Caterina’s fortunes began to take shape early in 1473 when the ten-year-old girl was betrothed to Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. Between the time of his betrothal and marriage, Girolamo gained possession of the city of Imola, inherited his older brother’s wealth, and, more important, became the padrone della barca vaticana (“the captain of the Vatican ship of state”)–more prosaically, he became the “designer and executor of papal policies.”
When Galeazzo Maria Sforza was assassinated in 1476, the pope and his nephew, eager to protect their relationship with the city of Milan, moved quickly to press forward their alliance with the Sforza family. The fourteen-year-old Caterina was married by proxy to Girolamo in January 1477 and left the ducal palace of Milan to join her new husband in late April; she stopped briefly in the Riario city of Imola, leaving on 13 May. By the end of May, she had arrived in Rome.
Ernst Breisach, who also wrote a biography of Caterina Sforza, regards her years in Rome as her “apprenticeship in quattrocento politics.” While in the papal city the young Caterina observed Girolamo’s “partial authorship” of the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici of Florence, witnessed the resulting war that engulfed the Italian states, and benefited from her ambitious husband’s acquisition of the strategically located city of Forlì. During this “apprenticeship” period, Caterina provided Girolamo with an heir, managed the Riario estates, and cultivated personal relationships in pursuit of Riario interests, both political and economic.
Marriage, motherhood, maintaining and manipulating important family relationships and personal contacts: these were the obligations and responsibilities expected of women in her social position. But Caterina’s role developed in an unexpected way as a result of her political “apprenticeship.” In Pasolini’s words, she soon realized that her husband “lacked courage”; in her “bitterness of humiliation,” Caterina, as a true “woman of the house of Sforza,” was forced to become “ruthless” and “formidable” in her desire to protect her son’s future.
To this end, in 1483, Caterina found a new occupation. While helping Girolamo gather arms and men in preparation for a threatened war, Breisach reports that Caterina “soon commanded enormous respect”; she also commanded fear, learning what she could accomplish by her “iron discipline cruelly enforced.” Her martial activity seems not only to have stimulated her but to have defined her in some essential way. Within months, the effect of her transformation was evident.
On 12 August 1484 Sixtus IV died. On hearing the news of the death of his uncle and patron, Girolamo immediately lifted his siege of the city of Paliano, moving quickly toward Rome. Caterina, who had been living near Girolamo and his troops, also headed for Rome; seven months pregnant, she travelled on horseback. While Girolamo was halted outside the city, denied entry, Caterina rode directly to the Castle Sant’Angelo. She entered the fortress, “standing on her reputation,” and had the gates closed behind her. There, “very brave,” she announced her intention; she would hold the fortress until the election of a new pope.
Although a woman–and a pregnant woman, at that–she nonetheless compelled admiration and, more important, obedience. A contemporary observer described her:
Wise, brave, tall, fine-complected, well-made, speaking little, she wore a dress of satin a with train of two-arms’ length, a black velvet hat in the French fashion, a man’s belt and a purse full of gold ducats, a curved falchion at her side; and among the footsoldiers and the horsemen she was much feared because, when she had a weapon in her hand, she was fierce and cruel.
When urged to compromise, to leave the fortress to resolve the situation or to allow an advisor entrance to talk with her, she responded that they should know that she had “the brains of Duke Galeazzo,” her father–and that she possessed a spirit like his as well. She would not surrender.
Ultimately, of course, she did surrender the castle, but not until 25 August, after her husband had been assured that he would retain his possession of Imola and Forlì. Eleven days after seizing the castle, Caterina left it. About the conclusion of the affair, Breisach remarks, “A virago emerged from the Castel Sant’Angelo where a young gentlewoman had entered only days before.” At least in part this assessment of her action seems to reflect the attitudes of Caterina’s contemporaries: she challenged notions of appropriate female behavior.
|Georgio Vasari’s portrait of
Caterina Sforza, 1555
Girolamo’s rights to Riario possessions in Romagna were confirmed as promised, but he was plagued by financial difficulties and ill health. As her husband’s strength failed, Caterina’s seemed to grow. By 1487, when the fortress of Ravaldino was captured by conspirators, the governor of Forlì sent word not to Girolamo but to Caterina. She did not hesitate.
Pregnant once again, she nevertheless mounted a horse and rode from Imola to Forlì. She was refused entrance to Ravaldino at first, but she effected the surrender of the fortress after three days of negotiations. With Ravaldino once more in her possession, she appointed a new castellan, Tommaso Feo. She returned to Imola immediately, once again by horseback. The day after her return, she gave birth to her seventh child.
There was trouble again in Forlì several months later when enemies of the Riario briefly took control of one of the towers of the city. The governor had regained control of the tower before Caterina arrived. This time she came to judge, not to negotiate; Girolamo had delegated his wife to act for him in Forlì. The conspirators were interrogated in her presence, and she had the authority to condemn them or to pardon them. They were condemned, executed in public, their heads displayed as a warning to others who might contemplate rebellion. According to one contemporary chronicler, “This lady left the fortress as true ambassador of the count her husband, and as a lady of great justice,” one who had acted “not by force but by reason.”
Several months later Caterina and her family were in residence in Forlì when, on 14 April 1484, Girolamo’s enemies stabbed him to death in his own hall after dinner. A horrified witness to the murder ran at once to warn Caterina, who quickly dispatched messengers to her uncle in Milan and to allies in Bologna and sent orders to Tommaso Feo not to surrender the fortress of Ravaldino for any reason. She barricaded herself and her children into her apartments, but the doors eventually gave way, and Caterina was taken prisoner by the conspirators who had assassinated her husband.
Control of the city was eventually placed in the hands of Giovanni Battista Savelli, papal governor of the nearby city of Cesena. In a meeting he arranged with Caterina, Savelli counseled her to return to Imola and to renounce any claims she might make to Forlì on her son’s behalf. Caterina refused Savelli’s advice. Twice she was taken by Riario enemies to the walls of Ravaldino where she “ordered” Feo to surrender the castle: “Surrender the fortress to them so that I will not be killed with all my children,” she pleaded. “They will assassinate me.” But Feo remembered her original message and stood firm. “I will surrender to no one,” he replied. Frustrated, one of the men holding Caterina threatened her, pressing the point of his weapon to her chest. She responded “quietly”: “Do not try to frighten me–do what you will, but do not try to frighten me, because I am the daughter of one who had no fear.”
On 16 April Caterina was taken to the fortress for the third time. This time the castellan indicated that he would surrender–if he could first have a private interview with Caterina inside Ravaldino. Although suspicious, Savelli and the council of the city agreed to the meeting because they still held her children as hostages. Caterina entered the fortress.
Once inside Ravaldino, Caterina did not return–not at the end of the three hours she had been granted for her meeting with Tommaso Feo, not at the protests of the citizens who had accompanied her, not after her children were dragged crying to the moat surrounding the fortress. What is clear is that Caterina had no intention of surrendering Ravaldino to her enemies. What is less clear is exactly was she said and did once inside.
|This portrait by Lorenzo di Credi, c. 1480, is
frequently said to be of Caterina Sforza,
though the identification is not certain
Contemporary accounts indicate that Caterina refused to submit to her husband’s assassins. When they threatened to kill her children, held as hostages, she responded that she was pregnant once more, another child already growing inside her body. Within a relatively short time, however, accounts of Caterina’s reply to her enemies were transformed, the incident metamorphosing into what Pasolini describes as “the legend of the fortress.” Among the earliest of these “legendary” accounts is recorded by Niccolò Machiavelli:
Some Forlì conspirators killed Count Girolamo, their lord, and took his wife and his children, who were small. Since it appeared to them that they could not live secure if they did not become masters of the fortress, and the castellan was not willing to give it to them, Madonna Caterina (so the countess was called) promised the conspirators that if they let her enter it, she would deliver it to them and they might keep her children with them as hostages. Under this faith they let her enter it. As soon as she was inside, she reproved them from the walls for the death of her husband and threatened them with every kind of revenge. And to show that she did not care for her children, she showed them her genital parts, saying that she still had the mode for making more of them.
Ultimately, the “legend of the fortress” came to include the very words Caterina was supposed to have said as she challenged her enemies. In his account of the incident, for example, the Florentine diplomat and historian Guicciardini reported that, when one of the conspirators threatened her children with a knife, Caterina lifted her skirts and cried out, “And isn’t it obvious to you, fools, that I have the body with which to make others?”
Whatever Caterina said and did at that moment on the ramparts of the fortress of Ravaldino, her enemies did not convince her to surrender to them by threatening her children. The stalemate lasted for two weeks. Contemporary chroniclers note the uneasiness of the people of Forlì on 29 April: “And on that day the people started to murmur and to fear and to wonder that the envoys sent to the pope had returned no word and no succor.” Sensing the mood of the people, Caterina had messages shot into the city:
My people, people of Forlì! I tell you to punish and kill all enemies. For it I will consider you my good brothers for evermore. Do not hesitate to act, and fear nothing, because the deed will benefit you and your children. And if you fail to act you will regret it in a few days.
When the conspirators realized that they had lost popular support, they decided to kill the Riario children, perhaps to enrage Caterina, who might be tempted into revenging herself on the people of Forlì, turning them against her. But the guards into whose care the children had been placed refused to turn them over to the conspirators. In desperation, the assassins rode out of the city. The people of Forlì filled the streets, raising cries of “Duca! Duca! Ottaviano! Ottaviano!” But, the chroniclers reported, many of the men and women began to “behave badly,” threatening yet another sack of a city that had been in turmoil for two weeks. A voice was heard rising above the crowd, warning them against more violence because “Madonna would not wish it.” And, for the “honor of the merciful and kind lady,” it was reported, the people did no “evil.” To the cries of “Duca! Duca! Ottaviano! Ottaviano!” were added cries of “Duca! Duca! Contessa! Contessa!”
On 30 April 1488, two weeks after the assassination of her husband Girolamo Riario, Caterina Sforza left the fortress of Ravaldino, where she had taken refuge, and was reunited with her children. She made a triumphal tour of the city of Forlì with her eight-year-old son Ottaviano, Girolamo’s heir. Within days her husband’s assassins had been hunted down and punished, and Caterina had received a delegation from the citizens of Imola, another Riario possession, reaffirming their loyalty to her and her children. Although she had become the effective ruler of both Imola and Forlì, she herself had no legal right to govern these strategically located Italian cities. In an effort to remedy that situation, Caterina compelled the men of Forlì to swear an oath of allegiance to their “new lord,” Ottaviano–and to her as his temporary regent. With her “merciful heart” she gave her thanks to all “as soon as it was possible”–all, that is, but her enemies. Those who had supported the conspirators were hunted down and punished.
To offer his counsel to Caterina, and perhaps to supervise a woman who was not entirely trusted, Cardinal Raffaello Riario, Girolamo’s nephew, travelled to Forlì. Also arriving in the city from Milan was an advisor sent by Caterina’s uncle, Ludovico Sforza, who had his own reasons for offering to “protect” Ottaviano’s interests: He expected to control the city himself. In a letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici, one of Ludovico’s advisors wrote that “because the Contessa is . . . the sister of the duke [of Milan] and [because] the boy [Ottaviano] is small, it shall fall to us, in the end, to govern that state until he is grown.” By August a bull from Rome had also arrived in Forlì, vesting control of Girolamo’s possessions in the young Riario heir. The bull named Caterina as Ottaviano’s tutrice et curatrice, that is, as his guardian and trustee.
Her triumph was relatively short-lived; within months opinion of Madonna had begun to shift. As the courageous daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, as the loyal wife of Girolamo Riario, and as the strong mother of Ottaviano, Caterina was “very brave,” even “merciful and kind.” Though she could be “fierce and cruel,” her fierceness and cruelty were understood, even approved. As her father’s daughter, she represented Sforza interests; as Girolamo’s wife, she defended Riario interests; as Ottaviano’s mother, she preserved her son’s interests. But once she came to power as regent in Imola and Forlì, she seemed to act in her own interests. Accounts of her rule–and of her nature–shift, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.
Ludovico Sforza, her uncle, disparaged her “disorderly” way of life; the pope ultimately condemned her as a “daughter of iniquity.” The events that resulted in such changed attitudes can be narrated fairly briefly. Having established her position in Imola and Forlì, Caterina heeded the advice of both Rafaello Riario and the advisor sent by Ludovico Sforza, pursuing a policy of moderation. She reduced taxes, skillfully avoided being drawn into hostilities between Florence and Milan, and conducted business with the Bentivogli of Bologna, the Este of Ferrara, the Gonzaga of Mantua, and the Orsini of Rome. But these political decisions are not what affected Caterina’s reputation. Attitudes toward the regent of Imola and Forlì changed as the result of her sexual behavior, rather than her political abilities.
Caterina’s relationship with Antonio Maria Ordelaffi developed in the summer of 1489, more than a year after her husband’s death. The Ordelaffi family had ruled Forlì before the city was handed over to Girolamo Riario, and an alliance with the Ordelaffi might thus seem an acceptable solution for ongoing tensions in Forlì: Caterina was a twenty-six-year-old widow, Antonio Maria the twenty-nine-year-old heir of the Ordelaffi. The prospect of a marriage between the two was celebrated by the people of Forlì. But, in condemning his niece’s “disorderly” manner of living, Ludovico Sforza seemed to fear a loss of interest in the strategic city. His letter notes papal interest in the affair; he warns that Innocent VIII (Giovanni Battista Cibo) might remove the city from the Riario and put it in the control of his own son, Franceschetto Cibo. Ultimately, the affair was broken up. In an effort to preserve Riario interests, Cardinal Raffaelo Riario arranged for Ordelaffi’s removal from “danger” to safety in Venice.
In 1490 Caterina confounded her critics by consolidating her power–and asserting what Antonia Frasier has called her “sexual freedom of choice.” Her first move was against her once-loyal castellan Tommaso Feo, who had helped to effect Ordellafi’s removal. On 30 August she entered Ravaldino with Tommaso’s younger brother, Giacomo, and her son Ottaviano. Offended by what she called Tommaso’s “indecent behavior,” she had her castellan arrested. Caterina described what had happened in a letter to the duke of Ferrara:
Today at the fourteenth hour it was necessary to proceed with all firmness at my disposal against Tommaso Feo who had been my castellan in said fortress and who during all of today has shown an indecent behavior toward me; thus I had to take him prisoner.
The chronicle accounts, including that of the now antagonistic Cobelli, describe the series of events in Ravaldino as entrapment: Caterina entered the fortress dressed provocatively and deliberately lured Feo into her apartment. But in a confidential letter about the incident, the governor of Caterina’s city of Imola notes only that Caterina had acted against Tommaso Feo in concert with her new lover, Tommaso’s brother Giacomo.
|The fortress of Ravaldino, in Forlì
Caterina appointed Giacomo Feo as the new castellan of Ravaldino. In the months that followed, Caterina restored the governing councils of Forlì and relieved the people of the city of an annual tax that supported soldiers who had occupied the city since the assassination of Girolamo in 1488. But Caterina’s relationship with Giacomo scandalized her contemporaries. He was despised for his arrogance and hated for his influence over Caterina. Diplomatic reports to Florence indicate that the two shared “one sentiment”: “without [his] presence [she] does not speak; in fact, that which Madonnna says Giacomo confirms, and [vice versa].” Indeed, “they will bear any fate, and Madonna will sacrifice her friends and children and property; they will give their souls to the devil and the state to the Turk before abandoning one another or being separated from one another.”
In spite of her involvement with Feo and despite the disapproval of her contemporaries, Caterina maintained her control of Imola and Forlì and the neutrality of her cities during the tumultuous events of this same period: a conspiracy against Ottaviano in September 1491, Ludovico’s usurpation of power in Milan, and the French invasion of Italy in 1494. Giacomo Feo was brutally assassinated in August of 1495, however, and Caterina’s own sons, Ottaviano and Cesare, were among the conspirators. Caterina then revealed that Giacomo had been more than her lover; she had been secretly married to him. Her vengeance against those responsible for Giacomo’s death was swift and brutal. Through all the conflict and its aftermath, Caterina survived in power.
A year after Giacomo’s assassination, Caterina’s “appetite” once more shocked her contemporaries. In October of 1496 a Milanese diplomat reported to Ludovico Sforza that Caterina planned to marry Giovanni de’ Medici. While her proposed alliance with the Medici of Florence might disrupt the delicate balance of power in Italy, the relationship was not discussed in terms of its political implications. Instead, it was reported in terms of Caterina’s nature as a woman. The Milanese diplomat reporting Caterina’s plan to her uncle Ludovico Sforza wrote that the match was intended “to satisfy her appetite.” Venetian officials, too, professed shock at her behavior. While noting that “the nature of the female sex excuses her,” the Doge nevertheless condemned her conduct, concluding that her failures and mistakes could not be allowed to continue.
Ludovico Sforza received a series of letters about his niece and her relationship. Francesco Tranchedini was able to tell the new duke of Milan about the “many caresses” and “great honors” Caterina bestowed on Giovanni, but he failed to sort out the exact nature of their connection. In January 1497, months after he began reporting to Milan, Franchedini sent a third- or fourth-hand account to Ludovico Sforza; a Florentine who was “very familiar” with Giovanni de’ Medici had told Giovanni Bentivoglio of Bologna that Giovanni de’ Medici had told him he had married Caterina and that they were keeping their marriage secret. Tranchedi closed his letter on a note of frustration: “cursed is the man who trusts in men,” he noted, but even more unfortunate, is the man who trusts “in women.”
Caterina’s political position was a difficult one. It was acceptable for the duke of Milan to take a mistress; it was not acceptable for the lady of Forlì to take a lover. Just as she had kept her marriage with Giacomo Feo secret, she kept the nature of her relationship with Giovanni de’ Medici secret: to admit her marriage would be to place her position as regent for Ottaviano in jeopardy. Complicating her effort to maintain secrecy was another pregnancy. Caterina and Giovanni de’ Medici were probably married before the birth of their son in April 1498.
Throughout the period of her marriage to Giovanni de’ Medici, Caterina fortified her possessions in Imola and Forlì; work on the fortress of Bubano was completed in 1497. She skillfully negotiated her way out of a proposal from the Gonzaga of Mantua for a marital alliance with her son Ottaviano. More difficult to refuse was a proposal for an alliance between Ottaviano and Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Imola and Forlì were papal territories, the pope Caterina’s overlord. But Ottaviano’s marriage would have necessitated a loss of her position as regent of Imola and Forlì; she would have to relinquish her position in favor of Ottaviano. Caterina avoided the Borgia proposal by claiming that the subject of Ottaviano’s marriage would have to be delayed so that the young man could dedicate himself to his preparation as a soldier.
War also threatened Caterina’s position. Florence’s effort to regain control of the city of Pisa endangered the strategically located cities of Imola and Forlì; at the outset of the conflict, Venice and Milan cooperated, sending help to the Pisans as they fought against Florence. Eventually, however, their cooperation ended; if Venice attacked Florence directly, Caterina’s position in Romagna put her in the middle of the conflict. Although she pleaded her neutrality, Venetian mercenaries raided her territories. She received support–of a kind–from Florence, which granted her citizenship and employed her son Ottaviano as a mercenary. Lodovico Sforza sent an advisor and troops. Caterina wrote to him that “war is not for ladies and children like mine.” “If I might be more fearful than [is] desirable,” she apologized, “your excellency must ascribe that to my being a lady . . . and thus by nature fearful.”
Given her own past, it is hard to accept her Caterina’s characterization of herself as “fearful” by nature. Certainly she was not fearful when she learned that her husband Giovanni’s illness, which had kept him from any prominent role in the conflict, had grown more serious. On 15 September she once again undertook an arduous journey on horseback, but she did not reach her husband before he died. Since she had never formally acknowledged her marriage to Giovanni de’ Medici, she neither announced the death nor received condolences. Although Venice continued to threaten, soldiers even approaching the city, Forlì ultimately escaped without a direct assault. By spring of 1499 a peace treaty ended the hostilities between Venice and Florence, and Caterina’s cities were left in peace. But peace would not remain for long: The French king, Louis XII, invaded Italy.
Some years earlier, in 1494, Charles VIII of France had invaded Italy, claiming to be the rightful king of Naples. He was encouraged, at least initially, by Ludovico Sforza. In response to the French king’s successes, Venice had joined with Ferdinand of Aragon and the Emperor Maximilian to form the League of Venice and to expel the French invaders. After the 1495 battle of Fornovo, Charles had left Italy, but France had not abandoned its ambitions. Charles died in April of 1498, and Louis, his nephew and successor, had his own reasons for invading Italy. On his succession, he claimed title not only to France but to Sicily and to Milan.
In return for territory in the Po Valley, Venice aligned itself with France; the treaty of Blois was signed in February 1499. To secure papal support, the new French king arranged an advantageous match for the pope’s son, Cesare Borgia, with Charlotte d’Albret, a Navarrese princess. Louis also promised to return control of papal possessions–including Imola and Forlì–to Alexander VI. In a papal bull issued on 9 March 1499, Cesare Borgia was invested with the cities of Imola and Forlì along with other papal territories that had been granted to the Riario. The same bull condemned Caterina Sforza as a “daughter of iniquity.”
In 1499, then, as the Italian cities prepared for a renewed French invasion, Caterina moved to solidify her alliances. Her support for her uncle in Milan was firm. Her overtures to Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence resulted in a visit from a Florentine envoy on his first diplomatic mission, Niccolò Machiavelli, who met with Caterina three times between 16 July and 24 July. He sent a favorable report back to Florence, recommending payments to her for past services and a new contract for Ottaviano–but Machiavelli was not authorized to grant her what she wanted, assurances of a Florentine alliance. Even so, Caterina maintained contact with Lorenzo de’ Medici, negotiating with him over the return of her late husband Giovanni’s possessions, over money Lorenzo had borrowed from Caterina and Ottaviano, and over the guardianship of the son she had borne Giovanni.
Although she did not get the alliance with Florence that she had wanted, Caterina still had the support of her uncle in Milan. But by the end of August, Ludovico Sforza had fled from the city, taking refuge with the Emperor Maximilian. In October Louis XII was in Milan. Caterina had not been entirely abandoned; although unable or unwilling to support her openly, Florence did attempt to offer her aid, trying to arrange a treaty for mutual defense for her with, among others, Bologna and Ferrara. The city also offered her refuge; perhaps, at some point in the future, she might be reinstated in her possessions. But Caterina made a different choice. A year earlier, in the letter quoted at the beginning of this chapter, Caterina had written to her uncle in Milan about her intentions: “If I have to lose,” she had said, “I want to lose in a manly way.” In the event, Caterina did not react in “a manly way”: her uncle Lodovico Sforza had already fled, and her kinsman Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro, would soon abandon his possessions as well. Unlike these men, Caterina would not flee. Nor would she surrender.
Instead she prepared the city of Forlì to withstand a siege. She also sent a delegation to Alexander VI requesting a compromise. She may have sent more than letters; it was widely reported that her letters had been treated with a poison intended to kill the pope. The Florentines, who had offered her a refuge, were accused of having aided Caterina; in a papal brief sent to Florence on 21 November 1499, she was again condemned, this time as a “daughter of perdition,” for her supposed attempt on Alexander VI’s life.
Despite her preparations and despite her son Ottaviano’s efforts to ensure Imola’s loyalty, that city surrendered to Cesare Borgia on 25 November without offering any resistance. The fortress of Imola held out for some time, however; the castellan finally surrendered on 11 December. Undaunted, Caterina determined to “show the Borgia that a woman, too, can handle artillery.” She sent her son Ottaviano to join her other children in Tuscany and set about final preparations in Forlì, attempting to solidify the citizens’ support for her, destroying bridges around the city, and provisioning Ravaldino. She finally withdrew into the fortress with some nine hundred soldiers, advisors, and relatives.
While Caterina was prepared to resist, the citizens of Forlì were not. Despite Caterina’s efforts to ensure their loyalty, the citizens decided to surrender to Cesare even before he reached the city. On 18 December a document was sent from Forlì to Cesare offering the city’s capitulation; it was signed at once. Cesare Borgia entered the city the next day, 19 December. Although the citizens of Forlì had hoped to avoid the destruction of a siege, their surrender did not, in the end, spare them. Instead, Cesare’s troops looted the city.
Then the siege began. When Christmas came and Caterina had not surrendered, Cesare decided to negotiate with her. On 26 December he stood outside Ravaldino. Caterina appeared on the battlements. Cesare began by reminding her that the fortunes of states were mutable–a safe surrender was better than the risk of battle. If she surrendered, she could be assured of a safe haven in Rome, perhaps even a new state. “Surrender! Surrender then, Madonna!” he implored.
“Signor duke,” Caterina is reported to have replied, “Fortune helps the intrepid and abandons cowards. I am the daughter of a man who did not know fear. Whatever may come, I am resolved to follow the course until death.”
A second attempt to negotiate was made the next day. Again Cesare approached the fortress. Again Caterina rejected his offers. A suit from the the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, followed; the pope’s envoy assured Caterina of her safety and that of her children, promised to safeguard and return to her her possessions, and offered a yearly pension. These attempts at negotiation, too, were rejected. The siege of Ravaldino began in earnest on 28 December 1499; the fortress finally fell on 11 January 1500.Cesare’s revenge was bloody. Before detailing the horrors, Breisach writes, “For thirty-six hours to be one of Caterina’s soldiers or subjects caught in the fortress meant to be a victim of the cruelest torture.”
Nor was Caterina spared. A French chronicler commented that, despite her “female body” Caterina “showed a masculine courage.” But Cesare’s revenge for her “masculine” courage was directed toward her female body; she was taken prisoner and raped by her conqueror. Cesare was said to have boasted that Caterina had “defended her fortress better than her virtue.”
Although he possessed both the city and its regent, he had not gained possession of Ottaviano Riario, the heir of Imola and Forlì. Nor could he be assured of his control over the papal territories without Caterina’s formal surrender of her son’s rights. Cesare maintained possession of Caterina until he completed his Italian conquests and made a triumphal entry into Rome with her late in February. After an attempt at escape, Caterina was imprisoned in the dungeon of the Castel Sant’Angelo; it is grimly ironic that she was defeated and imprisoned in the fortress she herself had once held and from which she had emerged in her first martial and political triumph. Caterina was to be held until she surrendered. Her Riario sons, meanwhile, were less intransigent; Caterina’s resistance was an obstacle to their attempts to negotiate new positions and new possessions for themselves.
Meanwhile, the Medici threatened to take custody of her son by Giovanni de’ Medici. On 30 June 1501, after eighteen months of imprisonment, she finally agreed to renounce her rights as regent of Imola and Forlì and promised to remain in Rome under papal supervision. But on 13 July, after reaching an agreement with Florence, Alexander VI agreed to “graciously set free” Caterina Sforza, that “most noble lady . . . whom we had to detain for certain reasons and for some time.”
She spent the rest of her life in Florence, at first trying to regain control of her lost position and possessions. When Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, died in August of 1503, Caterina attempted to regain the cities of Imola and Forlì. She urged Ottaviano to return to Romagna to renewal Riario rule, but her son preferred to remain in Rome, looking instead for a cardinal’s hat or a wealthy bride. Despite her ambitions, Imola and Forlì were returned to direct papal rule in 1504.
Caterina spent nearly twelve years in power, from her husband’s assassination in April 1488 until the fall of Ravaldino in January of 1500. She lived the last nine years of her life in imprisonment or retirement. She died in Florence on 28 May 1509.