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.
1.1 Early years
1.5 French invasion
1.6 The arts
2 Representations in popular culture
3 References and notes
5 External links
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
Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1466–1476) and
Ludovico Sforza (1494–1499),
and the uncle of a third,
Gian Galeazzo Sforza
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
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
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
In September 1473, Ascanio's niece Caterina, the daughter of Duke Gian
Galeazzo, was married to the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, Girolamo Riario
(the brother of Cardinal Pietro Riario). 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
Nevertheless, Ascanio entered the episcopate[disputed – discuss]
when he was appointed
Bishop of Pavia
Bishop of Pavia in September 1479, retaining the
diocese until his death. In 1484 he represented
Ludovico Sforza at
the Congress of Cremona.
Coat of Arms of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza
Pope Sixtus IV
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. 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. 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
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. 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.  Giovanni Battista Cybo was
Pope Innocent VIII
Pope Innocent VIII on 29 August 1484.
Sforza became administrator of Novara from 25 October 1484 to 18 April
1485, occupying the post again in May 1505, a few days before his
death on 27 May.
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
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. 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. 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. 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. 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, 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. 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. 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.
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.
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
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
Giuliano della Rovere (Julius II)
was elected nearly unanimously. 
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.
Julius II commissioned the erection of
the Cardinal’s tomb in the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Maria del
Popolo , with a revealing inscription in which Pope Julius
announced that he had forgotten Ascanio's honest opposition
("honestissimarum contentionum oblitus"). The artist was Andrea
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. 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
Representations in popular culture
In the 2011 Showtime series The Borgias, Cardinal Sforza is played by
British actor Peter Sullivan.
Canal+ series "Borgia: Faith and Fear", Cardinal Sforza is
played by English actor Christian McKay.
References and notes
^ 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.
^ Eubel, II, p. 212; III, p. 269 note 2.
^ 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.
^ Conradus Eubel, II, p. 47 no. 502.
^ 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.
^ 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.
^ Eubel, II, p. 205. Cardinal Ascanio negotiated a handsome annual
pension from Novara of 800 florins.
^ 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
^ 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.
^ Stefano Infessura, Diario della città di Roma (ed. O. Tommasini)
nuova edizione (Roma 1890), pp. 273-274.
^ Pastor, p. 285.
^ Pastor, p. 287.
^ 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.
^ Pastor, V, pp. 382-383, with note.
^ Eubel, Hierarchia catholica, p. 83.
^ Williams, George L., Papal Genealogy, McFarland, 2004
^ Gallia Christiana, In Provincias Ecclesiasticas Distributa (in
Latin). Tomus sextus (6). Paris: Ex Typographia Regia. 1739.
pp. 1064–1065. Eubel, II, p. 150.
^ J. P. Adams, California State University Northridge, Sede Vacante
1503, II, retrieved: 2017-09-06.
^ Burchard, Diarium III, p. 390-391. The circumstances are reported
both by Joannes Burchard and by Paris de Grassis.
^ Australian National University, photo of tomb of Cardinal Sforza.
^ 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.
^ Kim Woods (2007). Viewing
Renaissance Art. Yale University Press.
p. 225. ISBN 0-300-12343-4. Barbara Hahn; Meike Werner
(August 22, 2016). The Art of Dreams: Reflections and Representations.
Berlin-Boston: De Gruyter. pp. 111–112.
^ 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.
Moroni, Gaetano, ed. (1854). Dizionario di erudizione
storico-ecclesiastica da S. Pietro sino ai nostri giorni ... (in
Italian). Vol. LXV. Venezia: Tip. Emiliana. pp. 90–93.
Pastor, Ludwig von. The History of the Popes, from the close of the
Middle Ages, third edition, Volume V Saint Louis: B. Herder 1902.
Pastor, Ludwig von. The History of the Popes, from the close of the
Middle Ages, second edition, Volume VI Saint Louis: B. Herder 1902.
Pélissier, Léon-Gabriel (1897). Le cardinal Ascanio Sforza
prisonnier des Vénitiens (1500) (in French). Paris: Imprimerie
Pellegrini, Marco (2002). Ascanio Maria Sforza: la parabola politica
di un cardinale-principe del Rinascimento. Nuovi studi storici, 60.
(in Italian). 2 vols. Roma: Istituto storico italiano per il Medio
Ascanio Sforza at Find a Grave
The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church - Biographical Dictionary
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