“Listen to this disconsolate Caterina da Forlivo, abandoned, who faces a great war on the border without any help. I do not see any man who mounts armed on horse and then shows his strength to defend my state, the whole world is frightened when they hear Franza shouting and Italy’s might seems to have sunk. Ah! Italians are scared, I will come myself armed! I want to lose in the battle and die with honour… and before I go wasted with my children for the world and with shame I go to the bottom, first I want to be torn apart! Listen to this disconsolate Catherina from Forlivo .. “
[Marsilio Copagnon – ballad of 16th century]
Caterina Sforza, “the first woman of Italy”, has deep roots in the people’s memory and remains a common and shared heritage for all of Romagna.
In Forlì all the streets near the fortress, still popularly known today as the “Rocca di Caterina Sforza“, are named after the historical characters related to Caterina.
The traditional annual fair of Santa Caterina on 25 November, has historical origins in the homage of the city of Forlì to its lady, benefactress of the monastery of San Girolamo, which stood in the area where the festival is still held today.
“E’ smarì ‘d Catarnòn” is still a famous expression that Forlì people use to describe when someone pretends to be fake dumb. This dialect expression derives from the usual practice made by Sforza of sending their men on a spy mission. These men pretended to be foreigners and therefore did not understand the language at all or even pretended to be mentally retarded. Their purpose was to gather opinions about the city government or information about some conspiracy. The countess could be therefore constantly informed on the mood of the people and make decisions, intervening at the moment and in the most appropriate ways.
As the chroniclers reported, Caterina Sforza surpassed any other woman in fame and charm at that time. He was tall, with a bursting chest, large eyes and an imposing nose, slightly hooked, typical of the Romagna, and also of the Sforza, whose origins came from the commander Muzio Attandolo of Cotignola. She had wavy hair, usually tied behind her head. We do not know if she was really blonde and pale in complexion or if she aspired to be it, by using creams and remedies that she personally prepared and that she handed down to us in a precious volume entitled Experimenti de la Ecc.ma Signora Caterina da Furlj, a collection of recipes of cosmetics, medicine and alchemy that she herself passionately collected, which will be deepened in the final section.
“Caterina is one of the most beautiful women of our century, elegant in appearance and endowed with admirable shapes”
[Giacomo Felice Foresti da Bergamo]
Caterina was a woman who anticipated the times and who still today would run the risk of not being fully understood in her modernity. She was authoritarian, terrible, vengeful and merciless with traitors and enemies, quick in reasoning and sincere in speech, a wise ruler, educated but not academic, always eager to learn and curious to discover the secrets of nature, of the human being and the world.
She lived beyond the good and the bad, and should not be judged today for her anger or her brutal revenge, as a daughter of her times and because in fact she always moved with guile, wisdom and balance.
She really enjoyed her life, passing from the splendour of the Renaissance courts to the darkness of the papal prison, from the battlefields to the botanical gardens. She knew how to combine and balance the creative feminine aspect of motherhood with the destructive masculine aspect of fighting and war.
Caterina was born in Milan or Pavia between 1462 and 1463, illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Lucrezia Landriani, noblewoman of the court and wife of Gian Piero Landriani. Being the illegitimate daughter, as a custom of the time, she was recognized and admitted to the Sforza family, where she was raised and educated by her grandmother, Bianca Maria Visconti, who introduced her to the figure of her ancestor Muzio Attandolo Sforza, a great leader. Caterina became passionate about the “craft of arms” and horse riding.
Together with her brothers, she was educated at the refined Sforza court where she had the opportunity to receive a humanistic education, in an environment frequented by artists and writers of high cultural openness. She also studied the herbal medicine, pharmacy and alchemical art, as it was customary to educate these subjects to young women of her social class.
Catherine was about 10 years old when she had been given in marriage to Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, who was 30 years old. The wedding took place in Milan on January 17, 1473. A week later Girolamo Riario went to Rome, committing himself to return to take the young bride with him at the age of fourteen.
Four years later, it was Catherine who joined her husband, who was in the service of his uncle the pontiff. In the Eternal City she found a particularly lively cultural environment and, thanks to the education received and her amiable and casual ways of doing things, she actively participated in the aristocratic life of the papal court, where musicians, poets, philosophers and artists flocked from all over Europe.
Thanks to these skills, she quickly won the trust of Sixtus IV and became an authoritative intermediary between the Roman court and the Milan court of origin.
Meanwhile Girolamo, already lord of Imola since 1473, in 1480, after the death of Pino III Ordelaffi, also became lord of Forlì. With this new appointment of his nephew, Sixtus IV ensured the papal control over an area of great strategic commercial importance, represented at that time by the Via Emilia, which cuts across the city of Forlì.
Thanks to the resolute action of Caterina, the Riario Sforza family retained part of the privileges, they left Rome and moved to Forlì. In Romagna, however, Girolamo was not welcomed either by the population or by the nobles and became the object of continuous attacks against his person.
After initially abolishing many taxes, Riario was forced to reintroduce them to feed the coffers of the now empty lordship. The circumstances worsened when Girolamo started the construction of a Monte di Pietà, which should have been financed entirely by the Forlì nobility. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and started a further series of attacks on Girolamo. The last of these attacks scored on the evening of April 14, 1488, that was organized by the Orsi brothers, landowners. Girolamo was killed and thrown from the window of the Sala delle Ninfe in the Town Hall. After the murder of her husband, Caterina with a stratagem managed to lock herself up with her soldiers in the Rocca di Ravaldino. With the excuse of negotiating the surrender directly with his loyalists, who otherwise would not have given up the fortress, the symbol of the city, he asked for permission to enter, leaving his children in enemy hands, as a pledge of his good intentions. In reality Caterina was sure that no one would ever have the courage to twist a hair to her children who were the grandchildren of Ludovico il Moro and the late Pope Sixtus IV, took advantage of the situation, and from inside the fortress began the resistance, planning the attack to regain power.
At dawn on April 30, the conspirators had to leave the city, fearing an armed intervention by Ludovico il Moro, Catherine’s uncle. She thus became lady of Forlì, being a regent on behalf of the eldest son Octavian and her other five children.
Catherine’s seizure of power was accompanied by a long trail of blood and revenge. In particular, the lady of Forlì threw herself against the Orsi and ordered to destroy to the ground the large building owned by the family. This destruction went down in history with the name of “Guasto degli Orsi”.
Satisfied with the revenge, Caterina began to govern with great wisdom and prudence, remaining in a defensive position and never throwing herself into military adventures that could jeopardize the rights acquired by the family.
In this period of great serenity, in her new home called “Paradiso”, close to the fortress, where the love story with Giacomo Feo began. He was of humble origins and brother of the castellan of Ravaldino, the same person who had helped her to regain power after the death of her husband Girolamo. After having married Giacomo Feo in great secrecy, in order not to offend the sensibilities of his uncle Ludovico, he governed and managed power in a resolute manner, to the point of assuming an important role in the context of Italian politics.
The Feo from humble stable boy became the general governor. He was arrogant and to increase his vanity he was awarded with the title of baron by the king of France Charles VIII. There is no coincidence that Bernardino, the couple’s only son, was renamed Charles, to pay homage to the transalpine sovereign and to win his sympathies.
Giacomo Feo was an ambitious man and did not enjoy the consent of the people of Forlì, nor of Caterina’s children who saw him as a usurper of their power. Thus, it was that even the second husband of Caterina became the object of secret conspiracies that led to her death, in an attack planned on the evening of 27 August 1495 at the Ponte dei Morattini.
As in the past, in the months following the death of Giacomo Feo, Caterina carried out a series of personal revenge and retaliation against the families of her political rivals, even ordering the killing of women, old people and children belonging to the families, who had not been loyal to her.
“Caterina’s ferocity has exceeded all limits, it seems that all of Romagna raises its cries to heaven”
[Francesco Tranchedini, a letter to Ludovico il Moro]
In 1496 Giovanni de ‘Medici, known as il Popolano, arrived at the court of Caterina as ambassador of the Republic of Florence. The Florentine nobleman came personally to manage an agreement for the purchase of Romagna wheat. Il Popolano was hosted in the rooms of the “Paradiso” and there was a large number of opportunities to spend time with the landlady. In short, a great love blossomed between those two that led the lady from Forlì to her third marriage. On 6 April 1498 Ludovico was born in Ravaldino, who was named after his uncle from Milan, to try to calm Moro’s discontent towards this union. Ludovico will then go down in history with the name of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere.
After the birth of her eighth child, Caterina had to deal with the worsening of the situation between Venice and Florence, since the territories over which she ruled are located on the passageways of the two armies. Moreover, Giovanni de ‘Medici fell seriously ill and, when his conditions worsened, he was transferred to Santa Maria in Bagno (now a hamlet of Bagno di Romagna), in the hope that the thermal waters could heal him. On 14 September 1498, however, Giovanni died with Caterina at her bedside.
The union between the Medici and the Sforza gives origin to the Medici grand ducal dynastic line. In fact, from the marriage of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere with Maria Salviati (daughter of Lucrezia de ‘Medici, of the main Medici branch), Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, was born in 1519. The Medici line of succession lasted over two centuries, until 1743, extinguishing with Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici.
After the death of her third husband, Caterina returned to take care of the defense of the Lordship of Imola and Forlì. She personally directed the military maneuvers, training and procurement of soldiers, weapons and horses. A first attack by the army of Venice inflicted heavy losses on Caterina’s army, who still managed to get the better of the Venetians. Among these were also Antonio Ordelaffi and Taddeo Manfredi, descendants of the families that had governed Forlì and Imola respectively before the Riario.
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.
Caterina enjoyed this privilege during her “imprisonment” in Forlì, however, once in Rome, Cesare Borgia took the Countess Riario Sforza to Castel Sant’Angelo. She remained imprisoned there until June 30, 1501, until she was freed thanks to the intervention of the French general Yves d’Allègre who, passing through Rome and discovered Catherine’s imprisonment, enforced the French law described above. The Borgias, however, had the foresight to have Caterina sign a document where she definitively renounced the lordship of Imola and Forlì. She reached Florence by sea, where she was reunited with her children.
She spent the last years of her life in the Medici villa, called Castello and in the other residences owned by the family of her husband Giovanni. She died in Florence on May 28, 1509, at the age of forty-six: she had velvet skin and blond hair.
Her body was buried in the monastery of the Murate in Florence, in front of the main altar. Her nephew Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, subsequently had placed a plaque on her tomb, however today no trace of the tomb of Catherine remains.