Caterina Sforza: Lady of Imola
Posted on 30th January 2021
She was born in 1462, the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan and Lucrezia Landriani the wife of a courtier yet despite her illegitimacy Caterina was neither spurned by her father nor kept out of sight but was instead raised openly in the Ducal Court. It was unusual for an illegitimate child to be so brazenly embraced by her family and even more so to then receive a classical education. Even if it was largely wasted on the vibrant, young Caterina who had little interest in book-learning and much preferred to hunt, ride horses, and play with boys. Indeed, she was pretty much allowed to do as she pleased up to a point, and that point was her value in the marriage bed, and at the age of fifteen she was married to Girolamo Riario, ten years her senior.
The Riario family had great wealth but had only recently risen to prominence on the back of their Papal connections which they exploited mercilessly buying influence and rising on the coat tails of others. They were as a result deeply unpopular, as parvenus often are.
Any sadness that the young Caterina felt at the end of her carefree childhood was soon subsumed by her own ambition. Her husband Girolamo was the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV and the Riario family had profited greatly from his largesse in particular, Girolamo, who had received the prosperous cities of Forli and Imola.
Caterina enjoyed her new status, their close relationship to the Vatican, and the power it brought them, and from 1477 to 1484 she and Girolamo remained mostly in Rome where they basked in the glory of the Papacy.
It was by all accounts a happy marriage and Caterina bore Girolamo four children but outside the confines of their immediate family they were not loved. Many people who had lost land and wealth to the Riario’s remained resentful and few had forgotten their humble origins, a situation not helped by Caterina who lacked the charm of her husband and was often curt and abrasive even in the company of friends.
During the period known to history as the Renaissance Italy was a geographical expression not a country; a region dominated by City States often at war with one another and always prey to external enemies. It was a violent place and the arena for political ambitions. Caterina was to become a victim of these ambitions but not before she had proved herself an astute player of the game.
By the spring of 1484 the elderly Pope Sixtus IV was ailing and desperate to secure the Papacy for his chosen successor Giuliano della Rovere, another distant relative of the Riario family but the election of any Pope was a fractious affair more temporal than it ever was spiritual and with the Pope's death imminent his influence waned. By the time he finally passed away on 12 August little had been decided and the Papacy remained up for grabs.
To exert influence over the forthcoming election and despite being seven months pregnant, Caterina personally led an army to capture the nearby fortress of Castel Sant Angelo overlooking the Vatican where she lined its ramparts with crossbowmen and artillery, ensuring that both were highly visible. As she had intended the Cardinals refused to meet in conclave while they remained under threat from her troops. As they waited outside the city it erupted into violence as the different factions fought and people tried to take advantage of the political instability.
The wealthy of Rome fearing the mob as they always had demanded a swift resolution to the political stand-off, but the Cardinals refused to negotiate directly with a woman. Instead, pressure was brought to bear on her husband.
A hesitant Girolamo was eventually persuaded to withdraw his troops from the Eternal City in return for the reaffirmation of his Lordship over Forli and Imola.
Caterina argued furiously with her husband and refused to abandon Castel Sant’ Angelo and only reluctantly bowed to pressure. She promised not to fire upon the Vatican or use her troops to force the issue of the election. Despite her promise not to intervene the assembled Cardinals were still escorted into Rome under armed guard.
Caterina was proved correct in her assumption that without pressure the Cardinals would abandon the cause of the Riario’s preferred candidate Guiliano della Rovere instead casting their ballots for Giovanni Battista Cibo, who was certainly no friend of the family.
Cibo had been conspiring with their enemies for some time and using their combined wealth to bribe the required number of Cardinals to be elected Pope. Della Rovere realising this attempted to have Cibo abducted but the plot was uncovered. Aware his own life was now in danger he agreed upon a compromise and withdrew his candidacy.
On 29 August, Giovanni Battista Cibo was elected Pope Innocent VIII, the Pope who would become notorious for endorsing the Witch Hunters manual the Malleus Maleficarum and permitting the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. First however he had to deal with the still truculent Caterina Sforza. Again, refusing to negotiate directly with a woman he offered Girolamo a great deal of money to persuade his wife to abandon Castel Sant’Angelo. Even so, it wasn’t until 25 October that she at last reluctantly agreed to do so but not before she had told Girolamo that he was weak, and a fool and had left them at the mercy of their enemies.
Raising and equipping an army to occupy Castel Sant’Angelo had been an expensive affair and the money demanded from the nobility of Forli to pay for it had caused a great deal of resentment. The discontent had simmered ever since and now they demanded Girolamo tax the people of Forli so their loans could be repaid. Girolamo feared the people would rise up and depose him should he be seen to tax them to pay the rich. He refused to do so relying upon the money he had been promised by the Pope to placate his own nobility. Innocent VIII however had no intention of opening the Vatican coffers to remunerate a Riario.
The situation in Forli continued to worsen and though a series of assassination attempts were foiled Girolamo’s predicament remained precarious. Who could he trust, not it seemed those close to him. On 14 April 1488, in the heart of the Ducal Court and surrounded by his bodyguards several members of the ambitious and powerful Orsi Family stabbed him to death.
Following the murder of her husband Caterina feared for her own life and those of her children but though hated by the nobility she remained popular with the people and not all her territories had willingly surrendered to the authority of the Orsi Family. Believing that she could still be of value to them, the Orsi had Caterina and her children imprisoned but left unharmed.
A thorn in the side of the Orsi usurpation was the fortress of Ravaldino which stubbornly refused to surrender. Caterina convinced her captors that if she be permitted to mediate between the two sides, she would be able to persuade the defenders to lay down their arms. She was willing she said to leave her children behind to serve as hostages for her good conduct. The Orsi agreed but once safe inside the fortress she took over its defence and vowed vengeance on the murderers of her husband. When they in turn threatened to kill her children, she famously exposed her genitals from the Castle ramparts shouting: “I have it in me to make more.”
With the assistance of her uncle, the Duke of Milan, Caterina was to become a familiar sight at the head of her army recapturing both Forli and Imola. On 30 April the Orsi were overthrown, and she was swift to enact revenge having those who had murdered her husband executed and their families imprisoned. She had however acted within the law bringing the accused before the Courts, but she showed no such restraint when it came to 80-year-old Andrea Orsi, the patriarch of the family whom she had tied to the tail of a horse and dragged around the town square of Forli until he was dead. She then had his heart cut out and his body dismembered, the various parts of which were thrown to the watching crowd.
Even so, it was said of her that she had dispensed justice rather than vengeance.
Caterina regained the support of the people by reducing the taxes that had been levied on them by the Orsi and restoring order. She demanded obedience but in return she would provide a space where people could live securely without fear go about their business and prosper. This she provided but she expected to be loved and admired for having done so.
Now the Lady of Imola, Caterina settled easily into life as a woman of substance taking great care not only to preserve her aura of power but also over her appearance as her surviving beauty book tells us:
She was very concerned to preserve her teeth going to great lengths to keep them clean and bathed regularly sprinkling her body with rose water and perfumes. She also applied lotions of herbs and sulphur to maintain the fairness of her famous long blonde hair, and creams to highlight the whiteness of her skin.
There was little doubt that she enjoyed and appreciated her femininity but never at the expense of the rough and tumble of life that had been her great love since childhood and she was never happier than out riding, hunting, and hawking.
The sharp contrasts of her physical being were equally reflected in her personality.
She was an extrovert who talked loud and often who was both amiable and charming when she chose to be but could also be foul-mouthed and coarse. Excitable when crossed, her confrontations with people would often become physical and few who argued with her ever forgot the experience. The epitome of a Renaissance Prince she was not, and her gender allied with a violent temper sat uncomfortably together. They provided the fuel to her enemies who accused her of having a boundless sexual appetite and of being a predatory virago who took and abandoned lovers with impunity. The rumour soon spread that she had married her long-time lover the low-born Giacomo Feo. It seems unlikely that she would have done so because she had no intention of relinquishing control of her territories and certainly not to a man of no background, but it is possible that she agreed to some informal ceremony to placate him.
Her relationship with Feo greatly worried her own family and the rumour of their marriage was likely a result of these concerns for as his influence over Caterina increased so did his power and though he may not have been a Duke he behaved and acted as if he were - his arrogance was not easily endured by those aware of his background. Curt and rude towards Caterina’s relatives his off-hand manner led them to believe they were to be disinherited. It was to lead to his undoing.
On 27 August 1495, Caterina and Giacomo Feo were returning with their entourage from an enjoyable but exhausting days hunting when Giacomo was taken to one side attacked, dragged to the ground, and stabbed to death, His clothes were then stripped from his body and his genitals severed.
The brutality of the murder shocked Caterina and she reacted with fury, this time there was to be no restraint and no recourse to the Law Courts as the assassins were arrested and executed on the spot. Their wives and children were then rounded up before being lowered into a well where they either drowned or were left to die an agonisingly slow death. When one victim fell to his knees and begged her for mercy she told him - let vengeance rule, not pity. I shall let the dogs tear you to pieces – fortunately the recipient of her words later escaped his captivity.
On 25 July 1492, Pope Innocent VIII died, despite the hostility of the old Pope towards Caterina and her family she had largely been left alone to rule her territories without interference from Rome.
All this was to change with the election of the unscrupulous and corrupt but politically astute Spaniard Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI. He was determined to make his own family the most powerful in Christendom way beyond his own tenure as Pope and in his son Cesare he had the perfect foil for doing so.
Cesare Borgia, whom his father had ordained in the Church aged just 15 and appointed a Cardinal a mere three years later was violent, quick-tempered, insanely jealous, utterly ruthless, and the most feared man in Italy. It was rumoured that he had murdered his more favoured brother to gain control of the Papal Army and to become the fulcrum of his father’s ambitions. If so, he succeeded, for Pope Alexander now assigned him the task of carving out a Kingdom for the Borgia family in Northern Italy.
Meanwhile, in 1497, Caterina married Giovanni de Medici whose family had ruled Florence until being deposed in November 1494. He was only a minor Medici, but the name remained a powerful one and their wealth undiminished; but for many Italians the Medici name was toxic, they were after all a family of upstart bankers and money-lenders who had bribed and intimidated their way into power. So, despite being genuinely attracted to the handsome and dashing Giovanni, Caterina thought it best to keep the wedding secret even though it was impossible to keep anything the Medici did secret for very long, and it was evident to anyone who saw them together that if they were not married they were at the very least lovers.
Neither Forli nor Imola were among the strongest of the City States, but they were strategically important straddling as they did the main route between Florence and Venice.
Caterina was aware that her territories were being eyed greedily but she remained confident that with her husband at her side she could successfully defend and retain them but on 14 September 1498. Giovanni died following a short illness. Caterina was distraught but she had little time to grieve with the vultures hovering, and none more so than Cesare Borgia.
She took personal control of her army and appealed directly to her powerful relatives in Milan and Florence for assistance, but little was forthcoming. Even so, she managed to out-manoeuvre a Venetian army that had sought to capture Imola but had not been able to prevent them from pillaging and destroying much of the surrounding countryside losing her the support of many of her people. Unable to force Caterina to battle the Venetians withdrew but it was to prove only a temporary reprieve.
On 9 March 1499, Pope Alexander issued a Papal Bull invalidating the rule of the feudal lords, including Caterina. She was now effectively a usurper and if she would not willingly yield her lands, and she would not, then they would be taken from her by force.
In the late spring, King Louis XII of France invaded Italy to secure his claim to Milan, and Alexander’s reasons for issuing the Papal Bull of March now became clear. He intended to ally himself with King Louis whose assistance he needed for Cesare to conquer the Romagna.
Milan quickly fell to Louis’s army and Caterina’s constant support; her beloved uncle Ludovico Sforza was imprisoned. She was now friendless and alone but remained determined to fight on.
Ever since she had learned of the Pope’s intentions to depose her Caterina had been plotting his death. She had written a series of letters to the Holy Father saying that she sought only peace and wished to negotiate an end to the impasse but the conciliatory words did not reflect the letters true intention for she had them placed in cloth that had earlier been wrapped around the corpse of a plague victim. The Borgia’s, well-versed in the art of poison, were suspicious of anything they received from those known to be enemies and under torture the courier who delivered the toxic letters revealed the details of the plot..
Cesare Borgia, his army strengthened by French support and with his reputation for brutality going before him was eager to complete his conquest of the Romagna and he expected little resistance, and certainly not from Caterina Sforza who did have a force substantial enough to meet him in open battle. Instead, she ordered that he should be resisted at the gates of both Imola and Forli and was shocked when on 24 November the former surrendered without a fight.
Caterina, who felt betrayed by both the man she had placed in command of the city and its people now canvassed the views of dignitaries in Forli to see whether they were willing to fight or not? When they responded cravenly, she declared she would not defend them if they would not defend themselves. She would withdraw to the inner-Citadel and abandon the city to its fate.
Surrounded by his impressive army and with its many cannons trained on its walls, Cesare expected Forli to respond as Imola had done and was enraged when Caterina refused his demands to surrender. Instead, she donned chain mail and berated the mighty Duke Valentino from the ramparts of the fortress. When the city was attacked Caterina retreated to the inner-Citadel as she said she would be ignoring pleas not to abandon the people to their fate saying: “They behaved like whores they will be treated like whores, they deserve no better.”
They were right to be fearful for Cesare ordered the town put to the sword.
If he thought his troops rampaging through the streets of Forli killing and looting with impunity would intimidate Caterina, he was mistaken. She would not quake before Cesare Borgia as others had done. Again and again she refused his demands to surrender, a woman thwarting his ambitions, the humiliation was too much to bear.
At last she indicated that she might be willing to negotiate but only if he would meet her personally. Cesare agreed, and the drawbridge was lowered luring him onto it in the belief that she would emerge to discuss terms. Instead, as he stood waiting, she ordered it raised again and Cesare was forced to leap from his horse and an undignified scramble followed as he barely evaded capture. A furious Cesare now offered a 10,000-ducat reward for Caterina’s capture dead or alive - preferably dead!
The Citadel now under constant bombardment as the siege became a ferocious artillery duel with heavy casualties inflicted on both sides but the heavier calibre cannon of Cesare’s French allies was slowly turning the city's wall into rubble. The fury of the bombardment did not induce Caterina to surrender however, and she would often be seen striding through the piles of broken masonry exhorting her troops to ever greater efforts. Sometimes she would be seen in full armour and at other times, as if mocking him, dressed for a party.
Despite Caterina’s troops working frantically every night to repair the damage done during the days bombardment it became only a matter of time until the final breach was made and on 12 January 1500, Cesare’s army was able to storm its walls.
Caterina, who had earlier declared, If I am to die then I will die like a man, led in person the last heroic defence in which 400 of her men would be killed. As the fighting reached its conclusion, she was careful to ensure that she surrendered herself to a French Officer. Had she not done so the likelihood was she would be killed on the spot either out of vengeance or to secure the reward.
Caterina believed herself safe as captive of the French, but Cesare insisted that they hand over the Warlike Lady of Imola to his care and ignoring both custom and Caterina’s outraged protestations they complied. If she feared for her life then she did not let it show for she barely spoke to him and when she did it was as his equal not as his captive.
It was evident that she would not be cowed by either captivity or the threat of death and so at the end of his tether and much to the amusement of others present Cesare grabbed Caterina and physically dragged her though with some difficulty for she resisted ferociously, to his private chambers where they were to remain undisturbed for the next forty eight hours.
A chronicler later wrote: Great injustices were committed upon the Madonna Caterina Sforza, who had such a beautiful body. One of Cesare’s condottiere present at the time was more explicit: Oh, good Madonna, now you will not want for fucking.
In the privacy of his chambers Cesare Borgia brutally raped Caterina time and again later joking that she had defended her fortress far better than she had defended her virtue. Once he had tired of her, he had her escorted to Rome under armed guard where she was imprisoned and ordered to stand trial for plotting to murder the Pope. Even now, she still refused frequent demands that she relinquishes her right to rule her dominions despite promises of fair treatment if she did so.
The trial took place but with the evidence flimsy and Cesare firmly in command of the Romagna there was little will to prosecute, and the case collapsed. She was to remain in prison until 30 June 1501 when under pressure from the French, Pope Alexander ordered her release. He had been reluctant to do so as much because of her refusal to accept the dominion of his family over hers as her continued claim to rule Imola and Forli showed.
The death of Pope Alexander VI on 18 August 1503 briefly revived her hopes of reclaiming her former lands but the people of Imola and Forli had not forgotten how she had failed to protect them and the contempt with which she had treated their lives and property. They made it plain they would not accept her return nor that of her family.
Caterina was to continue to intrigue for the return of her estates but quietly for she was no fool and it seemed to most that she had settled down to a quiet life with her family spending much of her time with her infant son, Ludovico. Absent from the world of politics and Court intrigue Caterina was described as being pleasant and decorous, though few doubted that the passion and iron-will remained. She was also to outlive her old tormentor Cesare Borgia who unable to sustain his power following the death of his father and the end of the Borgia Papacy was forced to flee to Spain. The lands he had taken by force were gratefully received into the hands the recently elected Pope Julius II, the previously defeated Giuliano Della Rovere.
On 13 March 1507, fighting for the army of King John of Navarre he was speared through the chest and killed. The news of his death was greeted by Caterina with silence and only the vaguest of smiles.
On 28 March 1509, Caterina Sforza, described during her lifetime as the Virago and the Tiger, died peacefully in her bed aged 46 of pneumonia. She had earlier told a monk:
”If only I had written the story of my life, no one would have believed me.”
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