It is appropriate that at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence there is a fresco depicting Caterina Sforza (1463-1509), Countess of Imola and Forlì. She was the mother of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere from whom descended the line of the Medici who were Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Signora Sforza leaves us more than just her portraits. As her decendants Cosimo I and his son Francesco I de ‘ Medici Caterina was an Alchemist. Bearing eight children, facing economic worries, political issues, continuing wars, partisanship troubles, and the destruction of things she held sacred, Caterina is truly a “Renaissance Woman”. Although unusual for a woman of her time, she was a scholar of medicine, pharmaceutical recipes, chemistry, and perfumery. In her troubled life, always unstable and full of excesses, her confidence and practice in pharmaceutical arts were a mainstay. She displayed a great curiosity for science and Alchemy which led her to carry out continuous research, eventually helping an apothecary (Louis Albertini) in Forlì. Her tenacity, strong-willed character and determination were certainly helpful in pursuing an art where excellent results were eventually attained.
This is a woman who, at 21 years of age and pregnant, crossed the countryside to Roma on horseback with her army and occupied Castel Sant’Angelo on behalf of her husband, Girolamo Riario. Machiavelli tells us that when, at only twenty-five years of age, she was taken prisoner in the fortress and her six sons were kept as hostages she responded to that blackmail by lifting her skirt to show her genitals and said: “I can make other children.” With the same determination, Catherine worked to seek remedies that could cure all illness. In studying the formulas of her experiments in a manuscript written in Italian dialect we learn more of this woman than the legends surrounding her life and words, we learn about a mother who passed the manuscript to her son Giovanni de ‘ Medici and who used the recipes included to save the sick from death and disease.
The manuscript includes 454 recipes of which 358 are medicinal, 30 chemical, and 66 cosmetic. In 1525 the Count Antonio da Montefalco Cuppano made a copy of the manuscript, now kept by a private individual, under the title “Experimenti de la Exellentissima Lady Catherine of Furlj matre de lo Illuxtrissimo Mr Giovanni de Medici“. This recipe book is perhaps the most comprehensive document known so far on medicine and cosmetics of the 15th century. Many recipes mention drugs in use today in phytotherapy (the Thistle); There are also important discoveries, such as surgical anesthesia, perhaps the most significant of the whole book.”To put to sleep a person for surgery“. The recipe that Catherine wrote towards the end of 1400s is very similar to that of a medieval anesthetic; an opium-based juice made of immature Mandrake leaves, hemlock, Ivy and other plants, from a ninth-century manuscript preserved in the monastery of Montecassino and also in a surgery book published in Bologna in 1265. In the manuscript are recipes that leave us questions on how they “heal any kind of fever” (it says was also used by Cosimo de ‘ Medici) based on Wolf dung, sundried and did drink the powdered infirm in meat broth
As for cosmetics, reading the book of Catherine’s experimenti shows that the aesthetic problems of five hundred years ago are the same today! She wrote tanning recipes, slimming formulas, toning advice,depilatory concoctions and instructions for dyeing and curling hair.
“La dama dei gelsomini” is an oil on canvas in the past erroneously attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and then to Lorenzo di Credi (also student of Verrocchio alongside Leonardo) today housed in the Pinacoteca civica of Forlì. That painting, dated between 1485 and 1490, depicts a young woman that many identify as Caterina Sforza.