The Duke of Milan Lodovico Sforza (1452-1508) was a notable patron of the arts, presiding over the final and most productive stage of the Milanese Renaissance.
Lodovico Sforza, born on July 27, 1452, was the fourth son of Francesco I Sforza and, as such, was not expected to become ruler of Milan. Nevertheless his mother, Bianca, prudently saw to it that his education was not restricted to the classical languages. Under the tutelage of the humanist Francesco Filelfo, Lodovico received instruction in the beauties of painting, sculpture, and letters, but he was also taught the methods of government and warfare. Lodovico was called "the Moor" because of his dark complexion.
When Francesco I Sforza died in 1466, he was succeeded by the dissolute Galeazzo Maria, elder brother of Lodovico. Galeazzo Maria ruled until his assassination in 1476, leaving his throne to his 7-year-old son, Gian Galeazzo, Lodovico's nephew. A bitter struggle for the regency with the boy's mother, Bona of Savoy, followed, from which Lodovico emerged the victor in 1481. For the next 13 years he controlled Milan as regent.
Lodovico contented himself with the realities rather than the appearance of power. He poured money into agriculture, horse and cattle breeding, and the metal industry. Some 20,000 workers were employed in the silk industry. Artists and craftsmen labored to make the court of Milan the most splendid in Italy. Lodovico continued work on the Cathedral of Milan and had the streets of his capital widened and adorned with gardens. The universities of Pavia and Milan flourished under his generous hand. There was some grumbling at the heavy taxation necessary to support these ventures, and a few riots resulted.
In 1491 Lodovico married Beatrice d'Este of the ruling house of Ferrara. The 14-year-old princess brought to Milan an artless gaiety that quickly transmitted itself to all around her. Her joy in life, her laughter, and even her extravagance charmed the court. With her guidance the Sforza castle became the center of sumptuous festivals and balls where she entertained philosophers, poets, diplomats, and soldiers. Beatrice had good taste, and under her prompting her husband's patronage of artists became more selective. Leonardo da Vinci and Donato Bramante were employed at the court.
In 1493 Beatrice bore a son whose future was insecure because Lodovico was only regent. Lodovico then secretly asked Maximilian, soon to become Holy Roman emperor, for the title of Duke of Milan. Maximilian agreed, in exchange for the hand of Bianca, Lodovico's niece.
In 1494 the new king of Naples, Alfonso, allied himself with Pope Alexander VI and threatened Milan. Lodovico, feeling himself isolated, fell into a panic and made the fatal mistake of offering the king of France, Alfonso's rival, free passage through Milan so that he might attack Naples. But French ambitions did not end with Naples, and Lodovico later bitterly regretted his decision when France claimed Milan.
Gian Galeazzo died in 1495, and Lodovico hastened to assume the ducal title. But his fortunes continued to descend rapidly. In 1497, as the result of a difficult child-birth, Beatrice died. Lodovico was inconsolable, and the entire court was shrouded in gloom. Then Louis of Orléans became king of France, and in 1498 he descended upon Milan. None of the other Italian states would help the ruler who had invited the French into Italy 4 years earlier. Lodovico managed to escape the French armies and, in 1499, sought help from Maximilian. Meanwhile the French had entered Milan.
Lodovico returned with an army of mercenaries and reentered Milan in February 1500. Two months later he was betrayed by his soldiers and given over to the French, who took him as a prisoner to France. Deprived of all the amenities of life, he spent his last years in the underground dungeon at Loches, where he died on May 17, 1508.
Further Reading on Lodovico Sforza
Cecilia Ady, A History of Milan under the Sforza (1907), is both delightful and scholarly. Julia Cartwright, Beatrice D'Este: Duchess of Milan, 1475-1497 (1899; 8th ed. 1920), is of great value in its treatment of the court of Milan under Lodovico.