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The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's…

The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious… (2011)

by Elizabeth Lev

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This is the first life of Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici, countess of Imola and Forli, known chiefly for her brave though ultimately unsuccessful stand against Cesare Borgia. Before that, she had successfully defeated her husband's assassins and ruled Imola/Forli as regent for her son for over a decade. Eventually she became the grandmother of the first Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany and through him the ancestor of several kings of France and Spain, including the current Spanish king. The author is a serious Italian scholar, though the one is more popular biography than dry scholarship. ON the whole she is sympathetic to Caterina, while admitting she made some bad mistakes. She dismisses the rumors about Caterina's many lovers as unreliable gossip, which much of it probably was. ( )
  antiquary | Sep 1, 2017 |
An interesting history of what life was like for a woman of priviledge at the time of the Italian renaissance period during the reign of the Borgias. Although Caterina Riario Sforza de'Medici's life may not be typical of an average woman of this period the book gives a good account of the politics and military posturing used to gain property and improve fortunes. A good read that enables the reader to gain a good understanding of the ever changing and dangerous politics of the Italian Renaissance. ( )
  tzugirl | Oct 8, 2014 |
Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici was a fascinating woman: beautiful and accomplished in the things people expected of a woman; a fertile and involved mother; a military tactician as capable of fighting as any of her men; an indomitable spirit who rightly captured the hearts and imaginations of many of her time. She had formidable enemies and allies who let her down all too often: she, perhaps, deserved the former, but not the latter.

"Feminism gone wild", one of the reviewers quoted on the cover of my edition says. I expected to bristle at this, to be annoyed that a) given the usual position of women in the time, any agency given to women would be shocking compared to that we have now and b) "feminism gone wild" manages to encapsulate condescension and that "I'm not a feminist" reasoning that seems to have overtaken many women. But Caterina would make a surprisingly good role model, for women long after her own age, and she promoted the interests of women personally -- through arranging marriages for women whose families could or would not -- and publicly -- through preventing the sack of towns and therefore the rape of the inhabitants.

This biography is pretty even-handed, though obviously very much sympathetic to Caterina. It includes criticisms of her behaviour as well as noting her heroism at other times. My main criticism is that I was often unsure of the sources for Lev's information: a balance does have to be struck between including dubious information and asking the reader to trust that the biographer's judgement is perfect.

I got interested in Caterina Sforza through playing the Assassin's Creed games, and I recommend this to anyone who played the games. It might be drier, but it reveals a character even more compelling than the glimpses we saw of Ezio's ally in the games. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 30, 2013 |
Subtitled Renaissance Italy's most courageous and notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza De'Medici was more than an animal she was a monster. After the murder of her lover Giacomo Feo she took reprisals, 38 people were killed including many women and children related to suspected conspirators, many more were imprisoned and tortured. Pope Alexander VI commented "Unheard of bloodthirstiness to satisfy her passions." Earlier after escaping from the Orsis family who threatened to kill her children in order to wrest power from her, she is said to have shouted from the battlement of her castle "Do it you fools, I am already pregnant with another child and I have the means to make more." Finally when under siege by Cesare Borgia's army she was willing to sacrifice all her subjects in a bid to keep her castle and inheritance. It is little wonder that her two eldest children had little time for her when she was a prisoner of the Borgias.

Caterina the monster is a view we might take from the perspective of behavioural norms in the 21st century, but in renaissance Italy the lust for power and the pride in the family name was almost a pre-requisite for successful rulers of the city states. Machiavelli's treatise "The Prince" makes this abundantly clear and when we take note of Pope Alexander's comment about unheard of bloodthirstiness and realise that this is Roderigo Borgia speaking; a man who had far more blood on his hands, then Caterina's actions take on even more perspective. It is to Elizabeth Lev's credit that she does not gloss over the worst of Caterina's actions, but in continuously praising her courage and steadfastness, she is in danger of presenting us with an heroic figure, but finally it is up to the reader to come to their own conclusions as Lev has done an excellent job of presenting the evidence.

Caterina Riario Sforza's story is an extraordinary one, made even more extraordinary by the fact that Caterina was a woman in a man's world. In some respects she comes across as similar to Lucrezia Borgia. In Italy and in most other countries women of noble birth, were used as pawns in the game of marriage stakes, either as a reward to favourite men for services rendered or as a way of cementing ties with powerful families. Both women proved stronger than the men to whom they were married and survived their husbands to wield power in their own right. Both were expert in using their feminine charms to obtain what they wanted and both were torn to some extent between their lust for power and prestige, and concern with saving their souls. The big difference was in Caterina's martial prowess and her fortitude in adversity.

The strength of Lev's book is in the details that she manages to convey of life in renaissance times: in her introduction she says that she has used contemporary chronicles by two local men, Leone Cobelli and Andrea Bernadi, who eye-witnessed many of the events in Imola and Forli as well as other sources and so we find a paragraph like this:

Meanwhile, among the crowd stood the barber Andrea Bernadi, recording the conversation that ensued,
"My lady" Feo asked, "what do you want"
Caterina took a deep breath and in a rush of words, broken by tears and sobs, implored him to "give the fortress to these men, so they will free me and save my children" Slowly and respectfully, the loyal keeper shook his head. His duty he explained, was to hold the castle for the heir of Girolamo. Caterina, with mush handwringing, wailed that not only would she be killed, but all of her children would be brutally slaughtered by these criminals, who would stop at nothing to control Forli.

Lev has already explained that Feo and Caterina were involved in a stage managed charade to fool the onlookers, but I could not help wondering how much of Caterina's expressed emotions like "Caterina with much handwringing" or "in a rush of words broken by tears" have come from the chroniclers or have been made up by Lev to build drama into her story. In the final analysis I suppose it depends on how much the reader believes and whether or not Lev's interventions feel intrusive or inaccurate. Most of the time I was happy with her dramatization of the story, but occasionally I felt that her intrusions into Caterina's thoughts and emotions felt a little false, perhaps too much of a 21st century viewpoint, but this did not stop me from enjoying her book.

Elizabeth Lev is a scholar of renaissance art and culture and a professor of art history in Rome. Her book is well researched and has notes and sources as well as a very good index. It could easily be enjoyed by the general reader as her prose flows nicely and she seems to effortlessly transpose the reader into the Italian renaissance period. There will be some surprises and her story is packed with stirring events. This is a very good biography and a four star read.

I am pleased to say that not once in my review did I make reference to a feminist hero. ( )
2 vote baswood | Apr 6, 2013 |
My blog post about this book is at this link. ( )
  SuziQoregon | Mar 31, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0151012997, Hardcover)

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Elizabeth Lev

Q: Where did you find out about Caterina Sforza?

A: I ran across Caterina’s story while I was living in Imola, working on my graduate degree. Streets and shops were named for her and clearly she was a big deal in this small town. But when I ran into her portrait in the Uffizi gallery in Florence as grandmother of the first Medici duke and then in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling, I began to realize she was a much more than just a local idol. Then, while reading a book on the history of the Medici family I read a little sketch of her life and I was hooked.

Q:What were the challenges involved in writing this book?

A:After 20 years in Italy, I thought my Italian was pretty good, but reading documents in various Italian dialects was definitely challenging. During the four years of research and writing, I got used to the way Renaissance Romans spelled, and learned idiomatic phrases from 15th-century Romagna. It was fun—like standing in a town square 500 years ago listening to all the gossip, stories, and news, and even the occasional weather report!

Q:How do you see Caterina as relating to contemporary women?

A: Caterina amazes me, because she resembles a 21st-century go-getter, multitasking woman, in a world where that was not considered an admirable quality. She ran a business, raised eight children, ruled two towns, fought off assassins, had steamy love affairs, and even had her own cosmetics line! All this in 46 years of life! In our age we love to see people who are passionate about what they do, in her age restraint was the highest virtue. Her ability to think several steps ahead and strategize would have put her at the helm of a Fortune 500 company today, but in her world it was disconcerting to encounter a woman "who thought like a man."

Q: What did you find most interesting about her?

A: When I started researching, I was surprised that there wasn’t more out there on her. I wondered why there weren’t stacks of biographies as there are for other celebrated women. When I got midway through her life, I encountered the problem of her colossal mistakes. Caterina did some very controversial things. Some were clever plays and I think, at the end of the day, wisely done. Others, however, were embarrassing and even cruel. I became fascinated with someone who had so publically and terribly fallen from grace through her own actions and how she recovered from it. One of the most interesting things to me about her was that she would never give up, even when the enemy she had to conquer was herself.

Photos from the Book
(Click on Images to Enlarge)

Romantic depiction of Caterina Sforza being taken prisoner after the assassination of her husband, Girolamo Riario, ruler of Imola and Forli. (Dario Gobbi,1914)
Detail from The Purification of the Leper. This fresco was parinted to face the papal throne in the Sistine Chapel. Caterina is pregnant and carrying firewood, while her son Cesare fends off a viper at her feet. (Sandro Botticelli, 1481)

Portrait of Caterina Sforza de’ Medici. Vasari portrays Caterina in a widow’s veil after the death of her third husband, Giovanni de’ Medici. (Giorgio Vasari, 1555)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:01 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Wife, mother, leader, warrior. Caterina Riario Sforza was one of the most prominent women in Renaissance Italy--and one of the most vilified. In this glittering biography, Elizabeth Lev reexamines her extraordinary life and accomplishments. Raised in the court of Milan and wed at age ten to the pope's corrupt nephew, Caterina was ensnared in Italy's political intrigues early in life. After turbulent years in Rome's papal court, she moved to the Romagnol province of Forli. Following her husband's assassination, she ruled Italy's crossroads with iron will, martial strength, political savvy--and an icon's fashion sense. In finally losing her lands to the Borgia family, she put up a resistance that inspired all of Europe and set the stage for her progeny--including Cosimo de' Medici--to follow her example to greatness.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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