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The Tigress of Forli: 
Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici

by elizabeth lev
houghton mifflin harcourt, 316 pages, $27

Immortalized by Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel, rumored to be the most beautiful woman in the world, the epicene countess who ruled Forli and Imola for eleven years combined quattrocento beauty with the political instincts and will of a warrior-prince. She crossed verbal swords with Machiavelli, saw through his chicanery, and sent him away frustrated and chagrined. He later vilified her, “repelled by the idea that a woman could possess [such] qualities.” In her first book, art historian Elizabeth Lev provides an absorbing account of a woman as captivating now as she was in her own day, a Renaissance woman in the age of Renaissance men.

Born in Milan in 1463, Caterina was the illegitimate daughter of the soon-to-be duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza. The Sforzas had the unusual practice of training their female children in the arts of war. Yet Caterina’s classical education and practical training were polished by the science of the saints. “From the legend of her namesake, Catherine of Alexandria, she learned that faith can make a young girl wiser than fifty philosophers.”

As a young girl Caterina accompanied her father on state visits, turning heads everywhere they went with their ostentatious train. When her family sojourned in Florence with their friends, the powerful Medici family, whose library put even the Sforzas’ to shame (though the Medici found their noble Milanese guests a bit gaudy), Caterina was especially impressed by Lorenzo the Magnificent, since he possessed an interest in Plato and poetry in addition to statesmanship and valor.

The politically motivated marital arrangements of the time would give even the most broad-minded of canon lawyers the jitters. Needing to shore up his own claim on Milan, Duke Sforza sought to unite his family to the pope’s. He chose Girolamo Riario, a disreputable nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, for an eleven-year-old relation, Constanza Fogliani. The thirty-year-old debauchee’s one nonnegotiable was that he could consummate the engagement forthwith. Constanza’s protective mother refused to acquiesce. The duke, less scrupulous about the condition and seeing his plans disintegrating, decided to supply his ten-year-old-daughter, Caterina as a substitute.

Lev does no whitewashing. What is shocking (and felonious) today was rather par for the course then. Indeed, much of Caterina’s story reads like a combination of The Sopranos with Jerry Springer.

Caterina seems to have accepted her father’s will with filial submission. Indeed, shockingly to us, she seems never, over the course of her life, to have had anything but respect and admiration for him. She had never known among her husbands, lovers, or adversaries anyone who equaled her father’s strength of will and love of life. At every confrontation, Caterina cited her father’s ‘fearlessness’ or ‘strategic brilliance.’

In any event, the duke’s vices were more apparent to certain Milanesi. It was as easy then as it is now to spend other people’s money. Taxes increased in lockstep with the duke’s profligacy. On the feast of St. Stephen, 1476, three men, in conscious emulation of Brutus and Cassius, assassinated the duke in the middle of a church. In the end, they were as mistaken about the people’s response as were Caesar’s killers.

After her father’s death, Caterina moved to Rome with Girolamo, whose behavior, as captain of the papal army, remained true to form. With the death of his uncle and protector, Pope Sixtus IV, the powerful Roman families Riario had provoked beyond measure were in a position to get even. With the knowledge that her husband had left town and that she was her patrimony’s only hope, Caterina, seven months pregnant, went (on horseback) directly to Castel Sant’Angelo, commandeered control of it, pointed all of its cannons at every Vatican ingress, and strong-armed the college of cardinals into recognizing her husband’s family titles and properties before electing Christ’s next vicar. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.

Caterina largely became a just and benevolent countess who assisted the poor and was generous to religious communities. But Lev, no hagiographer, makes it clear that she was not exactly a saint: In addition to possessing a seemingly flexible sexual ethic, she pursued her father’s (and her husband’s) enemies with a devilish fury, executing them in imaginative ways. After being made a widow for the second time, her dispensation of justice amounted to a bloodbath in which thirty-eight were killed, including women and children.

But as her conscience caught up with her, she became acquainted with another Girolamo, the controversial Dominican, Savonarola. More than once the famous, gifted preacher responded to her written entreaties for what we might call spiritual direction. He counseled her to pray, to do good works, and to be a just and generous ruler, reminding her that charity covers a multitude of sins. He was a “stern but supportive adviser who helped her return from spiritual death.”

Lev’s story actually begins in media res and leaves readers wondering how it is resolved until many chapters later, when the narrative catches up. At Christmas 1499, the countess and a small army are holed up in the fortress of Ravaldino while the nefarious Cesare Borgia and his coalition of troops remain bivouacked on the other side of the moat: They have her surrounded. Outfitted in a special suit of armor designed for her feminine figure (If I must lose because I am a woman, she once roared, I want to lose like a man), she held her own until, abandoned by much of her army, she was taken prisoner and raped by Borgia.

Caterina was returned, probably conscious of the irony, to the dank, tenebrous prison within the Castel Sant’Angelo. So as thousands of people made the purgatorial voyage to Rome for the Holy Year of 1500, Caterina was undergoing her own purgation: For one long silent year, Caterina withstood the desolation of Castel Sant’Angelo, uniting her pain to that of Christ, a crucifix the only ornament in her small cell. Her prayers bolstered her, sacraments sustained her, and hope buoyed her. In a magnificent paradox, the same pope who so desperately wanted her dead had given her the means to survive.

Upon her release, having renounced her states, she was evidently transformed. The stubborn, combative virago with the volcanic temper was noticeably softened. Indeed, we learn that she spent many of her latter days praying in the Florentine convent of nuns founded by Savonarola: poorer and less powerful, yet better suited for another kingdom. A lifetime later, Caterina had borne eight children, buried three husbands, and fought off endless plots and intrigues. Most of all, with the help of Savonarola’s instruction, she had found spiritual peace.

Lev wraps up The Tigress of Forli with a brief summary of the life and death of Caterina’s son, Giovanni, the issue of her marriage to Giovanni de’ Medici Il Popolano, her third husband and, it seems, only true love. Having inherited the Sforza coraggio and indomitable spirit, Giovanni Jr.’s military successes earned him the monikers L’Invicibile and L’Italia. He died of blood poisoning after a leg amputation (during which he insisted on holding the candle himself, providing light for the surgeons), but not before he had himself produced an heir, his only one, Cosimo de’ Medici, who went on to become the grand duke of Tuscany, making Caterina the direct ancestress of a line that would become synonymous with the great city of Florence.

Lev’s vivid descriptions of the decor and artistic features of various abodes (the dazzling Renaissance milieu is well captured), as well as her attention to the sartorial panache characteristic of the time, render the tale far more colorful than a typical biography. The only caveat is that readers unfamiliar with the kaleidoscopic Renaissance political scene, the city-states entered into and broke political alliances with a promiscuous nonchalance, may find themselves bewildered, and keeping tabs on all of the dramatis personae with their polysyllabic family names, remembering who is currently bedfellow with whom, and keeping track of who is related to whom, is a dizzying task, though Lev does make an effort to remind readers of the salient details.

The Countess of Forli is not the lurid, sensationalist expose often mistaken for real history by disaffected Catholics. But Lev is frank: There were certain high-ranking ecclesiastics in whom it is difficult to see Christ, the good shepherd. One wonders if Alexander VI (a Borgia, and a paterfamilias in more than one sense of the word) had a straight face when he called Caterina a “daughter of iniquity, adapting the Hebraism for a corrupt ruler.”

Caterina, Lev writes, “was a woman who made mistakes. Colossal, horrific, public ones. She dedicated the same passion and energy to her noble undertakings and her wicked ones. But no one is untouchable by divine grace. Knowing she had much to atone for, Caterina had intended to make the penitential voyage to Rome with a contrite heart. Thrice widowed, she learned that the Church is the Bride to whom all brides—holy or not—repair. Bereft of her earthly refuge, the erstwhile countess fled to the refugium peccatorum.

Sebastian White, O.P., is a Dominican in the Province of St. Joseph. He is studying for the priesthood.