Bianca Maria Sforza was born on 5 April 1472 as the third child but the eldest (legitimate) daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Bona of Savoy. She had two older brothers, Gian and Hermes, who were three and two at the time of her birth. Her last full sibling, Anna, was born in 1476. She also had several illegitimate half-siblings.
Bianca Maria and Anna spent most of their time in the Sforza residences in Milan, Pavia, Vigevano and Abbiategrasso. Tragically, she would barely know her father. He was assassinated on 26 December 1476 when Bianca Maria was only four years old. Her mother Bona became regent for her brother Gian until 1481 when her brother-in-law Ludovico Maria Sforza seized power, although Gian remained Duke in name. Bianca had been betrothed to Philibert I, Duke of Savoy at a very young age, but he died at the age of 17 in 1481. Bianca Maria was then betrothed to the son of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, but this betrothal too fell through.1
In 1491, Bianca Maria’s sister Anna left Milan to marry Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and she would die in childbirth six years later – still only 21 years old. That same year, Bianca Maria was considered for a brilliant match that would have seen her become Queen of Scots as the wife of King James IV. However, a more brilliant match was waiting for her.
In 1493, the 34-year-old Archduke Maximilian, son of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor and widower of Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, was recently coming out of a failed betrothal to Anne, Duchess of Brittany. Bianca Maria’s uncle sent Maximilian an offer of a dowry of 400,000 ducats in exchange for the renewed investiture of Milan. Maximilian agreed but kept the offer a secret as his father lay dying. When his father indeed died in August 1493, he called for Bianca to come to Innsbruck. Her mother was said to be delighted with the brilliant match and soon began to prepare for the proxy wedding, which had been set for November.
On 7 November, two ambassadors from Maximilian, then known as the King of the Romans as he had not been crowned with the imperial crown yet, reached Milan and met with Bianca’s uncle and her brother, the Duke. On 30 November 1493, Bianca rode through the city of Milan in a carriage drawn by four white horses. She was magnificently dressed in a crimson satin vest, embroidered with gold thread and covered in jewels. She also had a large train, and the sleeves of her dress looked like two wings.2 The proxy ceremony was performed by the Archbishop of Milan, and during the ceremony, she was presented with a ring and a crown.
Just three days later, Bianca Maria began her journey to Innsbruck – her brother Hermes was amongst those travelling with her. It was not an easy journey, and one envoy wrote, “Our gracious lady bears herself well on the whole, but she constantly complains that I deceive her, for each morning when she mounts her horse I tell her that she will not find the path so rough that day, and then by ill-fate, it is worse than ever.”3 They finally arrived at Innsbruck on Christmas Eve, only to find that Maximilian was not there to greet them. She did find Catherine of Saxony, the wife of Archduke Sigismund of Austria, who tried to entertain her with balls and parties.
Bianca Maria and Maximilian finally met on 9 March the following year. Though he was kind to her and he considered her more beautiful than his first wife, he also thought she was not as wise. He also soon became annoyed with her extravagance and often left her for weeks at a time at Innsbruck. In October 1494, Bianca Maria’s brother Gian died, and their uncle swooped in to take over the title. However, he was soon taken captive by the French and spent the last eight years of his life as a prisoner.
Her uncle’s sons spent much time at the court of Bianca Maria, and she was reportedly also close to her stepchildren, Philip and Margaret. However, she and Maximilian would not have any children of their own, though she reportedly did suffer several miscarriages. From 1502, Maximilian spent less and less time with her and over the next eight years, they probably were only together for about a year and a half. When Maximilian was, at last, crowned as Emperor, Bianca Maria was not by his side.
Bianca Maria died on 31 December 1510, after being ill for quite some time. She was still only 38 years old.4
- The most illustrious ladies of the Italian renaissance by Christopher Hare p.138
- The most illustrious ladies of the Italian renaissance by Christopher Hare p.141
- The most illustrious ladies of the Italian renaissance by Christopher Hare p.144
- See also: Furstin ohne Ort. Vom Scheitern der Bianca Maria Sforza in Nur die Frau des Kaiers?