History : May-Jun 2016
6 MAY/JUNE 2016 PROFILES Caterina Sforza, Indomitable Duchess To survive turbulent 15th-century Italy, the young Duchess of Imola and Forlì relied on not only the art of intrigue but also fierce military tactics to protect and maintain her ancestral lands. GOLD RELIQUARY FROM THE CATHEDRAL OF FORLÌ DEA/AGE FOTOSTOCK When she was seven months pregnant, Caterina seized control of Rome’s Castel Sant’ Angelo. T oward the end of 1499, a woman stood atop the walls of the Rocca di Ravaldino in Forlì, some 185 miles north of Rome. The troops of the Borgias, a powerful rival family, were holding her children hostage and threat- ening to kill them if she did not yield the fortress and her lands to them. But she refused, and, pointing at her womb, cried: “Kill them if you will, I have the means to make many more! You will never make me surrender.” The tale may well be apocryphal but, given what is known about the extraor- dinary Caterina Sforza, it has a ring of truth about it. One of the most excep- tional figures of the Italian Renaissance, Sforza rubbed shoulders with the artistic and cultural geniuses of her era. She de- fied convention, studied alchemy, and welcomed confrontation with other Ital- ian families such as the Borgias. Caterina was born in 1463 in Milan, the love child of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who, later in her childhood, would become Duke of Milan. Despite her il- legitimacy, she was brought up at the center of her fa- ther’s household, where she received an education im- bued with the humanist spirit of the age. Like other females in this remarkable family, she trained alongside male children in military leadership and weapons usage. In 1473, when Caterina was 10, her family made a political alliance and mar- ried her to Girolamo Riario, 20 years her senior and a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. Lord of Imola and Forlì—a city south of Milan, in Romagna—Girolamo took his child bride to live in Rome after she reached age 14. The move helped consol- idate their place at the center of the papal court. Caterina would give birth to five children and become a powerful inter- mediary between Rome and Milan. Intrigue in Rome In August 1484 Pope Sixtus IV’s death caused political chaos. Italy’s families jockeyed to put one of their own on the throne of St. Peter. Riario’s precarious position was threatened by many factions seeking to seize his lands. Before his un- cle’s death, Riario had been away from Rome, campaigning against these rival factions, but now he was prevented from returning to the city to shore up his po- sition. Caterina, despite being seven months pregnant, did it for him. She commanded their forces to seize Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo. She refused A Life of Love and War 1463 Caterina Sforza is born, the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, future Duke of Milan, and his lover, Lucrezia Landriani. 1484 Caterina defends the interests of her husband Girolamo Riario in Rome following the death of Pope Sixtus IV. 1497-99 Widowed in 1495, Caterina marries Giovanni de’ Medici in 1497. After his death, she faces strong opposition from the Borgias. 1500-1509 Following captivity in Rome, Caterina retires to a villa in Florence, where she dies at age 46 of pneumonia. 1488 Girolamo is assassinated, and Caterina marries again. She puts the interests of her new husband, Giacomo Feo, before those of her son.