Caterina Sforza: taking care of business since 1463

Around this time each year, the ninth-graders at my high school had a Medieval Day. They researched a figure from medieval history, wrote a paper and dressed up like them for a full day while they frolicked around campus, learning how to make candles or bind books or how to drain boils caused by the Bubonic Plague.

(Which reminds me, if you haven’t seen the parody of Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl about the Black Death, y’all don’t know what you’re missing. And, yes, I know every word by heart)

Anyhoo, Medieval Day was my shit. But I could not for the life of me figure out who I wanted to be. I came across Caterina Sforza in my research and was enthralled by her fearlessness and legendary political and military power. Then I read that she reportedly raised her skirts and screamed at her enemies that she didn’t care whether or not they killed her children because the eight-month infant in her womb would grow up and carry out her revenge. Now I think that is insanely epic but I think my delicate ninth grade sensibility was a bit troubled.

So I was the equally badass Christine de Pizan (and you’re a fool if you think I won’t do a post on her) but Caterina’s story stuck with me over the years.

***Another side story about choosing who I would be for Medieval Day: I had thought about being Joan of Arc until I was doing research on and listening to Pandora when “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys came on…I can’t hear that song any differently now***

Image Credit: Wikimedia

But anyways, back to Caterina. She was born in 1463 in Milan to Duke of Milan Galeazzo Maria Sforza and his mistress, Lucrezia Landriani. Until the age of four, it looked like Caterina was going to be tossed aside like most other illegitimate children at the time but then the Duke realized the marital potential Caterina had to expand his political power.

Caterina’s not-so-evil stepmother, Bona of Savoy, gave her a woman’s proper education as she was raised in the Milanese Court. When she turned 10, she was engaged to Girolamo Riario who was the good-for-nothing 29-year-old nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. Four years later, the two were married and she left the Duke’s place for a luxurious life Rome, where she was named the countess of Forli in 1481.

However, when Pope Sixtus IV died in 1484, the couple’s security and status came crumbling down as Rome descended into turmoil. 21-years-old and seven-months pregnant, Caterina decided to take matters into her own hands. She threw on some armor, mounted a horse, and seized control of Castle Sant’Angelo, the papal fortress.

Castle Sant’Angelo; Image Credit: Wikimedia

The cardinals who began trickling into town for the pope’s funeral were scared to enter the city because Caterina refused to hand over the fortress to anyone other than the new pope and threatened to attack anyone who got in her way. Eventually, the cardinals and Caterina struck a deal. In exchange for access to Sant’Angelo to elect a new leader, Caterina’s husband was given control of Imola and Forli, in addition to a sizable ransom.

After the two moved to Forli, where Girolamo already served lazily as a lord, things didn’t go too well. Girolamo seized properties and increased taxes which prompted several uprisings that grew into a full-fledged revolution. A group of nine assassins led by the Orsi brothers sliced Girolamo to death.

Caterina was taken hostage with her mother and her six children but not before she sent for help from her uncle in Milan and instructed her head of security, Tommaso Feo, to refuse to surrender. 

Her captors first tried to take the castle by threatening Caterina in front Feo and demanding he surrender. Feo basically told the attackers, “You pissers really don’t want to hurt her because her brother, the Duke of Milan, will tie you to a ladder and slice you open.”

So they ran away with Caterina. When they came back a second time, Caterina convinced the Orsi brothers to let her into the castle to persuade Feo to surrender. The Orsies (what I am going to call the plural of Orsi) still had Caterina’s kids so they figured they could threaten them in case anyone tried to pull any shenanigans.

This is where that skirt-lifting incident that intimidated my little ninth-grade sensibility comes into play. Caterina, inside her castle, began to scream at her attackers that she was never going to leave, that she didn’t need her children, that she had what she needed (here is where she, in theory, lifted her skirt) to make more.

Pretty soon, her uncle showed up and they had a right good time kicking everyone’s ass, rescuing the rest of the family. Caterina not only imprisoned her captors but their families, as well, and anyone that ever allied themselves with them.

A figure in Botticelli’s “The Three Muses” many believe to be modeled after Caterina
Image Credit: Wikimedia

So things were great. Caterina became regent of her eldest son, Ottaviano since Dad was dead and, even after he came to age, she ruled in his place, staging many successful political and military maneuvers with surrounding states.

Then Caterina fell in love. The lucky so-and-so was Feo’s younger brother, Giacomo and the two were married in secret. Unfortunately, Giacomo turned out to be quite a tyrant which brings us to “Assassins Kill Husband (Reprise).”

And so follows “Caterina’s Revenge (Reprise),” however, this time, imprisonment of the assassins wasn’t good enough. She tortured and executed the entire families of the killers, including their wives, mistresses, and children.

See where my ninth-grade self might have had some reservations?

Anyway, Caterina found love again with Giovanni de Medici. They had another lovely secret wedding and their kid was born eight months later but, before you can say “third time’s the charm,” Medici died of gout.

Well, Caterina was powerful but she couldn’t really exact revenge on natural causes. So she put all of her rage and energy into defending her land against an emerging territorial dispute with Cesare Borgia, of the legendary Italo-Spanish family,  Showtime’s “The Borgias” and “Assassin’s Creed” video games. (I knew about 1/3 of these before I started my research. Make your guesses now. The answer can be found at the bottom of the post.)

Unfortunately, Caterina’s bad luck continued and Borgia imprisoned her for 18 months in Castle Sant’Angelo, the SAME CASTLE she seized control of 15 years earlier. While in prison, she may or may not have passed the time by sending plague-infested letters to Pope Alexander VI. (Who, I’m pretty sure somebody in my class, chose to be for Medieval Day so…that would have been awkward)

She was freed only after she renounced her lordship, surrendering almost all of her power. Still, she continued to fight until she successfully obtained Medici’s inheritance and custody of their son.

At this point, her life began to simmer down a bit. Caterina settled down in Florence and found a couple of hobbies that didn’t involve killing people. She took up alchemy and started to write “The Experiments” which has become a text still fundamentally important to the pharmacological history.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Plagued with pleurisy (which Google tells me is pain in the ribs brought about by breathing), peritonitis (which could be the rupture of an internal organ but I couldn’t read much because there were pictures and I got grossed out), and liver ailment (I’m going to trust that you can figure that out), Caterina died in 1509.

It sounds like a bad way to go but, considering all the times in her life that she could have been tortured or killed, it’s quite remarkable.

Some historians refer to her as a Renaissance virago, which means a woman who fights like a man. I take offense to that, though, because she was a badass woman who fought like a badass woman.

So if any student ever comes across this trying to find a Medieval Day figure, be fearless and pick Caterina because no girl is ever too young to find the badass woman in her.

And stay tuned for how Christine de Pizan helped me find my inner badass.

Answer: The legendary Italo-Spanish family was the only one of the three I had heard about.
As far as I know, the only video games I’ve ever played was Tetris and Wii Tennis. I honestly think I would throw up if I ever played “Assassin’s Creed.”
As for Showtime’s “The Borgias,” I need a show that is relatively historically accurate, otherwise, I’m out. But if that’s your shit, fine by me. I’ll stick with my Black Death Hollaback Girl video, thank you very much. “Ooh, fleas on rats, fleas on rats… THIS PLAGUE IS BUBONIC, B-U-B-O-N-I-C”
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