3 March 2020

Ascanio Sforza – Cardinal

Borgia pope’s ally used his power to benefit Milan


Cardinal Ascanio Sforza has been described as  Machiavellian in his diplomatic skills
Cardinal Ascanio Sforza has been described as
Machiavellian in his diplomatic skills
Ascanio Maria Sforza Visconti, who became a skilled diplomat and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, was born on this day in 1455 in Cremona in Lombardy.

He played a major part in the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI in the papal conclave of 1492 and served as Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church from 1492 until 1505.

Ascanio was the son of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Bianca Maria Visconti. Two of his brothers, Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Ludovico Sforza, became Dukes of Milan, as did his nephew, Gian Galeazzo Sforza.

At the age of ten, Ascanio was named commendatory abbot of Chiaravalle and he was promised the red hat of a cardinal when he was in his teens. He was appointed Bishop of Pavia in 1479.

Pope Sixtus IV created him cardinal deacon of SS Vito e Modesto in March 1484. Pope Sixtus died in August before Ascanio’s formal ceremony of investiture had taken place and some of the cardinals objected to him participating in the conclave to elect the next pope.

Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia intervened on his behalf and Ascanio was received with all the rights of a cardinal. The conclave elected Giovanni Battista Cybo as Pope Innocent VIII.

Sforza played an important part in helping Rodrigo Borgia be elected as Pope
Sforza played an important part in helping
Rodrigo Borgia be elected as Pope
After Pope Innocent’s death in 1492, Ascanio promised his vote to Rodrigo Borgia at the next conclave. In return, Borgia promised him the office of Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church, many other lucrative posts, and the Palazzo Borgia. Ascanio managed to persuade other Cardinals to vote for Rodrigo Borgia and he was duly elected, becoming Pope Alexander VI.

Ascanio became so powerful he was virtually prime minister of the Holy See.

He arranged the marriage of Giovanni Sforza, his cousin, to Lucrezia Borgia, the pope’s illegitimate daughter, but the marriage was annulled four years later on the grounds of non consummation.

The friendship between Ascanio and Alexander VI came to an end when the French invaded Italy because the Sforza family had made a secret alliance with King Charles VIII of France. Ascanio tried to get the pope deposed along with several cardinals but the papal troops defeated the French. Once the Sforzas gave up their support of the French, Ascanio was received in the Vatican again, but his relationship with Alexander VI was never the same.

When Giovanni Borgia, the pope’s son, was stabbed to death, Ascanio was accused of the murder but he was quickly absolved by the pope.

After the French invaded Italy again in 1500, Ascanio’s brother, Ludovico Sforza, was imprisoned and Ascanio was taken to France where he was held captive for nearly two years.

Andrea Sansovino's tomb for Ascanio  was commissioned by Pope Julius II
Andrea Sansovino's tomb for Ascanio
 was commissioned by Pope Julius II
In the papal conclave of 1503 Ascanio tried to succeed Alexander VI, but he was beaten by Francesco Piccolomini, who became Pius III. He died the same month as his coronation and Ascanio took part in the conclave of October 1503 when Giuliano delle Rovere was elected as Pope Julius II almost unanimously.

Ascanio became ill with the plague in May 1505 and died, aged 50, at his home near San Girolamo degli Schiavoni in Rome. He was buried the same evening with no ceremony because he had died of the plague.

Julius II commissioned Andrea Sansovino to erect a tomb for Cardinal Ascanio in the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Maria del Popolo with an inscription announcing that Julius II had forgotten Cardinal Ascanio’s honest opposition - ‘honestissimarum contentionum oblitus’.

Ascanio Sforza has been judged to have been both intelligent and Machiavellian, but to have remained dedicated to Milan and to his family.

In recent TV dramas about the Borgias, the role of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza has been played variously by the British actors, Clive Merrison, Peter Sullivan and Christian McKay.

Cremona's famous bell tower, il Torrazzo
Cremona's famous bell tower, il Torrazzo
Travel tip:

Cremona in Lombardy, where Ascanio Sforza was born, is famous for having the tallest bell tower in Italy, il Torrazzo, which measures more than 112 metres in height. The city is also well known for producing torrone, a type of nougat. It is thought the concoction of almonds, honey and egg whites was first created in the shape of il Torrazzo to mark the marriage of Ascanio’s parents, Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco I Sforza, in 1441. To sample the many different types of torrone now made in Cremona, visit Negozio Sperlari in Via Solferino in the centre of the city.

The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, where Ascanio Sforza is buried
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, where
Ascanio Sforza is buried
Travel tip:

Ascanio Sforza’s tomb by Sansovino is in Santa Maria del Popolo, a minor basilica in Piazza del Popolo in Rome. The basilica was important during the Borgia era. When the Pope’s son, Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia, was murdered in 1497 his body lay in state in the basilica for several days before being buried in the Borgia chapel. Vannozza dei Cattanei, former mistress of Alexander VI, and Ludovico Podocataro, the pope’s secretary and physician, were also buried there.

Also on this day:

1578: The death of Venetian Doge Sebastiano Venier

1585: The inauguration of the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza

1768: The death of composer and teacher Nicola Porpora

1882: The birth of fraudstar Charles Ponzi


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