A Beautiful Medieval Mind: Caterina Sforza

When living history participants talk about the medieval mindset what do you think they mean? As a mundane sociologist I have long been fascinated with other mindsets or “points of view”. I have often studied the languages, customs, literature, biographies, and history of a target culture to get an understanding of how they think and why. This information can come from history books or scholarly articles but many times you only get the full sense when you find primary sources penned by those in and around the culture. When I approached the idea of developing a book of secrets in persona I immediately wanted to model it after a book of alchemy, medicine, and beauty written by Caterina Sforza.

I had come across the text of her 16th century manuscript from the University of Pavia webpages of Professor Patrizia Catellani. Professor Catellani is a renowned scholar of alchemy and herbalism and I trust that her transcription is accurate. I had already read a great deal about Caterina Sforza; Renaissance biographies, modern accounts of her life and times, and even letters written by her own hand. Once I started to compile the book, a Still Room Book of sorts, I thought it might be a good idea to take the time and really step into the shoes of 16th Century woman while penning the book. I could create a completely separate book and accompany it with a research paper to show the “why” behind concept and parts. This would help me stay in that “medieval mindset”(which really, for my persona, is a Renaissance mindset, but you understand that I’m using a common SCA term). I know how we organize essays and articles and books today. I know how it feels to write from a 21st Century point of view. What I had not ever done is write a manuscript from a 16th Century point of view. This is going to be fun!!

The first steps I’ve taken are to go back and look over my books on Caterina Sforza and then peruse the internet to see if there are digitally scanned copies of more primary sources in Italian or translated into English. I found quite a few. All good stories start at the beginning, so as I’m wrapping my mind around what is was like to live then, travel then, marry then, experiment with herbs and chemicals then, and compile that information for other women to benefit then, I will start with telling you the history and details of Caterina’s life. In these paragraphs you will read a description of events and items that you can use in your living history endeavors I hope you enjoy this description of Caterina Part I.

Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo di Credi (ca. 1482)

Caterina Sforza (b. 1463) was an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan Galeazzo Sforza and his first love, Lucretia Landini. Caterina was adopted by Galeazzo and Duchess Bona of Savoy (married in 1468) after the death of her doting paternal Grandmother and caretaker, Bianca Sforza. Caterina was raised along with Galeazzo and Bona’s six natural children. Italian princesses of the cinquecento and seicento were typically educated alongside their brothers. They studied the classics, contemporary Italian and Latin verse, languages, music, and philosophy.

The Sforza’s, a family known for their prowess in combat and who rose to power as condottieri, also had their children schooled in martial arts and caccia (sports), sons and daughters alike. After all, their grandmother Bianca was known for her grace and beauty but also for leading troops into battle when necessary in her husband’s absence. Bianca was also known for her intelligence and fair but firm rulership of Milan at her husbands side as equals when he was present and with full sovereign authority when he was away. Caterina’s father and stepmother wanted their children to be able to do the same, regardless of gender.

Caterina also traveled with her father as a child. They visited their fellow, but rival, city-states (Genoa, Savoy, Florence) and dazzled them all with their extravagant and bold attire and personalities. When Caterina visited Florence in 1471 she certainly could not have known that she and the Medici would be linked for the rest of her life. She would become a member of a family who were enemies of the Medici, be a witness to her husbands conspiracy against and punishment by the Medici, give a son in service to the Florentine Republic, entertain Niccolo Machiavelli, take a Medici as her final love, and find her resting place as a widow in Florence. At the time ,though, her visit was simply part of her studies; being exposed to bordering nations, and receiving training to interact with other nobles.

Italian City-States circa 1499

Back at Milan in 1472 she witnessed the arrival of Girolamo Riario, nephew of the soon-to-be-pope. The Riario’s wanted an alliance with their Milanese enemies, and what better way to achieve that than a marriage. Caterina’s 11-year-old cousin was pledged to Girolamo but when he arrived and attempted to assert his right to bed the girl her mother refused because she had not reached the acceptable age for consummation (14). Galeazzo and Bona saw the opportunity for their daughter and offered 10 year old Caterina to him. Satisfied with the physical sample of the girl, Girolamo returned to Rome. The bridegrooms gifts were consigned on 26 February 1473 and consisted of; 2 dresses (one of gold brocade, the other of green velvet embroidered and embellished with 1538 small pearls and the same number of large ones), 2 thimbles set with diamonds, a jeweled pheasant brooch with emeralds and sapphires, two diamond and pearl studded crosses, a purse of gold, 7 girdles set in silver, and 2 sets of brocade sleeves. Her dowry was paid at 10,000 ducats.

When Cardinal Della Rovere became Pope Sixtus IV in September of 1473 he was so determined to make a strong alliance in the northwest that he bought Imola and it’s countryside (for 40,000 ducats) from Milan to be ruled by his Girolamo and the bride Caterina. He also decreed that the earnings from the forest of Alexandria be given to Caterina yearly as a counter-dowry. Caterina lived at home during home during the first few years of her marriage waiting for her husband to give her the order to join him in Rome. On Saint Stephan’s Day (December 26) 1476 Caterina’s father was murdered by three conspirators just before mass as he entered the church. Caterina was distraught, but held up. Her stepmother secured the safety of the children in her home before ensuring justice was found for all who had taken part in the ambush.

A letter written by Caterina’s own hand

The murder of Galeazzo Sforza prompted the Duchess Bona clan took action to ensure Caterina’s safety by sending her to Imola. Caterina traveled to take residence in Imola on 1 May 1477. She entered the city before sunset to receive the keys from the old men of the council. Griolamo’s sister had been residing in his stead as governor of Imola until this point. When Caterina arrived in Imola she was greeted by decorations all along the streets. From the city gates to the palace doors there were the arms of the pope, the Sforza’s, and the Riario’s, garlanded with flowers. Allegorical groups met them in the streets reciting verses and sonnets. Many-colored draperies, banners, and heraldic displays had been erected and all led to a huge pavilion at the palace where Caterina dismounted and was led to the doors. The palace has been furnished with beautiful tapestries embroidered with silver and gold. The wall hangings were crimson velvet, satin, and white damask silks. A credenza of great height had arrived as a gift from the pope and it was on display to showcase it’s wrought silver metalwork.

A letter written by Girolamo’s own hand

Girolamo had remained in Rome attending the pope so Caterina set off to visit him there. She and her entourage rode to Castello Novo, about 14 miles outside Rome. From there they met with Griolamo’s riding party, probably to assist with safe passage as the populace of Rome was “hungry, malaria-ridden, and seditious” and violence in the streets was commonplace. They brought the group to the palace of the Cardinal of Urbino in Monte Mario just outside the city. The next day was Pentecost so she and her entourage arrived at St. Peter’s to meet the pope and take Mass. Caterina wore the pearl necklace Girolamo had gifted her with a pendant jewel worth 5,000 ducats, a cloak of black damask and gold brocade, a gamurra of crimson satin, and sleeves of black brocade embellished with jewels. Up one meeting the pope she curtsied and kissed his feet, then Bossi, orator of the Duke of Milan, recited a flattering list of her virtues and accomplishments in Latin. With that, the pope was so charmed that he complimented her and bade her to take off the necklace that Girolamo had given her the day before, replacing it with one set with precious gems worth 4,000 ducats.

After the ceremony they rode in procession about two miles to the palace of Cardinal Orsini in Campo di Fiore. They were greeted with congratulatory crowds along the way, woolen draperies and banners displaying their arms, perfumed being burned in the streets, a child dressed as an angel bidding them welcome and announcing in rhyme that dinner would be ready at the 17th hour. As they entered the dining hall water for the hands was given to each guest, and then the 22-course meal began. After every 5 courses an announcement of the next courses was made followed by a dance (e.g. Moresca), a rime performed by children pulled in a magnificent cart, or a classical costumed play with figures such as Hercules and Medusa occurred.

This was her life; by just 14 years of age she was an able ambassador from the Sforza of Milan, a darling of Rome, Duchess of Imola, and wife to the nephew of the most powerful man in the Peninsula. Fabio Oliva wrote this about her entrance into the Holy City: “That which was most remarkable in the diversity and multiplicity of spectacles was the rare and almost incomparable beauty of Caterina and her almost miraculous grace…”


2 thoughts on “A Beautiful Medieval Mind: Caterina Sforza

  1. I like very much your blog and i like to study with your articles
    I wanted to ask if you know about Beatrice d’Este? did you know where i could read her full letters?
    thank you

    1. I am not sure where most of her letters would be cataloged online. I have read excerpts of many of her sister’s letters. I found the first excerpts of Isabella’s letters in a book by Julia Cartwright. Lady Cartwright also wrote about Beatrice, so perhaps you could start with a search for her book and for other books that reference her book on Beatrice. Happy hunting!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s