Powerful women in the late-fifteenth century were tough as nails. Caterina Sforza was made of iron and steel. She was born the illegitimate daughter of a ruling house in Milan and raised with her father’s legitimate children to every grace, athletic and academic accomplishment and spiritual practice of her class. She could ride, hunt and wield weapons better than the boys and she never questioned her place as a woman and political pawn—she simply transcended it.
At ten, Caterina was betrothed to the boorish, self-indulgent and weak-willed Girolamo Riario, nephew of the pope. Riario insisted on deflowering the child immediately before returning to Rome. Typically a betrothal was notarized and the bride transferred to her husband’s household at age fourteen. At that point the marriage would be consummated. Caterina was enjoying a holiday meal with her family in the castle at one moment and dragged off to be raped by Riario the next. The child understood it to be her duty and when she did finally join Riario’s house, she arrived in style with elaborate gowns and jewels and an unshakeable sense of her own destiny and importance. She proceeded to bear Riario numerous children while continuing to hunt and train–and dazzle the pope and others in the Vatican and Roman nobility.
The story of a girl with extraordinary political and tactical savvy reads like battle fiction at times and a spy thriller at others. But this isn’t a fictional account. Lev is a Renaissance scholar and history professor in Rome and her dissertation research introduced her to Caterina Sforza and her remarkable life. The tale is embroidered and encrusted with assassination attempts—and a fair number of successes—papal intrigue, Medici plotting and brilliant artists from Michelangelo to Da Vinci. Caterina met them saw their original works unveiled, was immortalized in several church murals, set fashion trends throughout Italy, was considered one of the great beauties of her age, and exhibited raw courage in the face of insurmountable odds that never fazed her.
When her husband was assassinated, she blockaded the door to the tower where she and her children had been lunching and sent for help to her powerful friends and relations. The family, including an infant, was captured by the assassins but she tricked her captors into taking her to an impregnable fortress where she refused to surrender, even when her eldest son was held with a knife at his throat under the battlement. She correctly assumed that she could call the bluff on this maneuver which would have wreaked havoc with the murderers and brought papal wrath down on their heads. Throughout her life she would prove better at playing this game than any of her adversaries, although a lesser person would never have withstood the pressure.
Forli and Imola were the states in the Riario realm and Caterina was the more visible and acclaimed ruler of those towns. After her husband’s death she dedicated her life to protecting the properties for her children and the siege of Forli’s Ravaldino fortress established her legend throughout Europe as the Tigress of Forli. Her attention never waivered from the political weather and her machinations outdid even those of Machiavelli, whom she turned the tables on during a treaty negotiation. Caterina’s last husband was a Medici, her last child his son. Her grandchild would be Cosimo de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany and the princely head of the illustrious Medici lineage that defined Renaissance Florence.
The price she paid for her rule, her fame and infamy, her lovers and her ambition–ruthless at times–was devastating and steep. But it seems never to have daunted her. Imprisoned and abused or bedecked and bejeweled in the latest fashion, she was a regal presence, a brilliant strategist, a passionate lover, a fiercely protective mother and a political force to be reckoned with. We should have studied Caterina Sforza in the recounting of significant Renaissance history. Thankfully, Elizabeth Lev has shone a light on her life and deeds so they are not overshadowed by the dealings of the men who were her contemporaries, and occasionally her equals, on the great stage of Italy in its most colorful epoch.
The Tigress of Forli Elizabeth Lev | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011