Ascanio Maria Sforza Visconti (3 March 1455 – 28 May 1505) was an Italian Cardinal of the Catholic Church. Generally known as a skilled diplomat who played a major role in the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, Sforza served as Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church from 1492 until 1505.


Ascanio Maria Sforza
ChurchSs. Vito e Modesto
DioceseAdministrator of 9 dioceses
Consecrationnever ?
Created cardinal17 March 1484
by Pope Sixtus IV
RankCardinal Deacon
Personal details
Born3 March 1455
Cremona IT
Died28 May 1505
Rome IT
BuriedS. Maria del Popolo, Rome
ParentsFrancesco Sforza,
: Duke of Milan
Bianca Maria Visconti
Occupationcourtier, politician
EducationHome schooled
by Francesco Filelfo


Early yearsEdit

A member of the House of Sforza, Ascanio Sforza was born in Cremona, Lombardy. His parents were Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Bianca Maria Visconti. He was also the brother of two Milanese dukes, Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1466–1476) and Ludovico Sforza (1494–1499), and the uncle of a third, Gian Galeazzo Sforza (1476–1494). Ascanio was a student of Francesco Filelfo, a courtier of Duke Francesco Sforza, who introduced him to government and literature. Other cardinals of the family were Guido Ascanio Sforza di Santa Fiora (1534), Alessandro Sforza (1565), Francesco Sforza (1583) and Federico Sforza (1645).[1]

At age of 10 he was named commendatory abbot of Chiaravalle. While still an adolescent, Ascanio was promised the red hat of a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church by Guillaume d'Estouteville, who wanted to gain Galeazzo Maria Sforza's support for his candidacy for the papal throne in 1471. However, it was in fact Francesco della Rovere (Sixtus IV) who won the papal election, and Ascanio's promotion to cardinal was delayed.

In September 1473, Ascanio's niece Caterina, the daughter of Duke Galeazzo Maria, was married to the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, Girolamo Riario (the brother of Cardinal Pietro Riario).[2] Girolamo was one of the leading members of the Pazzi Conspiracy against the life of Lorenzo the Magnificent of Florence.

Hoping to pacify Milan, Sixtus IV attempted to create Ascanio a cardinal in 1477 but the Sacred College refused to accept him into its ranks.


Nevertheless, Ascanio entered the episcopate[disputed ] when he was appointed Bishop of Pavia in September 1479, retaining the diocese until his death.[3] In 1484 he represented Ludovico Sforza at the Congress of Cremona.


Coat of Arms of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza

Pope Sixtus IV finally created him cardinal deacon of Ss. Vito e Modesto on 17 March 1484. Ascanio entered Rome on 23 August of the same year.[4] Pope Sixtus had died on 12 August, and the Conclave to elect his successor was about to begin. Cardinal Ascanio's formal ceremony of investiture had not taken place, and some cardinals voiced objections to his participation in the forthcoming conclave. Due to Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia’s intervention however, Ascanio was received with full cardinalitial rights.[5] Ascanio was given an important assignment by his brother Ludovico, who at the time was Duke of Bari and Regent of Milan. Ascanio and Cardinal Giovanni d'Aragona were to present a formal letter to the Cardinals in Congregation, advising them that Milan opposed the election of Cardinals Barbo, Costa, Cibò, and Savelli. Cibò and Savelli were followers of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere and his pro-French policy.[6] Unfortunately the letter from Duke Ludovico, sent on August 26, did not reach their hands in time, otherwise it would have been the earliest known attempt at an exclusiva (veto) in a papal election.[7] Giovanni Battista Cybo was elected Pope Innocent VIII on 29 August 1484.

Sforza became administrator of Novara from 25 October 1484 to 18 April 1485,[8] occupying the post again in May 1505, a few days before his death on 27 May.[9]

As a cardinal, Ascanio's main priority was to reconcile Ferdinand I of Naples, known as Ferrante, with the Sforza dynasty. A dispute with Cardinal Jean Balue, the French ambassador to the Papal Court, in March 1486 complicated matters. Balue had suggested that Innocent VIII summon René II, Duke of Lorraine to retrieve his rights over the Neapolitan throne - leading to a violent quarrel with Ascanio; to which only the pope could bring a halt.

Ascanio was appointed Administrator of the See of Cremona on 28 July 1486 and occupied the post until his death.[10] He also became Administrator of the See of Pesaro in 1487 until May 1491.

In his effort to ally Naples with Milan, he received Ferdinand of Capua, Ferrante's grandson, in his palace in Trastevere in May 1492. The banquet organised in honour of the Neapolitan prince was so extravagant and magnificent that, according to Stefano Infessura, If I were to give an account, no one would believe me. It is enough that if the King of France or some similar person should visit, nothing more could be provided.[11] Ferdinand hoped to arrange a marriage between another of King Ferrante's grandsons, Don Luigi d'Aragona, with a member of Pope Innocent's family, Battistina Cibò. The alliance was hoped to put some distance between Innocent and the French.[12] At the same time, Ferdinand of Capua was seeking to obtain the investiture of Naples from the Pope, thereby solidifying his family's hold on the Kingdom, to the prejudice of René II, Duke of Lorraine, the French claimant. On 4 June 1492, Pope Innocent issued a bull, determining that King Ferrante would be succeeded by his son Alfonso, and Alfonso by Ferdinand.[13] The French were checked. The Milanese were happy.


In the Conclave of August 1492, after having accepted that he would not be able to obtain the papal tiara for himself, Ascanio promised his vote to Rodrigo Borgia, then-Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church. Borgia promised Sforza the office of Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church,[14] as well as the Palazzo Borgia. In addition he would receive the castle at Nepi, the Bishopric of Eger (which had an annual income of 10,000 ducats), two canonries, and the office of Prior of a convent in the diocese of Calahorra which was held by Borgia.[15] Borgia was elected to the papal throne partly due to Ascanio's persuasive manner, becoming Alexander VI. He appointed Ascanio his Vice-Chancellor as he had promised, making him the virtual prime minister of the Holy See. Sforza resigned his deaconry of S. Vito e Modesto on 26 August 1492 and opted for it again on 31 January 1495 and occupied it until his death. He was named administrator of the Metropolitan See of Eger on 31 August 1492, retaining that position until June 1496.[16][17] In order to strengthen the relationship between his family and the papal house, Ascanio arranged the marriage of Giovanni Sforza, his cousin and governor of Pesaro, to Lucrezia Borgia, the Pope's illegitimate daughter, in 1493. The marriage was annulled in 1497, on grounds of non-consummation.

French invasionEdit

Cardinal Sforza was named Administrator of the diocese of Elne, a suffragan of the diocese of Narbonne in France, in January 1494; on 20 January 1495 Caesare Borgia was appointed Bishop of Elne, and Sforza relinquished the administratorship in May 1495.[18]

The friendship between Ascanio and Alexander VI came to an end when the French invaded Italy in September 1494. Aware of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere’s machinations against him, Alexander decided to resist the French. Ludovico Sforza having secretly allied himself with King Charles VIII of France, Ascanio betrayed the Pope together with several cardinals and clamoured for his deposition under della Rovere. After the papal triumph over the King, Milan abandoned the French and Ascanio was received once again in the Vatican. He never managed, however, to regain his former influence over the Pope. When Giovanni Borgia, the Pope's son, was stabbed in 1497, Ascanio did not attend the following consistory and was accused of the murder. He was immediately absolved, however, by the Pope.

When the French again invaded Italy with the support of the Holy See, Ascanio watched his brother Ludovico Sforza's downfall and imprisonment (1500), unable to act. On 15 June 1500, he was taken to France and imprisoned in Lyon, later at the Tour de Bourges. He was freed on 3 January 1502 based on his promise to not leave France without royal permission. He participated in the Papal conclave, September 1503. He made futile efforts to succeed Alexander VI, fighting against Cardinal della Rovere and Georges d'Amboise, the formal nominee of France. When Pius III (Francesco Piccolomini) died the same month of his coronation, Cardinal Sforza took part in the Papal conclave, October 1503, but Giuliano della Rovere (Julius II) was elected nearly unanimously.[19]

On 23 May 1505, Cardinal Ascanio attended a Secret Consistory in good health, and went hunting after lunch. On his return he felt ill. He took medicine against the plague, but on Wednesday, 28 May, took to his bed with a cold sweat. The fifty-year-old Ascanio died in Rome, in the house in his garden next to S. Girolamo dei Schiavoni, on 28 May 1505. It was not disappointment, however, that killed Cardinal Ascanio, but the plague (pestis inguinaria). He was buried that same evening, with no cardinal and neither Master of Ceremonies being present due to the plague.[20] Julius II commissioned the erection of the Cardinal's tomb[21] in the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Maria del Popolo,[22] with a revealing inscription in which Pope Julius announced that he had forgotten Ascanio's honest opposition ("honestissimarum contentionum oblitus").[23] The artist was Andrea Sansovino.[24]

The artsEdit

Ascanio's lifelong focus on public affairs distracted his attention from being a patron of the arts. However, he was the one to introduce Josquin des Prez, the most famous musician of the Renaissance, to the papal court in 1486.[25] Strenuous and hard-skinned as a politician, Ascanio preferred gambling rather than studying. He was undoubtedly Machiavellian, but also clear-sighted and intelligent, with haughty spirit and unfinished courage. His political morals were typical of his era and he remained dedicated to his love for Milan and for his family.

Representations in popular cultureEdit


References and notesEdit

  1. ^ "Sforza Family". Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  2. ^ Stefano Zaggia, "Architecture of Power: Imola during the Signoria of Girolamo Riario (1473–1488)," in: S. Beltramo; F. Cantatore; M. Folin, eds. (2016). A Renaissance Architecture of Power: Princely Palaces in the Italian Quattrocento. Leiden-Boston: Brill. p. 216. ISBN 978-90-04-31550-1.
  3. ^ Eubel, II, p. 212; III, p. 269 note 2.
  4. ^ Conradus Eubel, Hierarchia catholica medii aevi, sive Summorum pontificum, S.R.E. cardinalium, ecclesiarum antistitum series, editio altera, Tomus II (Monasterii 1913), p. 47 nos. 492 and 499.
  5. ^ Conradus Eubel, II, p. 47 no. 502.
  6. ^ Della Rovere and Cardinal Jean de Balue were the leaders of the French party at the Court of Innocent VIII. Balue arrived in Rome on 8 February 1485, and presented his credentials as Ambassador on February 11. Tensions between them and Cardinal Ascanio were so strong that, at a Consistory on 5 March 1486, that an altercation broke out which the Pope had to settle by silencing them both. Pastor, V, p. 260.
  7. ^ Joannes Burchard (1883). L. Thuasne (ed.). Diarum sine rerum urbanarum commentarii: 1483-1506 (in French and Latin). Tome premier. Paris: Leroux., Appendice no. 19, pp. 512-513. Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes, from the close of the Middle Ages, third edition, Volume V (Saint Louis: B. Herder 1902, p. 206.
  8. ^ Eubel, II, p. 205. Cardinal Ascanio negotiated a handsome annual pension from Novara of 800 florins.
  9. ^ Eubel, II, p. 205 note 6 (stating that the See had become vacant in 1503 due to the resignation of Bishop Pallavicini; III, p. 260 with note 2.
  10. ^ Sanclemente cites a congratulatory letter of 22 September 1486, sent by the Chapter of the Cathedral, specifically stating that Sforza had been named Administrator perpetuus. At the time he was also Administrator of Novara and of Pavia. Sanclemente, Enrico (1814). Series critico-chronologica episcoporum Cremonensium, sub auspiciis praestantissimi antistitis Homoboni Offredi ex authenticis monumentis aucta et emendata suaeque integritati maxima ex parte restituta, auctore Henrico Sanclementio (in Latin). Cremona: apud Josephum Feraboli. pp. 150–152.
  11. ^ Stefano Infessura, Diario della città di Roma (ed. O. Tommasini) nuova edizione (Roma 1890), pp. 273-274.
  12. ^ Pastor, p. 285.
  13. ^ Pastor, p. 287.
  14. ^ In the Conclave of 1484 Borgia had promised the Vice-Chancellorship to Cardinal Giovanni d'Aragona, the son of Ferrante I of Naples. Pastor, p. 236.
  15. ^ Pastor, V, pp. 382-383, with note.
  16. ^ Eubel, Hierarchia catholica, p. 83.
  17. ^ Williams, George L., Papal Genealogy, McFarland, 2004 ISBN 9780786420711
  18. ^ Gallia Christiana, In Provincias Ecclesiasticas Distributa (in Latin). Tomus sextus (6). Paris: Ex Typographia Regia. 1739. pp. 1064–1065. Eubel, II, p. 150.
  19. ^ J. P. Adams, California State University Northridge, Sede Vacante 1503, II, retrieved: 2017-09-06.
  20. ^ Burchard, Diarium III, p. 390-391. The circumstances are reported both by Joannes Burchard and by Paris de Grassis.
  21. ^ "Tomb of Cardinal Ascanio". 2019-10-03.
  22. ^ Australian National University, photo of tomb of Cardinal Sforza.
  23. ^ Vincenzo Forcella (1869). Iscrizioni delle Chiese e d'Altri Edificii (in Italian and Latin). Tomo I. Roma: Tipografia delle scienze mathematiche e fisiche. pp. 332, no. 1258.
  24. ^ Kim Woods (2007). Viewing Renaissance Art. Yale University Press. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-300-12343-2. Barbara Hahn; Meike Werner (August 22, 2016). The Art of Dreams: Reflections and Representations. Berlin-Boston: De Gruyter. pp. 111–112. ISBN 978-3-11-043385-2.
  25. ^ Richard Sherr (2000). The Josquin Companion. Oxford University Press. p. 171. ISBN 978-0-19-816335-0. Edward Lowinsky, Music in the Culture of the Renaissance, and other essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1989), pp. 535-564.


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