The Renaissance’s Greatest Mercenary
Renaissance Italy’s most successful condottiero, or soldier of fortune, was Francesco Sforza (1401 – 1466), who led a fascinating life full of twists and turns, and capped it by rising to the heights of power. Sforza rose through the ranks to become a mercenary general, turning on his employers whenever opportune, and switched sides multiple times. In the end, he made himself duke of Milan, and founded the Sforza Dynasty which ruled that city and influenced Italian politics for a century.
Sforza was the illegitimate son of a mercenary commander, and he began accompanying his father on military campaigns 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. After his father drowned during a battle against a rival in 1424, Sforza took command of his father’s mercenaries. He proved himself a brilliant tactician and battlefield commander, and went on to win the battle, killing his father’s rival in the process.
Sforza then signed on to fight for multiple Italian rulers, including the Pope, the Neapolitans, and duke Visconti of Milan, whom Sforza fought alternately 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.
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 peace with Venice in 1449 against Sforza’s wishes, he turned on his employers and switched sides, this time backing himself. He besieged Milan, starved 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 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.