Sforza Family





The name Sforza, which means "force" in Italian, was originally the nickname of Muzio Attendolo (1369-1424), a successful condottiere in Northern Italy during the first quarter of the fifteenth century.  After Muzio's death in 1424, his sons made Sforza their family name.


Rulership of Milan

Muzio's son Francesco worked as a condottiere for the last Visconti duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, and married his illegitimate daughter, Bianca Maria.  Within three years of the 1447 death of Filippo Maria, who left no legitimate heirs, Francesco rose to control of Milan through political skill and military force.


In 1466 Francesco was succeeded by his oldest son, Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Although he did not receive the title of duke until after his nephew’s death in 1494, Ludovico seized power from his nephew by 1480 and ruled for two decades before losing control of the city to the French in 1499.


Diminished Power and End of Rule

Between intervals of foreign domination, Ludovico's sons Massimiliano (ruled 1512-15) and Francesco II (ruled 1521-4, 1525, 1529-35) each held the title of duke and ruled as the puppets of foreign powers.


After the death of Francesco II in 1535, Charles V made one of his sons Milan's governor, which permanently ended Sforza rule there.


Span and Effectiveness as Rulers

The period of Sforza autonomy, which spanned the second half of the fifteenth century, was relatively brief.  Their regime, which was weakened by a dependence on administrative officials rather than family members, had been unpopular because of the family's authoritarian rule and high taxation.


Association with Visconti Predecessors

The Sforza hoped to create the appearance of legitimacy in their rule of Milan by linking themselves to the Visconti.


Because Francesco married an illegitimate daughter of the last Visconti duke, his progeny carried Visconti blood.  Consequently, the second generation of Sforza adopted the Visconti coat of arms.


The family also associated themselves with the Visconti family by giving their children Visconti family names such as Giangaleazzo, Galeazza, and Bianca Maria.


As patrons, they established continuity by supporting architectural projects begun by the Visconti.


Connection with the Medici Family

Francesco financed his bid for power in the middle of the fifteenth century by borrowing from the Florentine banker Cosimo de' Medici. Based primarily on their association with the Sforza, the Medici established a bank branch in Milan. To house the bank and its employees, they built an elegant palace.  Financially however the bank was a constant source of loss.  The bank relied too heavily on business from the Sforza, to whom it extended lines of credit that were not repaid.  This drained the bank's resources, and the branch was shut down in 1478.


At the end of the fifteenth century, Francesco Sforza's granddaughter Caterina, an illegitimate daughter of his oldest son, Galeazza, married a member of the Medici family.  One of their grandsons was Cosimo I de' Medici, who became the second Duke of Florence.



FRANCESCO SFORZA 1401-66  (ruled 1450-66)


Rise to Power

After the death of his father, Muzio Attendolo, Francesco Sforza launched his own highly successful military career using the military forces his father had built up as a condottiere.  He primarily fought Venetian forces on behalf of the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti.


In 1441, Francesco married Bianca Maria, the illegitimate daughter of Filippo Maria, and in 1444, she gave birth to a son, Galeazzo Maria Sforza.


In 1447 Duke Visconti died without a male heir to succeed him.  The Milanese seized the opportunity to establish a republican government.  The so-called Ambrosian Republic soon reached a financial crisis because many forms of taxation had been dropped.


Francesco, who had been hired by the new government to suppress rebellion in the cities under Milan's domination, took advantage of the situation by entering an alliance with Milan's old enemy Venice, borrowing money for troops from the Medici, and besieging Milan until it surrendered in 1450.


Employment of Filarete

Francesco employed the architect Filarete for several projects in Milan.  While there, Filarete wrote a treatise, Trattato d'architettura in which an architect and patron, who were meant to represent Filarete and Francesco, are the principal speakers in a dialogue about architecture.  In the course of the dialogue, the architect describes a project for an ideal city, pointedly named Sforzinda.  The patron orders the city to be built, and the architect stresses the importance of the use of a classical style of architecture in the construction of this new city.


Architectural Commissions

Francesco began a campaign to demonstrate his legitimacy by commissioning artistic monuments.  He continued projects begun by the Visconti and commissioned a number of new ecclesiastic projects such as monasteries and churches.  To maintain continuity with both the existing architecture and the Visconti family, Francesco's projects were built in the Gothic style.


Milan Cathedral. Francesco continued to support the construction of Milan Cathedral.


Certosa, Pavia. Francesco continued work on the Certosa, building its church and ornate cloister.  


Ospedale Maggiore, Milan. Francesco founded the Ospedale Maggiore, which was the largest new architectural project that he or Filarete undertook.  During the planning stage, he sent Filarete to Florence and Siena to examine hospitals there.  Filarete's plan utilized two cross-shaped wards that were separated by a courtyard.  The cross-shaped plan, which has roots in the men's ward of the medieval Hospital of Santa Maria Nuovo in Florence, was the most important line of development in Renaissance hospital design.  The whole complex was contained within a rectangular perimeter.  


Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Francesco commissioned a Gothic-style church with a rib-vaulted nave for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.




(ruled as regent 1580-1494, ruled as duke 1494-1499, 1500)


Ascent to Power

Ludovico was also known as "il Moro" ("the Moor") on account of his dark coloring.  After the assassination of his brother Galeazzo in 1476, Ludovico's nephew, Giangaleazzo, became the new Duke.  Because he was only seven, rulership was shared between his mother and the Privy Council.  In 1480 Ludovico gained control of the council, and Giangaleazzo and his mother were pushed from power.


Ludovico was not recognized as Duke by Maximilian I (1459-1519), Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, until after Giangaleazzo's death in 1494.  By this time, Ludovico had solidified his relationship with Maximilian by arranging for the emperor to marry his niece Bianca Maria, on whom he settled an especially large dowry.


Marriage and Children

In 1491 Ludovico married Beatrice d'Este, who was the sister of Isabella d'Este and Alfonso d'Este.  Alfonso married Ludovico's niece, Anna Sforza, at the same time.


Beatrice produced two sons, Massiliano and Francesco II, and in 1497, at the age of 22, she died in childbirth.


Publication of Biography of His Father

In an effort to legitimize his authority while he was in power, Ludovico published a biography of his father in 1483.  It was written by one of Francesco's court humanists, Giovanni Simonetta, and members of his Privy Council.


Ludovico also commissioned one of his court humanists, Bernadino Corio, to write a history of Milan, which was published in 1503.  For this project, the author was given access to state records.


Encouraging Charles VIII to Invade Italy

Ludovico was in conflict with the rulers of Naples and attempted to use other major European powers to destabilize his enemies.  He encouraged King Charles VIII of France to enter Italy and take Naples after the death of its long-term ruler, King Ferdinand I.  To tempt him, Ludovico offered Charles free passage through his territory in northern Italy.  As regent, he wished to see the ruling family of Naples deposed because they were pressuring him to yield the throne of Milan to his nephew Giangaleazzo, who had been seven years old in 1476 when his father, Galeazzo Maria, was assassinated.  The rulers of Naples wanted to see Giangaleazzo in control because he was married to the daughter of Alfonso II, Ferdinand's son and successor.



Ludovico's lack of political judgment in foreign diplomacy contributed to the 1499 invasion of Milan and the subsequent occupation by the French forces of King Louis XII.


Both Ludovico and Louis were great grandsons of Giangaleazzo Visconti, (Duke of Milan 1387-1402).  Ludovico's great grandmother had been Giangaleazzo's second wife, and his mother, Bianca Maria, was the illegitimate issue of the Duke's son.  Louis' hereditary claim was stronger because his great grandmother, Isabelle de Valois, had been the Duke's first wife, and all intervening unions had been sanctified by marriage.


After a brief return to power in 1500, Ludovico was imprisoned in France, where he remained until his death in 1508.


General Patronage

Ludovico, who was partly motivated by an interest in legitimizing his rulership, was one of the most bountiful patrons of the fifteenth century.  He continued several long-standing projects that had been begun during Visconti rule and initiated a number of new ones.  Most importantly for Renaissance art and architecture, in the 1480s and 1490s he employed Leonardo da Vinci and Bramante, two of the founders of the new High Renaissance style.


Patronage of Leonardo

Ludovico commissioned a great deal of art, and the most important works produced for him were by Leonardo da Vinci.


Last Supper, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Leonardo painted a large mural of the Last Supper for the end wall of the refectory (dining room) of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.  


Decoration of Castello Sforzesco, Milan. Leonardo decorated parts of the Castello Sforzesco such as the Sala delle Asse, whose walls and ceiling are painted to resemble an enclosure formed by the interlacing branches of mulberry trees.  The exclusive use of foliage represents a highly original alternative to the more common scheme of fictive architecture. 


Design for an equestrian monument. Leonardo, who made many equestrian drawings over his lifetime, designed an equestrian monument to Ludovico's father, Francesco.  He built a twice life-sized clay model, which was not cast because the Duke needed the bronze for cannonballs.  The model was destroyed in 1499 by French soldiers, who used it for target practice.  (A decade later, Leonardo made similar drawings for an equestrian monument to Giangiacomo Trivulzio, who had been appointed as a co-governor of Milan in the early sixteenth century.)


Drawings and notebooks. Ludovico's patronage was indirectly responsible for the many drawings and notebook entries that Leonardo made during his eighteen years working in Milan.  Ludovico, like Leonardo, was interested in scientific devices and machines for warfare.


Patronage of Architecture

Ludovico took a keen interest in architecture.  In addition to continuing work on Milan Cathedral and the Certosa, he improved a number of churches in Milan and other cities by making additions and decorating their interiors.  His architectural commissions also included domestic projects such as remodeling palaces and urban renewal schemes in which buildings were cleared to create or enlarge piazzas.


Piazza Ducale, Vigevano. Ludovico's most ambitious enterprise was the Piazza Ducale in Vigevano (southwest of Milan).  Its loggia-surrounded piazza was modeled after the imperial forums of ancient Rome, which were often enclosed by loggias.  The project is believed to be the work of Bramante, who is known to have been in Vigevano in the 1490s.  Ludovico's brother Ascanio was unsuccessful in persuading Pope Alexander VI to grant city status to Vigevano, and the town did not receive city status until 1530.


Façade of the Certosa, Pavia. Ludovico approved a new design by Amadeo for the façade of the church of the Certosa in Pavia, a Carthusian monastery founded by the Visconti family.  The work was not carried out entirely according to Amadeo's plan, but was instead, a co-operative effort of Amadeo and the Mantegazza brothers. The façade had originally been commissioned by his brother Galeazzo, who was assassinated before it was built. 


Crossing tower and piazza of Milan Cathedral. Ludovico continued construction at Milan Cathedral, for which he approved a lantern designed by Amadeo to replace a structurally unsound one that had already been built.  Ludovico also cleared a large expanse around the cathedral for a piazza.  


Baptistery and chancel of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, Milan. Bramante designed a new baptistery and an illusionary chancel for the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro.  


East end of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Bramante added a new east end to Santa Maria delle Grazie, which Ludovico adopted as his family church and intended burial place.  He commissioned the local sculptor Cristoforo Solari to make a tomb for his wife Beatrice d'Este and himself.


Cloisters of Sant Ambrogio, Milan. In the 1490s, Bramante designed three cloisters for Sant' Ambrogio in Milan.  The first, called the Canonica, was commissioned around 1492 by the Duke.  The second two, from around 1497 and known as the Doric and Ionic Courtyards, were commissioned by Cardinal Ascanio Sforza as part of a new monastic complex at S. Ambrogio. 


Design for Pavia Cathedral. Bramante designed a new cathedral for Pavia, but little of it was carried out.













Patron Families 8 of 8





Ludovico Sforza and his wife Beatrice d'Este kneeling in the

presence of the Virgin and saints