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.
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 and Ludovico Sforza. His teacher was Filelfo 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).
At age of 10 he was named commendatory abbot of Chiaravalle. While still an adolescent, Ascanio was promised the red hat by Guillaume d'Estouteville, who wanted to gain Galeazzo Maria Sforza’s support for his candidacy for the papal throne in 1471. The tiara was finally given to Francesco della Rovere (Sixtus IV) and Ascanio’s promotion to cardinal was delayed. Hoping to pacify the Holy See in Milan, Sixtus IV planned to make him a cardinal in 1477 but the Sacred College refused to accept him into its ranks.
Ascanio rose to Bishop of Pavia in the September 1479 and retained the diocese until his death. In 1484 Ascanio represented Ludovico Sforza at the Congress of Cremona, the participants of which demanded his accession to the Sacred College.
Pope Sixtus IV created him cardinal deacon of Ss. Vito e Modesto on 17 March 1484. He entered Rome on 23 August the same year - just a few days after Sixtus’s death. The formal nomination ceremony 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 and contributed to the election of Giovanni Cybo as Pope Innocent VIII. Sforza was administrator of Novara from 25 October 1484 to 18 April 1485, and occupied the post again in May 1505, a few days before his death.
His main purpose was to reconcile Ferdinand I of Naples with the Sforzas. In March 1486, Ascanio had a dispute with Cardinal Jean Balue, the French ambassador to Rome. The ambassador had suggested that the Pope should summon Rene d'Anjou to retrieve his rights over the Neapolitan throne. Their quarrel became so violent that Pope Innocent VIII, generally hesitant to interfere with his inferiors, ordered them to stop.
In his effort to ally Naples with Milan, Ascanio 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.
In the Conclave of August 1492, after having failed to obtain the tiara for himself, Ascanio promised his vote to Rodrigo Borgia, then-Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Curia, in exchange for Rodrigo’s prestigious association. The latter was elected to the papal throne partly due to Sforza’s persuasive manner, becoming Alexander VI, and appointed Ascanio his Vice-Chancellor, making him the virtual prime minister of the Holy See. Ascanio 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, staying in that position until June 1497. 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 Elne in January 1494 until May 1495. The friendship between Ascanio and Alexander VI came to a deadlock 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 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 and was defeated by Giuliano della Rovere (Julius II) . Vanquished by disappointments, the fifty-year-old Ascanio died in Rome, on 25 May 1505. Julius II commissioned the erection of the Cardinal’s tomb in the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Maria del Popolo .
Ascanio's lifelong focus on public affairs prevented him 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 family.
Representations in popular culture
- In the 2011 Showtime series The Borgias, Cardinal Sforza is played by British actor Peter Sullivan.
- In the Canal+ series "Borgia: Faith and Fear", Cardinal Sforza is played by English actor Christian McKay.