The Gradara Story- Part 2: From Humble Beginnings

There are few in the storied annals of Condottieri captains that compare with the Sforza brothers Francesco and Alessandro for their success and strength of arms!

Pups to a Dog of War

They were born bastard sons to the Mercenary leader Muzio Sforza. Muzio himself was a peasant who had ran away from home as a young man to follow the mercenary company of Boldrino da Panicale as it passed by his father’s fields. As he rose through the ranks through skill and courage he switched to the company of the famous commander Alberico Barbiano, he gave Muzio the name Sforza, the strong one. Muzio quickly grew famous due to his strength and skill as a commander, turning from peasant was eventually bribed away from Alberico by the Visconti of Milan. The Visconti gave command of his own mercenary band. The peasant boy who had run away on his father’s horse had become a man who commands knights, sits at tables of dukes, and owns lands and castles!

The Young Lion is Blooded

It was in this band and under this great commander that the young Francesco and Alessandro learned the craft of war! The camp was their nursery, hard-bitten mercenaries their tutors and the battlefield was their classroom. Francesco soon gained the awe of his men, capable of bending iron bars with his bare hands. As he became a young man and was given command he proved himself a calculating tactician and ruthless commander. During the War of Aquilla, his father died trying to save his squire from drowning. Francesco at the tender age of 23 was left with command of his father’s army only days before the decisive battle of the war. Undaunted, Francesco sought the battle anyway and led a devastating flank charge winning the battle. Thus begins a long and illustrious career of victories both by force and intrigue!

The Sforza Hammer

Over the next years, the Sforza brothers serve every single powerful city in Italy, Venice, Milan, the Papacy, the king of Naples, and various other interests. The Sforzas become famous for striking with speed and brute force. Using manoeuvre and the power of their cavalry and skirmishers to raid, harass, and mislead they force their often reluctant opponents to the battlefield where they can crush them through brutal heavy cavalry charges. The Sforza brothers however are ambitious and are wanting more, not just to be pieces on the chessboard, but to be players in their own right, making their mark on Italy. For that though they would need a power base outside of the Kingdom of Naples where their father had taken his lands. They set their eyes on the Marche, a lawless region nominally owned by the Pope, where many of the mercenary commanders had carved out small kingdoms for themselves. Families like the enlightened Montafeltri and the sadistically brutal Malatesta.

Building a Kingdom

Now joined by his younger brother Alessandro in 1435 he conquered the fortress town of Ancona in the Marche region. He decides to betray his Visconti employers, taking the town as his own and adding it to his father’s lands in Naples. Only a few years later disaster struck as a rival Niccolo Piccinino seized Francesco’s lands in Naples. He is left with only his lands in the Marche region, war rages with Piccinino, Francesco fights him up and down southern Italy until Niccolo drives deep into his lands in the Romagna and the Marche. Francesco only defeats him with the help of a young rising star of the brutal Malatesta clan, one Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta.

Triumph and Treachery

To cement this bond Francesco agrees a marriage between the dashing young commander and his daughter. The two are married in the fortress town of Gradara, the fortress controls the passes that connect the rich Marche region on the east coast of Italy with Rome. The town is a strategic key in and out of the region, possession of it would is protected against enemy incursion into the Marche and is capable of lording it over the other factions in the region. As his daughter and Sigismondo are married in the fortress Francesco knows, he must own this town. With Gradara he will no longer fear the invasions of his rival Piccinino and he will no longer be beholden to warlord families like the Maletesta. As he drinks wine and hobnobs with the other wedding guests the germ of an idea starts to grow in his heart.

The Door Opens

In 1445 Sigismondo’s cousin “Galeazzo the Inept” is both in dire need of cash and a way to hurt his popular cousin Sigismondo who he has a bitter feud with. He decides to sell the wealthy town of Pesaro to the Sforzas. At a stroke funding his gambling and whoring and laying the ambitious Sforzas within quick striking distance of Gradara. It will also lesson the Malatesta ability to block expansion by their greatest rivals the Montefeltri of Urbino. Allessandro Sforza takes Pesaro for himself and he and Francesco begin preparations for a further step. In 1446 nervous but trusting to the bonds made by his marriage Sigismondo leaves Gradara to accept a rich suit of armour the pope is gifting him. In that moment the Sforza strike!

Together with the famous commander Federicco da Montefeltro they descend upon Gradara like wolves, quickly laying siege to it and hammering it’s walls with cannon.

Next: The Siege

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