Castle Sant’Angelo, built as Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum.
It was later fortified and used by various popes
as a refuge from Roman mobs and the sack of Rome.
Caterina Sforza (1462-1509)
by Akira Kato
June 18, 2002
Caterina faced the first real trouble.
Pope Sixtus IV died on August 12, 1484. Girolamo, Caterina, and their three children stayed with the Orsini in the camp before Paliano hoping for
re-enforcements and victory. The death of Sixtus also meant the death of that hope and thus of the campaign against the Colonna. Furthermore,
the foundation of Riario power had collapsed. Action
had to be taken to salvage what could be saved.
Though they respected and feared the powerful nephew of the Pope, most Romans considered
Girolamo to be violent and arrogant. When the pope died, therefore, he
remained unpopular among the Romans. Some disgruntled people
stormed the dwelling of the Riarios, then raided the palace of Girolamo. Nothing seemed to prevent their destructive rage.
Caterina feared that the new Pope—no matter who would take
over the seat—might go against her family. Therefore, she
decided to act as fast as possible, hoping that, with some
influence, she would be able to see a pro-Riario cardinal elected as
a new Pope. So Caterina mounted a horse, though she was eight-month pregnant, and rode with her loyal and brave courtiers to Castle Sant’Angelo and closed the gates, preparing the fortress in state of defense. The astonished soldiers
obeyed her instructions. They said, “Whoever takes over Castle Sant’Angelo governs Rome.”
The cardinals asked Girolamo to stay outside Rome during the election of the new Pope, and he obeyed. However, Caterina remained in the castle. Meanwhile, the cardinals promised her husband the full remuneration for their destroyed property in Rome and the renewal of their possession of Imola and Forlė, if he could persuade his wife
to surrender the castle. Since her husband had accepted the deal, Caterina had no choice but to give up. She eventually surrendered.
From now on Caterina lived with her husband and children in Forlė, since Innocent VIII (Giovanni Battista Cibò 1484-1492), the successor of Sixtus, had no intention to retain his services.
On August 10, 1484, Caterina gave birth to Giovanni, who only lived
a short life and died in 1496. In the following year, she
gave birth to their fourth son, Galeazzo Maria.
Since the Riarios maintained the luxurious lifestyle, their coffer
soon exhausted. Both Girolamo and Caterina believed that luxury supported their status and authority. Since they had to give generous gifts to their courtiers, the couple had no intention to cut their
expenditure. In 1486, therefore, Girolamo increased the taxes,
which turned out an unwise decision because back in 1481 Girolamo
lowered the taxes to increase their popularity and to curry their subjects’ support. Some dissenters had tried to restore
the house of the Orsi to the past glory.
Naturally, their subjects, who had admired the generous
ruler and enjoyed financial bliss, became utterly disappointed
by this unreasonable move. The assassination attempts against
Girolamo increased in these years. Besides, since 1481, the couple
had more frequently quarreled over the policies and family matters. In the spring of 1487 Girolamo became ill so that Caterina took over the
administrative, judicial and military duties of Imola and Forlė.
Meanwhile, on August 17, 1487, Caterina gave birth to her sixth child (their fifth son), who became known as “Sforzino”.
Then, on April 14, 1488, Girolamo was finally murdered by three people of his once closest allies.
Caterina and her children were imprisoned together in the tower
of the gates of San Pietro. This arrangement, however, provided
no bodily comfort. The small room was crammed with her six children,
as well as Scipio, an illegitimate son of Girolamo, Lucrezia
Landriani, Stella, and Bianca Landriani (Caterina’s two half
sisters), and the nurses. The noise was deafening and despair
was contagious when the children screamed and the women
Though most people hated the Riarios, some guards
felt sympathy for the prisoners—so sympathetic indeed that they looked the other way when messengers came and went and plans were
hatched. The fortress of Ravaldino was still under the command of Tommaso Feo, Caterina’s loyal captain. Before her arrest, she had sent a message to him to defend the fortress by all means. She has also succeeded in assigning a servant to ask in
Milan and in Bologna for assistance.
Without any knowledge of Caterina’s shrewd move, the Orsi and Savelli remained harsh toward the duchess.
They knew well enough that, without the fortress under their command,
the so far successful revolt would become next to nothing. Since they needed the fortress immediately, the Orsi tied threats of starving Caterina to death. The next day, they dragged her before
the walls of Fort Ravaldino. She pretended to order the surrender.
Feo, knowing full well her real intentions, refused. In his
answer, which he shouted from the wall, he made it a point
repeatedly to mention the duke of Milan. It was sure to infuse
prudence into some murderous hearts. Force, then, must be
tried. That night Savelli personally supervised feverish
preparations for an attack.
The following day witnessed a repetition of the comedy of
caterina’s ordering of Schiavonia. The castellan, Pezino da
Genoa, proved even less pliable. He ordered everybody to get
away from his fortress or he would open fire.
The morning of April 16 saw Caterina back once more in
front of the walls of Ravaldino. Again she told Feo to yield;
again he refused. Yet finally there seemed to be a break. Tommaso
Feo sent a messenger, Lodovico Ercolani, to Savelli to
offer a surrender on condition that Tommaso could
first have an interview with Caterina and get his pay and
certificate of loyalty that would assure him a good name for
further employment somewhere else. The interview, of course,
must be conducted within the fortress for reason of security.
Thereupon a bitter dispute rent the city. The Orsi smelled
treachery and violently objected. Savelli and the Council
wanted to trust Caterina. After all they still held her children,
her mother, and two half sisters. What woman could ignore a
threat to such loved ones? After a long argument Savelli gave
Caterina permission to enter for three hours.
The drawbridge was lowered, Caterina and some citizens of
Forlì walked across, and it was raised again. Before she disappeared,
Caterina turned around and hurled profanity at her
captors. Then the wait began, and it was to be a long one.
The drama of the hour gripped the participants as it has the
imagination of the historians who have related the subsequent
events. There are various versions of what happened next. One
of them is highly picturesque—not at all out of character with
Caterina Sforza—but less likely to be true. It tells how immediately
after her entrance into the fortress Caterina mounted the
battlements and shouted insults to the Orsi standing below.
Thereupon they threatened to kill her children.
But Caterina, unimpressed, lifted her skirt and exclaimed defiantly, “Don’t you think,
you fools, that I have the stuff to make others?”
Dumbfounded by this bold act of the twenty-six-year-old lady,
the onlookers stayed agape for a while. When they came to their senses,
Caterina had already entered the fortress. Once inside the
fortress, the escort of citizens soon found that Caterina
entertained no thought of surrender, either for herself or for her
fortress. Their protests left her unmoved.
When they hinted
that such a betrayal would lead to the murder of her children,
Caterina shouted at them the lie that a new infant was just now
growing in her body and the obvious truth that she could
always remarry and produce others. The castellan on his part
added that after a murder of the children he would level the
town with artillery bombardments and that the duke of Milan
would seek some vengeance of his own. Then Caterina celebrated
her escape with a festive dinner. After it, the desire for
sleep became too strong, and she retired to a room on the
opposite side of the drawbridge.
When the gates of the fortress stayed closed even after three
hours had passed, and the treachery became known, the Orsi
began to maneuver in order to get their prize prisoner back.
They and some of their partisans shouted pleas and threats up
the thick walls. The noise swelled when others joined them in
protesting against the treachery. Lucrezia Landriani, Stella,
Bianca, the children, and the nurses were dragged to the moat.
The crying, wailing, shouting, and cursing was shattering.
decided to act on his own. The cannon fired a few
shots over the heads of the crowd. When the smoke lifted, the
people were seen scurrying home. When Caterina, awakened
by the noise, arrived in the front tower, she found the area in
front of the fortress empty. “Now,” as a chronicler shrewdly
observed, “prayers will no longer suffice to get Ravaldino.”
On April 29—15 days after their arrest—an army
of 12,000 men came five miles outside Forlė—not only from Milan but also from Bologna, Mantua and Ferrara. Caterina
asked their commanders to advance slowly toward the city wall and to wait for further instructions.
Meanwhile, she bombarded handbills into the city:
“Forlivaner, my Forlivaner! Surrender to the army. They will
kill my enemies! And I promise to treat you as faithful brothers.”
Now, the once self-claimed liberators turned into the assassins.
They made a punctual escape with their relatives. The remaining
conspirators were arrested and executed by Caterinas.
The news spread fast. Caterina Sforza became well-known among all Italians. In Venice they called Caterina “the Tigress of Forlė”. One described her as a “woman in a man’s armor”, who always wore a breast plate and carried an unsheathed sword.
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