In a recent television series, the artist Leonardo da Vinci is brought to Milan to work for the most powerful man in Renaissance Italy: Ludovico il Moro. Il Moro was head of the Sforza family, one of the names most associated with Italian history in the fifteenth century—like Medici or Borgia—but interestingly, their name wasn’t originally Sforza at all, and though the main line, dukes of Milan from 1450 to 1535, petered out after only four generations, several other branches continued, rose and fell in prominence, and even continue today.
The family Attendolo were originally rich noble landowners near Cotignola in the Romagna, a province north of Rome, on the Adriatic. Several nobles from this region aspired to wealth and glory in the fifteenth century, but as the territory was firmly under the thumb of Papal rule, many sought employment as professional soldiers, condottieri, in other parts of Italy. Having little loyalty to one city state or another, they lead their men in the service of whoever paid the most, and often switched sides mid-campaign if more money was on offer from their opponents. Some of the greatest of these at the beginning of the century were the cousins Lorenzo, Giacomo, Micheletto and Foschino Attendolo—they fought for the Pope, for Venice, for Florence, and especially for (and sometimes against) the Angevin kings and queens of Naples, gaining lots of land and prestigious titles in southern Italy. The greatest of these was Giacomo, whose nickname was ‘Giacomuzzo’, or just ‘Muzio’, who later took on the cognomen ‘Sforza’, from ‘striving’ or ‘steadfast’.
At the height of his career, he purchased his hometown of Cotignola from the Pope and had it erected into a countship for himself and his eldest son, Bosio. A Palazzo Sforza remained in Cotignola until it was bombed in the 20th century, but has been restored and serves as the town’s museum.
By the time Muzio Sforza died in 1424, he had accumulated exalted titles like Grand Constable of Sicily and Gonfalonier of the Church. He left behind no fewer than five sons and ten illegitimate children, who, in Renaissance Italy, could quite often rise as high, or higher, than their legitimate siblings. This was the case with Bosio and Francesco. The legitimate son, Bosio, inherited his father’s properties in the Romagna and Tuscany, and was the progenitor of the line of the Sforza family that continues today. But it was Francesco, his illegitimate half-brother, who really made the family’s name synonymous with Renaissance magnificence. Francesco started out in his father’s armies, then in the 1420s established himself as an independent condottiero with his own band of highly trained warriors. They fought for Naples, for the Pope, and for Milan – the rising powerhouse of northern Italy then under the leadership of the Visconti family, promoted to ducal rank by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1395.
After initially fighting against them, Francesco switched sides to serve the Visconti family in their unending wars against rivals Venice and Florence; he even married his boss’s daughter, Bianca Maria, an illegitimate daughter of Duke Filippo Maria, in 1441. By 1445, he was named Captain General of the Milanese troops. The Duke died in 1447, and the people of Milan proclaimed a republic—the Ambrosian Republic—but Francesco pressed his wife’s claims to the Duchy and conquered it by 1450. He was formally recognised as Duke of Milan by the Milanese Senate, though he never obtained formal investiture from the Emperor (like many fiefs in Northern Italy, Milan was considered part of the Holy Roman Empire). Duke Francesco ruled Milan well, modernising its government, creating a more efficient taxation system, building the Ospedale Maggiore, and restoring the Ducal Palace, in which he established a flourishing Renaissance court culture. He expanded Milan’s power by annexing the city and republic of Genoa in 1464 (which also included the island of Corsica), and stabilised Italy for the first time in a generation through a league with Cosimo de Medici of Florence. His oldest half-brother, Bosio, became a solid landowning power in Tuscany (see below), while another was installed as Archbishop of Milan in 1454 (a rare case where one family holds the top jobs in both church and state). His younger, also illegitimate, brothers established themselves as soldiers in various parts of Italy, and one, Alessandro, resumed their father’s job of Grand Constable of the Kingdom of Naples-Sicily—he also became lord of Pesaro and will be looked at again below. When he died in 1466, Francesco, the first Duke of Milan of a new line, was mourned as the founder of a new, powerful Lombard state.
Francesco Sforza, like his father, left behind and army of legitimate and illegitimate children. The legitimate sons, were placed in positions to maintain the family’s prestige and honour at both ends of the peninsula: the eldest, Galeazzo Maria, as Duke of Milan, the younger brothers as successively dukes of Bari (in Apulia, part of the Kingdom of Naples), and the youngest (Ascanio) as a cardinal in Rome. The family’s impact was thus felt in all the major power centres of Italy. The same was true for the daughters: one married one of the powerful lords of Lombardy, the marchese of Monferrrato, while another married the heir to the throne of Naples. Illegitimate daughters were also used to solidify marriage alliances with the leading families of northern Italy: Malaspina, Malatesta, Este. The family were no longer just low-ranking nobles, soldiers for hire, but related by blood to the greatest aristocratic houses in Italy, and even to the royal house of Aragon in Naples.
Galeazzo Maria, Duke of Milan, does not enjoy the same reputation as a good ruler that his father did. He is remembered as cruel, even sadistical. On the positive side, he is known as one of the leading patrons of Flemish music, at that point the height of Renaissance fashion. His brother Cardinal Ascanio was one of the early patrons of the Flemish composer Josquin des Prez, who would become the most famous musician in Europe by the end of the century. Ascanio would also become one of the principal political players in the papacy in the last decade of the fifteenth century, helping to elect Rodrigo Borgia as pope in 1492 and acting as his Vice-Chancellor (‘prime minister’) of the Papal States, always striving to maintain the balance in the Italian Peninsula between Milan and Naples.
But Galeazzo Maria’s tyrannical rule became too much for his senior courtiers, who murdered him in church the day after Christmas in 1476. He was succeeded by his seven-year-old son, Gian Galeazzo, who was at first governed by his mother, Bona of Savoy, until she was run out by the boy’s uncle, Ludovico. As depicted in the recent series Leonardo, the boy was mostly his uncle’s prisoner and died mysteriously in 1494. Italian Renaissance histories are full of gossipy stories: some say he was poisoned; others says he died from having too much sex with his new wife, Isabella d’Aragona (who was also his first cousin).
The Regent Ludovico took over formally as Duke of Milan, completely ignoring the rights of Gian Galeazzo’s little son, Francesco, and the late Duke’s younger brother, Ermes. He did, however, promote their sister (his niece), Bianca Maria, to the very top of the European social and political hierarchy, by marrying her to Emperor Maximilian I in the Spring of 1494, which achieved several things: the Emperor finally formally invested the Sforza family with the Duchy of Milan, and he joined an alliance to help keep the French out of Italy.
Ludovico had essentially already been ruling Milan for a decade before he became duke. He is known as ‘il Moro’ perhaps because he had dark skin (‘the Moor’)—other explanations that he had ‘mulberry trees’ on his coat of arms don’t make sense to me—and although this name lent an air of gangster ruthlessness (not totally unwarranted) to his reign, he is also rightly remembered as one of the great patrons of Leonardo da Vinci (notably commissioning The Last Supper for the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie outside Milan). Duke Ludovico and his wife, Beatrice d’Este, led one of the most brilliant courts in Europe, hosting painters and poets. He stimulated the Milanese economy, for example, the silk industry (maybe that’s the mulberry connection?) and canals, and refortified the city, notably in building the Sforza Fortress on the edge of the old city.
But Ludovico also caused a right mess for Italy, and eventually brought about his own family’s downfall, by inviting Charles VIII, King of France, to bring his massive armies into Italy in order to defend Milan against a coalition of Venice, Naples and Rome, an invitation which he later regretted (though the impact and the ‘blame’ for this is debated by historians). Charles had a claim to the Kingdom of Naples, but once he took it, he turned back northwards and challenged Sforza rule in Lombardy. Ludovico managed to defeat the mighty French army at the Battle of Fornovo (near Parma) in July 1495, but a few years later Charles’s successor on the French throne, Louis XII, was back—this time, not just with a claim to Naples, but also to Milan itself, through his grandmother, Valentina Visconti, and he drove Ludovico out of the city in the summer of 1499. Sforza tried to reclaim his duchy in 1500, but was captured and taken to France where he spent the rest of his life locked away in the castle of Loches, in Touraine. He died in 1508.
Little Francesco Sforza (‘il Duchetto’) was also taken to France, as a ‘guest’ of the King, became an abbot, and died, still young, in 1512. Cardinal Ascanio too was taken to France, but was allowed to come and go, and remained a force in Papal politics. The greatest prize, Leonardo da Vinci himself, was also invited to reside in France, and was given a small château of his own, Clos Lucé, next to the King’s palace at Amboise in the Loire Valley, where he died in 1519.
Ludovico’s young son, Massimiliano, was briefly restored to the throne of Milan in 1512, by Swiss troops with Imperial, Papal and Venetian backing. But at the great battle of Marignano (September 1515), the forces of the new, young and vigorous French king, François I, were victorious, and Milan was once again in French hands. Massimiliano, was, like his father and cousins, taken to France, given a pension and died obscurely in 1530 (or some say, even as late as 1552, as a monk hidden away somewhere). His younger brother, Francesco II, having been raised at the Imperial court, was installed on the Milanese throne by Emperor Charles V in 1521; deposed briefly by the French in 1524-25, then allied with the French against the Emperor in 1526; then re-allied with the Charles in 1534 and even married the Emperor’s niece, Christina of Denmark. But he died only a year later, and at the grand peace between France and the Emperor in 1529, Charles V was himself recognised as duke of Milan. Sforza rule was at an end in Milan, and in fact, the city and the dukedom remained a Habsburg possession for the next three centuries, until finally liberated (or captured? depends on your political views about the Italian Risorgimento) by the House of Savoy in 1859.
One member of the main line of the Sforzas remained: Bona, daughter of Gian Galeazzo, who inherited the Neapolitan properties of the family, married the King of Poland in 1518, and is remembered for bringing the best of the Italian Renaissance north of the Alps to the Polish court and through her daughters to the courts of Hungary and Sweden. A classic example of female cultural transmission in this period.
There also remained a number of illegitimate sons: Ottaviano, son of Galeazzo Maria, was a bishop, but also a warrior, and tried—and failed—to take the throne of Milan in 1535; his cousin, Giovanni Paolo, also had ambitions for the Milanese throne in 1535, but died mysteriously the same year. He had, however, obtained imperial favour in the preceding years, and had been entrusted with governing the eastern approaches to the Duchy of Milan, as Marchese of Caravaggio. He established a branch of the Sforzas that remained in Lombardy, based at the powerful castle of Galliate, guarding the western borders of Milan from hereditary enemies in Turin. Muzio II, the 4th Marchese, was less of a fighter than his ancestors, and became instead a patron of the arts—he was one of the early patrons of a local lad, Michelangelo Marisi, whose father was one of their household officers, and who would become famous later under the name of his hometown: Caravaggio. The 17th-century Sforzas of this branch remained in Milan, as top-level counsellors and officials of Spanish rule there until they became extinct in 1697.
Another illegitimate line that emerged were the counts of Borgonovo, a town in southern Lombardy. One of the many bastards of Duke Francesco, Sforza Secondo (he had an elder half-brother also called Sforza), was given the town and castle of Borgonovo by his father in 1451, and supported his half-brother Il Moro in the later decades of the century, notably as his governor of the important cities near his castle, Parma and Piacenza. When Duke Ludovico was driven out by the French, Sforza Secondo fled to Naples, but his illegitimate sons returned to the region and established two branches of the family: one in Borgonovo and one in San Giovanni. The first provided a succession of important courtiers and officials for the dukes of Parma until the line became extinct in 1680.
The second faded more into obscurity, and were denied succession to the county of Borgonovo by the Duke of Parma, but re-emerged into prominence centuries later: Count Giovanni Sforza was an eminent historian at the end of the nineteenth century; his son Carlo served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1920s until his anti-Fascist views drove him into exile—he led the anti-Mussolini faction abroad for the next decade, then led the drive to establish an Italian republic in 1946, and served once more as Foreign Minister in 1947 to 1951, bringing Italy into the very earliest phases of the European Union. Count Carlo’s son, Sforza Galeazzo, was a sculptor, but also served as Deputy Secretary-General of Council of Europe, from 1968 until his death in 1978. Others of this line continue to live in Milan and at the ancestral home in Montignoso, on the Tuscan riviera.
Heading back to the Renaissance, we also see one of Duke Galeazzo Maria’s illegitimate offspring in one of the most stirring stories of the period: Caterina Sforza, Lady of Forli. Her story has been depicted on numerous historical dramas, mostly about her conflict with the Borgias. In 1477, her she was married off to Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. The couple were given two cities within the Papal States to rule as their own, Forli and Imola, and they spent a lot of time at the Papal court in Rome, where she flourished amongst high society, the greatest artists and eminent Humanist thinkers. In 1484, the Pope died, and her husband had to fend for himself as ruler of his territories in the Romagna. Caterina, with the support of her powerful uncle, Ludovico ‘il Moro’, did her best to support him, but the local populace grew angry at his heavy taxation and murdered Girolamo in 1488; Caterina held on to power through sheer chutzpa, and—anecdotally at least—when her enemies captured her sons and threatened to kill them, she stood on the ramparts of the fortress, exposed her genitals and shouted: “Fatelo, se volete … qui ho quanto basta per farne altri!” (“Do it, if you want to … I have here what’s needed to make others!”). She governed Forli and Imola as regent for her young sons until another force challenged her: the unstoppable Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, who wished to make Romagna his own principality, so needed the Riario-Sforza family out of his way. She had ruled her states like a true sovereign, a ‘Tigress’ they called her—Machiavelli was a major fanboy—and defended it ably against the French, against the Venetians, but could not hold out against one of the greatest strategists of the age, and in January 1500, she was led by Cesare Borgia to Rome to be the ‘guest’ of his father in the Castel Sant’Angelo. After the Borgias fell from power, Caterina was allowed to retire to Florence where she died in 1509—although humbled, she would have been glad to see her legacy in the career of her grandson, Cosimo de Medici, first Grand Duke of Florence, and through him, her descendants on most of the thrones of Europe.
Another lord deposed in the Papal States by Cesare Borgia was Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. His grandfather, Alessandro, was an illegitimate half-brother of Duke Francesco Sforza, and like him a prominent condottiero fighting for the Church and for Naples, and appointed ruler of Pesaro, on the Adriatic, in 1444. Alessandro and his son Costanzo built the magnificent ducal palace in Pesaro, then the latter passed the lordship to his illegitimate son, Giovanni. Giovanni is best known, sadly, as the victim of a staged impotence trial conducted by the Borgias in 1497, when they needed to obtain an annulment for Lucrezia Borgia, once her first husband was no longer of political use to them. Giovanni responded by accusing his wife of paternal and fraternal incest—a smear that has stuck with the Borgias ever since. Eventually, he gave way, but it wasn’t enough, and in 1500, he was driven out of Pesaro. Like Caterina Sforza, Giovanni Sforza did have the last laugh, however, and after the fall of the Borgias in 1503, he returned to Pesaro, remarried, and surprise surprise, had a son. The infant Costanzo II was confirmed as lord of Pesaro, but died only two years later, and the territories were given by the new pope to his own family, the Della Rovere.
Finally, the line of Santa Fiora, one of the only lines of the family to start and continue through legitimate marriage, and which carries on into the modern era. It is also interesting to consider on this blog site, as, with the exceptions of the dukes of Milan, these were the only ones who obtained ducal rank (at Segni and Onano); however, this being fragmented Italy, the more interesting property (to me anyway), is their eponymous county of Santa Fiora, because, although of lower rank than a duchy, it outranked most of these as sovereign territory, at least nominally having no feudal overlord. The county, in the hilly borders between Tuscany and Lazio, had been the patrimony of the Aldobrandeschi family, counts from about 1215.
In 1439, Bosio Sforza married the heiress, Cecilia Aldobrandeschi, and established a new line, with large estates on both sides of the Apennines (since they kept the main Attendolo patrimony of Cotignola in the Romagna).
The second count of Santa Fiora was formerly recognised as sovereign by the nearby Republic of Siena in 1471. His grandson, Bosio II, re-established the family’s position in Italy after the fall of the main line in Milan, through his marriage to the illegitimate daughter of the Farnese pope, Paul III. He was named Governor of Parma (newly emerging as an independent Farnese principality) in 1527, and Commander of the Pontifical Guard in 1534. His brothers Ascanio and Alfonso became high ranking church officials, and his sons even more so, as practically extensions of the Farnese dynasty: the eldest, Guido Ascanio (in reversal of the norm, though not for Papal families) became a cardinal, bishop of Parma, and Camerlengo of the Church—the head of the Papal Household. Alessandro was also a cardinal, and succeeded his brother in Parma; politically, he became quite important as a mouthpiece of the Papal government at the Council of Trent in the 1550s-60s. The non-clerical brothers all became important military leaders in service of the Papacy and Parma, or leading mercenary troops in support of the Catholic party in the French Wars of Religion. Sforza Ascanio, the 10th count of Santa Fiora, was, like his father, Captain-General of the Pontifical Guard, Governor of Parma for the Farnese, then Governor of Siena for the Medici, and finally ambassador from Tuscany to the Imperial Count in Vienna, where he was awarded the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The Sforzas were once again a family at the centre of international politics and diplomacy.
But like so many families closely connected to the Papacy in Rome, their fortunes diminished when there was no longer a relative on the Papal throne. The Sforzas of Santa Fiora tried to keep their position by marrying into the newly emerging Roman powers, the families of Julius III (Del Monte) or Gregory XIII (Boncompagni), and did add to their landed wealth through marriage to Fulvia Conti, from one of the oldest noble families in Rome, and heiress of the lordship of Segni, in the hills southeast of Rome. Segni was erected into a duchy in 1585 by Sixtus V. A generation later, another lordship in the hills around Rome (though in the north), Onano, was also created a dukedom, 1612, for Mario II, as a wedding present from Pope Paul V. Mario had married Renée de Lorraine, daughter of the Duke of Mayenne, one of the leading Catholics in France, and an important political ally of the Pope in France. But Mario II was unable to keep hold of his family’s vast estates, and, fearing financial ruin, sold off much of his inheritance, including Segni, and the sovereignty (though not the lands themselves) to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1633.
The French links of the family continued: Mario’s brother, Enrico, had been a godson of King Henry IV and stayed in French service under the Italian Queen Mother, Maria de’ Medici, as did his son, Ascanio (‘Marquis de Sforce’ in French). Renée de Lorraine’s son, Ludovico or Louis, stayed in France as well, was recognised as a ‘cousin du roi’, managed to buy back some of his father’s lands (like Segni), and was given lands by Louis XIV to compensate those confiscated by the Spanish, offended by his loyalty to France. Much of his life is hazy and mysterious, and as a potential heir to the Mayenne branch of the Lorraine-Guise family, I was always quite keen to look for more information, but the ‘duc de Sforce, d’Ognano et de Ségni’ remains elusive, though he lived a long life, was awarded France’s highest honour, the Order of the Saint-Esprit in 1675, married one of the nieces of Madame de Montespan in 1678, and died in 1685.
Louis de Sforce had no children, so his lands passed back to his Italian cousins: Federico was once again duke of Segni and Onano, and still count of Santa Fiora and count of Cotignola, and married one of the great heiresses of the age, Livia Cesarini, Duchess of Civitanova and Princess of Genzano. He was also honoured with both the Order of the Saint-Esprit from France and a grandeeship from Spain. The Cesarini family were one of those ancient Roman noble families who claimed descent from an ancient Imperial clan (in this case, none other than the clan Julia, the family of Julius Caesar). A typical Roman aristocratic family with loads of cardinals, they were also raised to ducal status with the creation of the duchy of Civitanova (a town on the Adriatic) in 1582. With the extinction of the last male Cesarini in 1685, a new blended family emerged, and a new title (1697), ‘Dukes of Sforza-Cesarini’, who have since then split their time between a Roman townhouse and the Palace at Genzano, also located in the hills in the south-eastern suburbs of Rome. As a bonus, Livia was also ultimately the heiress of another Roman family, the Savelli princes of Albano. The family was once again set do be a dominant papal family in eighteenth-century Rome, but were prominent in Spain and Naples too (now both ruled by the Bourbons)—Gian Giorgio became the Conde de Chinchon, in Castile, while Leonora, Duchess of San Giovanni Rotondo, was named Cameriera Maggiore of the Queen of Naples and Governess of the Neapolitan royal princesses.
In the next generation, Sforza Giuseppe Sforza-Cesarini-Savelli (who used the name ‘Duke of Marsi’ taken from the newly inherited Savelli estates), is known as the founder of the Teatro Argentina in Rome, 1732—one of the leading theatres of the city (still today), where the Duke’s grandson, Duke Francesco II, supported the early career of the opera composer Rossini, notably supporting his first staging of ‘The Barber of Seville’ (which was apparently disastrous). Francesco was the 6th Prince of Genzano, the 10th Duke of Segni, and Gonfaloniere del Popolo e del Senato of Rome.
This close tie with Rome was disrupted somewhat in the later 19th century, but not until the family itself was rocked by a succession dispute. When Duke Salvatore Sforza-Cesarini died in 1832, most of his lands passed to his sister’s husband’s family, the Torlonia, but Lorenzo Filippo Montani stepped forward and claimed that, although fairly evident to most that their mother had strayed out of her marriage to the Sforza Duke, by the laws of the Church, he was still legally the son of whomever his mother was married to. The Church courts agreed, and in 1834 he was recognised as the Duke Sforza-Cesarini and Prince of Genzano. This Lorenzo then turned out to be a fair-weather friend to the Church, and when the French armies arrived in Rome in support of the unification of Italy under the House of Savoy, in 1860, he was named a commissioner of the occupying Piedmontese forces by Napoleon III. His lands in Rome were confiscated by an angry Pope Pius IX until King Victor Emmanuel took the city by force in 1870 and restored them to the Duke’s son (Lorenzo died in 1867). Lorenzo Sforza-Cesarini had also been a leader of the artistic elites of Rome in the mid-nineteenth century, rebuilding the gardens at Genzano with his wife, Caroline Shirley, an illegitimate, yet well-provided for, grand-daughter of the English peer, Earl Ferrers.
Their son, Duke Francesco III, was an avid supporter of the new Italian monarchy, a counsellor to Victor Emmanuel II and a Life Senator. He married a Colonna, to more firmly affix his family’s dubious parentage within the Roman aristocracy, and his son married a Torlonia cousin, to heal the rift with those who had claimed the Sforza and Cesarini properties earlier in the century. She brought with her in marriage the Villa Torlonia in Fiumicino (west of Rome) which became one of the family’s principal residences.
Much of the situation remained the same through the twentieth century, with no stand-out stories of political or military prominence. Duke Bosio Sforza-Cesarini sold the palazzo in Genzano in 1998 to the local town, and kept only the Villa Torlonia in Fiumicinio. He died in 2018 and left the family fortunes in the hands of his son Lorenzo (b. 1964), the 13th Prince of Genzano. The family maintains the Palazzo Sforza-Cesarini, on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II in the centre of Rome, originally granted to Cardinal Guido Ascanio in the 1530s by Paul III.
(images Wikimedia Commons)