He was a skilled soldier, a cunning politician and a visionary ruler who transformed Milan into one of the most prosperous and influential states in Renaissance Italy. He was also the illegitimate son of a peasant woman and a mercenary leader who rose from humble origins to become the founder of a powerful dynasty. He was Francesco Sforza, the first Duke of Milan.
Francesco Sforza was born in 1401 in San Miniato, Tuscany, one of the seven illegitimate children of Muzio Attendolo Sforza, a famous condottiero or soldier of fortune who fought for various Italian rulers. Francesco inherited his father’s military talent and courage, and at the age of 19 he joined his father’s company of mercenaries. He soon gained fame for his strength and skill, as well as for his ability to bend metal bars with his bare hands.
Francesco fought for and against different Italian states, including Naples, Florence, Venice and the Papal States. He also participated in the War of L’Aquila (1423-1424), a rebellion against King Alfonso V of Aragon, who had invaded southern Italy. Francesco’s father died during this war, leaving Francesco as the leader of his troops.
In 1425, Francesco entered the service of Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan, who was engaged in a long struggle with Venice and Florence for the control of northern Italy. Francesco proved to be a loyal and valuable ally for Visconti, leading his armies to several victories and expanding his territories. He also married Visconti’s daughter, Bianca Maria, in 1441, after a secret courtship that lasted for years.
Francesco’s marriage to Bianca Maria made him the heir apparent to the Duchy of Milan, but Visconti was reluctant to relinquish his power and tried to undermine Francesco’s popularity and influence. He even plotted to assassinate him on several occasions, but Francesco managed to escape or foil his plans.
When Visconti died in 1447 without a male heir, Francesco expected to succeed him as Duke of Milan. However, he faced opposition from the Milanese people, who proclaimed a republic and allied with Venice and Florence against him. Francesco then launched a campaign to conquer Milan by force, besieging the city for three years until it finally surrendered in 1450.
Francesco was welcomed by the Milanese as their new duke and received the support of other Italian states and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. He also established good relations with Pope Nicholas V, who appointed him as Gonfaloniere or standard-bearer of the Church.
As Duke of Milan, Francesco proved to be an enlightened and benevolent ruler. He restored peace and stability to his realm after decades of war and turmoil. He promoted trade and commerce, improved agriculture and infrastructure, reformed the administration and justice system, patronized arts and culture, and encouraged education and learning. He also initiated several public works projects, such as the construction of the Sforza Castle, the Duomo Cathedral and the Navigli canals.
Francesco also played a key role in the Treaty of Lodi (1454), which established a balance of power among the five major Italian states: Milan, Venice, Florence, Naples and the Papal States. The treaty marked the beginning of a period of relative peace and prosperity in Italy that lasted for almost half a century.
Francesco died in 1466 at the age of 64. He was succeeded by his eldest son Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who continued his father’s legacy. Francesco’s other sons Ludovico and Ascanio also became dukes of Milan later on. His daughter Ippolita married Alfonso II d’Este , Duke of Ferrara , while his other daughter Elisabetta married Ercole I d’Este , Marquis of Ferrara . Francesco’s descendants ruled Milan until 1535 , when it was conquered by Emperor Charles V .
Francesco Sforza was one of the most remarkable figures of the Renaissance era. He rose from obscurity to greatness through his courage , skill , ambition , intelligence , charisma , generosity , vision , and luck . He left behind a lasting legacy that shaped the history and culture of Milan and Italy.