The Sforzas were an Italian family prominent in the 15th and 16th centuries. They stem from one Muzio Attendolo (1369 – 1424), a forceful condottiere of the period, indeed, he adopted the name from the Italian word for ‘force’.
An illegitimate son of his called Francesco (born 1401) was an equally successful condottiere (meaning landowner, soldier, leader, head of the local ‘mafia’ etc.) whose private armies got involved in a three-way war with the republics of Milan and Venice. Having won, he entered Milan in triumph, shortly becoming Duke of Milan (in 1450) and ruling ably from that moment.
Ludovico was born in Pavia in July, 1452, second son of Francesco. From childhood he had the nickname El Moro due to black hair and dark complexion. Francesco his father died in 1466, and the young Ludovico stayed in the service of the new ruler of Milan, Galeazzo Maria, who was murdered ten years later leaving the dukedom to his 7-year old son Gian Galeazzo II. Due to his young age, there had to be a regent – his mother Bona of Savoy.
Ludovico thought he might take the dukedom away and plotted against Bona, but failed and was exiled for his pains. Time passed, Ludovico grew older and wiser, and brought about a reconciliation with Bona, at the same time arranging for the arrest, trial and subsequent execution of her chief adviser and minister Simonetta, in 1480. Ludovico has started his dubious career as a ‘diplomat’.
Bona of Savoy was ‘persuaded’ to leave Milan for the sake of her health, and Ludovico kindly assumed the regency for her, becoming more or less Head of State. He then instituted a species of government he called ‘Equilibrium Politics’, by which a delicate balance was maintained between the principal Italian states – Milan, Venice, Florence, the Papal States and Naples. He took advantage of his position and made Milan supreme. He distrusted Venice, describing her as a ‘floating whore’, but stayed on good terms with the ruler of Florence under Lorenzo di Medici (q.v.) He made alliances with Ferdinand I, King of Naples, and married Gian Galeazzo to Ferdinand’s granddaughter (1489). He also stayed at talking distance with the Pope Alexander VI (a Borgia) through the influence of his brother Ascanio who happened to be a Cardinal.
In 1491 Ludovico married Beatrice d’Este, a daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, a union which proved to be surprisingly loving despite Ludovico’s multitude of mistresses. They had two sons, Massimiliano and Francesco.
Culturally speaking, Ludovico made the Court of Milan the most splendid and talked-about in Europe. He was patron of Leonardo da Vinci among others, painters, musicians, composers and poets all. He built canals and fortifications, and became hugely popular with the common people who were delighted by his shows and celebrations, fairs and fiestas.The people of Milan were prosperous and happy, but the shadow of the cost was spreading over them. Taxation was high, and Gian Galeazzo was resentful of the ever-growing magnificence of the Sforza. He and his wife Isabella left Milan to take up residence in Pavia. It was Isabella who was made even more furious by Ludovico’s open usurpation of the dukedom than Gian Galeazzo, who always said he had no more than a passing interest in politics. Isabella appealed to her grandfather Ferdinand I, who responded in 1492, by ordering Ludovico to surrender control of the duchy to Isabella and her husband. Naturally Ludovico was having nothing of it.
Instead he formed an alliance with two foreign kings, the Emperor Maximilian I, and King Charles VIII of France. Vast sums passed hands and Maximilian declared Ludovico the rightful Duke of Milan in 1494, which legitimized his usurpation. Maximilian also married Bianca Maria, Gian’s sister! Meanwhile Charles VIII had an eye on the kingdom of Naples, and asked Ludovico if he could help – and received promises in return.
Charles’s campaign to conquer Naples horrified Italy and disturbed Ludovico himself. He changed colours, joined with Venice, and got Charles VIII expelled from Italy by force majeure. Both Gian Galeazzo and Ferdinand died in 1494, and Charles VIII became reconciled with Ludovico, whose pride and magnificence knew no bounds. He used to say that the Pope was his chaplain, the emperor Maximilian his general, the Governors of Venice his chamberlains, and Charles VIII his messenger. He was to be severely disillusioned.
Charles VIII died and was succeeded by Louis XII, a descendent of the Ist Duke of Milan. Hardly waiting to be crowned, Louis claimed Milan as his, and persuaded ‘the whore’ Venice and the population of Naples, more than fed up with the costly magnificence, to topple Ludovico. But the Milanese became bored with Louis, too, and turned back to Ludovico and Maximilian for help! Ludovico gathered German and Swiss mercenaries and rode into battle. The Swiss at the crucial moment decided to change sides, which tends to happen with mercenaries, and Ludovico was captured by the French. He was locked up in the prison castle of Loches, where he died, still claiming his rights to Milan, in 1508. The male ducal line died with him.