Lesson #7: Caterina Sforza, Duchess of Forli and Imola (1463-1509)
[You know, there were a few real warrior princesses. They didn't wear armored bikinis
like Xena, either, and they were definitely not politically correct feminists. This
one is for Sue Enders. Here’s a real Strong Womyn for you. - HAC ]
Fifteenth-century Italy was a battleground of warring city-states and competing families.
The city-state of Milan ranked high in wealth and power. And its rulers, the Sforza
family, were as brilliant and ambitious as any of their rivals.
In 1462, the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, fathered an illegitimate child.
The baby's mother was the wife of a friend and follower of the duke. But the birth
of little Caterina neither surprised nor shocked the Milanese court. (Note that the
portrait shown here may or may not be that of Caterina. Experts disagree.) Galeazzo
Maria would eventually have four children born in wedlock and six out of wedlock.
Nevertheless, Caterina's birth had broken a social rule. This baby girl would grow
up to break many other rules in the course of her eventful life. [I might also add
that Galeazzo Maria is one of my favorite Renaissance princes—brilliant in every
way and mad as a hatter. - HAC ]
As a duke's daughter in Renaissance Italy, Caterina was offered an excellent education.
In her view, however, this education was not the special privilege it would have
been for other girls. From the beginning, Caterina was bored by literature, philosophy,
Latin, history and the other subjects her tutors tried to teach her. She much preferred
dancing, horseback riding, hunting, and other vigorous activities.
Caterina learned more from observing people and events than from reading books. Italian
politics were in a perpetual state of turmoil. There was no king who ruled all of
Italy, as there were kings in Spain, France, and England. Instead, almost every city,
large or small, had its own duke, count, or lord; and each city was trying to gain
territory, economic advantages, or protection from its neighbors. From Rome, the
pope also played a major role in politics, because he ruled many city-states as well
as the Catholic Church. Caterina watched the complex and often violent political
moves that made Milan one of Italy's great powers along with Florence, Venice, the
Kingdom of Naples, and the states owned by the pope. Young Caterina was ambitious,
active, and pleasure-loving. She intended to achieve both fame and fortune—right
away, if possible.
By the time she was 15, Caterina's childhood had ended. Her family married her to
Girolamo Riario, a grown man in his twenties. The Riario family had risen to sudden
prominence when Girolamo's uncle was elected Pope Sixtus the Fourth. As wife to the
pope's nephew, Caterina could expect to gain great wealth. The world would have been
amazed if Sixtus had not used his position to advance his family's fortunes.
From 1477 to 1484, Caterina and Girolamo spent most of their time in Rome, where
Caterina was much admired for her blond beauty. During these years, she also bore
four children: Bianca, Ottaviano, Cesare, and Giovanni Livio. Caterina and her husband
prospered because of their family ties. The pope gave the young couple title to the
cities of Forli and Imola, located northeast of Rome beyond the mountains that run
up the spine of Italy. These cities had once belonged to other families, of course.
But this fact posed little problem for the Riarios, whose wealth and security seemed
Then everything changed. In 1484, Pope Sixtus died. Caterina and Girolamo worked
hard to control the election of the next pope. In a show of force, Caterina belted
on a curved sword and led a group of soldiers to take over Castel Sant Angelo, one
of Rome's greatest fortresses. Girolamo, however, acted much less decisively, and
the Riarios' candidate lost the election. The new pope was Innocent the Eighth, who
was no friend of the Riarios. From now on, Girolamo and Caterina would have to struggle
just to keep what they had.
Caterina and Girolamo withdrew to their cities, Forli and Imola. Even there, the
numerous enemies of the Riario family repeatedly tried to overthrow them. In 1488,
the Orsi family succeeded or so they thought. They murdered Girolamo and captured
Caterina and her children. Caterina knew very well that she and the children might
be the killers' next victims. She showed cool courage in her desperate situation.
She managed to escape her jailers through trickery, saying she was going to parley
when in fact she was seeking protection. The result was that she recaptured an important
fortress that overlooked Forli, then she threatened to level the city with her cannon.
Her enemies fled, and Caterina emerged firmly in control of the two cities.
The next years of Caterina's life were fairly happy ones. She had not loved Girolamo,
although they had shared an interest in advancing the family fortunes. Now independent
and still youthful at 28, Caterina fell exuberantly in love with Giacomo Feo, the
19-year-old younger brother of one of her loyal military commanders. Caterina was
a passionate person. For a while, she reveled in her new love and also in her other
enthusiasms. She avidly collected herbal recipes, especially those that might preserve
her health and beauty. Also, she still enjoyed dancing, hunting, and all forms of
Yet there were problems, too. Giacomo became demanding and arrogant, making enemies
for himself and Caterina among the cities' noble families. Furthermore, the couple
was always short of money. Their own way of life was expensive, as "making a good
show" was a way of asserting status in relation to other cities. Also costly were
the troops they needed to defend the cities in dangerous times. But as soon as Caterina
decreed a new tax, the wily citizens of Forli and Imola found a way around it. Thus
both the citizens and the great families were unhappy, whether over taxes or from
fear of Giacomo's influence. There were frequent little wars and rebellions, characterized
by poisonings, stabbings, secret meetings, and letters fastened to arrows.
In 1495, as Giacomo and Caterina rode through the streets of Forli, assassins stabbed
Giacomo to death. Caterina was personally devastated, but instead of collapsing in
grief, she took swift action. She vented her fury on the killers and their families,
executing or torturing many and imprisoning more. Then, to stave off her sorrow,
she turned to work. She enriched her cities with building projects, creating beautiful
gardens and public works.
The next year, the grain harvest was poor in the lands around Florence. The Florentines
sent an envoy to buy grain 130,000 bushels of it from Forli and Imola. The envoy
was the handsome, charming, and intelligent Giovanni de' Medici. He was also a nobleman,
born into a minor branch of the great Medici family that ruled Florence. Soon Caterina
was in love again, and Giovanni loved her in return. But the marriage of two people
from such powerful families was likely to arouse opposition, so they were wed in
secret. Then, at 36, Caterina bore Giovanni a son, the last and best loved of her
children. (Caterina’s eldest son, Ottaviano Riario had grown into a lazy, self-indulgent,
young man with much ambition and few abilities.)
Sadly for Caterina, Giovanni died of an illness in 1498. The timing was unfortunate.
His death left Caterina alone to face one of the most ruthless, ambitious, and implacable
families in Europe, the Borgias.
Pope Innocent had died and been replaced in 1492 by Rodrigo Borgia, who took the
name Alexander the Sixth. The new pope's son Cesare set out to increase his family's
power by brutally seizing control of central Italy, one small city-state at a time.
Cesare was a bad fellow, even by the standards of the time. He poisoned his sister's
husband so that he could make a more profitable match for her. On another occasion,
he hosted a lavish dinner for a group of his captains whom he suspected of disloyalty,
then locked the doors and had them all strangled. With the pope's power and money
behind him, Cesare now took aim at Forli and Imola.
Once before when she had been in danger, Caterina had said, "If I have to die, I
want to die like a man!" Now, she seemed likely to do just that. A poet/spy that
she employed warned her that Cesare had 15,000 troops and 17 cannons. Still Caterina
refused to flee and give up her cities. She announced her determination to withstand
Cesare Borgia's siege. Annoyed at being defied by a woman, Cesare offered 10,000
ducats for Caterina, dead or alive.
Caterina fought as she had always fought "like a tiger." She put on armor herself
and encouraged her men from the city walls. Still, the superior Borgia forces advanced,
first to the city, then to its fortress. Caterina and her troops made their last
stand in the fortress's great tower. Borgia captured two of her children and displayed
them before the walls, threatening to kill them if Caterina did not surrender. In
response Caterina pulled up her dress and shouted down, "In this belly I can make
more children, but my city you will not have!"
Finally, the inevitable happened, and the Borgia large army captured the tower. Luckily
for Caterina, she was taken prisoner not by one of Cesare's men but by a French captain
who admired her beauty and courage. In the end, this French connection saved her
life, because the French code of chivalry said that women could not be considered
prisoners of war. Still, Caterina suffered greatly before the Frenchman persuaded
the pope to release her. While she was a prisoner, Cesare Borgia brutally raped her
and then locked her in a filthy cell in Castel Sant Angelo, the same Roman fortress
she had once captured. To gain her freedom, Caterina was forced at last to give up
her claims to Forli and Imola.
By the time the pope allowed her to go free in 1501, Caterina was in poor health,
but she was by no means crushed in spirit. To the many people who hated the Borgias,
she was a heroine. A Venetian commentator said she was "Without doubt at that time
the first lady of Italy." (As for Cesare, within a few years he lost power, fled
from Italy, and died in a minor battle in Spain.)
Though she tried, Caterina never regained control of her cities. She did have one
great pleasure, however. Her young son by Giovanni de' Medici proved to be a child
after her own heart, fascinated by horses, swordplay, and military activities. She
devoted her last years to raising and training him. Caterina died in 1509, just a
little too soon to see her favorite son, known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, become
a brilliant soldier and a national hero. It would have pleased her enormously to
know that Giovanni's son, her grandson, became Cosimo the First, Grand Duke of Tuscany.