Caterina Sforza: A Renaissance Warrior Woman That Knew How to Get What She Wanted
Caterina Sforza was a powerful force to be contended with in Renaissance Italy. She has been called a Renaissance virago (woman who fights like a man), a lioness, tigress, and a warrior woman. One of her more flamboyant acts of defiance was even made famous by Machiavelli. Driven and powerful, Caterina Sforza sometimes took her actions too far, and for that she has also been recognized by many as a tyrant. There was, however, a softer side to Caterina Sforza which became obvious in her personal life.
A Noble Upbringing
Born in 1463 in Milan, Caterina Sforza was the illegitimate daughter of the supposedly cruel, lustful, and tyrannical Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, and his mistress Lucrezia Landriani. At the age of four the Duke accepted his daughter and took her into his home to raise her alongside his other children. Caterina was most likely acknowledged by her father because noble children were often useful tools for politically advantageous marriages as they grew.
Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan and Caterina’s father. (1471) (Public Domain)
Thanks to Caterina’s stepmother, Bona of Savoy, she received a proper education for the period and was brought up in the Milanese Court. Caterina was a tall, slim, blonde, and attractive girl, and at the age of ten she was already engaged to Girolamo Riario. By the time she was 14 years old she was seen as ready to leave her father’s home and confirmed her marriage to Riario.
Caterina’s First Marriage and her Rise to Power
Girolamo Riario was 29 years old when he betrothed Caterina. Numerous sources say that he was cruel, cowardly, and rather lusty, but his status as the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV made him an adequate choice as Caterina’s husband. Even though it is unlikely that Caterina loved her husband, she bore him eight children (six of which survived childhood).
Pope Sixtus IV with his courtiers and nephews. (1477) Girolamo Riario is the figure in blue, second from the left. (Public Domain)
In 1477, Caterina joined her husband in Rome and she was named the countess of Forlì in 1481. When Pope Sixtus IV died in 1784 there was turmoil in Rome and one of Riario’s residences was looted and almost destroyed. Caterina was upset with the happenings in Rome and wanted to oversee the conclave’s actions herself, so she seized control of Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome – she was 21 years old and seven months pregnant at the time.
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When the Cardinals went to Riario, offering confirmation that he would continue to hold his Lordship over Imola and Forlì, as well as providing him with a military post of Captain-General of the Church, and 8,000 ducats in compensation for the damages to his property, he accepted their bargain.
Hearing the news, Caterina increased her soldiery and prepared to increase her resistance against the cardinals, until they agreed to have her supervision over their actions. Nonetheless, with her husband countering her position, just 13 days later Caterina found herself surrendering the castle back to the cardinals.
Painting of the Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome, Italy from the south. (Public Domain)
Following that ordeal, Caterina and Girolamo moved to Romagna, primarily in Forlì and Imola. Things did not calm following the move, as Riario was not a popular ruler for very long and soon he became hated for seizing properties and increasing taxes. There were several uprisings against him, which Caterina supposedly suppressed, by ordering the decapitation of six of the rebels in the city square.
In 1488, things really heated up and conspirators, led by the Orsi brothers, enacted revenge on Girolamo Riario. Following Riario’s murder, Caterina, her mother, two of her half-sisters, one of Riario’s illegitimate sons, and Caterina’s six children were taken hostage.
Caterina’s Revenge on Riario’s Assassins
However, before Caterina was taken captive she had informed her uncle in Milan of her impending problems and told him that he must inform Tommaso Feo, her castellan, that the castle was not to be given to the conspirators under any circumstances.
Soon after, the conspirators took Caterina to the castle and they told Tommaso Feo that he must surrender. Feo answered that the Orsi brothers would do nothing against Caterina for they feared the retaliation of Caterina’s brother, the current Duke of Milan.
When the group returned to the castle a second time, Caterina tricked her captors into allowing her to enter the castle under the pretext that she would talk Tommaso Feo into submitting to their demands. As the abductors still maintained control over Caterina’s children, they accepted.
Ravaldino fortress, Forlì, Italy. The Ravaldino was one of the fortresses where Caterina Sforza battled her enemies. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Once inside, Caterina told the conspirators that there was no chance of them taking control of the castle. They stated that they would kill her children, to which she reportedly lifted her skirts and told them that she had what she needed to make more. The Orsi’s were shocked at the response and did not harm her children. Thereafter, Caterina, with the help of her uncle, sought out the conspirators and their families to severely punish their actions.
A Second Marriage and Caterina’s Rule
Following Girolamo Riario’s death, Caterina was made the regent of their oldest son, Ottaviano. She soon took advantage of this position and even after the boy came to age, she continued to rule in his place. She embarked on several successful military and political ventures, including marriage negotiations and gifts, with neighboring states.
A woman many believe was Caterina Sforza in Botticelli’s ‘The Three Graces.’ Some scholars have argued that Caterina Sforza’s influence extended past the political and military realms and she was the muse for many paintings of artists at the time. (Public Domain)
Regarding her personal life, Caterina fell in love and took Tommaso’s younger brother, Giacomo (who was 20 years old), as her second husband. Their marriage was not fated to last however, as Giacomo rose to power and became a tyrant as well. He shared a fate similar to Caterina’s first husband and was assassinated by conspirators (which may have included members of Caterina’s own family) in 1495.
Blinded by her fury at the loss of her lover, Caterina lashed out at all involved in her husband’s death. This meant that many of the conspirators’ whole families were tortured and executed in the cruelest of manners.
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The Third Marriage and Caterina’s Downfall
In 1496, Caterina fell in love again – this time with Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de Medici. Upon receiving approval from her uncle and children, the couple were married in 1497. In 1498 Caterina gave birth to her last son, Giovanni delle Bande Nere. Her third husband soon passed away as well – this time of natural causes.
A man identified as Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de Medici, Caterina’s third husband. (Public Domain)
In the political realm, Caterina continued her control of Forlì and Imola and intended to remain neutral for many years while being stuck between the battles of the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples. In 1499, Niccolò Machiavelli came to Forlì to negotiate the military contract with Florence and later wrote about the impressive woman he saw in Caterina Sforza and her defense against the attacks on her fortress.
1499 also saw the beginning of Caterina’s end, as she was overtaken by an attack led by Cesare Borgia. Sending her children and riches to Florence for safety, Caterina allegedly became involved in a plot to poison Pope Alexander VI, which failed.
Cesare Borgia, the man who brought about Caterina Sforza’s downfall. (Public Domain)
Imola soon fell to Borgia, and Forlì followed suit. However, Caterina remained strong and wearing her own armor, she defended Ravaldino against Cesare Borgia until 1500. After the fortress was taken, Caterina became Borgia’s prisoner. Following demeaning acts by Borgia, she was imprisoned in Belvedere Palace at the Vatican for four months.
But her fighting spirit was not yet broken, and Caterina tried to escape. Nonetheless, her plan failed and she was then imprisoned in Castel Sant' Angelo for one year. Caterina only was given her freedom following her renunciation of her lordship.
Following the years of hardship and battles, Caterina finally retired to Florence, and a quieter life revolving around her children, grandchildren, and her alchemical experiments. Caterina Sforza died in 1509 with liver ailment, peritonitis, and pleurisy.
Portrait of an older Caterina Sforza. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Featured Image: Portrait of Caterina Sforza (1483) by Lorenzo di Credi. Source: (Public Domain)
By: Alicia McDermott
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