Caterina Sforza

Eyridiki Sellou | Nov 29, 2023

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Caterina Sforza (Milan, c. 1463 - Florence, May 28, 1509) was mistress of Imola and countess of Forli, first with her husband Girolamo Riario, then as regent for her eldest son Ottaviano Riario. In private life she devoted herself to a variety of activities, among which excelled her experiments in alchemy and her passion for hunting and dancing. In family affections she was an attentive and loving educator for her numerous children, of whom only the last, the famous mercenary captain Giovanni delle Bande Nere (born Ludovico de' Medici), inherited her mother's strong personality. She was bent, after heroic resistance, by the conquering fury of Cesare Borgia. Imprisoned in Rome, after regaining her freedom, she led a withdrawn life in Florence.

The progenitor of the Sforzas, Muzio Attendolo (1369-1424), was part of a family of the minor nobility residing in Cotignola, where his parents, Giacomo Attendolo and Elisa de' Petrascini, engaged in farming. Muzio, at the age of thirteen, ran away from home with a horse stolen from his father, to follow the soldiers of Boldrino da Panicale, who was passing through those parts to look for new recruits, and, a short time later, he passed into the mercenary company of Alberico da Barbiano, who nicknamed him "Lo Sforza," and he became one of the most famous condottieri of his time, placing himself in the service of several cities in Italy, from the north to the center, and even Naples.

Caterina's grandfather Francesco Sforza (1401-1466), son of Muzio Attendolo, also distinguished himself in pursuing a career as a condottiere, to the point of being considered one of the best by contemporaries. Thanks to his political prowess, he managed to marry Bianca Maria, daughter of Filippo Maria Visconti, the last duke of the Visconti family of Milan. Bianca Maria always followed her husband in his activities as a condottiere and shared political and administrative decisions with him. It was thanks to her marriage to the last representative of the Visconti dynasty that Francesco was recognized as Duke of Milan in 1450, when the Golden Ambrosian Republic came to an end. Francesco and Bianca Maria, having become lords of Milan, devoted themselves to beautifying the city, increasing the economic well-being of its inhabitants, and consolidating their fragile power.

Galeazzo Maria (1444-1476), their eldest son and heir, also pursued a military career. He failed, however, to achieve the fame of his ancestors: he was considered too impulsive and overbearing, and, moreover, military glory and the government of the duchy were not his only interests: in fact, he often and more willingly devoted himself to hunting, travel, and beautiful women. Catherine was born from the relationship between Galeazzo and his mistress, Lucrezia Landriani.

Childhood at the court of Milan

The illegitimate (later legitimized) daughter of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza and his mistress Lucrezia Landriani, Caterina is believed to have lived the first years of her life in her birth mother's family. The relationship between mother and daughter was never interrupted: in fact, Lucrezia followed Caterina's growth and was always at her side during the crucial moments of her life, even in the last years she spent in the city of Florence.

It was not until he became Duke of Milan in 1466 upon the death of his father Francesco that Galeazzo Maria Sforza had his four children Carlo, Chiara, Caterina and Alessandro, all of whom had Lucrezia, move to court and were placed in the care of their grandmother Bianca Maria and later all adopted by Bona di Savoia, whom the duke married in 1468.

At the Sforza court, frequented by men of letters and artists, where there was a climate of great cultural openness, Caterina, Chiara received, according to the customs of the time, the same kind of education as their male siblings: humanistic in nature, consisting of the study of Latin and the reading of classical works, which were present in large quantities in the well-stocked ducal library.

Catherine in particular learned from her paternal grandmother the cornerstones of the talents she would later prove to possess, especially her aptitude for government and the use of arms, with the knowledge that she belonged to a lineage of glorious warriors. Of her adoptive mother she will remember, for a long time, the great affection that Bona di Savoia showed to the children her husband had before he married her, confirmed by the correspondence between her and Caterina after the latter had left the Milanese court.

The ducal family resided in both Milan and Pavia and often stayed in Galliate or Cusago, where Galeazzo Maria devoted himself to hunting and where his daughter most likely learned to hunt herself, a passion that would later accompany her throughout her life.

In 1473 Caterina's marriage to Girolamo Riario, son of Paolo Riario and Bianca della Rovere, sister of Pope Sixtus IV, was arranged. She substituted her cousin Costanza Fogliani, then 11 years old, who, according to some historical sources, was rejected by the groom because the girl's mother, Gabriella Gonzaga, demanded that the consummation of the marriage take place only when her daughter reached the legal age of majority, which was then 14, while for Caterina, despite the fact that she was only 10 years old at the time, the groom's demands were acquiesced to; other sources, on the other hand, report that the marriage of Catherine and Jerome was celebrated in 1473, but consummated only after the bride's thirteenth birthday, without adding the causes that caused Constance's marriage negotiations to fail.

To Girolamo, Sixtus IV had procured the lordship of Imola, formerly a Sforza city, which Caterina solemnly entered in 1477. After that she joined her husband in Rome, previously stopping for seven days in the small village of Deruta, between Todi and Perugia. In Rome Girolamo Riario, originally from Savona, had already been living for several years in the service of the Pope, her uncle.

The first stay in Rome

Rome in the late 15th century was a city in transition between the medieval and Renaissance periods, of which it would later become the most important artistic hub, and Catherine, when she arrived there in May 1477, found a culturally vibrant environment.

While Girolamo occupied himself with politics, Catherine quickly inserted herself, with her easy-going and amiable attitude, into the life of the Roman aristocracy made up of balls, luncheons and hunting parties, in which artists, philosophers, poets and musicians from all over Europe participated. She, as is evidenced by the correspondence of that period, immediately felt very important in her new role: in fact, she was admired as a woman among the most beautiful and elegant and praised affectionately by the entire social circle, including the Pope, and soon transformed herself from a simple teenage girl into a sought-after intermediary between the court of Rome and not only that of Milan, but also the other Italian courts.

For Girolamo meanwhile, after the untimely death of his brother, Cardinal Pietro Riario, Sixtus IV reserved a prominent position in his policy of expansion to the detriment especially of the city of Florence. He increased day by day his power and also his cruelty to his enemies. In 1480 the Pope, in order to obtain a strong dominion in the land of Romagna, assigned to his nephew the lordship, which had remained vacant, of Forli, at the expense of the Ordelaffi family. Here the new lord tried to win popular favor with a policy of building public works and abolishing several taxes.

In Forli and Imola

The arrival of the new lords in Forli was preceded by the arrival of their possessions, which paraded for eight days on the backs of mules covered with silver and gold cloths and the coat of arms quartered with the rose of the Riarios and the viper (or dragon) of the Visconti followed by wagons filled with coffers. The city's commissioners went to meet Girolamo and Caterina by intercepting them at Loreto, and on July 15, 1481, the procession reached a mile from the city. Here they were greeted under a canopy by children dressed in white waving olive branches and by young members of the nobility dressed in gold robes. When they arrived at Cotogni Gate they met Bishop Alexander Numai and were offered the keys of the city. Upon entering the city they were met by a allegorical float full of children representing the Graces, and at the town square they found that a life-size mock giraffe had been set up. The procession passed under a triumphal arch with allegories of the Fortitude of Justice and Temperance then continued to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross where Jerome was taken by the arms and carried to the church where the Te Deum was recited. Leaving the church they went again to the Piazza del Comune where Catherine was carried in arms as far as the halls by a group of commoners. Girolamo Riario confirmed the exemptions already promised and added the one from the grain tax. This was followed by refreshments of cakes and sugared almonds and a dance. The following day a joust was called, in which Roman nobles following Riario participated, and a re-enactment of the capture of Otranto by the Turks in August of the previous year, in which 240 men participated. On August 12 the Riario-Sforza entered Imola after being received by the city authorities on the banks of the Santerno River.

On September 2, 1481, the Riario-Sforza family left for Venice. The official motive was an attempt to involve the Serenissima in the military operations promoted by Sixtus IV against the Turks who had captured Otranto. The real motivation for the diplomatic mission, however, was to persuade her to ally with the pontiff to drive the Este family out of Ferrara, which would be included in the Riario's domains, obtaining Reggio and Modena in return. In fact, Ercole d'Este, although formally a vassal of the Church, had been one of the condottieri in the service of the Medici against the papal troops and had been excommunicated for this. At the same time, the Ferrarese duke was disliked by the Venetians for his marriage to Eleanor of Aragon, which had strengthened their relations with the Kingdom of Naples, their enemy.

The procession embarked in Ravenna and after passing Chioggia reached Malamocco where they were welcomed by Doge Giovanni Mocenigo on the bucintoro together with no less than 115 lavishly dressed and jewel-embellished Venetian noblewomen. As they were often wont to do, the Venetians spared no expense and treated their guests with every consideration but did not accept their proposal. The following year the Serenissima tried to take Ferrara from the Este family, failing in the attempt but still managing to secure Rovigo and the salt pans of Polesine.

In October 1480 a conspiracy had been hatched by two priests and two relatives of the castellan of Forli (supported by 60 armed men) against the latter in order to gain control of the fortress of Ravaldino and hand it over to the Ordelaffi. Girolamo and Caterina, although formally lords of the city, had not yet taken possession of it and were in Rome during those months. The plan failed as a third priest reported everything to the governor of the city, who informed Riario. The two relatives of the castellan were hanged one at the Schiavonia Gate and the other at the fortress while the two priests were exiled to the Marches and later freed.

A month later the Ordelaffi ordered a second conspiracy. On December 13, three wagons full of weapons covered with straw were to appear in front of the Schiavonia Gate, were to take possession of it, and were to enter the city raising the people in favor of the ousted lords of Forli. Once again the conspiracy was discovered and on December 22 five men were hanged in the windows of the Palazzo Comunale and three others were banished from the city only to be pardoned by Riario.

Following the coming of the new lords to the city and despite the handouts and public works promoted by Riario, the artisans of Forlì hatched a third conspiracy by gathering in the Pieve di San Pietro in Trento to kill Girolamo and Caterina and restore the Ordelaffi. The conspiracy had the support, in addition to the Ordelaffi, of Galeotto Manfredi of Faenza, Giovanni II Bentivoglio of Bologna, and especially Lorenzo the Magnificent, who intended to take revenge for the Pazzi Conspiracy. The attack was to be carried out on their return from Imola, where they had gone on their way back from their trip to Venice. However, the news leaked causing the plan to fail, and from then on Girolamo Riario decided to reinforce his armed escort. The next day he showed up for mass at the abbey of San Mercuriale together with Caterina surrounded by as many as 300 armed guards. Wary of the people, the new lords of Forli showed themselves more and more infrequently outside the palace in the following months. On October 14, 1481, after moving their robes and valuables to the more stable Imola, they left for their second trip to Rome. On November 15 five people were hanged on the Palazzo Comunale, others were exiled or forced to pay fines, the proceeds of which were given to the Cathedral of Santa Croce.

The second stay in Rome

In May 1482 the Venetian army led by Roberto Sanseverino attacked the Duchy of Ferrara. The Kingdom of Naples sent troops to aid the Este under the command of Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Calabria, but Sixtus IV prevented them from crossing into the Papal States. The Aragonese encamped at Grottaferrata while the papal army, led by Girolamo Riario moved toward the enemy, stopping at the Lateran. Riario's inexperience in warfare combined with his debauchery and delayed pay only increased the lack of discipline of his army, which set about plundering the Roman countryside carrying out all kinds of violence. Sixtus IV to remedy the situation asked for help from the Venetians who sent him Roberto Malatesta, son of Sigismondo, lord of Rimini. Malatesta provoked the Neapolitan army to the point of forcing it to accept battle on August 21 near Campomorto (later Campoverde) where, after six hours of fighting, he succeeded in surrounding it, killing more than 2,000 men and capturing 360 Neapolitan nobles. During the fact of arms the pusillanimous Girolamo remained to guard the camp. During the military campaign Catherine remained in Rome where the people saw her praying, attending shrines, undergoing voluntary corporal penances and donating money to the poor.

Forli meanwhile had remained in the hands of the bishop of Imola, whose character was notoriously weak and impulsive. Once again the Medici, Ordelaffi, Manfredi, and Bentivoglio took advantage of this and assembled a small army and attacked the city, trying to take it by surprise. The people of Forlì defended themselves bravely and repulsed it. Tommaso Feo, castellan of Ravaldino, sent messengers to inform Riario, who sent Gian Francesco da Tolentino to help, who drove out what was left of the enemy troops infesting the countryside around Forlì and Imola.

Roberto Malatesta died of malaria or poisoning on September 10, after entering Rome triumphantly and being hailed as a liberator. Girolamo Riario with Malatesta's death hoped to get his hands on the seigniory of Rimini, but the Florentines forced the pope to recognize his natural son Pandolfo IV Malatesta, just seven years old, as heir.

Over the next few months Riario increasingly established himself as the new tyrant of Rome, in alliance with the Orsini and in opposition to the Colonna and Savelli families, sparking a civil war. He did not repay certain debts he had incurred, allowed his soldiery to sack churches and palaces of opposing families, even went so far as to capture and torture Lorenzo Colonna, whom he then had beheaded at Castel Sant'Angelo despite the fact that his family had promised to cede Marino, Rocca di Papa and Ardea to him.

On January 6, 1483, Sixtus IV sanctioned a holy league together with the Este, Sforza, Gonzaga, and Medici against the Serenissima, which had attacked the Duchy of Ferrara, and excommunicated its Council of Pregadi. Even that Kingdom of Naples against which it had been at war until the previous year participated. Girolamo Riario was designated as one of the captain generals and together with his wife set out for Forli, where he arrived on June 16. Operations continued until October when the Riario-Sforza, having been informed of yet another conspiracy by the Ordelaffi to kill them and because of the pope's insistence, decided to return to Rome, leaving Forlì in the hands of Governor Giacomo Bonarelli. On November 2, those responsible for the conspiracy were hanged at the Palazzo Comunale. On August 7, 1484, the Peace of Bagnolo was sanctioned, by which the Venetians retained control over Polesine and Rovigo, ceding Adria and a few other towns they had occupied to the Este family. Sixtus IV's belated attempt to contain the Venetians had failed. On the night of August 12-13 the pope died from complications of the gout that had been afflicting him for some time. At the news of the pope's death all those who had suffered injustices from his associates during his pontificate threw themselves into looting, bringing disorder and terror to the streets of Rome. The Riarios' residence, Palazzo Orsini in Campo de' Fiori, was stormed and nearly destroyed.

The Riario-Sforza learned of the pope's death while in the Paliano camp. The Sacred College ordered them to retreat with the army to Ponte Milvio, and Girolamo obeyed, arriving there on August 14. Caterina, however, was not of the same opinion and together with Paolo Orsini rode that evening to Castel Sant'Angelo, occupying it on behalf of her husband after persuading the garrison to let her enter. She ordered the cannons to be turned against the Vatican, fortified its entrances and drove out the vice castellan Innocenzo Codronchi along with all the other Imolese. Control of the fortress effectively guaranteed her control of the city and thus the possibility of pressuring the College to elect a pope well disposed toward the Riarios.In vain attempts were made to persuade her to leave the fortress.

Meanwhile, in the city, unrest increased and, in addition to the population, the militia that had come in the wake of the cardinals also looted. Some of these did not want to attend the funeral of Sixtus IV and even refused to enter the conclave, for fear of coming under fire from Catherine's artillery. The situation was difficult, as only the election of the new pope would put an end to the violence raging in the city.

Girolamo meanwhile had placed himself and his army in a strategic position, but he did not put decisive force into action. The Sacred College at the urging of Giuliano della Rovere (future Pope Julius II) asked him to leave Rome by the morning of August 24, offering him in exchange the sum of eight thousand ducats, compensation for the damage done to his property, confirmation of his lordship over Imola and Forlì, and the position of captain general of the Church. Girolamo accepted but Catherine had no intention of giving in so easily. When she was informed of her husband's decisions, she secretly let another 150 infantrymen enter the castle and prepared for resistance, citing indisposition caused by pregnancy as her reason for not leaving the fortress. Then, in mockery of the Sacred College and to lift the mood of the soldiers, she called for feasts and banquets. The cardinals, humiliated and enraged by the woman's attitude, went to Jerome again and threatened him that he would not keep his covenants if his wife did not leave the fortress immediately. On the evening of August 25, eight cardinals, including her uncle Ascanio Sforza, appeared before Castel Sant'Angelo. Catherine allowed them to enter and following bargaining resolved to leave the castle after twelve days of resistance together with her family, escorted by foot soldiers. The Sacred College was thus able to meet in conclave.


On the road to Forli the Riarios learned of the election of a pope adverse to them: Innocent VIII, born Giovanni Battista Cybo, who confirmed Girolamo's lordship over Imola and Forlì and his appointment as captain general of the papal army. The latter appointment, however, was only a formal assignment; in fact, the pope dispensed Girolamo from his presence in Rome, depriving him of any effective function and even of remuneration. Despite the loss of the income that service to the pope guaranteed, Girolamo did not restore the payment of taxes from which the inhabitants of Forli were exempt in order to improve his image in the eyes of the people. Riario completed the fortress of Ravaldino, one of the largest fortresses in Italy, by having a new and wide moat built around the castle and barracks capable of housing up to two thousand men and hundreds of horses.

Giovanni Livio was born on October 30, 1484, and Galeazzo Maria was born on December 18, 1485, named after his maternal grandfather. Both were baptized in the abbey of San Mercuriale.

By the end of 1485 public spending became unsustainable and Girolamo, strongly urged by a member of the Council of Elders, Nicolò Pansecco, reorganized tax policy by reinstating previously suppressed duties. This measure was felt by the population to be exorbitant, and soon Jerome made enemies of all classes in his cities, from peasants to artisans, from notables to patricians. To the exacerbation of the taxes, which mainly affected the artisan class and landowners, one had to add the discontent that spread among the families who had been subjected to the power of the Riarios, who forcibly suppressed all the small insurrections that took place in the city, and there were also those who hoped that the Signoria would soon be taken over by other powers, such as Florence. In this climate of general dissatisfaction the idea of overthrowing the Riario seigniory with the support of the new pope and Lorenzo de' Medici matured among the nobles of Forlì. At the end of 1485 the Magnifico pushed Taddeo Manfredi to attempt a coup d'état on Imola, which, however, failed. The thirteen Imola spies were all executed.

In September 1486 Girolamo Riario was still convalescing after four months of illness. Caterina, who was in Imola, learned from a messenger sent by Domenico Ricci, governor of Forli, that certain Roffi, peasants from Rubiano with some retinue, had captured Porta Cotogni only to be repulsed by the city guards. Five had been hanged and the rest captured and imprisoned. Catherine personally went to Forli, wanted to interrogate all those responsible, discovered that the usual Ordelaffi were behind the conspiracy, and, having a free hand from her husband, had six of them hanged and quartered by the captain of the guards who had lost Porta Cotogni; the others were released.

In early 1488 Girolamo Riario was facing growing discontent from both peasants and citizens of Forlì brought about by the tightening of taxation. The spark that led to his death occurred during Lent when he tried in vain to have the 200 gold ducats credit he had with Checco Orsi repaid. The Orsi, a noble family from Forlì, initially benefited from the magnanimity of the Riarios, and Ludovico, Checco's brother, became a senator in Rome in 1482 thanks to Girolamo's recommendation. However, Lorenzo de' Medici knew how to get them on his side and concocted a new conspiracy against the Riarios by leaning on Galeotto Manfredi lord of Faenza. Soon the two Orsi brothers were joined by Giacomo Ronchi, a foreman of the Forlì guards, and Ludovico Pansechi, one of the perpetrators of the Congiura dei Pazzi since the Riario had long been behind in their pay.

On April 14 Ronchi went to the Palazzo Comunale where he persuaded his nephew Gasparino, the Riarios' footman, to warn him by waving his hat from one of the windows the moment the count would sit down to dinner. At sunset the conspirators gathered in the square waiting for the agreed signal then headed for the stairs climbing undisturbed to the Sala delle Ninfe. Checco Orsi entered first without being announced and saw that the count was resting on the sill of one of the windows and with him stood the footman Nicolò da Cremona, the chancellor Girolamo da Casale and the relative Corradino Feo. Girolamo welcomed Orsi benevolently, who pretended to show him a letter with which he intended to assure him that the debt was soon to be paid off. As soon as Girolamo extended his right arm toward the Orsi to grab the letter the latter pulled out a knife he kept hidden in his robe and wounded him in the right breastplate. Girolamo, stupefied, cried betrayal, tried to take refuge under a table and then to flee to his wife's rooms. Orsi did not have the courage to rage, and Girolamo would have escaped if the Ronchi and Pansechi had not come in and grabbed him by the hair, throwing him to the floor and then finishing him off with a dagger. The count's three guests fled; Corradino Feo rushed to Caterina's rooms. The Sforza ordered the servants to kill the conspirators and to report to Tommaso Feo not to hand over the fortress of Ravaldino for any reason, gave them two letters intended for the courts of Milan and Bologna finally barred the doors of the room in which he and his sons were staying. In the meantime Gasparino, having descended the grand staircase, warned Ludovico Orsi of the Riario's death, and the latter immediately went up to the hall with his partisans where he clashed with the Riario's servants and succeeded in making them flee. Eventually the Orsi managed to break into Caterina's room and took her prisoner along with her sister Stella and children. Soon the town square was filled with armed people cheering the Bears as liberators. The crowd killed Antonio da Montecchio, the bargello of the city, then some people climbed into the palace and threw the body of Riario, and the two corpses were stripped and mangled. The bodies were finally collected by the Black Battuti who took them to the Corpus Christi church. This was followed by the looting and devastation of the municipal palace by the people of Forli.

Having perpetrated the conspiracy, the Council of the Magistrate gathered. Checco Orsi envisioned an autonomous Forli free of any external power, but the head of the Council, Niccolò Tornielli, admonished him to treat Caterina with regard for fear of reprisals from the Duchy of Milan and suggested making an act of dedication to the Church by handing the city over to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Savelli who was in Cesena. The Council accepted the latter position and a letter was immediately sent to Savelli. The cardinal took possession of the city the next day, met Caterina at the home of the Orsi then told them to move her to the Porta San Pietro by entrusting her to a garrison of twelve guards who were actually partisans of the Sforza. The Orsi then brought Caterina in front of the Ravaldino fortress threatening to kill her if Tommaso Feo did not surrender. The Sforza, pretending, tried to convince the castellan who, as agreed, was adamant even when the Ronchi threatened to run her through with his partisan. The next day the same scene was repeated in front of Porta Schiavonia. Caterina was then locked up together with her seven children, her sister Bianca, her mother Lucrezia Landriani and her nannies in the turret above Porta San Pietro. Never tamed, she asked Andrea Bernardi, her servant and historian from Forlì, to go to the fortress and report to Francesco Ercolani a plan by which she would be able to enter it. Ercolani was to summon Monsignor Savelli to cede the fortress to him on the condition that he would be able to speak privately with her in order to obtain her pay and produce a certificate by which he would not pass as a coward or traitor. Savelli and the Council agreed while the Bears refused knowing Catherine's cunning and proposed that the dialogue take place in public. The next day the Bears brought Catherine back in front of the fortress and she begged Phoebe to let her in. The castellan, carrying out Catherine's orders, said he wanted to talk to her on the condition that she enter the fortress alone and remain there no longer than three hours while the rest of her family would remain as hostages to the Bears. Ercolani bickered with the Orsi but eventually Savelli ordered her to enter. Caterina set off triumphantly along the drawbridge and upon reaching the gateway turned indriè and fi'gli quatro fichi. Once in the fortress, Catherine turned all the cannons in the direction of the main buildings of the city, ready to raze it to the ground if it touched her family then went to rest. After three hours the Orsi and Savelli realized they had been mocked and were forced to return to the city. They went to the St. Peter's Gate, took over the family members and returned to the fortress where they paraded them one by one forcing them to beg the castellan to return the fortress. Feo did not relent and had several arquebus shots fired, putting the Orsi, Savelli and the rest of the crowd to flight. On the episode na

On April 18, a Bentivoglio envoy arrived in Forli, intimating to Savelli that he should hand back power over the city and his sons to Caterina on pain of suffering the vengeance of Ludovico il Moro. The cardinal agreed to the release of the sons but not to the cession of the city. The request was renewed in the following days, and Savelli decided to move Caterina's mother and children to Cesena to expel all those he did not trust from the city. On April 21 a herald of the Duke of Milan arrived accompanied by one of the Bentivoglios with a request to see Caterina's children. The Orsi replied that they had killed them and imprisoned them but were freed the next day under pressure from a new envoy. Meanwhile, the Bentivoglio had gathered a small army near Castel Bolognese and awaited the arrival of the Sforzeschi. On April 26 the Orsi and Savelli opened fire against the fortress of Ravaldino using a passavolante and a bombard (the castellan replied by cannonading the town. The next day, believing Caterina now doomed, Battista da Savona castellan of Forlimpopoli ceded the town to Savelli for four thousand ducats.

On April 29 the Sforza army, 12,000 men in all, encamped at Cosina, halfway between Faenza and Forli. It was led by Captain General Galeazzo Sanseverino, Giovanni Pietro Carminati di Brambilla (called the Bergamino), Rodolfo Gonzaga marquis of Mantua, and Giovanni II Bentivoglio lord of Bologna. Giovanni Landriani was sent to try for the last time to persuade Savelli and the people of Forlì to return the city and lordship to Caterina. Savelli refused to accept the conditions, and Orsi lied by telling him of the imminent arrival of the papal army led by Niccolò Orsini. The Sforza army then moved against Forli to assault and sack it but Caterina, with whom he was in constant contact, suggested stopping at the gates of the city so as to terrorize it. She then had cannons fire skewers on which were wrapped posters inciting the people to revolt against the Bears. The latter, gripped by desperation, gathered fifty men together with the Ronchi and the Pansechi and tried to have Catherine's children handed over to them by the garrison of Porta San Pietro, who denied them and began pelting them with arrows and stones, forcing them to retreat. Having gathered all the gold and jewels they could carry, the Orsi and fifteen other conspirators fled Forli late at night. Savelli remained in the city.

On April 30, 1488, Catherine began her rule in the name of her eldest son Octavian, who was recognized by all the members of the Commune and the chief magistrate as the new Lord of Forli on that same day, but was too young to exercise power directly.

The first act of her government consisted in avenging the death of her husband, according to the custom of the time. She wanted all those involved to be imprisoned, among them the pope's governor Monsignor Savelli, all the papal generals, the castellan of the fortress of Forlimpopoli, for the fact that he had betrayed her, and also all the women of the Orsi family and other families who had supported the plot. Trusted soldiers and spies searched everywhere throughout Romagna for anyone of the conspirators who had, at first, managed to escape. The houses owned by the imprisoned were razed to the ground, while valuables were distributed to the poor.

On July 30 came news that Pope Innocent VIII had granted Octavian official investiture of his state " until the line was finished." Meanwhile, Cardinal Raffaele Riario of St. George had traveled to Forli, officially to protect Girolamo's orphans but, in reality, to influence Catherine's government.

The young countess personally handled all matters concerning the government of her "state," both public and private. To consolidate her power she exchanged gifts with the lords of neighboring states and conducted marriage negotiations for her children following the customs of the time, according to which concluding a good marriage alliance was an excellent way of governing. He overhauled the tax system by reducing and eliminating some duties; he also controlled all expenditures, even petty ones. He dealt directly with both the training of his militia and the procurement of weapons and horses. He also found time to take an interest in laundry and sewing. It was his intention to make sure that life in his cities was conducted in an orderly and peaceful manner, and his subjects showed that they appreciated his efforts.

The state of Forli and Imola was small but because of its geographical location it had a certain importance in the political dynamics. In those years there were significant events that changed the political framework of the whole of Italy. On April 8, 1492, Lorenzo the Magnificent, whose shrewd policies had kept in check the claims and rivalries of the various Italian states, died. On July 25 of the same year Innocent VIII also died, and he was replaced by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, with the name Pope Alexander VI. His election seemed to be a favorable event for Catherine's state, as during the period that the Riarios lived in Rome, the cardinal often frequented their home and he was also godfather to their eldest son Ottaviano.

These events directly threatened stability and peace in Italy. With the death of the Magnifico, frictions between the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples were rekindled, culminating in the crisis of September 1494, when, incited by Ludovico il Moro, Charles VIII of France descended on Italy, claiming Naples as heir to the Angevins. At first even Alexander VI was in favor of this intervention.

During the conflict between Milan and Naples Catherine, who knew that she was placed in a strategic position of obligatory passage for anyone wishing to travel to the south, tried to remain neutral. On one side was her uncle Ludovico, who wrote to her to ally with Charles VIII, and on the other was Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who supported the King of Naples, now also supported by the Pope, who had changed his opinion. After a meeting between them on September 23, 1494, Catherine was persuaded by the Duke of Calabria Ferrandino of Aragon to support King Alfonso II of Naples and prepared to defend Imola and Forli.

What then caused the rupture between the two was the so-called sack of Mordano, which took place between October 20 and 21: between fourteen thousand and sixteen thousand Frenchmen had gathered around the town of Mordano to lay siege to it and at the same time to trap Ferrandino, who, having fewer men at his disposal, would almost certainly have been defeated. He therefore, understanding the situation, on the advice of his own generals decided not to respond to the countess' requests for help. A massacre at the hands of the French ensued, which was contained as much as possible by the Milanese forces led by Fracasso, who undertook to save numerous women from the violence of the soldiery. According to the chronicler Antonio Grumello Pavese, on the other hand, Ferrandino grieved greatly at the news of the sack and prepared his army to attack Gian Francesco Sanseverino in battle, but the latter - having learned of his intentions through spies - moved his troops secretly and fortified himself in "boni bastioni," so that Ferrandino "di mala voglia" had to desist. Angered, Catherine considered herself betrayed by her Neapolitan allies and switched to the side of the French, who had devastated her lands and mangled her subjects, so Ferrandino, upon learning the news, in a pouring rain was forced to leave Faenza with his men and set out on the road to Cesena.

The Forlì chronicler Leone Cobelli notes in this regard that while Ferrandino always behaved honestly, Caterina sent men after him to rob him, albeit unsuccessfully:

Charles VIII however, preferred to avoid Romagna and cross the Apennines following the Cisa Pass road. The King of France conquered Naples in only thirteen days. This fact frightened the Italian princes, who, worried about their independence, united in an anti-French League, and Charles VIII was forced to quickly move up the peninsula and take refuge, after the tactical but futile victory at Fornovo, first in Asti and then in France.

On this occasion Catherine managed to remain neutral. By not participating in the expulsion of the French she retained both the favor of the Duke of Milan and the Pope.

Two months after Girolamo's death, rumors spread that Caterina was about to marry Antonio Maria Ordelaffi, who had begun to visit her, and, as chroniclers reported, everyone had noticed that these visits were becoming longer and more frequent. With this marriage would end the Ordelaffi family's claims to the city of Forli. This was taken for certain, and Antonio Maria himself wrote to the duke of Ferrara that the countess had made him promises to that effect. When Caterina realized how things stood, she had all those who had helped spread the news imprisoned. She also appealed to the Senate of Venice, which sent Antonio Maria to Friuli, where he was confined for ten years.

Instead, the countess fell in love with Giacomo Feo, the 20-year-old brother of Tommaso Feo, the castellan who had remained faithful to her in the days following her husband's murder. Catherine married him, but in secret, so as not to lose guardianship of her children and, consequently, the government of her state. All chronicles of the period report how Catherine was madly in love with young James. It was also feared that she wanted to take the state away from her son Octavian and give it to her lover.

James's power meanwhile had grown out of all proportion and he was feared and hated by all, even Catherine's own sons. On the evening of August 27, 1495, James was attacked and mortally wounded, falling victim to a conspiracy of which even the Countess' sons were aware. But Catherine was in the dark, and her revenge was terrible. When her first husband had died, revenge had been carried out according to the criteria of the justice of the time, now instead she followed her instincts blinded by anger at having lost the man she loved. According to the chroniclers' account, Catherine went so far as to slaughter even the infant children, infants and pregnant women of the conspirators. Thus Marin Sanudo, who says she was "most cruel."

In 1496 the ambassador of the Republic of Florence Giovanni de' Medici, known as the Popolano, arrived at Catherine's court. The son of Pierfrancesco the Elder, he belonged to the collateral branch of the Medici family. With his brother Lorenzo he had been sent into exile because of his open hostility toward his cousin Piero de' Medici, who had succeeded his father Lorenzo the Magnificent in the government of Florence. When King Charles VIII of France had descended on Italy in 1494, Piero was forced into an unconditional surrender that allowed the French to advance freely toward the Kingdom of Naples. The Florentine people rose up, drove Piero out, and proclaimed the Republic. Giovanni and his brother were allowed to return to the city. They renounced their family surname and assumed that of Popolano. The republican government appointed Giovanni ambassador of Forli and commissioner of all of Florence's Romagna possessions.

Shortly after paying his respects to the Countess as ambassador, Giovanni was lodged, with his entire retinue, in the apartments adjacent to Caterina's in the fortress of Ravaldino. Rumors of a possible marriage between Giovanni and Caterina, and that Ottaviano Riario had accepted a conduct from Florence threatened by the Venetians, alarmed all the princes of the League and even the Duke of Milan.

Catherine could not keep these third nuptials of hers from her uncle Ludovico. The situation was different from the previous one in that Catherine had the approval of her children and ended up having that of her uncle as well. A son was born of the marriage, who was named Ludovico in honor of the Duke of Milan, but later became famous as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere.

Meanwhile, the situation between Florence and Venice was worsening, and Catherine, who was always placed on the passageways of armies, prepared for defense. She had also sent a contingent of knights to aid Florence, headed by her eldest son, having him accompanied by trusted men, whom she herself had instructed, and her stepfather.

Suddenly Giovanni de' Medici became so seriously ill that he had to leave the battlefield and travel to Forli. There, despite treatment, his condition continued to worsen and he was transferred to Santa Maria in Bagno, where he hoped for miraculous waters. On September 14, 1498, John died in the presence of Catherine, who had been summoned to come to him urgently. Their union was the origin of the Grand Ducal Medici dynastic line, which died out in 1743. In the same days Caterina made thoughts of marrying Galeazzo Sanseverino, captain general of her uncle Ludovico, or so it was at least publicized in Milan.

Returning immediately to Forli to attend to the defense of her states, Catherine kept herself busy directing military maneuvers, concerning the procurement of soldiers, weapons and horses. The training of the militia was carried out by the Countess herself, who, in order to find additional money and troops, did not tire of writing to her uncle Ludovico, the Republic of Florence and the neighboring allied states. Only the Marquis of Mantua and Ludovico il Moro sent a small contingent of soldiers. The latter sent two very capable condottieri: Fracasso and Gian Francesco Sanseverino, but Caterina was unable to handle the surly and irascible character of the former: she complained about it to her uncle, saying that Fracasso was constantly quarreling with her brother and the other captains, doing what he wanted and speaking ill of her; he even threatened to leave one day, offended by certain of his words. Ludovico urged her to be patient, for although he said "some bad words," they could not have found a better leader than him.

After an initial attack by the Venetian army, which inflicted severe destruction in the occupied territories, Catherine's army managed to get the better of the Venetians, among whom Antonio Ordelaffi and Taddeo Manfredi, descendants of the lineages that had ruled Forlì and Imola respectively before the Riarios, were also militant. After that the war continued with minor battles until the Venetians managed to bypass Forli and reach Florence by another route.

From this time on in many chronicles relating to the lands of Romagna, Catherine is often referred to as "Tygre."

The conquest of Duke Valentine

The French throne had meanwhile been succeeded by Louis XII, who boasted rights to the Duchy of Milan and also to the Kingdom of Naples, respectively as a descendant of Valentina Visconti and the Anjou dynasty. Louis XII, before beginning his campaign in Italy, secured the alliance of the Savoy, the Republic of Venice and Pope Alexander VI. At the head of his strong army in the summer of 1499 he entered Italy, occupying without having to fight all of Piedmont, the city of Genoa and the city of Cremona. On October 6 he took up residence in Milan, abandoned the previous month by Duke Ludovico, who had taken refuge in the territories of Tyrol under the protection of his nephew Maximilian I of Habsburg.

Alexander VI had allied himself with the King of France to have in return his support in establishing a kingdom for his son Cesare Borgia in the land of Romagna. With this purpose he issued a papal bull to forfeit the investitures of all the feudal lords of those lands, including Catherine.

When the French army left Milan with Duke Valentino to conquer Romagna, Ludovico Sforza regained the Duchy with the help of the Austrians.

Catherine to counter the oncoming French army, sought relief from Florence, but the Florentines were threatened by the Pope who intimated that Pisa should be taken from them, so she was left alone to defend herself. She immediately began enlisting and training as many soldiers as she could and stockpiling weapons, ammunition and provisions. She had the defenses of her fortresses reinforced with major works, especially that of Ravaldino where she herself resided and which was already considered impregnable. She also made her children leave and they were welcomed in the city of Florence.

On November 24, Cesare Borgia arrived in Imola. The gates of the city were immediately opened by the inhabitants and he was able to take possession of it, after having conquered its fortress where the castellan held out for several days. Given what had happened in her minor city, Catherine specifically asked the people of Forli if they wanted to do the same or if they wanted to be defended and, in that case, endure a siege. Since the people hesitated to answer her Catherine made the decision to concentrate all defense efforts in the fortress of Ravaldino, leaving the city to its fate.

On December 19 Valentino also took possession of Forli and laid siege to the fortress. Catherine did not yield to attempts put in place to persuade her to surrender, two made directly by Duke Valentino and one by Cardinal Raffaele Riario. She also put a bounty on Cesare Borgia in response to the one the Duke had put on her: 10,000 ducats for both of them, dead or alive. She also tried to take Valentino prisoner while he was near the fortress to speak to her, but the attempt failed.

For many days the artilleries of both factions continued to bombard each other: those of Catherine inflicted numerous losses on the French army, without the latter succeeding in dismantling the main defenses of the fortress. What was destroyed during the day was then rebuilt during the night. The besieged also found time for playing and dancing.

Catherine's solitary endurance was admired throughout Italy itself reports that numerous were the songs and epigrams composed in her honor, of which only that of Marsilio Compagnon has come down to us.

As time passed and no results were achieved, the Valentine changed tactics. He began to bombard the walls of the fortress continuously, even at night until, after six days, two large gates were opened. On January 12, 1500, the decisive battle was bloody and swift, and Catherine continued to resist by fighting herself with weapons in hand until she was taken prisoner. Among the gentlemen captured along with her was her secretary, Marcantonio Baldraccani from Forli. Immediately Catherine declared herself a prisoner of the French, knowing that there was a law in France that prevented women from being held as prisoners of war.

Machiavelli, according to whom the fortress was poorly built and the defense operations poorly directed by Giovanni da Casale, commented, "Fece adunque la malaedificata fortezza e la poca prudenza di chi la difendeva vergogna alla magnanima impresa della contessa...."

Cesare Borgia obtained custody of Catherine from the commanding general of the French army, Yves d'Allègre, promising that she would be treated not as a prisoner but as a guest. She was therefore forced to leave with the army that was preparing to conquer Pesaro. However, the conquest had to be postponed because of Ludovico il Moro, who recaptured Milan on February 5, forcing the French troops to turn back.

The Valentine then, left alone with the papal troops, headed for Rome, where he also took Catherine, who was at first placed in the Belvedere Palace. Toward the end of March Catherine attempted to escape but was discovered and immediately imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo.

To justify Catherine's imprisonment Pope Alexander VI accused her of intending to poison him with poison-soaked letters sent in November 1499 in response to the papal bull deposing the countess from her fiefdom.

Even today it is not known whether the accusation was well-founded or not. Machiavelli says he is convinced that Catherine had really tried to poison the pope, while other historians, such as Jacob Burckhardt and Ferdinand Gregorovius are not as certain. A trial was also held, but it was not concluded, and Catherine remained imprisoned in the fortress until June 30, 1501, when she was freed by Yves d'Allègre, who had come to Rome with Louis XII's army to conquer the Kingdom of Naples. Alexander VI demanded that Catherine sign the documents for the surrender of her states, since in the meantime her son Cesare, with the acquisition of Pesaro, Rimini and Faenza, had been appointed duke of Romagna.

After a short stay at the residence of Cardinal Raffaele Riario, Catherine embarked to reach Livorno and then Florence, where her children were waiting for her.


In the city of Florence, Catherine lived in the villas that had belonged to her husband John, often staying in the Medici Villa of Castello. She complained of being mistreated and living in financial straits.

For several years she sustained a legal battle against her brother-in-law Lorenzo for guardianship of her son John, who was given to his uncle because of his imprisonment, but was returned to her in 1504 because the judge recognized that incarceration as a prisoner of war was not comparable to that due from having committed criminal acts.

With the death of Alexander VI on August 18, 1503, Cesare Borgia lost all his power. All possibilities were reopened to restore the old feudal lords of Romagna to the states from which they had been driven. Catherine wasted no time and got very busy sending letters and trusted people to plead her and Octavian's cause to Julius II. The new pope showed himself in favor of restoring the Riarios' lordship over Imola and Forlì, but the population of the two cities declared itself in the majority against the Countess' return, so the state passed to Antonio Maria Ordelaffi, who took office on October 22, 1503.

Having lost any chance of restoring her former power, Catherine spent the last years of her life devoting herself to her children, especially John who was the youngest, her grandchildren, her "experiments," and her social life, continuing to have an intense correspondence both with the people who had remained fond of her in Romagna and with her relatives who resided in Milan.

In April 1509 Catherine was severely stricken with pneumonia. She seemed to recover, so much so that she was declared cured, but a sudden worsening of the disease led to her death on May 28. After making her will and arranging for her burial she died at the age of forty-six "quella tygre di la madona di Forlì," who had "tucta spaventata la Romagna." She was buried in the Monastery of the Murate in Florence, in front of the high altar: later her nephew Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, wanted to remember her by having a plaque affixed, but today no trace remains of the tomb: exhumed during a nineteenth-century floor renovation, the remains were then dispersed at an unspecified time.

In spite of the importance of the figure of Caterina Sforza in the Italian Renaissance panorama, odonymy recalls her in only a few urban centers: in Rome with a square, in Forlì, Forlimpopoli, Imola and San Mauro Pascoli with streets.

In the last years of his life he confided to a friar, "If I could write everything, I would make the world amazed."

Six children were born from the marriage to Girolamo Riario:

From the union with Giacomo Feo was born:

From her marriage to Giovanni de' Medici was born:

This is how the Florentine historian Bartolomeo Cerretani describes it:

"She was wise, animated, great: complex, fair-faced, spoke little; she wore a satin robe with two arms of train, a capper of black velvet in the French manner, a man's girdle, and scarsella full of gold ducats; a sickle for the use of retort beside, and among the soldiers on foot, and on horseback she was much feared, because that Woman with arms in her hand was proud and cruel. She was the non-legitimate daughter of Count Francesco Sforza, the first captain of her time, and to whom she was very similar in spirit and daring, and not lacking, being adorned with singular virtue, in some not small nor vulgar vice."

Marin Sanudo called her "femina quasi virago, crudelissima," in relation to the slaughter she made of the children and pregnant women of the conspirators, following the death of her second husband Giacomo Feo. The anonymous author of the Corpus Chronicorum Bononiensium also offers the same judgment: "And this was a femina crudilisima and full of great spirit because she made many people die who were inpazate de la morte de la sua marito."

The leader Fracasso says she is "shrewd," ready to change parties at a moment's notice, but points out that "to be her dona does not stand without fear of her own things."

The future Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, in a letter in which he narrates to Piero de' Medici the "strange meeting" of Catherine with the Duke of Calabria Ferrandino of Aragon (which took place on September 23, 1494), described her as ugly in the face, reporting in this the impressions of Ferrandino himself.

Around 1502, according to an informant of Isabella d'Este, Caterina was "so fat that I could not make the comparison." Fatness was, after all, very common within the Sforza family: her own father Galeazzo Maria, whom Caterina resembled very much, did not wear the breastplate that would perhaps have saved him from death-which he went to instead-"so as not to look too big."

She had also inherited from the Sforzas the typical prominent, slightly hooked nose and protruding chin. Her hair was supposed to be wavy, and she seems to have kept it up at the back of her head, but it is not known for sure whether she was naturally blond and fair-skinned, as many Sforzas were, or whether she achieved these results through her own blends.

A long-time practitioner of herbalism, medicine, cosmetics and alchemy, Caterina left us a book: Experiments of the Most Excellent Lady Caterina da Forlì, consisting of four hundred and seventy-one recipes that illustrate procedures for combating diseases and preserving the beauty of the face and body. It is the result of the many chemical "experiments" that Caterina was passionate about and practiced throughout her life.

With its enigmatic formulas, the cookbook provides us with interesting information not only on the customs and traditions of the time, but also on the state of scientific knowledge in the 15th century: important discoveries are intuited in some of the procedures, which would not be made until much later, such as the use of chloroform to put the patient to sleep.

This interest in cosmetics and alchemy came from ancient traditions and Eastern culture. It was passed down from the "workshops" of monasteries, courts, and the families themselves, who guarded and handed down from generation to generation the "secrets" to produce remedies against disease.

All the chronicles of the time inform us that Catherine was a woman of extraordinary beauty. Surely for this reason much of the cookbook consists of recipes for preserving such beauty, according to the canons of the time: to "make the face very white et beautiful et colorful," to "make the hair grow," to "make the hair rizzi venure," to "make the hair blond de colore de oro" to "make the hands white et beautiful so that they will look like ivory."

Catherine devoted herself to her "experiments" consistently throughout her life. This made her truly competent in this field, as evidenced by the enormous amount of correspondence she kept with physicians, scientists, noblewomen and sorceresses, in order to have an exchange of "secrets" for the preparation of bellettos, lotions, smoothes, elixirs and ointments. Her most important adviser in this field was Lodovico Albertini, an apothecary from Forlì, who remained fond of her and continued to serve her even when she no longer lived in Forlì.

In 1933 a portion of Catherine's beauty recipes, were published and the first edition sold out in a very short time.


Chroniclers of the time have left numerous accounts of the fame and admiration that Catherine earned. A 16th-century ballad, attributed to Marsilio Compagnon, is dedicated to her, which begins thus:


Pier Desiderio Pasolini identified Caterina Sforza and Fracasso Sanseverino as the protagonists of an anecdote reported by Baldassarre Castiglione in his Cortegiano,. A condottiero refused the invitation of a "valiant woman" to join the dances and other amusements, saying that war was his only profession and that he knew no other, whereupon the woman amused herself by mocking him:


  1. Caterina Sforza
  2. Caterina Sforza
  3. ^ Non sono stati trovati documenti sulla sua nascita e nemmeno sui primi tre anni della sua vita. (Natale Graziani, Gabriella Venturelli, Caterina Sforza, Milano, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 2001, p. 10).
  4. ^ a b c Graziani, Venturelli, p. 10
  5. ^ La società di quei tempi considerava il fatto di avere molti figli come un pregio, anche se essi erano naturali e non legittimi: spesso, infatti, come nel caso di Caterina e dei suoi fratelli, venivano legittimati. (Brogi, p. 24)
  6. ^ Matrimonio proposto da Bianca Maria Visconti a Lodovico di Savoia, padre di Bona, che mise fine all'inimicizia tra le due famiglie. I Savoia infatti avevano pretese sul governo di Milano già dalla morte di Filippo Maria Visconti, il quale aveva sposato Maria di Savoia. (Brogi, p. 18 e p. 21)
  7. ^ Graziani, Venturelli, p. 21
  8. ^ Commonly known with her husband's surname, Lucrezia's parentage is unknown and her later life is obscure.[6]
  9. ^ Fortress where Caterina had made her official residence immediately after the death of Girolamo Riario.
  10. ^ Florence and Venice were preparing for war; Venice intended to take control the city of Pisa, which Charles VIII had made independent from Florence, and to reinstate the Medici as rulers of Florence.[49]
  11. Bellonci Maria, „Lukrecja Borgia”, PIW, 1958, s.202
  12. 3,00 3,01 3,02 3,03 3,04 3,05 3,06 3,07 3,08 3,09 3,10 3,11 3,12 3,13 3,14 3,15 Jansen, Sharon L. (2002). The monstrous regiment of women : female rulers in early modern Europe (1η έκδοση). New York: Palgrave/Macmillan. ISBN 0312213417. 49384068.

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