“Most illustrious relative and dearest brother,
My wife was taken with sudden pains at eight o’clock last night. At eleven, she gave birth to a dead son, and at half-past twelve, she gave her spirit back to God. This cruel and premature end has filled me with bitter and indescribable anguish, so much so that I would rather have died myself than to lose the dearest and most precious thing that I had in this world. But great and excessive as if my grief, beyond all measure, and grievous as your own will be, I know, I feel that I must tell you this myself, because of the brotherly love between us. And I beg you not to send anyone to condole with me, as that would only renew my sorrow. I would not write to the Madonna Marchesana (Beatrice’s sister Isabella), and leave you to break the news to her as you think best, knowing well how inexpressible her sorrow will be.
Lodovicus M. Sfortia
Anglus Dux Mediolani
Milan, 3 January 1497, 6 o’clock” 1
This was the letter Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan sent to Francesco Gonzaga, his brother-in-law, who was married to Beatrice’s sister Isabella, after the sudden death of his young wife.
Beatrice was born in 1475 Ercole I d’Este and Leonora of Naples. They had married in 1491 in a political alliance between the Ferrarese house of Este and the Milanese house of Sforza. She had a careful education, and at her court, she gathered many learned men around her, such as Leonardo da Vinci. In 1492 she acted as an ambassador for her husband in order for him to be recognised as Duke of Milan. He was finally recognised as Duke of Milan in 1494. They had two sons in 1493 and 1495.
Beatrice appeared in good health on the day before her death. She was seen riding her chariot through the park. She went inside the Dominican Church and paid her devotions at the altar. There was dancing in her rooms that night until she suddenly became ill. She died a little after midnight, after giving birth to a stillborn son.
Contemporary writers wrote that the sky above the Castello of Milan was “all a-blaze with fiery flames, and the walls of the Duchess’ own garden fell with a sudden crash to the ground, although there was neither wind nor earthquake”.
For a time, Ludovico would see no one, not even his own children, though he found the strength to dictate the letters that would break the news to Beatrice’s family.
To the citizens of Pavia he announced, “Last night at half-past twelve our beloved wife, after giving birth to a son who died at eleven, changed this life for death, which most cruel event snatches from us one who, by reason of her rare and singular virtues, was dearer to us than our own life. You will understand what our grief is and how difficult it is to bear this irreparable loss with patience and reason. We beg of you to pray God for the soul of our dearest consort, and to hold solemn funeral services in the Duomo and in all other churches of the city”.
The death of Beatrice was “such a grief that had never been known before in Milan”. Her sister wrote to their father on the fifth after being informed of Beatrice’s death, “When I think, what a loving, honoured and only sister I have lost, I am so much oppressed with the burden of this sudden loss, that I know not how I can ever find comfort”.
All throughout the Duchy, every possible honour was paid to Beatrice. One hundred requiem masses were said daily for the repose of her soul, while a hundred tapers were kept burning day and night around the sarcophagus supported by lions in which her remains were interred. Her husband attended two or three masses every day. She was buried on 12 January in the Certosa di Pavia, which was hung with black. All those who attended carried lit torches while wearing black. It must have been an impressive sight.