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Poland's Italian Queen
Bona Sforza on the 500th Anniversary of her Birth
by Wanda Sławińska

The following is the edited text of a presentation made on June 15, 1994 at a meeting of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo.

1994 marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of a Polish Queen who, because of her love of fruits and vegetables, changed not only the Polish palate, but left a lasting influence on the language as well. We cannot relegate her to the kitchen, however, because she had a regal upbringing which predestined her to play a leading role in the politics of the Polish court.


Bona Sforza was born in 1494 (Italian sources give the date 1493) into the princely family of Milan. The family name "Sforza" means "force" and was originally the nickname of the mercenary soldier, Jacopo Attendolo. Coming from the lesser gentry, the family gained the principality of Milan through their own efforts. Bona was the daughter of Gian Galeazzo Sforza and Isabella of Aragon. After her father's untimely death, the Milan principality was taken over by her paternal uncle, Ludovico Moro. Isabella took Bona to the principality of Ban, which had been given to her the year before, and gave her daughter a good education. The curriculum included the study of Vergil, Cicero, Petrarca, history, music, dance, horseback riding and hunting. More importantly, Isabella, mindful of her daughter's future prospects, taught her the art of ruling. Bona immediately put the lessons into practice, for she had her own court at Bari.

Isabella's ambition of retiring to her own principality of Milan was wiped Out by the conquest of Milan by Francis I of France. She was determined, therefore, to find a good suitor for her daughter. Her first two choices, Prince Maximillian Sforza, and then Philip, brother of Charles of Savoy, came to naught. Elizabeth subsequently entrusted the search to her uncle, Maximillian I of Austria. Maximillian found for her the recently widowed Sigismund I (the Old) of Poland. The Polish suitor had a humanistic education from the Italian, Callimachus, (Filippo Buonaccorsi), knew German and Latin, and loved art and architecture. He founded the Rorantist choir, which is active to this day. The King, it was true, was 24 years her senior, but it could not be discounted that he was the ruler of a country that territorially was the fifth or sixth largest. He was eloquent and ruled in the spirit of medieval values based on Christian ethics.

It was in Maximilian's interest to make this match, because it would allow him to keep an eye on Poland. The bride was his wife's niece and a cousin of Francis I of France.


The formal engagement took place per procuram, or proxy, at the Castle of Capuano near Naples. Stanisław Ostroróg, son of the writer of the same name, represented the King. He was distinguished for his eloquence and dazzled those in attendance with his attire. He wore gold braided clothes and the jewels on his hat were worth fifty thousand ducats. The ceremony was officiated by Jan Konarski, Bishop of Cracow and took place on December 6, 1517. Ostroróg's ceremonial duties were to recite the sacramental phrases, place the King's ring on Bona's finger, kiss his own two fingers, touch them to Bona's forehead, kiss them again, and to bow deeply. Accompanied by Prospero Colonna and joined by Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, Bona arrived in Cracow on April 15, 1518 with a court of 345 ladies and gentlemen to a rousing welcome. Three days later the marriage and coronation ceremonies began and went on for eight days.

Poland had centuries of contacts with Italy. They were mostly through papal legates, commissioners, and secretaries. Beginning with the 15th century, merchants, miners, adventurers and scholars began arriving with increasing frequency. Hundreds of Poles studied at the Universities of Padua, Bologna, and Ferrara.

Italy seemed to the Pole a country whose customs were noble and worthy of imitation. It was a center of art and scholarship, a model of administration and life. One learned there refined manners and forgot one's own shortcomings. It was the fashion capital not only for dress, but also for dance and music. For a century, everything from the church choir (capella) to poetry, to speech, to food made an impression because it was Italian.

In coming to Poland, Bona opened the door wide to Italian artists. Besides her courtiers, she brought with her builders, architects, artisans and painters to make her new country as beautiful as the one she left. Her husband had himself come to admire Renaissance architecture during his stay (1498-1501) as Crown Prince in Buda (as in Buda-pest) at the court of his brother, Władysław, King of Hungary. When he returned to Cracow in 1502 he brought with him Francesco Florentino, an architect from Florence.

The Renaissance

II Rinascimento, or the Renaissance, began in Italy in the 14th century. It was the rebirth of interest in classical influences and humanism. It found its expression in the flowering of literature, science and the arts. It was also a transition from the medieval to the modern period of history. When it was drawing to a close in Italy, it flourished anew in the North, especially in Poland, in part because of the influence of Bona.

The culture of the Renaissance was anthropocentric. The Renaissance was regarded as the rebirth of man. It valued the inner world of the individual and it valued education, for by educating his mind and improving his language man could recast himself, rising thereby above the level of the beast and the barbarian. The ideal man was one who was rich inwardly, harmoniously developed and able to undertake successfully many different activities. Man, through his creative efforts, through his own will and energy was considered as being able to give form to his life and to the world surrounding him. The work of artists in particular was very highly valued because art was seen to be analogous to the activity of the Creator: by creating beautiful forms from the chaos of materials, it expressed most fully the essence of man.

The Olbracht Tomb

In 1502-1505, Florentino executed the first Renaissance work in Poland, namely the niche for the tomb of King Jan Olbracht in the Wawel Cathedral. One of Sigismund's older brothers, Olbracht had reigned from 1492 to 1501. Although the likeness of King's himself is late Gothic in style, the niche for this monument marks the beginning of the Golden Age of Cracow's sculpture, 1501-1610. Heavy sarcophagi with stone canopies gave way to slender columns, niches and cornices, all harmoniously combined and decorated with imaginative ornamentation. The use of colored materials, be it marble, alabaster, sandstone or bronze, added splendor. A favorite, medium was the red marble of northern Hungary for the figure and white limestone for the architectural setting.

Wawel Castle

Following his coronation in 1506, Sigismund commissioned Florentino to rebuild the gothic Wawel Castle in the style of the Renaissance. The Castle, situated on the Wawel Hill, was first used as a royal residence by Bolesław the Brave, who was Poland's second ruler and reigned from 992 to 1025. During the centuries when .Cracow was the capital of Poland, the Castle became both the locus and symbol of royal authority. Florentino's design for the royal residence created a spacious courtyard encompassed by three wings of the Castle and a curtain wall, with galleries on each of the Castle's three storeys. The Apartments of State, that is the ceremonial chambers where the King would conduct affairs of state and receive foreign envoys, were located on the top or third floor. The arcade on this floor was made twice a high as those on the lower floors, to ensure that, notwithstanding the northern latitude, the chambers would be well lit. To give visual balance to the galleries, the slender columns of twice. normal height were reinforced in the middle by dzbany, or pitchers, structures visually similar to the capitals of the columns.

The Wawel Heads

The Renaissance State Apartments on the Castle's third floor were completed in 1529. They have coffered ceilings with the caissons, or sunken panels, richly decorated with moldings painted in various colors. Each caisson is embellished by a gilded rosette in its center. In this they are similar to many examples to be found in Italy. However, the coffered ceiling in the easternmost chamber, that of the Envoys is unique. Here in the centers of the caissons are placed magnificent lifesize naturalistic carvings of human heads. One is that of a king, as the crown on his head attests. Another head is wearing a crown of laurel leaves, a third is that of fashionable lady who sports a flat hat made with ostrich plumes. Yet another portrait is that of a young man wearing a hat with ear flaps and a rascally upturned rim above his forehead. In all 194 such heads were commissioned, 30 that have survived to this day continue to adorn the Envoys' Chamber. Each head is carved of lindenwood and painted in naturalistic color. Though destined to be viewed en face, each portrait is truly three dimensional with the side view carefully crafted. Each captivates us with his or her vivid expression, fascinates us with its realism.

The Wawel decoration of caissons with sculpted human heads is unparalleled in 16th century Renaissance art. It is thought that the inspiration for these portraits came from Bona because heads of angels in relief decorated the upper coffers of the triumphal arch of Alfonse I which stood at the entrance of the Palace in which she had lived in Naples. However, the inspiration might have come from elsewhere for there is a Roman Temple of Jupiter in Split, (preserved as a baptistery) as well as an ancient town gate in Perugia, where heads look down from the vault, it may even have come from Corvinus' castle at Buda, built by collaborators of Laurana, the architect of the Naples arch. One of the most often reproduced Wawel heads is that of a woman whose mouth is covered with a strip of cloth. Since this decoration does not correspond to any known contemporary fashion, a legend has arisen regarding its origin. According to the legend, the Chamber was used by King Sigismund August (Bona's son) as a court of law. Once, while the King was sitting in judgment a voice was heard saying "Rex Auguste, iudica iuste!" (King August, judge justly). Every one looked around to see who had the temerity to speak thus to the King. When it was realized it had been the woman's head in the ceiling which had thus spoken, it was decided to muffle it so that it would not disturb Royal proceedings again.

The Sigismund Chapel

Noteworthy among the Italian artists who were at the court during Bona's time is Bartolomeo Berrecci. His genius is immortalized in one of the most renowned masterpieces of Renaissance art in Poland, the Sigismund Chapel in the Wawel Cathedral. It was built in the years 15 191533 and thus following the marriage between King Sigismund the Old and Bona Sforza. The chapel is in the form of a perfect cube surmounted by a hemispherical cupola, the diameter of which equals exactly that of the sides of the cube. The cupola is coffered, with 80 encased rosettes, no two alike. The circular drum of the copula is made to fit the cube of the lower structure by employing a semi-elliptic curve. The architectonic solution used by Berrecci was unknown to that time. It allowed him to place large windows between the cube of the chapel and its cupola. The architectural vocabulary of the chapel is reduced to two terms, the light gray sandstone of the walls with their relief ornamentation and the gentle warmth of the red Hungarian marble used for the royal tombs, the statues of saints and the roundels of biblical figures. On top of the dome stands a lantern, that is, a cylindrical structure the vertical walls of which are glass skylights. The light entering through the eight large windows under the dome and through the lantern's skylights provide ample yet diffuse light which makes it possible to see the richness and serenity of the composition in spite of Cracow's northern latitude and seasonally dim light.

Berrecci's architectonic solution was ahead of his time and a half century ahead of Michelangelo's copula at the Vatican. At the topmost point of the chapel, in the center of the lantern's ceiling, Berrecci placed the head of an angel. Around it runs the inscription: BertholoFlorentino Orefice (craftsman). One might have expected a sacred phrase or a laudatory salute to the King, but the artist decided to salute himself.

The six statues of saints and six roundel reliefs of the Evangelists and Prophets executed by Berrecci and his co-workers are regarded as the most important Renaissance statuary in Poland. In true Renaissance style, these are not idealized figures but portraits of real people: King David, for instance, bears the likeness of Seweryn Boner, the King's banker who is thought to have posed for the artist.

Berrecci sculpted the chapel's funereal statue of Sigismund the Old who is portrayed not as dead but rather as resting. He thus underscores the turning of Renaissance thought away from the next world of medieval times to the newly rediscovered earth of which the Renaissance man was eager to take possession. In contrast, the face of Santi Gucci's funereal statue of King Sigismund August (the son of Sigismund the Old and Bona), is very serious and thoughtful. Dying without an heir, Sigismund August left a nation concerned about external threat and torn by internal dissent. The artist has captured the mood of the times. Besides Berrecci and Gucci, many other Italian artists came to Cracow either with Bona Sforza or in her wake. Thus Giovanni Cinii collaborated with Berrecci in the building of the Sigismund Chapel. Francesco della Torre worked with Berrecci on the Royal Castle. Pietro di Barbona, Paolo Domemci built splendid edifices in Lwów and Canavesi who sculpted the monuments of Bishop A. Konarski and the Górka Family in the City Square in Poznań, blending Nordic and Italian influences. Italian artists effectively put a stop to the prevailing German architectural influences in Poland. Queen Bona also laid the foundations for the fortified city of Bar (near Winnica), named after her own principality of Bari. Her initials, B. S. made up the city's crest. The town of Krzemieniec was another fortified city and the castle there stood on a hill called "Góra Bony" (Bona's Hill). Krzemieniec later was the birthplace of Poland's bard, Juliusz Słowacki, and the home of the famous school, the Lyceum of Krzemieniec.

Influence of Language

With this many Italian influences in art and architecture, it is little wonder that Polish architectural vocabulary bears the stamp of the Italian innovators. Queen Bona also influenced fashion. Polish women began imitating their queen. They wore many jewels, gold chains, and beaded coifs. The fabrics that come into vogue were lush velvets, silks, satins, brocades and gold cloth. In 1533, Bona brought from Bruges the first 14 Flemish tapestries that the King had ordered for the Wawel Castle.

Similarities of Italian and Polish terms

Architectual Terms
Food items
Today, Bona is probably best remembered in the kitchen. Coming from sunny Italy she brought her own cooks, gardeners and horticulturalists. She introduced many foods, especially vegetables. The Polish language reflects this in the many terms for vegetables that it has assimilated from Italian.

Financial Management

Queen Bona's most lasting contributions were in the area of economics and administration. About the time of the marriage of the Royal couple, the state of the treasury in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was disastrous. The King appointed as Treasurer of the Grand Duchy Abraham Ezofowicz, a member of a distinguished Jewish family (his brother Michał, the head of all the Lithuanian Jews, was ennobled in 1525, an occurrence without parallel in European medieval history, even though, unlike his brother, he remained a practicing Jew). The King also sought the aid of his banker, Jan Boner, and Bona who had a substantial income from her principality in Italy.

With the infusion of funds it proved possible to free up many of King's estates that had been acquired by the magnates as collateral for loans. Bona then multiplied them by buying up additional estates and administered them wisely. She improved them, introduced new crops. erected churches, established parishes, improved hygienic conditions, even showed the advantages of building houses along a straight street, instead of randomly. She also mediated in personal squabbles promised her protection to peasants, Jews, and burgers. Being a descendent of the gentry class, she was watchful of any transgressions on the part of the nobility.


King Sigismund's death in 1548 at the age of 81 brought to an end to Bona's reign and influence. There was conflict between her and her son even before he became king. The situation became untenable after he married Barbara Radziwill, a marriage Bona considered to be a misalliance. What was worse, the new King, Sigismund August, believed the then circulating rumors that his mother intended to poison his beloved. He took measures to safeguard his Queen. The dowager had to leave Cracow and she moved to Warsaw. She made up her mind to leave Poland, and by 1555 the Sejm gave her permission to do so on the condition that she leave all her Polish estates to her son. She left the following year with an entourage of 280 and sailed in 5 galleys to Bari. Bona Sforza soon met a sad fate. She was misled by Philip II of Spain, who borrowed from her the huge sum of 430,000 ducats and promised to dislodge the French from Naples. He then pressed her to turn over her feudal estates to him. She was soon enmeshed in a series of perfidious intrigues played out by her favorite, Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda. She decided to return to Poland, but made the mistake of confiding this to Pappacoth. To thwart her plans, he gave her a poisoned drink. When she was nearly unconscious, he asked her to sign a testament that pretended to leave her estates to Sigismund August, but, in fact, deeded them to Philip II. She revived sufficiently the next thy to write a proper testament, but to no avail. She died on the 19th of November, 1557.

In 1593 her daughter, Anna Jagiellonka, erected a splendid tomb of black marble in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Barn where it can still be seen today.

Queen Bona succeeded in bringing Italy and Poland, two countries seemingly so different, close together. In the words of her compatriot and poet, Gianbattista Garini, speaking of the two nations so far from one another, I luoghi son ben lontani, ma gil aninu son vicini. (The places are so far away, but the spirit is close).


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