Ludovico Sforza Rules Milan

Ludovico’s twenty years of rule over the Duchy of Milan combined skill in administration with patronage of a magnificent court. A practitioner of diplomatic intrigue, Ludovico facilitated the French invasion of Italy in 1494, which led to several decades of European dynastic conflict on the peninsula and the end of Milanese autonomy.

Summary of Event

Jakob Burckhardt, the nineteenth century scholar and father of Renaissance studies, called Ludovico Sforza “the most perfect type of Renaissance despot” and a man who “disarms our moral judgment.” First as the regent of the youthful and feckless Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza and then as duke himself, Ludovico dominated political and cultural life in the Duchy of Milan. The cunning that Ludovico displayed in consolidating his power in Milan was mirrored in his diplomacy, as he engaged in an increasingly dangerous political game that threatened to upset the balance of power in Italy by inviting French intervention in Italian affairs. Milan
Sforza, Ludovico
Sforza, Gian Galeazzo
Alexander VI
Maximilian I
Charles VIII (1470-1498)
Louis XII
Beatrice d’Este
Leonardo da Vinci
Sforza, Gian Galeazzo
Sforza, Francesco
Sforza, Galeazzo Maria
Sforza, Bona
Este, Beatrice d’
Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor)
Alexander VI
Charles VIII (king of France)
Louis XII (king of France)
Trivulzio, Gian Giacomo
Bramante, Donato
Leonardo da Vinci
Sforza, Ludovico

The Sforzas, including Ludovico’s father, Francesco, were patrons of the arts, architecture, and charity. The Milan hopsital was founded in the mid-1450’s by Francesco.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The route to power that Ludovico charted in Milan was as unlikely as it was ruthless and opportunistic. He was born the fourth legitimate son of Francesco Sforza, the first of the Sforza dukes to rule in Milan (r. 1450-1466). Ludovico received a refined Humanist education and was widely admired for his intelligence and charm as a young man. Following his father’s death in 1466, he remained in Milan as a faithful follower of Francesco’s mercurial heir, Galeazzo Maria Sforza (r. 1466-1476).

Ludovico’s political ambition and ruthlessness became evident, however, almost immediately after Galeazzo Maria’s assassination on Christmas Eve, 1476. In 1477, along with several associates, he launched a failed bid to seize power from his nephew and was exiled to Pisa. The regency passed to Galeazzo Maria’s widow, Bona. Ludovico returned to Milan in the autumn of 1479, and he promptly overthrew Bona and her first secretary, Cicco Simonetta. The departure of Bona meant that Ludovico was soon free to exercise his complete domination over the young duke. Although Gian Galeazzo retained the official title of duke until 1494, Ludovico was the de facto ruler of Milan from 1481.

Observers were under no illusion as to who really controlled the levers of power in Milan, even after Gian Galeazzo reached his majority. Residing largely away from the capital in Pavia, Gian Galeazzo preferred hunting or hawking to the duties of leadership, and he regularly overindulged in drink. Ludovico deliberately encouraged Gian Galeazzo’s vices, and the nominal duke remained mentally and physically immature well into his adulthood, utterly dependent on his uncle.

In foreign affairs, Ludovico took full advantage of the sophisticated diplomatic network established by Francesco Sforza to operate in an Italian political arena that placed a premium on shrewd diplomacy. Between 1482 and 1484, Ludovico involved Milan in the War of Ferrara Ferrara, War of (1482-1484) against Venice and sent aid to the king of Naples when his barons revolted beginning in 1485. This support, however, did not prevent relations with Naples from gradually deteriorating over the ensuing years.

In 1489, Duke Gian Galeazzo married Isabella of Aragon, the daughter of King Ferdinand I of Naples (also known as Ferrante), but Ludovico tightly controlled the couple’s movement and access to funds. Ferdinand complained vociferously about the treatment of Isabella and about the pretensions of Ludovico’s wife, Beatrice d’Este, whom Ludovico married in a grand ceremony in 1491. Following the suspicious death of Gian Galeazzo in 1494, Ludovico officially assumed the ducal title when he was able to secure the all-important imperial investiture of the Duchy of Milan from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. At last he had legal claim to the power he had wielded illegitimately for fourteen years.

From 1492 to 1494, Ludovico’s involvement in diplomatic intrigue had reached its peak. By the 1490’, Ludovico’s rivalries with Ferdinand and with Ferdinand’s son Ludovico, the duke of Calabria, had become deeply personal. While Gian Galeazzo was alive, Ferdinand repeatedly demanded that the regent officially hand over power to the duke and Isabella, but Ludovico refused. These challenges from Ferdinand prompted Ludovico to form an alliance with the new Borgia pope, Alexander VI (negotiated by Ludovico’s brother, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza), and to encourage French king Charles VIII to press the long-standing claim of the House of Anjou to the Kingdom of Naples.

The newly legitimated duke of Milan offered his support to France in the event of an invasion. This was playing with fire, for Ludovico underestimated the determination of Charles to make good on his Italian aspirations. Charles invaded Italy and conquered the Kingdom of Naples Italy;French invasions of without great difficulty, with the tacit cooperation of Milan. The French success, however, only increased the insecurity of Ludovico’s position, for there was also an outstanding claim to the Duchy of Milan itself by the French House of Orléans. Therefore, when a coalition of Italian states banded together to drive the French army, already crippled by syphilis, out of the peninsula in 1495, Ludovico joined the anti-French alliance.

In the short-term, Ludovico appeared triumphant: Naples was neutralized, and his usurpation of the Milanese dukedom was solemnized by imperial investiture. He even managed to effect a reconciliation with Charles VIII. Many in France, however, would not forget Ludovico’s diplomatic treachery. When the French returned to Italy in 1499, this time under King Louis XII (formerly the duke of Orléans), it was Milan Milan;French seizure of that was the target of their invasion.

The French forces on this occasion were led by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, formerly one of Milan’s top soldiers and an intimate of Ludovico Sforza. Tivulzio had become the maréchal of France and an implacable foe of the Milanese duke. The duchy succumbed easily to the French armies when Ludovico’s Swiss mercenaries abandoned him, and Ludovico himself suffered the indignity of capture and imprisonment in a French jail in Touraine, where he would stay, virtually forgotten, until his death in 1508.

Despite the nearly constant political turmoil of Ludovico’s reign, Renaissance Milan reached the height of its cultural output under his rulership. Ludovico himself showed considerable interest in the collection and copying of manuscripts, and he was also an enthusiastic patron of learning inside the duchy, showing particular favor to the University of Pavia. Following the example of his brother Galeazzo Maria, Ludovico spent lavishly on court pomp and ceremony and patronized artists, architects, and musicians liberally. Art patronage;Italy

Among the names associated with Ludovico’s court were Donato Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo, who arrived in Milan in the early 1480’, served the Sforza court primarily as a military engineer and architect, but his tenure in Milan also saw the creation some of his finest books and works of art. These include The Last Supper, one of the Western world’s most famous fresco paintings. The court also engaged musicians from all over Europe, continuing Milan’s tradition as a musical center.

Thus, the Milanese court in the final two decades of the fifteenth century became the most splendid in all of Italy. Ludovico’s wife, Beatrice, who had a great appetite for clothes, jewels, and other luxuries, played a particularly important role in this courtly splendor. She was the life of the court, hosting dances, concerts, and hunts.


In addition to his considerable cultural legacy, which can still be appreciated today, Ludovico Sforza’s ascendancy in Milan had a lasting impact on the political scene of both Italy and Europe. Ludovico’s facilitation of the 1494 French invasion had parlous consequences. Once Charles VIII’s armies crossed into Italy to press his claims to Naples, the relative isolation of Italy over the previous fifty years came to an end, and the peninsula became the chief battleground of the dynastic conflict between France and Spain.

Italian independence was soon at an end. By 1500, Milan had surrendered its own political autonomy and the duchy, whose control was contested between the European powers, came to be regarded as the strategic key to Italy. Although two of Ludovico’s sons, Massimiliano and Francesco, eventually became dukes of Milan themselves (following the brief restoration of Sforza rule in 1512, 1521, and 1529, around periods of foreign occupation), in the long term, Milan, along with most of the rest of Italy, would fall under the domination of the Habsburg Dynasty.

Further Reading

  • Abulafia, David, ed. The French Descent into Renaissance Italy, 1494-1495. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Variorum, 1995. A collection of essays dealing with the antecedents and effects of the French invasion of 1494, in which Ludovico played a key role.
  • Ady, Cecilia. A History of Milan Under the Sforza. London: Methuen, 1907. A rather old-fashioned and gossipy, nonetheless useful, narrative of the dynasty by a great historian. Includes two chapters on the reign of Ludovico.
  • Collison-Morley, Lacy. The Story of the Sforzas. New York: E. P. Hutton, 1934. A political and cultural history of the Sforzas in Milan that emphasizes the personalities of the major historical figures, including Ludovico.
  • Ianziti, Gary. Humanistic Historiography Under the Sforzas: Politics and Propaganda in Fifteenth-Century Milan. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1988. An examination of the role of Humanists resident at the Sforza court in constructing a historical ideology of rule for the dynasty. Focuses especially on the reign of Ludovico.
  • Munro, Cynthia Pyle. Milan and Lombardy in the Renaissance: Essays in Cultural History. Rome, Italy: La Fenice, 1997. A wide-ranging collection of essays that examine the cultural climate of Milan before and during the reign of Ludovico. These essays are in English and Italian.

Apr. 9, 1454: Peace of Lodi

Sept., 1494-Oct., 1495: Charles VIII of France Invades Italy

1495-1497: Leonardo da Vinci Paints The Last Supper

September 22, 1504: Treaty of Blois

Apr. 11, 1512: Battle of Ravenna

Sept. 13-14, 1515: Battle of Marignano

1521-1559: Valois-Habsburg Wars

Feb., 1525: Battle of Pavia

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis