The Tigress of Forlì – by Elizabeth Lev
Date read: 2/7/19. Recommendation: 8/10.
The story of Renaissance Italy’s most courageous countess, Caterina Sforza. Her tale is one of clever strategy, boldness, and determination. Sforza’s life reads like a storybook as she fights off her husband’s assassins, the French Army, and Cesare Borgia. Throughout her life, powerful men viewed her as a pawn on the chessboard of Italian politics. They doubted her ability to rule and never took her seriously. She would prove this to be foolish, time and time again. Fascinating, inspiring biography.
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Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici
Legacy: Ingenuity, boldness, cunning, astute strategies, and iron determination. Fended off her husband’s assassins, the French Army, and Cesare Borgia.
Warrior: Grew up learning to bear and wield arms in the tradition of her warrior family. Her family emphasized training of female children along males the use of weapons, riding and hunting. Gave her an unusual advantage and first-class education in the fundamentals of military leadership.
Galeazzo Maria Sforza (father, Duke of Milan): Admired his boldness, warrior nature that he blended with his love for the arts. He turned Milan into an intellectual rival to Florence. He defined Caterina’s ideal of bravery and elegance.
Bona of Savoy (Galeazzo’s second wife, not Caterina’s biological mother): After Galeazzo was murdered, she transformed from a quiet, patient mother and wife, into a competent head of state, dealing with threats and taking on all responsibility. Safely transported Caterina to join her husband (Girolamo Riario) in Rome after her father’s death.
Throughout her life, powerful men viewed her as a pawn on the chessboard of Italian politics, to be used and sacrificed at will. They doubted her ability to rule and never took her seriously. She would prove this to be foolish, time and time again.
Brutally realistic expectations set by early marriage (at age 10) to a foolish, self-indulgent husband (Girolamo) and the murder of her father forced her to build deep well of fortitude and resilience.
She was held in high-esteem, her intelligence, manners, and sense of fashion were widely admired. While Girolamo was holed up, wary of strangers, she would take to the streets to walk among her subjects and actively engage the citizens. Even when the bubonic plague hit, she would visit the poorest quarters, tend to the ill and bring food/medicine.
Caterina was constantly helping to negotiate her husbands errant moves, whether failed assassination plots, greedy exploitations, his fear of combat, or his antagonization of powerful families in northern Italy. Girolamo lacked substance and intelligence. She never complained, but she took a more active role after the first couple years. She didn’t want to sit idly by as her husband squandered the family name and the children’s inheritance.
Upon Pope Sixtus’s death: mobs raced to the Riarios’ house in Rome and tore it down in pent up rage towards Girolamo. Caterina and Girolamo were safe in Forlì, but instead of hiding behind her husband’s forces, she jumped on a horse (seven months pregnant at the time) and rode to Rome. She seized the papal fort of Castle Sant’Angelo and turned the cannons towards all access roads around the Vatican to cut off the cardinals. She single-handedly held the College of Cardinals at bay for eleven days and negotiated that her family retain the lands of Immola and Forlì.
Dimensional thinking - there’s a time for patience and there’s a time for boldness. Caterina knew how the balance the two.
Girolamo’s Death: murdered in his palace, Caterina immediately jumped into action, barricading the the room that she and the children were in to buy herself time. She immediately issued instructions for a messenger to send for her allies (and her brother, the duke of Milan). Once captured, she was brought to her castle, Ravaldino, to negotiate its surrender. She devised elaborate schemes to buy time, negotiating the castle’s surrender, plotting with Tommaso Feo (the guardian of the castle and who she was supposed to be negotiating with). After one negotiation session, he claimed to take her captive and locked out her kidnappers (the Orsis). The kidnappers brought her children out front and threatened their lives in front of Caterina. She was able to think strategically, as she knew her children, being the nephews of the duke of Milan, could not be killed without retaliation. She also knew that surrendering would give her no advantage–her family would likely be poisoned or imprisoned–so she held her position and strode to the edge of the ramparts with daggers drawn. She held the castle for 13 days until reinforcements arrived. Preserving Forlì and her family.
Cesare Borgia’s Invasion of Ravaldino:
December 19, 1499, Borgia began his siege. Caterina embarrassed and befuddled him. Frustrated by her resistance, raised the bounty of her head to ten-thousand ducats, but no one inside the fortress was willing to betray her. She commanded a deep loyalty. People flocked to Forlì to witness her defense and fearlessness against the most cruel man in Italy. The longer Borgia was stalled by a woman, the weaker he seemed in the eyes of his adversaries. On January 12, he threw everything he had at the fortress and broke in. Caterina fought on the front ranks for two hours, side by side with her men against Borgia’s soldiers. She was the equal of any man on the battlefield. She was eventually captured, but did not go quietly.