5 Times Caterina Sforza Was Bad & Bougie

Caterina Sforza, Countess of Forli and Imola, daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza (Duke of Milan), wed to powerful men like Girolamo Riario (nephew of Pope Sixtus IV) and Girolamo de’ Medici il Popolano, mother of Giovani delle Bande Nere, AND general keeper of #renaissancewomanmagic is the OG bad & bougie. I love her. She was nicknamed La Tigre for her prowess in the martial arts and defence of her lands against all who opposed her, including Cesare Borgia. In the featured image by Botticelli she is painted while pregnant, the woman in the right foreground.

Caterina Sforza, the Tigress of Forli

Caterina Sforza was one of those extraordinary individuals who managed to pack five or six lifetimes into her forty odd years. Wife, alchemist, mother, warrior, seductress, torturer, hunter, General and, don’t forget, the model for one of the three graces in Botticelli’s Primavera: she also had a lot of hot Milanese blood swilling around inside her.  Galeazzo Maria Sforza raised her to be a leader – Caterina was raised in a beautiful Italian Palazzo surrounded by fawning attendants, tutors, lavish luxuries, and dungeons full of those being brutally tortured into submission by her crazy villainous Dad. She learned everything she needed to know from him.

Here are 5 times she made me proud:

  1. In 1484 when Pope Sixtus died Caterina knew that meant her title, lands, and children’s inheritance was in danger. She was living about 10 miles from Rome at the time and was seven months pregnant. As soon as word came to her of the Pope’s death she charged out on horseback and took control of Castle Sant’ Angelo, a fortress just across from the Vatican. When her family’s enemies came to entreat her she made her demands known and held the castle for 11 days waiting for confirmation that Girolamo’s lands, granted by the now dead Pope, and titles would not be taken away. While waiting she kept the canons positioned on the Vatican.
  2. In 1488 when her husband Girolamo Riario was killed in a conspiracy she escaped a lynching and conned the conspirators into letting her go into the nearby Ravaldino Fortress, taking control of it to their outrage. She insulted them from the top of the battlements and they pointed out they still had her children and could kill them. Posterity says she lifted her skirts and told them “I have the means to make other children”, BUT that’s probably not true. From a primary source writing a letter about the event we learn she did respond to their threat with the obscene four figs gesture AND CANNON FIRE:
    1. Madonna [Caterina] does not want to come out. The people easily say, ‘we will kill your children’. She replies that there’s no way, that they poisoned them anyway, and that she is carrying one in her body and she is capable of having more. By no means does she want to hear a thing about coming out and bombards the whole surrounding area without stopping.”
  3. Then there is what she did after this exchange when the conspirators were defeated by her and her allies: She attacks her husband’s murderers, virtually wiping out the entire Orsi family over a period of three weeks.
    1. She told her loyalists: “My people, I tell you to punish and kill all [my]enemies.
      For it I will consider you my good brothers for evermore. Do not hesitate to act, and fear nothing, because the deeds will benefit you and your children. If you fail to act you will regret it in a few days.”
    2. When she finally caught the man behind the plot, she tied him up, forced him to watch as she burned down his house, and then dragged him around the town square behind her horse for a while.  Once he was covered from head to toe in road rash burns, she had him publicly dismembered, piece by piece, and watched as her executioner tossed the dude’s severed body parts into the assembled crowd one by one.
  4. She was also, apparently, a tigress in love in the years after Girolamo’s death. Falling for Giacomo Feo, a glorified stable boy, she had him knighted, secretly married him and bore his child. Blinded by her passion, she ignored signs of growing unrest among her people — and the jealousy of her oldest son. When Feo was murdered, the sight of his mutilated corpse drove Caterina to systematic vengeance: 38 people were killed, and many others were tortured, exiled or imprisoned in a ruthless, coldblooded rampage. She brutalized his murderer by roasting the guy alive on a spit and then having his wife and sons thrown down a dried-up well to die of starvation.
  5. Caterina continued to appreciate the finer things in life. In her widowhood, she built a sensuous sanctum called Il Paradiso, with high vaulted ceilings, carved columns, painted wall panels and “delicately designed” ceramic tiled floors. A lifelong alchemist, she planted herbs and spent time making beauty creams and medicinal potions. And into this scene of quiet domestic grace came a suitable Medici, Giovanni di Pierfrancesco. She bore him a child. At 35, she was serenely happy, contemplating spiritual matters under the tutelage of a brilliant preacher, Savonarola.

Caterina’s greatest enemy proved to be Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander. When she fought him, Caterina strode out to meet him as he swept in on a white horse: “She strapped on her cuirass. . . . The steel was shaped to her curves and reinforced to prevent crushing or compressing her breasts. . . . Tiny plates fit perfectly together to allow for a wide range of movement.” Caterina then waged a battle of such breathtaking intensity that her bravery was heralded throughout Europe. She was taken prisoner by the sadistic Borgia as “the rest of Italy mourned her plight.” Finally, she was thrown into prison.

She died in 1509, at the age of 46.

It’s nearly impossible to keep everyone in Caterina’s story straight, so complex and interwoven are the warring kingdoms, feuding cousins, corrupt popes and hapless husbands and lovers. Yet Caterina’s tale is also as action-packed as “Game of Thrones.” It was made into a movie in 1959, starring the Italian actress Virna Lisi, but surely someone will be tempted to try a remake.

Three graces caterina sforza boticelli
Caterina is depicted on the right in the Botticelli painting.

Meantime, sisters, rejoice in a tale of feminism gone wild. We have yet to see the likes of Caterina in our day. Surely she offers an interesting perspective on our own maneuverings. She had it all; she did it all; she won, and lost, it all.

Caterina Sforza Boticelli Sistine Chapel
Detail of Caterina (6 months pregnant with her 3rd child) in Botticelli’s The Healing of the Leper of The Temptations of Christ cycle


THE TIGRESS OF FORLÌ – Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici by Elizabeth Lev

NY times article – The Tigress of Forli Book Review



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 )

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