Forlì, July 1499

Demonstrating a certain style and experience in administering diplomatic matters, Caterina proposed to the Florentines the renewal of the conduct for her son Ottaviano and the sending of a company of crossbowmen to the city on the Arno. The Florentines were interested in remaining on good terms with Sforza, despite the fact that they saw margins for negotiation for a reduction in the remuneration to be paid. For this reason they sent thirty years old Niccolò Machiavelli to Forlì, who arrived in Romagna on July 16, 1499.
After a long and fluctuating negotiation, Caterina decided to temporize further, instructing her secretary Antonio Baldraccani to be friendly towards Machiavelli. Baldraccani unofficially informed Machiavelli that if Florence was no longer interested in Octavian’s services, on the contrary Ludovico il Moro, who feared the imminent attack by the French, would have agreed to sign a contract for the young Octavian at a higher price, equal to that of the conduct previously agreed with the Florentines.
When Machiavelli thought he had reached the end of the negotiation, he was received by Caterina, who surprised him by telling him that during the night he had thought about it and had decided to wait for formal guarantees to arrive from Florence.
At the end of July, receiving a “no deal”, the Florentine ambassador sadly resumed his way home.
The agreement was then signed, under Caterina’s conditions, a month later in Florence, but the failure reported on that occasion by the author of The Prince, will tarnish his shining curriculum as a skilled negotiator.

In the meantime, Louis XII had risen to the throne of France, who boasted rights over the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples. In 1499 the transalpine ruler entered Italy, occupying Piedmont, Genoa and Cremona. He then took Milan, abandoned by Duke Ludovico who found refuge in Tyrol.

Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, had allied with Louis XII to obtain his support in the establishment of a kingdom for his son Cesare in Romagna. In exchange for the papal support for the French expedition to Italy to avenge the inheritance rights over the Duchy of Milan and the granting of the annulment of the marriage, the king of France would have helped Cesare Borgia to carry out the project of building a unitary state, eliminating then the small lordships. Part of this project was to nominate Cesare Borgia as vicar of Forlì and Imola. Doing this, the pope formally turned his back on Catherine. Under the leadership of Cesare Borgia, Duke Valentino, the French army set out to conquer Romagna. Caterina, to counter the Borgia army, prepared to defend her lordship: she enlisted and trained as many soldiers as she could, amassed weapons, ammunition and provisions, strengthened the defenses of the Rocca di Ravaldino. Moreover, in order to have nothing to lose in the battle, by eliminating any weak points to which the enemy could appeal to negotiate a possible surrender of the Lady of Forlì, she had her children leave for Florence.

One by one the cities of Romagna surrendered to Cesare Borgia. After taking possession of Forlì, the Valentino besieged Ravaldino. Between the end of 1499 and the beginning of 1500, the shelling continued for many days and nights, until, on January 12, the French managed to penetrate the fortress, killing most of the occupants. Catherine fought hard until she surrendered and she was put into prison.

“The defects in the construction of the fortress and the lack of prudence of those who defended it did not give the right emphasis to the countess’s spirited enterprise and although her efforts were not successful, Caterina nevertheless brought back the honor that had deserved her courage ”

[Niccolò Machiavelli, The art of war]

«Even after the defeat, however, the myth of Caterina Sforza, instead of cracking, expanded into a series of folk tales and songs that fed the myth of the virago of Forlì for centuries. (…) The people used to say: “When in Italy they believed that when Franzesi had to do with men, they found women, when they had to deal with women, they found men”. A statement that, in addition to giving credit to Catherine, recognizes the high moral stature and fighter of the other great women protagonists of the Italian Renaissance. Even the French soldiers wanted to honor the countess by calling their best culverine with the nickname of Madame de Fourly. The Italian soldiers at the bivouac, on the other hand, sang the Lamento di Caterina Sforza, composed by a certain Marsilio Compagnon, in a low voice. In this song, the Italians, united around the figure of the countess, were called to redeem and fight together to drive out the French invader. Ultimately, on 12 January 1500, the fall of Ravaldino marked the end of the earthly power of the lady of Forlì, but at the same time the beginning of her immortal legend “.

Marco Viroli, from“Caterina Sforza, leonessa di Romagna” (Il Ponte Vecchio, Cesena, 2008)

Fighting with the support of the French, Cesare Borgia had to deal with a transalpine law that forbade taking women as prisoners of war, so he had to limit himself to “imprisoning” Catherine, treating her formally as a guest.