In Forli – Where Caterina Sforza Reigned

**So today I’m in Forli participating in a 14th century reenactment (rievocazione) of a battle. In the spirit of being on site in a place one of my favorite Renaissance women lived and reigned I have provided some background on her by none other than Sarah Dunant:

Looking for the Borgias: A road trip through Italy seeking the 16th century’s warrior clan (Excerpt on Cesare/Caterina)

The temperature in Bologna (in august 2013) at 3pm was 107F. By the time we reached a roundabout to the main road, we could barely breathe. Sadly, up went the roof and on went the air-conditioning. It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry, but as we navigated our way east, with the past stretching out ahead of us, excitement took over.

Not so manic now: Urbino is rather more peaceful 500 years after the Cesare Borgia knocked on its door

Like all roman roads, the Via Emilia runs as straight as an arrow. The land is flat on either side; a straggle of hamlets have grown up but much of it is still open to the fields as it would have been back then. Standing on one verge, I could see for miles in either direction.

In my head I was already writing a scene: people working the land, looking up as the first sounds and sights reached them; the cloud of dust in the distance, the clank of armour, the clip of hooves, the snorting of horses, then the whole road filling up with cavalry and soldiers.

There had never been an army this big within living memory, and though people would have heard about the deadly impact of new-fangled French cannon, now they could see them; sleek metal tubes mounted on well-sprung wheels. The fear must have been tangible.

The first great fortification the soldiers hit was at Imola. Here, as in all the other towns, history rises up to greet you. The fortress, or rocca, is beautifully preserved, with its four splendid round towers and battlements, its gate for the drawbridge, a deep, grassed crater where a moat would have been.

Inside, you can walk the battlements and map out from the ruins what were evidently once luxurious living quarters.

At the turn of the 15th century this would have been state-of-the-art defence – with enough supplies, half the town could have survived for months. But with the arrival of cannon, the game changed. Rather than trying to starve your opponents, you could now terrorise and maim them with artillery.

The deputy in charge in Imola was holding the fort for the ruler, Caterina Sforza, who was already holed up in nearby Forlì.

Caterina Sforza
Cesare Borgia

Faces of the past: Caterina Sforza (left) was forced to cede Imola to the rampaging Cesare Borgia (right)

Aged 36, Sforza had survived previous rebellions and assassination attempts, but when Cesare offered safe passage and employment to her followers, they opened the gates and let him in.

Forlì is a lovely little town with a handsome piazza, an early medieval church with exquisitely delicate cloisters and – if you hit on the right day – a thriving market.

The Ravaldino fortress where Sforza barricaded herself in is still there. It’s possible to imagine the thunder and screams of the four-day bombardment which ended with a mercenary army, eager for spoils, pouring in and taking no prisoners.

When we weren’t time-travelling, we too were having the odd challenge of our own. A number of hotels booked on the internet were all fine, though a 17th century converted monastery looked glorious on screen but in reality it did not have air-con. Too late to find anywhere else, we stuck it out, two large fans from the store cupboard doing their best to keep us cool at night.

The next day we reached Cesena. It was here that Cesare established his capital, using the velvet-glove technique to charm dignitaries.

During his time here he would have visited the stunning Malatestiana library in the local Franciscan convent, which was one of the wonders of our trip.

Built in the 1450s, it is still incredibly well preserved. We also headed for the town’s main square.

This is where Cesare, returning from Rome to rumours that the man he had installed as temporary governor was cruel and tyrannical, delivered summary justice. On Christmas Day 1502, the townspeople woke to find the governor’s decapitated body in the middle of the square and his head on a lance nearby.

Via Emilia Romagna

A road-trip wonder: The Via Emilia winds majestically through pristine Italian scenery

It was at this point that we decided to take a break from Emilia Romagna and head south to neighbouring Marche. It was in this region in June 1502 that the young Borgia scored his greatest triumph, launching a surprise attack on one of the true renaissance jewels of the time, the city of Urbino. He took up residence in the fabulous ducal palace and welcomed an embassy from Florence: Bishop Soderini and a diplomatic secretary called Niccolo Machiavelli.

The next day Machiavelli’s dispatch gave history a first-hand description of the warrior:

‘He has the best men in Italy and his soldiers love him. He never rests nor recognises fatigue or danger, and there is no enterprise so great that does not appear small to him. Altogether he is a most successful man and one to be feared.’

A number of years later Machiavelli revisited that moment when he wrote his political masterpiece, The Prince.

By then, both Pope Alexander and Cesare were long dead, their attempt to create a new dynastic state in ruins. But for Machiavelli, Cesare’s military daring and political pragmatism remained central to his analysis of a successful prince.


Market day: The little town of Forli is another of Emilia-Romagna’s romantic dots on the map

Blood & Beauty, Dunant, is published by Virago, priced £16.99.


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