One would generally think the Queen of Poland would be….well….Polish. In this case, she was not. Bona Sforza, as her name would indicate, was Italian. However, as the wife of King Sigismund I she exercised great power over the country.
A member of the powerful Sforza family of Milan, Bona was born on February 2, 1494 the second child of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, sixth Duke of Milan and his wife Isabella of Naples. Fun fact, Isabella is thought be some to be the inspiration for the Mona Lisa. Raised in Bari and Milan, she was educated by the imminent Italian humanists Antonio de Ferraris and Crisotomo Colonna. From them she learned mathematics, history, classical literature, Latin, , law, theology, geography, natural science, and how to play several instruments. Bona was also raised on stories of the dangers of the Ottoman Empire and the great explorers of the day. In short, she was a perfect Renaissance princess. Sadly, Bona was the only one of her four siblings to live to adulthood.
As part of a powerful family, Bona was expected to make a good marriage. One problem. Her great uncle Ludovico Sforza was constantly at odds with everyone. He was in a feud with both France and the Pope, so options in France, Italy or Spain were extremely limited. So the family turned east, and with the help of the House of Hapsburg secured a match for Bona with the widowed Sigismund I of Poland. The prospect must not have been that exciting for a young girl as her future husband was called “Sigismund the Old”. Bona was no spring chicken herself, being unwed and 24, but Sigismund was twenty-seven years older than her and quite rough around the edges to the polished Italian lady. Despite all this, the two were married on April 18,1518 and Bona was crowned Queen of Poland.
As can be expected, the first few months were difficult. Bona was coming into a culture and climate that was vastly different than the sunny Italy of her youth. Even the food was different as the diet was heavy on meat and missing the vegetables she was used to. Bona became known as the Culinary Queen, as she introduced “włoszczyzna”, literally Italian vegetables, to the area. She planted a garden near Wawel castle complete with celery, carrots, parsley and leeks. These vegetables made their way into the Polish and Lithuanian diets along with the words for these vegetables. She also introduced Italian artists to Poland, including her court favorite Bartolommeo Berrecci. HIs masterpiece is the Sigismund Chapel at Wawel Castle Cathedral in Kraków. It is considered “the most beautiful example of the Tuscan Renaissance north of the Alps”.
Bona and Sigismund had six children, however, if the Polish court thought Bona was only going to be a mother of heirs, they were sadly mistaken. Raised in the centers of power in Italy, Bona began building her own base of support from the Polish nobility. She was also able to leverage her relationship to the Medici Pope Leo X to influence clerical appointments in her favor. Despite her upbringing and the help of the Habsburgs in securing her marriage, Bona came down on the side of the Ottoman Empire against the Habsburgs. Her correspondence with Hurrem Sultan, the legal wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, is thought to have been critical in saving Poland from attempted invasion by the Ottoman Empire. This correspondence has been lost to time, however, Hurrem sent personal gifts to both Sigismund and his son. Hurrem was originally from Poland, and all signs point to them having a close relationship.
Of her children, one son and four daughters survived to adulthood. Her daughters went on to become powerful in their own rite: Queen Isabella of Hungary, Duchess Sophia of Brunswick-Lüneberg, Queen Anna I of Poland and Queen Catherine of Sweden, Duchess of Finland. However, her son and heir became her greatest disappointment. Sigismund II August succeeded his father after his death in 1548. However, Sigismund August did not inherit the ruling ability of either his father or his mother. He concentrated on romance and art rather than running the kingdom. His first wife was the choice of his father and Bona bitterly opposed it. Elizabeth of Austria was a Hapsburg, and was in frail health. The journey from Austria to Poland exacerbated her epilepsy and she began having daily seizures. Her father-in-law was sympathetic, but Bona was openly hostile. Sigismund August was indifferent. He found his new wife unattractive and busied himself with affairs. Elizabeth made the mistake of calling Bona by her title “the Old Queen”, which Bona detested. Not a great way to get in good with your mother-in-law. The poor girl died two years into the marriage.
At this point Sigismund August was on the marriage market again, and Bona expected to get him a more suitable wife this time. However, that was not on Sigismund August’s mind and he married his outstandingly beautiful mistress Barbara Radziwiłłówna. Not only was she not Bona’s choice, but she was a Lithuanian Calvinist from an ambitious family. Bona had worked diligently to keep Protestantism from taking root in Poland, even though she allowed Protestant views to be discussed. Having one as Queen? Not happening. Bona was livid and was not quiet about it. She headed the campaign to annul the marriage, which included slut shaming Barbara, accusing her of poisoning her first husband and witchcraft to seduce the young king. The marriage was recognized despite Bona’s efforts and Barbara was crowned Queen of Poland on December 7, 1550. Bona was removed from court and moved to Mazovia, and was supposedly content with her farms and orchards. However, when beautiful Barbara died mysteriously in May 8,1551, rumors went round that she had been poisoned on Bona’s orders. Then rumors went round that this was not the first time Bona had removed a distasteful daughter-in-law. Remember poor sickly Elizabeth. Bona was Italian. They did those things, you know.
Eventually the rumors got to be too much and Bona returned to the Bari of her childhood eight years after the death of her husband. Her son had married another Hapsburg, this time Catherine of Austria, and she wasn’t going to fall into the line of suspicion if another daughter-in-law got sick. However, Bona herself was the one who became ill and died under mysterious circumstances. It is believed that at the instigation of her old enemies the Habsburgs, she was poisoned by her trusted officer, Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda. Apparently, Philip II owed Bona quite a little bit of money. Pappacoda forged the will the day before to forgive the debt. He was rewarded with a title and an annual salary.
Sigismund August died without an heir, so all of Bona’s consternation about his bride was for not. His sister Anna and her husband Stefan Batory took the throne and ruled as King and Queen.