5 – Francesco Sforza, Renaissance Italy’s Most Successful Mercenary
Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466), who led a fascinating life full of twists and turns, and capped it off by rising to the heights of power, was Renaissance Italy’s most successful condottiero, or soldier of fortune. A mercenary general, Sforza turned on his employers whenever opportune, switched sides multiple times, and eventually made himself duke of Milan, founding the Sforza Dynasty that influenced Italian politics for a century.
The illegitimate son of a mercenary commander, Sforza began accompanying his father on campaigns at age 17. He soon developed a reputation for toughness and strength, and became famous for his ability to bend metal bars with his bare hands. When his father drowned during a battle in 1424, Sforza took command, and proved himself a brilliant tactician and battlefield commander by leading his father’s mercenaries to victory.
Sforza then signed on to fight for multiple Italian rulers, including the Pope, the Neapolitans, and duke Visconti of Milan, whom Sforza fought for and against during the next two decades. In 1433, during one of the intervals when Sforza got along well with the Duke of Milan, he got engaged to Visconti’s illegitimate daughter and only child.
A year later, he switched sides and joined the Duke of Milan’s 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. Two years later, in 1443, he switched sides again, and fought against his father in law.
When the duke of Milan died in 1447 without a male heir, the Milanese rebelled, 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 with Venice in 1449 against Sforza’s wishes, he turned on his employers, besieged Milan, starved it into submission, and entered the city in 1450 as its new duke.
Francesco Sforza won his state by dint of his exceptional ability and skill rather than through luck or inheriting it by winning the lottery of birth. He then went on to consolidate his gains and secure them sufficiently to found a dynasty. His shrewdness, opportunism, and successful deviousness, made him the exemplar and model of Machiavelli’s Prince.