Tag Archives: Michelangelo

The Tigress of Forli — Elizabeth Lev

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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


Selected Translations 1968-1978 W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin at OWS

The book was stained, its pages rippled and dried after a soaking, some of them stuck together. An orange circular sticker had OWSL scribbled on it in black marker and so did the top of the book, across the edge of the closed pages. Whomsoever’s it was before, now it belonged to the Occupied Wall St. People’s Library in Zuccotti Park. Selected Translations, 1968-1978 by W.S. Merwin was still in one piece and I like Merwin’s poems so I picked it up to read it.

I could have taken it home; one guy was worried he wouldn’t have time to finish a Lawrence Block book before he had to return to Phoenix so a volunteer librarian told him to take it with him and donate it to Occupy Phoenix when he was finished with it. I read Merwin on a convenient wooden chair in the park because I thought I might read some of these daily books in bookstores and libraries and Occupy Wall St.’s library has a very nice vibe. 

Merwin has done a lot of translating—Pablo Neruda, Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Muso Soseki, Euripides, Rumi, Garcia Lorca, Basho and others. This book is one of several translation collections, ambitious in its range. He includes poems from Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, American Indian, Quechua (Incan), Txeltal and Tzetzil (Mayan), Eskimo, Malgache (Madagascar), Korean, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. There are a few lines from Michelangelo, the loveliest: “…even if I were quite blind, I would find you…”

Nicanor Parra wrote in Spanish:

“I’m sad I’ve got nothing to eat / nobody cares about me / there shouldn’t be any beggars / I’ve been saying the same thing for years…”

Osip Mandelstam wrote in Russian:

“Your thin shoulders are for turning red under whips, / turning red under whips, and flaming in the raw cold.

Your child’s fingers are for lifting flatirons / For lifting flatirons and for knotting cords.

Your tender soles are for walking on broken glass, / walking on broken glass, across bloody sands.

And I’m for burning like a black candle lit for you…”

In the preface to the translations, Merwin says of his work: “Without deliberately altering the overt meaning of the original poem, I wanted the translation to represent, with as much life as possible, some aspect, some quality of the poem which made the translator think it was worth translating in the first place.” 

This was a departure from the advice Ezra Pound gave when Merwin visited him in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane where Pound was incarcerated for twelve years as an outspoken and unapologetic political dissident. Pound said to get as close to the original form and language of the poem as possible. Merwin’s ‘possible’ is always infused with the music of the English language he writes in and colored by the music of the poets whose work he translates. The romance languages flow in English; the Mayan translations have the particular rhythm and magic of Mayan myth and syntax; the Asian poets resonate with exquisite imagery and rich symbolism.

A delightful thing about rummaging in tubs of old books for something to read is the inevitable out-of-print gem you will find to taste and savor. Despite the occasional high-energy chants, the constant jazz combo enlivening a nearby circle, the camera-wielding tourists and the difficulty of quiet reflection, you can read in the middle of an occupied park. And the words may make a different kind of sense to you—reading revolutionaries, rebels, nonconformists and passionate poets surrounded by a few yet to find their way into print.

W. S. Merwin  Selected Translations, 1968-1978   Atheneum  1980