Giovanni Sforza

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Giovanni Sforza d'Aragona (1466 – 27 July 1510) was an Italian condottiero, lord of Pesaro and Gradara from 1483 until his death. He is best known as the first husband of Lucrezia Borgia. Their marriage was annulled on claims of his impotence in March 1497.

Life and marriage[edit]

The illegitimate son of Costanzo I Sforza, he was a member of the powerful House of Sforza, in the line of Pesaro and Gradara (the Milanese line held the Duchy of Milan at the time). At the death of his father in 1483 he inherited the lordship of Pesaro and Gradara.

coin of the 16th century with the face of Giovanni Sforza on it

In 1489 Giovanni had married Maddalena Gonzaga, daughter of Federico I of Mantua, but she died the following year. He was thus viewed as a valuable link to Milan by the Borgia family. With the help of Giovanni's cousin, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, the family finalized marriage negotiations in February 1492 between Giovanni, then in his mid-twenties, and Lucrezia Borgia, the thirteen-year-old illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI. A proxy marriage took place on 12 June that year, as the wedding contract stipulated that Lucrezia would stay in Rome and not consummate the marriage for a year. Her dowry was 31,000 ducats. The official marriage was celebrated in the Vatican in 1493, and reputedly was a lavish and decadent affair.

He and Lucrezia spent two years in Pesaro, during which his importance to the ambitious Borgia family dwindled. Sforza tried to wield his proximity to the Borgias to Milan's advantage by acting as a spy, and was found out by Alexander VI. Meanwhile, other political advantages (particularly with Naples) were formed, rendering the strategic marriage useless. Lucrezia, used to privileged life in the Papal court, did not adjust to the provincial atmosphere of Pesaro. By Christmas 1495, both Giovanni and Lucrezia were present again in the court at Rome.

By then, Sforza was aware that his fortune was precarious. He left Rome to continue with a military campaign, and upon his return in February 1497 quickly fled the city in disguise. The accepted reason for this is that the Pope and his son Cesare had contrived a plot to murder Giovanni, but Lucrezia was informed by Cesare and warned her husband to leave. This has not been proven but remains a popular explanation.

Annulment and late life[edit]

The Pope petitioned for an annulment on Lucrezia's behalf in 1497 (there was no such thing as divorce at this time.) Ascanio Sforza was again called in to mediate between his nephew and the Borgias, and tried to persuade Giovanni into accepting the annulment. Giovanni refused to do so on at least two grounds: first, he would have to return Lucrezia's sizable dowry, and second, doing so would require signing a paper stating he was impotent. Some sources state that Giovanni had married and even fathered illegitimate children before his union with Lucrezia, which is reasonable given his age. Genuine impotence on his part would therefore be unlikely.

Sforza accused Lucrezia of parental and fraternal incest in response. This claim, first made solely against the Pope and later extended to all of Lucrezia's brothers, still continues to shade the family's history. It became a popular example of the depravity later attributed to the family despite its lack of verifiability.

The marriage was eventually annulled in 1497 on grounds of non-consummation. The Sforza family had by then threatened to withhold protection to Giovanni if he did not comply with the offer, which allowed him to keep the dowry but still required signing the confirmation of impotence. Sforza agreed to the terms in March or December. Six months later he provided sworn testimony that Lucrezia was a virgin. Lucrezia was by then allegedly pregnant with the Roman Infante, whose parentage was cited by some as proof of incest between her and Cesare. It is certain that Sforza did not parent the child but details beyond that are uncertain.

Giovanni was excommunicated in 1500 and the citizens of one of his cities attempted to kill him. He was also attacked by Cesare Borgia, who aimed to gain Sforza's lands, and was forced to abandon Pesaro. He sued in vain for help to all the major powers of the time including France and Holy Roman Empire. Giovanni Sforza could return to Pesaro only after the death of Alexander VI and the illness of Cesare Borgia (1503). The following year the new Pope, Julius II, confirmed him as vicariate in Pesaro.

He remarried to Ginevra Tiepolo, who gave him an heir, Costanzo II (Giovanni Maria), who succeeded him in Pesaro and Gradara.

Sforza died in Pesaro in 1510.

Portrayals in Media[edit]

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Preceded by
Costanzo I Sforza
Lord of Pesaro
1482–1500
Succeeded by
Cesare Borgia
Preceded by
Cesare Borgia
Lord of Pesaro
1503–1510
Succeeded by
Costanzo II Sforza