Women in arms: Caterina Sforza, a (forgotten) giant in the history of Italy

(To David Rossi)
16/05/19

Unjustly not valued by the publicist, Caterina is perhaps the most important female figure in Italian (and European) history in the second half of the fifteenth century1, but as the grandmother of Cosimo I, the forefather of the Medici grand-ducal line, he brought his indirect influence on our country until the beginning of the 18th century. Called "Tigre di Forlì" by contemporaries and called "Leonessa della Romagna" in a famous film of the Fifties, where she is played by the great Virna Lisi, she was born as an illegitimate daughter2 from the liaison of the then bachelor duke of Milan Galeazzo Maria Sforza with the noble Lucrezia Landriani, who gave him four children, including Caterina, born in 1463.

Let us try to understand in what family and historical context Catherine comes to light and grows.

The great-grandfather is that Muzio Attendolo, who at the age of thirteen in the 1382 leaves the noble and fallen family3 for the profession of weapons, followed before by Boldrino da Panicale and, immediately after, in the company of fortune of Alberico da Barbiano, who nicknamed him "Lo Sforza", and became one of the most famous condottieri of his time, serving himself of different cities in Italy, from north to center, up to that of Naples. His son Francesco, one of the best "generals" of his time, took Bianca Maria Visconti and inherited the city government from the ancient lords of Milan and put an end to the formal "Aurea Repubblica" to re-establish the duchy. His father, although distracted by beautiful women, is also a good man of arms, as well as Duke of Milan. In short, Caterina finds herself in an environment that, let me pass on her expression, allows her to grow as a Lady Oscar without having to dress like a man: even if she is beautiful in appearance4 and of great culture, demonstrates an innate predisposition for the government and for the use of weapons, with the awareness of belonging to a line of glorious warriors.

The duchy of Milan should not be confused with the present, shriveled province: in the fifteenth century, although with frequent changes, it included, in fact, Ticino and a large part of the Canton of Grigioni to the north, descending to the south as far as Parma, Piacenza and the Lunigiana. Strategically, it had only the great Po rivers to cover it from Venice and France, the main adversaries. The peace of Cremona with Venice in the 1443 seems to have stabilized the relations between the two capitals. Ferdinand I reigns in Naples from the 1458, which brought the House of Aragon to the throne that had been of the French of Anjou. The thing, obviously, is not appreciated in Paris, where it is claimed that the succession of the Angevins would be up to the Valois, French ruling house of the time. In Rome, in the year in which Caterina was born, Pope Pius II Piccolomini, the humanist Pope. But he soon fails: in his place, Della Rovere, Sixtus IV, sits on the throne of Pietro, on good terms with the Sforza, as we shall see.

Here, Catherine grows up in such an environment. And in the 1473, at just ten years, he finds himself married to Girolamo Riario, son of the sister of Pope Sixtus IV and twenty years older. Obviously, weddings are a mere formality: some years still pass before Catherine reaches the age for their consumption5. To the nephew, as a wedding present, the Pope procures the lordship of Imola, formerly a Sforza city, in which Caterina solemnly entered the 1477. It is not the only "present" to the couple: in the 1480 the Pope, to obtain a strong dominion in the land of Romagna, assigns the lordship, left vacant, of Forlì to his nephew. The lordship is little more than an honorary title, since Girolamo lives permanently in Rome, where he is head of the papal guards. In the Roman years, Caterina, for the only time in her life, abandoned herself to distractions, without thinking of military or government issues: she gave birth to three of the four children she had with Girolamo, participated in worldliness, enjoyed the salons frequented by the best artists of Europe and feels flattered as considered one of the most beautiful women of her time.

As Minister Salvini would say, at a certain point the "pacchia" ends: in August 1484 his holiness Sisto IV is missing. At his death the grudges explode against the "favorites" of the pontiff: the residence of the Riario, Palazzo Orsini of Campo de 'Fiori, is devastated. Caterina, who is six months pregnant, joins the fortress of Castel Sant'Angelo on horseback to occupy it, along with a troop of soldiers who are faithful to her, in the name of her husband, who is its governor. From here, Catherine threatens the Vatican Hill and the river with her weapons and forces the cardinals to come to terms with her: the young woman is determined to hand over the fortress only to the new Pope. However, cardinals cannot meet in conclave, for fear of being under the fire of Catherine's artillery. Nor do their personal militias dare to attempt a move - probably suicidal - to flush it out. Girolamo is, meanwhile, watching from outside the city, at the head of his army. After an endless tiremmolla, in the end Caterina - not satisfied - and her husband get a good capital of eight thousand ducats, compensation for damages suffered at their property, confirmation of the lordship over Imola and Forlì and, for him, the position of captain general of the church. The woman, then twenty-one, after having kept Rome in check for twelve days, takes the road to Romagna, in time to give birth to a child in Forlì.

And it is precisely in Forlì that things go smoothly for four years, until Rome puts the couple in financial difficulty - and their government - ceasing to pay the amount due. At that point, taking advantage of the popular discontent over the imposition of taxes6 the noble family Orsi attempts the coup: assassin Girolamo and capture Caterina with the children. The woman initially seems collaborative: she even offers to mediate with the fortress of Ravaldino, a fortified citadel which is the pivot of the defensive system of the city, which refuses to surrender to the new masters. The Bears believe them, also because they hold their children hostage. Once inside, however, Catherine takes the leadership of the fortress and prepares herself to regain power, regardless of the threats to her children. The message that leads to the "coup leaders" is clear: if they had killed them, they would have been able to avenge them cruelly. For this reason, the Bears object (imagine basiti) that the children are blood of his blood, for the woman: at this point Caterina, in a scene between chronicle and legend, standing on the walls of the fortress, responds to those who threaten to kill her children : "Do it, if you want: hang them also in front of me - and, raising your skirts and showing with your hand the pubis - here I have enough to make others!". Never coup d'etat failed similarly ...7

Catherine becomes regent in the name of the first-born Ottaviano and proves that she is not just a very valid woman in arms. He personally takes care of all matters concerning the government, both public and private. He manages relations with the lords of neighboring states and conducts marital negotiations for his children following the customs of the time, according to which concluding a good marriage alliance was a great way to govern and maintain peace. He reviews the tax system by reducing and eliminating some taxes, he also monitors all the expenses of the family and the state, even the negligible ones8. He is directly involved in both the training of his militias and - as an expert - in the supply of weapons and horses. Also find time to sew and do laundry in the family9.

But Caterina is not only a leader, a leader and the head of the family: she is above all a woman. And as such he falls in love. Giacomo Feo is the brother of the castellan of Rivaldino who had remained faithful to her: when they marry she has 27 years, he 20. They remain together for four years, probably despite the opposition of their children, probably the best for our heroine. Then, he too dies, killed in an ambush. It is the 1495. Caterina managed to protect her territory from the descent of the French and from the aims of the local nobles, but she can do nothing to defend her man.

Two years pass and such a passionate woman does not remain alone: ​​she falls in love and marries Giovanni de 'Medici, known as "Il Popolano", ambassador of the Florentine Republic. From the marriage a son is born, who is called Ludovico in honor of the Duke of Milan, but who later became famous with the name of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, father of Cosimo I. Time two years and in the middle of the wars with Venice, also " Il Popolano ”dies, due to the after-effects of a wound. Caterina is not distracted by the great pain and directs military maneuvers, she deals with the supply of soldiers, weapons and horses10. Needless to say, Caterina's army manages to get the better of the Venetians and convince them to turn away from Forlì and Imola. The name "Tigre di Forlì" was born.

In the end, Caterina has to fight with the largest (and ambitious) "son of a good woman" of the time: Cesare Borgia, born of one of the many relationships of Cardinal Borgia (now, Pope Alexander VI), to whom the woman leaves Imola and Forlì without fighting, locking himself up in the Rocca di Ravaldino. Obviously, Caterina does not yield to threats and flattery that ask her to surrender. He even puts a bounty on Cesare Borgia in response to the one he put on her: 10.000 ducats for both, living or dead. He also tries to take him prisoner, while he is near the fortress to treat. We say that the "Valentino", as the young Borgia is called, has bread for his teeth ... The solitary resistance of Caterina, bombed without pause by day and committed at night to rebuild and repair, becomes the object of admiration of the whole of Italy .

In the end, the overwhelming forces of the besiegers prevailed, but only by bombarding the walls of the fortress continuously, even at night, for six consecutive days, two large gates opened. The 12 January of the 1500 Catherine in arms tries a desperate resistance, but is soon taken prisoner.

It is the last battle: Caterina spent the last years of her life in Florence, in the properties of her third husband, devoting herself to Medicine, Alchemy and Cosmetics.

28 May 1509 dies11.

His clumsy pen handling

the humble author told the story,

the big ones in narrow spaces bordering

and shortening the path of their glory

(Henry V, fifth act)

1 Other great women of the sixteenth century came later: cousin Bona Sforza (later, queen of Poland and Grand Duchess of Lithuania) was born in 1494, Caterina de 'Medici (distant relative on the side of her third husband) in 1519, Maria of England in 1516 and her sister Elisabetta I Tudor in the 1533.

2 Later, legitimized, welcomed into the house and well liked even by the wife of the duke, Bona of Savoy.

3 They were reduced to being farmers.

4 It is probably she, then not even twenty years old, the Lady of the Jasmines of the famous portrait of Lorenzo di Credi.

5 Catherine has 16 years when her first child Octavian is born.

6 Girolamo had done everything possible not to impose it at Imola and Forlì before then.

7 Revenge for the death of her husband, according to the custom of the time, is relentless but also surprising. Order the arrest, but not the massacre of all the conspirators: among them the governor of the pope Monsignor Savelli, all the papal generals, the lord of the fortress of Forlimpopoli, for the fact that he had betrayed her, and also all the women of the Orsi family and of the other families who had supported the plot. Trustworthy soldiers and spies search everywhere, all over Romagna, anyone of the conspirators is, at first, managed to escape. The houses owned by the imprisoned are razed to the ground, while the precious objects are distributed to the poor. Catherine never ceases to amaze!

8 Monti, Renzi and Conte: if you are there, strike a blow!

9 When politicians tell us that they have to be fully served "because they don't have time to do everything like when they were ordinary citizens", obviously they don't tell us the right thing ...

10 The training of militias, let's remember, is performed by Caterina in person who, to find money and additional troops, never tires of writing to his uncle Ludovico, the Republic of Florence and the neighboring allied states.

11 Only the Forlì branches of Poste Italiane remembered the 500th anniversary of the death, issuing a stamp. It does not appear that Milan has in any way honored it in the 2013 for 550 years from birth.