Caterina Sforza (1463–1509) was the daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan and Lucrezia Landriani. After her marriage to Girolamo Riario, a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, she became countess of Imola and, later, Forlì; following her husband’s assassination in 1488, she continued to govern these territories as regent for her eldest son. Caterina Sforza gained widespread fame for her skill in political and military affairs and was known for her interest in collecting alchemical, medicinal, and cosmetic recipes. In 1499, she lost her territories to the forces of Cesare Borgia and Louis XII. After a period of imprisonment in Rome, she was forced to renounce her claims on Imola and Forlì, and spent the remainder of her life in Florence. Caterina Sforza was the mother of the condottiere Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (1498–1526), whose son Cosimo (1519–1574) became the first Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Born in Milan in 1463, Caterina Sforza was the daughter of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza and his mistress, Lucrezia Landriani. Raised at her father’s court, Caterina received a humanist education and was tutored by Francesco Filelfo. She established a close relationship with her stepmother, Bona Maria di Savoia, who had married Galeazzo Maria in 1468; the two remained in contact by letter after Caterina’s departure from Milan. Bona’s apothecary, Cristoforo de Brugora, kept a medicinal garden, and it may have been through Bona that Caterina was first exposed to the cultivation of botanicals that would interest her throughout her life.
In 1473, at age ten, Caterina’s marriage to Girolamo Riario, a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, was arranged – a union that joined the Sforza and papal families. Four years later, in 1477, she made her way to Rome to join her new husband, where her first son, Ottaviano, was born in 1479. Girolamo Riario continued to amass power and in 1480 was given the lordship of Forlì by Sixtus IV. In 1484, however, the situation changed upon the death of Sixtus IV and the resultant period of civil unrest and uncertainty. In an effort to force the cardinals to negotiate terms favorable to herself and her husband, Caterina – pregnant with her fourth child – occupied the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo, of which her husband served as castellan. Girolamo, however, was working independently to reach his own terms with the cardinals, and Caterina was compelled to abandon Rome with her husband for their territories in the Romagna. The arrival of Caterina and Girolamo in Forlì met with disfavor by many and Girolamo’s subsequent levying of taxes increased hostility toward their rule. In 1488, Girolamo was assassinated in a violent plot orchestrated by the rival Orsi family.
In the wake of Girolamo’s death Caterina held on to power, retaliating against the organizers of the conspiracy and ruling as regent for her eldest son Ottaviano. In 1488, she began a relationship with Giacomo Feo, brother of the castellan of the fortress of Ravaldino, and may have secretly married him. The relationship was opposed by some who feared it undermined the power of Caterina’s Riario son and heir, Ottaviano, and in 1495 Giacomo, too, was murdered. Retaliating even more forcefully than before against the conspirators, Caterina continued to maintain power. In 1497 she wed Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, known as Il Popolano, who had been sent to Forlì as an ambassador for Florence. Their son, Lodovico, born in 1498 (subsequently renamed Giovanni), would go on to attain fame as a military condottiere known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (counts of these events are found in Burrièl, 1795; Braschi, 1965; and Isolini, 1893).
Caterina’s political stratagems and military exploits were legendary and confounded standard expectations for the period regarding women’s behavior (Breisach, 1967). Machiavelli, who was sent by Florence in 1499 to negotiate grain prices with Caterina, memorialized in his Discourses the story of her defense of the fortress of Ravaldino following the coup that killed her first husband. Machiavelli’s well-known account of the episode, which recounts how – in response to her foes’ threats to kill her hostage children – Caterina lifted her skirts and retorted that she could make more, helped perpetuate a long-standing perception of Caterina as a Renaissance “virago (Machiavelli, 2001).” This episode – and its effect on the historical characterization of Caterina – is analyzed in depth by Bausi (1991) Freccero (1993), and Hairston (2000).
In 1499, Caterina’s defense of Forlì against Cesare Borgia and French forces earned her similar admiration. Writing of the resistance mounted by Caterina, the marchioness of Mantua, Isabella d’Este noted, “if the French condemn the cowardice of men, they must at least praise the daring and worth of Italian women” (Pasolini 1897, 105n1). This time, however, Caterina’s efforts were not successful and she was taken as a prisoner to Rome. After a year of confinement in Castel Sant’Angelo (on invented charges that she had attempted to harm the Pope by sending him a letter contaminated by plague virus), Caterina was forced to renounce all claim on Imola and Forlì. She left Rome for Florence, where she would remain for the rest of her life. Here she spent 5 years fighting to secure the patrimony of her Medici son, Giovanni, winning her case in 1505. She also engaged in charitable works, for example, on behalf of the Benedictine convent of Le Murate, where she resided on occasion. Caterina died in 1509 of a lung ailment and was buried at Le Murate (Devries, 2010).
Innovative and Original Aspects
Caterina Sforza was deeply immersed in the empirical culture of her day (Ray, 2010). As her correspondence attests, she was known to her contemporaries for her interest in alchemical experiments as well as in medicinal and cosmetic recipes and compiled the information she collected in a manuscript that she passed on to her son, Giovanni delle Bande Nere (Sforza, 1894, Nigrisoli 1928, Nigrisoli 1929, Tabanelli, 1970, Loreti Biondi, 1969, Ray, 2013 and Ray, 2015). This manuscript survives in a sixteenth century transcription made by Lucantonio Cuppano, entitled Gli Experimenti de la ex[cellentissi]ma s[igno]ra Caterina da Furli (transcribed in Pasolini 1893). This activity situates Caterina within a network of early modern men and women of varying social class who sought out and exchanged “secrets” – information about producing medicinal, cosmetic, and alchemical recipes – as a means to establish status and cement social or political relations (Ray, 2015).
Impact and Legacy
Caterina Sforza was the progenitrix of the Medici grand ducal dynasty in Tuscany. Her son, Giovanni delle Bande Nere, was the father of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Medici Grand Duke (Tabanelli, 1972). Caterina’s interests in alchemical and medical secrets can be seen reflected in the subsequent Medici fascination with collecting and experimentation: for example, in the studioli of Cosimo and his son Francesco in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and in the laboratory space later established by Francesco next to the church of San Marco, known as the Casino Mediceo. In the eighteenth century, the story of Caterina Sforza captured the imagination of figures such as Antonio Gramsci and Gabriele d’Annunzio, who used her example as a political symbol.
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