Francesco I Sforza
Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466) was an Italian condottiero, or soldier of fortune. During a lifetime filled with twists and turns, he became a mercenary general, turned on his employers and switched sides multiple times. Finally, he made himself Duke of Milan, founding the Sforza Dynasty which ruled that city and strongly influenced northern Italy and Italian politics for a century.
Sforza was the illegitimate son of a mercenary commander and accompanied his father on campaigns starting at age 17. He quickly developed a reputation for toughness and strength, and became famous for his ability to bend metal bars with his bare hands. Following his father’s drowning during battle, against a rival in 1424, Sforza took command. He proved himself a brilliant tactician and battlefield commander, went on to win the battle, and killed his father’s rival in the process.
He then signed on to fight for multiple Italian rulers, including the Pope, the Neapolitans, and duke Visconti of Milan. Sforza fought alternately for and against these groups during the next two decades. During one of the intervals when he got along well with Milan’s duke, he betrothed Visconti’s illegitimate daughter and only child in 1433.
The following year, however, Sforza switched sides and left the duke of Milan’s employ for that of his rival, Cosimo de Medici of Florence. In 1438, Sforza fought for Florence against his prospective father in law, and inflicted crushing defeats on Milan. In 1441, he patched things up with Milan’s duke, and finally married his daughter. But two years later, in 1443, he again switched sides and fought against his now-father-in-law.
When the duke of Milan died in 1447 without a male heir, the Milanese rebelled and proclaimed a republic, and hired Sforza as their military commander. A three-sided struggle then ensued between the Milanese republic, the rival city of Venice, and Sforza. When the Milanese signed a peace treaty with Venice in 1449 against Sforza’s wishes, he turned on his employers and switched sides, this time backing himself. He besieged Milan, starving it into submission, and entered the city in 1450 as its new duke.
Francesco Sforza’s shrewdness, opportunism, and successful deviousness made him the exemplar and model of Machiavelli’s prince. He won his state by his exceptional ability and skill rather than through luck or inheriting it by winning the lottery at birth. He then went on to consolidate his gains and secure them sufficiently to found a dynasty.