Sforza, Caterina (c. 1462–1509)

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Sforza, Caterina (c. 1462–1509)

Countess of Forlì and the "most famous virago of the Renaissance" who conducted military operations and defended besieged fortresses in 15th-century Italy. Name variations: Caterine Sforza; Catherine Sforza, countess of Forli and Imola or Imolo; Caterina de Medici; Caterina Sforza Riario. Born Caterina Sforza in late 1462 or early 1463 in Milan, Italy; died in Florence, Italy, in 1509; illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444–1476), duke of Milan, and Lucrezia Landriani (wife of Giampietro Landriani); married Girolamo Riario, in 1477 (died 1488); began liaison with Giacomo Feo, in 1489 (died 1495); married Giovanni de Medici, in 1497 (died 1498); children: (first marriage) Bianca Riario (b. 1478), Ottaviano Riario (b. 1479), Cesare Riario (b. between 1480 and 1482), Giovanni Livio Riario (b. 1484), Galeazzo Riario (b. 1485), Francesco Sforza Riario (b. 1487), and a daughter who died in infancy; (liaison with Feo) Bernardino, later called Carlo (b. 1490); (second marriage) Ludovico, later called Giovanni delle Bande Nere (1498–1526).

Lived with birth mother until 1466, when she was transferred together with siblings to father's household; betrothed at age ten to Girolamo Riario; married at age 14 and moved to Rome (1477); became countess of Forlì (1481), and thereafter lived primarily in Forlì and Imola; had first bout of quartan fever (1482); during papal succession (1484), rode into Rome and seized the Castel Sant'Angelo; acted as judge against assassination conspiracy and imposed severe punishments (1487); husband Girolamo Riario assassinated (1488); successfully held the fortress of Ravaldino during revolt of Forlì after assassination, even when children were threatened (1488); served as regent for oldest son, ruling Imola and Forlì (1488–1500); exacted bloody retribution after assassination of lover Giacomo Feo in Forlì (1495); negotiated with Niccolò Machiavelli, envoy of Florence (1499); defended Ravaldino in Forlì against Cesare Borgia (1499–1500); captured and imprisoned in Rome (1500–01); retired to Florence (1501–09).

Caterina Sforza was a strong, vibrant woman, often described as a "Renaissance virago," who wielded sex, the sword, and diplomacy to secure her power. She lived in Italy in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, a time of conspiracy and intrigue. City-states, republics and kingdoms pitted themselves against one another; popes ruled like kings; assassinations by blade, poison, and garrote were common; and blood and vengeance were more prevalent than mercy and forgiveness. Yet it was also the Italy of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the humanists, and of Savonarola as well as Machiavelli.

The Sforzas rose to prominence as condottieri, or captains of bands of mercenaries, and the Sforza women were no strangers to warfare. One of Caterina's ancestors, Muzio Attendolo, was the first to adopt the nickname of "Sforza." When he was imprisoned in the early 15th century, his sister Margaret of Attenduli donned armor and rescued him—a decade before Joan of Arc appeared on the battlefield in France. Like these women, Caterina Sforza wore armor and played a military role, but she was no rescuer or saint; Sforza fought for her own purposes.

She commanded enormous respect and was even feared by the soldiers for her insistence on iron discipline, cruelly enforced.

—Ernst Breisach

Caterina was very like her grandfather, Francesco Sforza (1401–1466), who seized power as the duke of Milan in the mid-15th century. He was the ideal Renaissance soldier: tall, handsome, athletic, a capable warrior and a skilled strategist. His oldest son, Galeazzo Maria, was a wild youth with a strain of cruelty in his nature. While still a teenager, he began a long affair with Lucrezia Landriani , his best friend's wife. She gave birth to four illegitimate children: Carlo in 1461 and Caterina in late 1462, followed by Chiara Sforza and Alessandro. Galeazzo Maria acknowledged the children, and when he became duke upon his father's death in 1466, he brought them into his own household. In 1468, the duke married 19-year-old Bona of Savoy , who seems to have been a loving stepmother to Caterina and her siblings. Bona's son, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, was the designated heir, but the other children were part of the extended family.

Caterina enjoyed the typical Renaissance childhood of a young girl of noble family in 15th-century Italy. She learned to read and write, was educated in religious matters, and was important primarily as a tool of diplomacy: noble daughters, even illegitimate ones, were quite useful in making politically advantageous marital ties with other families. When Caterina was ten years old, she was betrothed to 29-year-old Girolamo Riario, a rather crude and lusty character of humble family origins, who was propelled to prominence when his uncle became Pope Sixtus IV.

Sixtus had been known as a gentle scholar prior to his election. Afterwards, as historian Will Durant noted in The Renaissance, he underwent "one of the strangest transformations in papal history," presiding over a Rome that was "a hotbed of intrigues, a battleground of everwarring powerful nobles, a place of the ready and murderous dagger" which "did not readily tolerate a saintly pope." It was Sixtus who appointed Torquemada as head of the Spanish Inquisition. Sixtus also ensured that his relatives prospered. Otherwise, Girolamo Riario would not have been a suitable match for Caterina.

Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan had earlier been forced to cede the city of Imola to Sixtus IV. Located in the region of north-central Italy known as Romagna, Imola was important because of its location on a major road connecting other significant cities. The concession and the betrothal helped consolidate an alliance between the Sforza of Milan and the new pope, while improving Caterina's future prospects. A year after the betrothal, in late 1473, the pope granted Girolamo control of Imola. A few months later, Girolamo's status was further elevated when his brother, the cardinal of San Sisto, died and left him a great inheritance. Girolamo became the pope's "right-hand man," an important advisor of increasing influence and power.

Meanwhile, Caterina continued her education. There is little evidence that she excelled in the humanistic disciplines of oratory or music, but her physical skills in dancing, games, and riding horses were impressive. From a young age, Caterina Sforza was a woman of action and not words.

On the day after Christmas 1476, Caterina Sforza lost her father to assassins' knives. Since the duke's legal heir, Caterina's half-brother, was still an infant, a struggle for power ensued, with the late duke's brother, Ludovico il Moro (Sforza), eager to assume control. Caterina's stepmother Bona of Savoy wrote to the pope to encourage an early marriage between Caterina and Girolamo; the groom was unable to attend the ceremony, so the two were wedded by proxy in early 1477. In late April, Girolamo

sent an escort to take 14-year-old Caterina to Imola. She arrived on May 1, stopping to dress in fine brocades and expensive jewels before entering the town. Sforza was met with songs, flowers, and the keys to the city; it was a friendly greeting that would stand in stark contrast to the way she would be forced to leave in later years. Two weeks later, she proceeded to Rome, where she was finally met by her husband. She was blessed by the pope and treated to gifts of jewels and sumptuous banquets in honor of her marriage.

Though Caterina was pleased by the faded grandeur of Rome, her feelings about her new husband were not recorded. Girolamo was a brash and vindictive young man, redeemed by rare moments of charm, whose dominant characteristic was ambition. He was often gone from Rome for extended periods, leaving Caterina to her own devices. She was occupied partly by nearly continuous pregnancies; she had nine children in 20 years, the first seven with Riario. Her first child was a daughter Bianca Riario , born in the spring of 1478; sons followed in August 1479 (Ottaviano) and August 1480 (Cesare).

When Girolamo Riario was awarded Imola by the pope, he gained the responsibility for defending the city. The Papal States of central Italy were under the political control of the pope, but the upheavals of the previous century had allowed some areas to gain relative independence. Fifteenth-century popes like Sixtus IV invested a great deal of effort in regaining control of the region, and did not flinch from employing deception and open violence to achieve their ends. Among Girolamo's chief enemies was the Medici family, who ruled Florence and threatened the security of the Papal States. Girolamo was behind a botched assassination attempt against Lorenzo de Medici in April 1478; it is uncertain whether the pope had condoned the conspiracy. Girolamo had his eye on several cities in Romagna, but gained only one in addition to Imola: Forlì, which he was awarded in 1480 at the expense of its former rulers, the Ordelaffi family. The justification for the takeover was to bring the city under direct papal rule.

While Girolamo was trying to expand his personal empire, Caterina pursued a fairly traditional life as a young Roman wife. She engaged in half-hearted attempts to gather priests and scholars to her court in the humanistic tradition. However, she was far more strongly drawn to physical pursuits, and was passionate about "the chase"—riding out with her hunting dogs on parties to hunt deer and boar. This pleasant life was disrupted when Girolamo decided to move the family to his possessions in Romagna in July 1481. As the new count and countess of Forlì, Girolamo and Caterina entered the city to a wild celebration. Although she was five months' pregnant, Caterina rode in on horseback beside her husband. She was 18 years old, blonde, and, by the standards of the day, strikingly beautiful.

Caterina's sheer physical presence, which she enhanced with displays of wealth, impressed the people of Forlì. She continued to pursue her passion for the hunt, despite her pregnancy. However, Girolamo seems to have made little effort to gain popular support, and had few dealings with his public. Then in late 1481, when the couple made a brief visit to Venice, they were horrified to learn of an Ordelaffi plot to assassinate them upon their return. Though the plot was thwarted, Girolamo and Caterina lived thereafter with the suspicion that their own people were ready to betray them in favor of the Ordelaffi. Girolamo has been described as the "cruel and rapacious" "despot of Forlì"; it seems his natural tendencies to viciousness were only aggravated by his increasing paranoia.

Caterina insisted on returning to Rome in late 1481, when she was eight months' pregnant; she had a second daughter a few days after the long journey, but the child survived only briefly. Then in late 1482, she was beset by quartan fever, a form of malaria that would plague her for the rest of her life. Caterina's independence and self-reliance were tempered during this period of loss and isolation, for Girolamo was away at a war that erupted between the Papal States and Venice on one side, and Ferrara, assisted by Milan, Naples, and Florence, on the other. The war ended without much change of territory, but Girolamo was hailed as a hero for victories that in fact were the work of condottiere Roberto Malatesta.

Girolamo and Caterina returned to Imola and Forlì in mid-1483 to defend their territories against new incursions by the Ordelaffi, backed by Venice. Caterina began to take a personal interest in military affairs, participating directly in the control of their soldiers, and insisting "on iron discipline cruelly enforced." A new assassination plot was discovered, further alienating Caterina and Girolamo from the people of Forlì. They left for Rome, leaving the town's governor the chore of rounding up and executing the conspirators.

Back in Rome, Caterina became a frequent companion of her husband's uncle, the pope. Rumors began to circulate that the relationship was more than merely familial, though this seems unlikely. At the same time, Girolamo continued to polish his reputation as a military figure, carrying out sieges and attempting seizures of territory in his uncle's name.

The death of Sixtus IV on August 12, 1484, threw all Girolamo's ambitions to the wind. Riots and disorder seized Rome; mobs attacked the property of the pope's relatives and looted with abandon. The day of the pope's death, Caterina was with her husband and children, encamped near the site of a siege. Girolamo beat a hasty retreat towards Rome, but was ordered by the cardinals of the church to remain outside the city. The election of a new pope was underway, and everyone hoped to sway the vote to their own benefit. While Girolamo was barred from marching through the streets of Rome in a show of military force, his wife was not so constrained.

Civil war seemed likely and Rome was in chaos. Caterina Sforza leapt into action to try to retain the power and prestige of her family. She mounted a horse, despite being seven months' pregnant, and rode with a companion straight through Rome to the Castel Sant'Angelo. Declaring that she was claiming the fortress in order to secure it for the pope's legal successor, she chased out many of the occupants, closed and barricaded the gates, and bullied the soldiers into obedience. Ernst Breisach wrote that they "considered her cruel and fierce but obeyed her grudgingly." This achievement is more astonishing in view of Caterina's unsoldierly appearance: she stormed the castle wearing a tan satin dress, a plumed velvet hat, and a man's belt with a curved sword and bag of gold ducats.

Despite Caterina's grand gesture, Girolamo was not rewarded by the cardinals of the Church. He was allowed to retain Imola and Forlì, but agreed to return the Castel Sant'Angelo to them. At first, Caterina was reluctant to accede to her husband's wishes, seeing his bargain as a failure, and she had additional soldiers smuggled into the fortress. But she could not hold out alone and accepted a safe conduct to her husband's side. With the pope dead, they had no base of power in Rome, and retreated once more to Forlì. The new pope, Innocent VIII, was satisfied to leave them in peace in their Romagnol holdings. Now eight months' pregnant, Caterina rode back to Forlì with her husband, and gave birth there to a son in late October.

Caterina and Girolamo lived a relatively peaceful life for a few years. Although they were now on the margins of power, they still had some influence; Girolamo's nephew, Cardinal Raffaello Riario, had become an important person in the Church, and assisted them. Another source of support was Caterina's uncle, Ludovico il Moro, who ruled Milan. The brother of Caterina's deceased father, Ludovico acted as regent for her young half-brother from 1481 to 1494. Ludovico was known as an intelligent and cultured man. Though clever and devious, he was also generous and merciful; he seems to have had little of the cruelty that sometimes marked his brother and his niece Caterina. In 1482, Ludovico brought Leonardo da Vinci to Milan, where the artist worked until 1499. Da Vinci designed costumes for Ludovico's pretty young wife, Beatrice d'Este , painted portraits of the family (now lost), and created his most ambitious work: a portrayal of the last supper of Christ to decorate the wall of the refectory of Ludovico's favorite church, the Santa Maria delle Grazie.

While da Vinci painted in Milan, Caterina and Girolamo lived quietly in Forlì. They were still regarded as outsiders by the people, but for a time there were no active revolts or conspiracies against them. They hired workers to complete the fortress of Ravaldino and to work on other family properties. Caterina became increasingly reluctant to sit on the sidelines while her husband governed; financial worries and provincial boredoms led to quarrels. An out-break of plague in Forlì in April 1486 caused new financial strains, as the Riario hired medical attendants to care for rich and poor alike. By late fall 1486, Caterina had been forced to pawn most of her jewelry.

The Riario moved from Forlì to Imola in the spring of 1487. Caterina enjoyed a brief visit to her family in Milan, but was recalled when Girolamo became seriously ill. His ailment left him greatly weakened, and Caterina took over many of his duties—and began to plan the best course to follow if Girolamo should die. It was clear that whatever happened, retaining control of the fortress of Ravaldino in Forlì would be critical. An obstinate castellan (keeper of the castle) was refusing to allow her admittance until old debts were settled; in August, through a combination of conspiracy and assassination, Caterina regained control of Ravaldino, and installed Tommaso Feo as castellan. During these events, the remarkable Caterina rode on horseback from Imola to Forlì and then back, and gave birth to her seventh child the day after her return.

Less than a month later, in September 1487, Caterina rode back to Forlì once more to deal with a new conspiracy. Girolamo invested her as judge, and the punishment she invoked was harsh. Six people were executed and quartered; their heads were placed on poles at the gates of the town, and other body parts were prominently mounted in various parts of Forlì.

Caterina's vengeance did not deter further conspiracies. On April 14, 1488, Girolamo was stabbed to death in a dining hall of the palace. Awakened with the news, Caterina rushed to barricade herself and her children in her apartments and had the forethought to send a messenger to Milan first for help. By morning, a mob had gathered outside the palace, calling for the reinstatement of the Ordelaffi. They broke into the palace and took Caterina and her children prisoner. The palace was ransacked and Girolamo's corpse was mutilated in the town square.

Those in the fortress of Ravaldino remained loyal to the Riario, and Caterina was dragged out to order their surrender. Feo refused, as did the castellan of Schiavonia, a smaller fortress. Feo stated that he would give up Ravaldino only if Caterina were permitted to meet with him personally, in the fortress. After much argument, the conspirators agreed. While they held Caterina's children and her mother and sister as hostages, Caterina was allowed to enter Ravaldino—which she then refused to leave.

The story of Caterina's defiant defense of Ravaldino has been repeated in many works of history. There are several versions of a famous scene where the rebel citizens threatened to kill her children if she did not surrender. Some historians, such as Durant, write that "she told them from the ramparts that she had another child in her womb, and could easily conceive more." Others, including Machiavelli, enliven the story by claiming that she raised her skirts to reveal her genitals and shouted down that the people were fools; didn't they realize she could simply make more children? It appears that Caterina did claim (falsely) to be pregnant, and implied that she could always have more children. Feo threatened that if the children were harmed, he would bombard the town, and reminded them that Caterina's uncle Ludovico, duke of Milan, would exact vengeance as well. Later the children were dragged before the fortress, crying, and Feo ordered his cannons to fire a few warning shots; this proved sufficient to cause the revolutionaries to retreat.

Caterina ordered Feo to take potshots at the homes of her enemies. Both she and the Ordelaffi hoped for outside assistance, but it was slow in coming. Ultimately, Caterina's supporters arrived first: nearly 2,000 soldiers from Bologna and more than 6,000 from Milan. The Forlìvesi braced for pillage, but Caterina prevented it; she had no interest in ruling a ruined city. The main conspirators left town, and the Forlìvesi, sensing that the key to survival was to appease Caterina, began to shout for her and her oldest son, Ottaviano. Caterina's children were brought to her, and the whole town wept with joy at the reunion. Caterina, only 25 years old, was now the ruler of Forlì and Imola, in fact if not in law.

Her rule was harsh. She hired brutal captains to carry out her vengeance for her husband's assassination. Dozens of people were jailed, and several were hanged, then dismembered. The sight of blood and severed human limbs in the piazza inspired the townspeople to restore most of what had been looted from the Riario palace. Later, Caterina received a pledge of loyalty from the town accepting her as regent for her son. During the spring and summer of 1488, she secured her power, with the support of Cardinal Raffaello Riario and the duke of Milan. Their backing helped procure a papal bull granting her the legal right to govern until her son Ottaviano reached maturity.

The young widow was, by all accounts, an exceptionally handsome woman—but one in a precarious position. As historian Christiane Klapisch-Zuber notes in Women, Family and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, any woman living alone in Renaissance Italy was suspect. "An unmarried woman was considered incapable of living alone or in the absence of masculine protection without falling into sin…. [S]ecular society did not set much store by [the widow's] chances of remaining chaste." Widows were in an extremely difficult position, as any impropriety could compromise both their father's and their late husband's families, and they were expected to seek the protection of a man's household. Widows who chose to live chastely could move in with their husband's relatives and keep their children. A widow who preferred to return to her birth family or to remarry had to leave her children behind with their father's family, and was generally regarded as a "cruel mother," as much for reclaiming her dowry as for leaving her children—even though young widows were usually pressured by their birth families to regain their dowries and remarry, forming new political alliances. The "good mother," in Renaissance Italy, was the widow who renounced the pleasures of marriage and dedicated herself to her children—under the supervision of the late husband's family, to be sure.

Only a few wealthy widows, like Caterina Sforza, could choose to live independently. Outwardly, she was the "good mother," rejecting many opportunities for remarriage in order to remain Ottaviano's regent, thus securing his inheritance. Yet if she refused either to remarry or to give up her children, she also refused to live in celibacy. Sforza was healthy, young, attractive, and wealthy; she wanted to keep her family, her power, and still fulfill her personal needs. She wanted to have it all when no woman could expect so much; queens like Elizabeth I and saints like Joan paid the price of chastity for their power, while other women traded independence for the security and social acceptability of marriage. Caterina Sforza refused to play either madonna or wife, so it is not surprising she was later labeled a whore. Even so, it was her political choices, rather than her social ones, that would eventually lead to her downfall.

During the summer of 1489, Caterina made a surprising liaison with the scion of her former enemies, 29-year old Antonio Maria Ordelaffi. The two spent weeks together in a country house, heedless of the scandal. Cardinal Raffaello Riario expressed his shock, and the pope considered giving Forlì to one of his own sons, since Caterina was leading "a disorderly life." The cardinal arranged for Ordelaffi to be sent to Venice, much against his will. Caterina was left alone to endure another extended bout of quartan fever in the fall of 1489.

During the next several years, Caterina faced continual challenges from obstinate captains and castellans, many of whom she owed money. The Feo family became increasingly important, as Tommaso Feo had been a loyal servant during the assassination crisis. Then in late 1489, Caterina began a six-year association with Tommaso's younger brother, 19-year-old Giacomo Feo. In August 1490, she attempted to secure her power by imprisoning Tommaso, who had gained too much influence, and replacing him as castellan of Ravaldino with Giacomo. Through intrigue and deception, she gained tighter control of her fortresses in Imola as well. She felt secure enough to begin flaunting convention; her relationship with Giacomo, which was kept hidden during the early months, became increasingly open. It was hard to maintain secrecy when Caterina had a son, Bernardino, in 1491. Giacomo Feo continued to gain power, becoming commander-in-chief of Caterina's troops and her constant escort and advisor.

Caterina's people began to resent Giacomo's influence, and saw him as a threat to the rightful heir, Ottaviano. A conspiracy to assassinate Giacomo was discovered in September 1491, and four men were imprisoned. But on the whole things were peaceful, and Caterina once again enjoyed hunts, parties, and dances. She also pursued her longtime interest in alchemy. Caterina maintained a massive book of prescriptions with many formulas for preserving beauty, inducing abortion, healing common ailments, and so forth. Recipes for poisons were also written into her book.

In 1492, Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI, initiating the reign of the Borgias. This seemed at first to be a favorable development for Caterina, since Alexander VI was Ottaviano's godfather. However, Rodrigo had fathered a number of children of his own, including Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia , whom he publicly acknowledged. He recognized early on that Cesare had the "iron and gall" required for success in Italian politics, and did a great deal to advance his power. Tall, blond, clever and handsome, Cesare Borgia embodied the ideal of Italian Renaissance. His strength and physical prowess were the stuff of legends; he once reportedly decapitated a bull in a single stroke. Cesare has been compared to Girolamo Riario; both were close relatives of a pope, and acted as that pope's leading general in the field. In many ways, however, Cesare Borgia was like Caterina herself: far more a person of action than of books and words. Ironically, it was Cesare Borgia who would bring Caterina Sforza's power to an abrupt end.

In late 1494, Caterina's half-brother, the legal heir to the Duchy of Milan, died, and her uncle Ludovico il Moro was finally awarded the title. In that same year, he agreed to accept assistance from the French against his enemies in Italy. When he did so, other Italians invited in the Spanish. France and Spain then vied for dominance in Italy for the next 15 years. Caterina Sforza attempted to remain neutral during the power struggles of the late 15th century, sometimes favoring the pope and his ally, Naples, and at other times allying herself with her uncle in Milan and the French. While armies moved back and forth in Romagna, Caterina did her best to preserve her property from pillage, switching allegiance when necessary. She even brought back Tommaso Feo as governor of Imola, then of Forlì.

Caterina and Giacomo Feo's relationship became increasingly turbulent, yet she seemed more and more dependent on him. He attempted to impose restrictions upon her, insisting, for example, that she could not enter her own fortresses without him. Observers of the time noted that heated battles occurred when Giacomo dictated new rules, but Caterina invariably complied, apparently from fear of losing her lover.

Giacomo Feo's arrogance extended not just to Caterina, but to her people as well. They regarded him as a base-born upstart; resentment mounted against him, and in August 1495 his fate was sealed. He was returning from a day of picnicking with Caterina, her children and guests when he was fatally stabbed and then mutilated. Caterina's vengeance was immediate and severe; Tommaso Feo was her main instrument. For a brief time, she suspected her two oldest sons of being connected with the assassination. Her late husband's illegitimate son, Scipio, remained by her side, but was then imprisoned for 18 months when he criticized the brutality of her retribution. The Ghetti family, which had staged the assassination, was decimated: some members, including a woman, were thrown into a spiked well and left to die; a child's throat was slit; one man was quartered while still alive. Dozens of people suffered torture and execution, including 20 children. This episode turned the people of Forlì permanently against Caterina Sforza, especially since many of them saw Giacomo's death as a desirable thing.

In 1496, a year after Giacomo's murder, Caterina fell in love with another somewhat younger man: Giovanni de Medici of Florence. His family background assured him of plush quarters in the fortress during his visit, and he was soon moved to rooms adjacent to Caterina's own. One observer of the time noted that the Forlìvesi jested that Caterina must be afraid of a cold bed, but because Giovanni de Medici was of noble birth, the affair was seen as tolerable compared to her scandalous tie to the commoner Giacomo Feo. But if the people of Forlì were willing to tolerate the widow's dalliance with the handsome Giovanni, her peers were not. The relationship was seen in political terms as solidifying Caterina's inclination towards Florence, and her uncle was displeased. Publicly, of course, Caterina denied that Giovanni was more than a friend and business associate. This pose was difficult to sustain when in August 1497 she was noticeably pregnant. In September, Caterina and Giovanni were secretly married. Her power rested on the pope's investiture of her son Ottaviano as the Riario heir of Forlì and Imola, and her marriage into another family could jeopardize that inheritance.

During the same period, Caterina developed a correspondence with Girolamo Savonarola of Florence, a noted spiritual figure of the day; the artists Botticelli and Michelangelo were among his devotees. Savonarola was more the medieval saint than "Renaissance man"; under him, Florence held the "bonfires of the vanities," purging itself of sin. This grim and righteous man was an unlikely mentor for Sforza. He offered her political advice, suggesting that justice, good works, and faith in God were the best course.

More concerned with security than with justice, Caterina set about reinforcing her fortresses. However, during this pregnancy—her last—she refrained from galloping out on the sort of personal inspections she might have made earlier, and in April 1498 gave birth to a son. The child, Ludovico (later called Giovanni delle Bande Nere), would one day be a national hero. At the time, she was forced to keep the birth, like her marriage, as far from public eyes as possible.

Caterina did her best to turn her oldest son Ottaviano into at least as good a military figure as she herself had been, but it was a fruitless endeavor. Ottaviano was a fat man on his way to true obesity; he was also indolent and unconcerned with affairs of leadership. While Caterina astutely engaged in diplomatic maneuvers during the period of the Pisan War, Ottaviano played at being an equestrian.

The summer of 1498 brought new disasters. Waves of epidemics spread because of the heat, and Giovanni de Medici would be among the victims. Caterina had spent much of the summer traversing her territory with the captain of her forces, overseeing military campaigns. She was called from the field when Giovanni, who had been sent to a spa to recover from his illness, died suddenly. This time there were no conspirators against whom to vent her anguish; she returned to the battlefields, resumed her activities, and before long found a new lover, Ottaviano Manfredi. Refined, attractive, young, and bright, he was well suited to the dynamic and vibrant Caterina, and even became a close friend of her oldest son. Unfortunately, Manfredi suffered the unlucky fate of so many of Caterina's mates: in April 1499, he was gruesomely murdered by rivals of his family. Caterina had lost four lovers in 11 years. A month later, she found a new companion in Giovanni di Casale, an emissary sent by her uncle.

In the final year of the 15th century, there was peace for neither Italy nor Caterina Sforza. Both she and her uncle in Milan found themselves the targets of a new alliance between the pope and France. While France, once Milan's ally, turned invader and forced Ludovico il Moro out of Milan, Caterina was set upon by the pope and the forces of Cesare Borgia.

She began to negotiate to gain the support of Florence against her enemies. They sent her a special envoy, Niccolò Machiavelli, who was just beginning his long career in Florence. Later a famous diplomat and writer, Machiavelli was on his first diplomatic mission with this visit to Caterina Sforza. He was told to appease her without promising military protection. When she realized his purpose, she suggested he return to Florence and get new instructions; otherwise, there would be no agreements. "She proved too subtle for him," writes Durant, "and he came back empty-handed, chastened." She was less successful in her negotiations with Lorenzo de Medici over his brother Giovanni's estate; their disputes became openly hostile when it came to the future of the son she had borne Giovanni.

In 1499, Alexander VI set out to seize direct control of key towns in the Papal States. He declared that Caterina Sforza had usurped the rights to Imola and Forlì from the Church, and called her a tyrant who would be forcibly removed if she refused to resign. She bargained and pleaded. Many say that she poisoned the letters she sent the pope. But she refused to give up her possessions.

In late 1499, Cesare Borgia, only in his early 20s, led an army of 15,000 into Romagna. The city of Imola surrendered to his proxy without a fight, although the fortress held out for a time. The fall of Imola disheartened the Forlìvesi, who had no stomach for an extended siege and little loyalty to Caterina. Forlì surrendered to Cesare himself. Relieved at being spared a battle, the citizens staged a celebration in his honor. They soon regretted their easy capitulation when Cesare's French troops began pillaging and raping as if they were conquerors.

Caterina could have simply retreated to Florence, where she had citizenship, and waited for the next papal succession. After all, "fleeing to fight another day" was the course her own uncle had chosen. Characteristically, she refused to give up so easily; she immured herself within the citadel with her garrison, as she had done 12 years earlier when Girolamo was murdered. Borgia offered her safe passage if she would surrender, and promised to settle her on a small estate; reportedly, she did not deign to answer. Instead, she walked the battlements dressed in plate armor.

Caterina was supported by a few dozen people: some Sforza relatives from fallen Milan, her lover Giovanni di Casale, and Scipio, her late husband's illegitimate son. She commanded about 900 soldiers, mostly unreliable mercenaries—hardly a match for Borgia's impressive army. But they had the advantage of defending a heavily fortified position, and when Cesare's artillery opened fire on December 28, Ravaldino answered with its own barrage. Several days of artillery exchange ensued, during which Caterina managed to sneak in a few reinforcements. Finally, Borgia staged an assault. By January 11, 1500, serious breaches had been made in the walls of Ravaldino and Borgia's soldiers were able to enter the fortress. The castellan lured one group of soldiers into a tower, then shut them in and set out ammunition that had been stored there. Caterina and her men retreated to the main tower. Protected by a cuirass (leather breastplate), Caterina ordered a counterattack and took part in the fighting. But Borgia's army was too strong; many of Caterina's soldiers surrendered or were taken prisoner, including her lover and the castellan, while Caterina fought her way back to the tower. Soon afterwards, she was captured by a French captain and handed over as a prisoner to Cesare Borgia. It is widely reported that he raped her after her capture.

Eventually Caterina Sforza was taken to Rome, but she stubbornly refused to sign away her legal rights to Forlì and Imola. She attempted to escape from the Belvedere Palace, where she was being held, and as a result ended up in a prison cell in Sant'Angelo—the very fortress she had captured 16 years before. After a year and a half, she was finally released to a nunnery. The intercession of the French, and their guarantee of her freedom if she signed away her territories, together with the detrimental effects of a long imprisonment, where she feared poison in every meal, finally persuaded her to concede. The effect of imprisonment reputedly turned her hair white.

Despite her obstinance in defending Forlì, Caterina had made contingency plans. During the siege, she sent what was left of her jewels and other valuables, along with her children, to Florence to wait out the course of events. In the summer of 1501, she herself was allowed to retire to Florence, to spend the rest of her life in powerless seclusion. Her son Ottaviano was a disappointment; he eventually became a bishop and lived in obscurity. Her other children made respectable marriages; her son Cesare became archbishop of Pisa; and finally, she was left with only her youngest, Giovanni de Medici. A child after her own heart, he was interested in riding, fencing and swimming. She concentrated on his training from the time he was ten, in 1507, until her death two years later at the age of 46. She appears to have died from a liver ailment combined with peritonitis and pleurisy.

Down through the centuries, Caterina Sforza has been held up as an example. She was an extraordinary woman whose life could not be neatly categorized according to Renaissance standards; thus she was praised by some, excoriated by others. Her ability to survive as a ruler was admired, though her harsh methods were abhorred—more for being imposed by a woman than as inappropriate techniques of political control.

In his Discourses, Niccolò Machiavelli tells the story of Caterina Sforza's defiance of the assassins who murdered her husband in 1488; he was impressed by the clever stratagem by which she regained control of the fortress. He also used Sforza as an example in his most famous book The Prince. In his discussion of the merits of fortresses in helping rulers retain power, Machiavelli notes that in his time, they were generally not very useful—except in the case of Caterina Sforza, countess of Forlì. Her fortress, he says, enabled her to retain power during the insurrection after her husband's death; "yet the fortresses were later of little avail even to her, when Cesare Borgia attacked her, and her hostile people united with a foreigner." He suggests that "it would have been more secure for her, both early and late, not to have been hated by the people than to have had fortresses."

Caterina Sforza has been described by historians as a despot and tyrant, as one who governed with "all-too-masculine force" rather than with wisdom. The same qualities that were praised in Cesare Borgia were despised in Sforza. In Women of the Renaissance, Margaret L. King points out that, like Joan of Arc, the Renaissance woman who donned armor was not revered, but reviled; "she was hated because she did what men did, and triumphantly."


Bradbury, Jim. The Medieval Siege. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1992.

Collison-Morley, L. The Story of the Sforzas. NY: Dutton, 1934.

King, Margaret L. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

suggested reading:

Breisach, Ernst. Caterina Sforza: A Renaissance Virago. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Reina Pennington , Ph.D. Candidate in Military and Women's History, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina