles VIII and the French army an unhindered passage through northwestern Italy when Charles should undertake to assert his rights to the Neapolitan throne.

So the French came. Lodovico played host to Charles, and bade him Godspeed on his expedition against Naples. While the French marched south Giangaleazzo Sforza died of a combination of ailments. Lodovico was wrongly suspected of poisoning him, but gave some support to the rumor by the haste with which he had himself invested with the ducal title (1495). Meanwhile Louis, Duke of Orléans, invaded Italy with a second French army, and announced that he would take Milan as his rightful possession through his descent from Giangaleazzo Visconti. Lodovico saw now that he had made a tragic error in welcoming Charles. Swiftly reversing his policy, he helped to form, with Venice, Spain, Alexander VI, and Maximilian, a “Holy League” to expel the French from the peninsula. Charles hastily retraced his steps, suffered an indecisive defeat at Fornovo (1495), and barely managed to bring his battered army back to France. Louis of Orléans decided to wait for a better day.

Lodovico prided himself on the apparent success of his tortuous policy: he had taught Alfonso a lesson, had foiled Orléans, and had led the League to victory. His position now seemed safe; he relaxed the vigilance of his diplomacy, and again enjoyed the splendor of his court and the liberties of his youth. When Beatrice became pregnant a second time he freed her from marital obligations, and formed a liaison with Lucrezia Crivelli (1496). Beatrice bore his infidelity with impatient grief; she no longer spread song and merriment about her, but immersed herself in her two sons. Lodovico vacillated between his mistress and his wife, pleading that he loved both. In 1497 Beatrice was a third time confined in childbirth. She was delivered of a stillborn son; and half an hour later, after great agony, she died, aged twenty-two.

From that moment everything changed in the city and the Duke. The people, says a contemporary, “showed such grief as had never been known before in Milan.” The court put on mourning; Lucrezia Crivelli fled into obscurity; Lodovico, overcome with remorse and sorrow, passed days in solitude and prayer; and the strong man who had hardly thought of religion now asked for only one boon—that he might die, see Beatrice again, earn her forgiveness, and regain her love. For two weeks he refused to receive officials, his envoys, or his children; he attended three Masses daily, and daily visited the tomb of his wife in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. He commissioned Cristoforo Solari to carve a recumbent effigy of Beatrice; and as he wished, when dead, to be buried with her in one tomb, he asked that his own effigy should be placed beside hers. It was so done; and that simple monument in the Certosa di Pavia still commemorates the brief bright day that for Lodovico and Milan, as well as for Beatrice and Leonardo, had now come to an end.

The tragedy ripened rapidly. In 1498 the Duke of Orléans became Louis XII of France, and at once reaffirmed his intention of taking Milan. Lodovico sought allies, but found none; Venice bluntly reminded him of his invitation to Charles VIII. He gave command of his army to Galeazzo di San Severino, who was too handsome for a general; Galeazzo fled at sight of the enemy, and the French marched unhindered upon Milan. Lodovico appointed his trusted friend Bernardino da Corte to guard the well-fortified Castello, and bade him hold it till Lodovico could secure aid from Maximilian. Then Lodovico, in disguise and through a hundred vicissitudes, made his way (September 2, 1499) to Innsbruck and Maximilian. When Gian Trivulzio, a Milanese general whom Lodovico had offended, led the French into Milan, Bernardino surrendered the Castello and its treasures to him without resistance for a bribe of 150,000 ducats ($1,875,000). “Since Judas,” mourned Lodovico, “there was no greater treason,”18 and all Italy agreed with him.

Louis bade Trivulzio make the conquered pay for the conquest; the general levied heavy taxes; the French soldiers behaved with coarse insolence; the people began to pray for Lodovico’s return. He came, with a small force of Swiss, German, and Italian mercenaries; the French troops retired into the Castello, and Lodovico entered Milan in triumph (February 5, 1500). During his brief stay there a distinguished French prisoner was brought to him, the Chevalier Bayard, renowned for courage and courtesy; Lodovico restored to him his sword and horse, freed him, and sent him back under escort to the French camp. The French did not return the courtesy; the garrison in the Castello bombarded the streets of Milan until Lodovico, to protect or appease the population, changed his headquarters to Pavia. His funds began to run out, and he fell behind in paying his troops. They proposed to compensate themselves by pillaging the Italian towns, and fumed when he forbade them. He engaged Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, husband of Beatrice’s sister Isabella, to lead his little army; Francesco agreed, but secretly negotiated with the French.19 When the French appeared at Novara, Lodovico led his motley force to battle; it turned at the first shock and fled; its leaders arranged terms with the French; and when Lodovico tried to escape in disguise his Swiss mercenaries betrayed him to the enemy (April 10, 1500). He accepted his fate quietly, merely asking that his copy of The Divine Comedy should be brought to him from his library in Pavia. White-haired but still proud, he was led through hostile mocking crowds in the streets of Lyons, and was imprisoned in the castle of Lys-Saint-Georges in Berry. Louis XII refused to see him, and ignored the pleas of the Emperor Maximilian to set the broken captive free, but he allowed Lodovico to stroll in the castle grounds, to fish in the moat, and to receive friends. When Lodovico fell seriously ill Louis sent him his own doctor, Maître Salomon, and brought one of Lodovico’s dwarfs from Milan to amuse him. In 1504 he transferred Lodovico to the château of Loches, and allowed him still wider liberty. In 1508 Lodovico tried to escape; he made his way out of the castle precincts in a load of straw; he lost himself in the woods, was tracked by bloodhounds, and thereafter suffered a stricter imprisonment. He was deprived of books and writing materials, and was confined in a subterranean dungeon. There, on May 17, 1508, in a dark solitude all the world away from the bright life of his once gay capital, Lodovico, aged fifty-seven, died.20

He had sinned against man and woman and Italy, but he had loved beauty, and had cherished the men who brought art and music, poetry and learning to Milan. Said one of Italy’s greatest historians, Girolamo Tiraboschi, a century ago:

If we consider the immense number of learned men who flocked to his court from all parts of Italy in the certainty of receiving great honors and rich rewards; if we recall how many famous architects and painters he invited to Milan, and how many noble buildings he raised; how he built and endowed the magnificent University of Pavia, and opened schools of every kind of science in Milan; if besides all this we read the splendid eulogies and dedicatory epistles addressed to him by scholars of every nationality, we feel inclined to pronounce him the best prince that ever lived.21

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!