Caterina Sforza Part 2 – The Rome Years

Gina McKee as Caterina Sforza in The Borgias

As Caterina left her childhood home of Milan, she was accompanied on her way to Rome by a lavish parade. Caterina had brought with her 40 relatives and servants, and her new husband Giralomo Riaro added a considerable number of his own retainers to the parade. The archbishop of Cesena also joined them, bringing with him 13 of his own servants, the Governor of Imola with 12 men along with other local nobles, various musicians and ladies in waiting. The cavalcade wound its way through the Italian countryside, waving the flags of the Sforza viper along with various other livery and colours. This brilliant parade would have proven to be such a spectacle as it wound its way through the small villages. Along the way, the party were joined by more and more members including Gian Luigi Bossi, who came carrying specific instructions from Caterina’s step mother Bona of Savoy. It seems like Bossi was to accompany Caterina all the way to Rome and make sure that the young Countess conducted herself properly. It really seems as though Bona cared for her stepdaughter’s welfare – not only did she send Bossi to watch over the young Countess, but she also wrote ahead to each town that the parade would pass through to make sure that Caterina was made welcome. Only one town did not to do this because the party arrived much earlier than expected and so Caterina stayed in an inn which described as “pleasant”. Everywhere that Caterina went, she was greeted with massive enthusiasm and huge affection. Caterina was certainly making a fantastic impression.

On the 1st May 1477, Caterina arrived in Imola where upon her arrival she was presented with the keys to the City. She and her husband were now the rulers of Imola, although at this stage her husband was still in Rome, and during her stay in her new City she was treated to a constant celebration. However, underneath all of the celebrations, Imola was at the centre of attention politically – Bossi had orders from Bona of Savoy to inform the city elders of the Sforza position on Taddeo Manfredi. Manfredi had previously been Lord of Imola until 1471 when he started to lose his grip on his subjects. He was too busy fighting with the rest of his family in Faenza and the city was just waiting to be taken over. Galeazzo Maria was the man who took over, despite the fact that both Florence and Venice were showing an interest, and he tried to get Manfredi out gently at first. Galeazzo extended Manfredi an invitation to Milan and then (after filling the man’s belly with good wine and good food) offered him rather a lot of money if he would just simply give up his Imolese territory. By the time Caterina entered the picture as new ruler of the city, Manfredi was holed away in Milan but was constantly in the minds of the Imolese. And he would often become the centrepiece of revolt. One such example was following the death of Galeazzo when whispers and rumours began to spread that Manfredi would soon be back in his seat of power. The rumours reached the sharp ears of Bona of Savoy who swiftly dispatched messengers to the leading families in Imola, informing them that Giralomo Riaro had the entire support of the Sforza clan, and that it wouldn’t be a good idea to reinstate Manfredi. They didn’t want the Sforza family as their enemies after all.

All the while she was in Imola, Caterina heard no word from her husband. He was still in Rome, and Caterina spent her days waiting for the summons to arrive. Even Bossi noted her impatience and remarked to the countess of Milan that she was “desirous to find herself in the presence of His Holiness and to her her count Giralomo”. Yet the summons did not arrive, and she found herself being delayed over and over. But why was this? Why did the summons not arrive?

An attempt had been made to assassinate Giralomo, the Pope’s favourite nephew. It should be noted that Giralomo Riaro was rather adept at making enemies for himself including men of his own family (Giuliano Della Rovere being just one example!). Two men were arrested and confessed that they had been approached by a man on behalf of Della Rovere who offered a huge payment if they would assassinate Giralomo. Yet they also admitted that they never received the orders directly from Cardinal Della Rovere. The Pope, worried for his favourite nephew’s safety, would not allow Giralomo to travel and also deemed that Rome was also too dangerous for Caterina. It seems though that Caterina was never given the true reason for this delay and was instead fed excuse after excuse by the Pope. He wrote to her and tries to blame bad air and plague, he blamed the fact that people would say he brought her to Rome to kill her, He blamed the heat of Rome and He said that he would not be able to put on a ceremony lavish enough for her out of respect for her murdered father. He then made promises to her that he would send her husband to her in Imola at the start of June.

Caterina, however, never received the letter from the Pope and instead took it upon herself to set out from Imola to Rome. And on24th May she arrived at Castel Novo outside the City. When news reached the Vatican, the Pope rushed to make sure everything was ready for her arrival. Gifts were prepared and the beautiiful halls of the Vatican were decorated with the Riaro and Sforza colours, in homage to the union of these two houses. On 25th, Caterina left Castel Novo, and was met outside the city by a group of horsemen, one of whom being Caterina’s husband Giralomo. It would be the first time the couple had seen each other in four years. Giralomo had last seen Caterina when she was just ten years old. Now, four years later, he himself was ageing quickly and had ill health. Yet the couple dismounted their horses and embraced each other. Following lunch, the party moved onto the villa of the Cardinal of Urbino which sat on top of a hill just north of Rome. There, Giralomo presented his wife with a pearl necklace. But he did not stay with her that night as he was under strict instruction from the Pope that he was to return to the Vatican that evening, and that he must wait until the marriage had been formalised before he took Caterina to the marriage bed. The next day, Caterina began to prepare herself to walk into the City of Rome and see it for the first time. She was dressed in gold brocade and dark silk and her sleeves were covered in jewels. At the gates of Rome, she was greeted by a party of six thousand horsemen who accompanied her to St Peter’s Basilica, and once there was shown to a place of honour as the Pope entered with the College of Cardinals.There, following the Mass of Pentecost, Pope Sixtus had Caterina and Giralomi brought before him and repeated their marriage ceremony. This was a marriage ceremony that no one could break, for it was solemnised before the head of the Catholic church. Following the ceremony, Caterina was then presented with a gift of pure white pearls from the Pope’s own treasury. Following the marriage, Caterina and Giralomo took their leave of the Pope and the Cardinals and made their way to their new home in the Campo dei Fiori.

The Campo Del Fiore in Rome

Caterina Sforza was in Rome, her new home. And.. there, in her first few days in the city she was treated to splendours she could never have imagined. The courtyard of her new home was filled with guests and well-wishers, and gifts were piled high. Her wedding feats held at her new home was so spectacular that before each course a child dressed as an angel rode in on a chariot. She was now officially Giralomo Riaro’s Countess, and would spend the next few years flitting between Rome and her lands in Forli and Imola. And most of all, she would grow into a young woman to be reckoned with.

As Caterina began to get used to Rome, she became more and more aware of all the dangers that the city had to offer. Each and every time she left her house she would have noticed groups of armed men wandering around the city. These men were hired retainers in the pay of a wealthy family, and paid to protect the family as they went about Rome on their daily business. Indeed, Caterina would have experienced this first hand and been accompanied throughout the city with her own band of guards. Yet she did not let this stop her and spent her time wandering the city, seeing the improvements that the Pope had made and getting to know her new extended family. She was also constantly partying and feasting, and became one of the most admired women in Rome. During this time her stepmother, Bona of Savoy became not only her mentor but also her source of fashion, and Bona often sent her gifts of jewellery and hairnets. With these Caterina became a style icon. However, despite her busy schedule of feasts and parties, Caterina still thoroughly enjoyed her riding and hunting, and Bona sent her and her husband a gift of hunting dogs. And Caterina spent much of her free time hunting outside the city, which she accessed across the Ponte Sisto. Her hunting grounds were in the forests of the Janiculum Hill, a place where she could escape the crowded city streets of Rome.

The Ponte Sisto (image credit)

Caterina had arrived in Rome by the time that Lorenzo De Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) had earned the displeasure of the Pope. The Medici, a famous Florentine banking family had been bankers to the Papal Court yet had earned the displeasure of the Pope by refusing to underwrite a loan for His Holiness. Thus Sixtus turned to the other great banking family in Florence; the Pazzi who immediately provided three quarters of the money the Pope needed for the sale of Imola. The Pope and Giralomo Riaro also had a plan to make a brand new state in the Romagna, yet Lorenzo provided soldiers to the towns in the Romagna who were trying to defend against Giralomo. And during the years that Caterina spent in Rome, her husband became involved in one of the most famous plots to ever effect Renaissance Italy – the Pazzi Conspiracy. The plot as hatched in 1478 as the Pazzi realised that Lorenzo de Medici was trying to use his power to block their work, and that the only way they could sort out this problem would be to murder Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano. The Pazzio recruited a number of conspirators including Giralomo himself. The plan was thus: the Pazzi family would take care of the Medici brothers while Giralomo would muster an army to help stop any rising that would happen against them. The plan also needed the go ahead from the Pope himself. Sixtus said that he desired a change in the rulers of Florence, yet flew into a rage when Giralomo even suggested murder. He was quite clear in his stance: He did not wish anyone to be killed, just a change in government. But for some reason, this was taken as papal consent, and this so called consent convinced the ruler of the Pazzi family, Jacopo de Pazzi that it was the right thing to do. The next phase was then worked out. Giralomo’s nephew, Cardinal Rafaello Riaro, was invited to Florence – and with such an important man visiting Florence, the Medici would deliberately take pains to look after their guest. It was agreed by Lorenzo that Cardinal Rafaello would arrive in Florence on April 26 1478 and there would attend Mass in the Duomo. This was when the assassination would take place.

The Santa Maria Del Fiore, aka The Duomo, Florence

On that Sunday morning, the Pazzi arrived to bring Lorenzo and Giuliano to the Duomo for Mass. Giuliano was feeling unwell and so tried to excuse himself, yet Francesco De Pazzi practically dragged the young man along, feigning friendship and laughter. Once in the Duomo, the conspirators waited for their signal: the elevation of the host. As the Host was elevated, and the gathered congregation bowed their heads in reverence, Giuliano De Medici was stabbed in the head by Francesco and then stabbed over and over again. Lorenzo however managed to escape. And Giralomo never got to put his army into action.

The plot failed, and the majority of the conspirators were hunted down and executed. Sandro Boticelli painted the executed men as they hung on public display. Leonardo Da Vinci also sketched a few of the corpses.

Bernardi di Bandido Baroncelli, one of the Pazzi Conspirators by Leonardo Da Vinci
Cardinal Raffaello managed to get away with it, the Medici family making out he was but a hapless pawn in the whole affair. The Medici still kept him as a hostage, which was rather a good way to stop Rome from exacting revenge on the Florentines. He was held for 6 weeks and upon release, Caterina wrote to her stepmother requesting that Riaro be given the income of the Abbey of Chiaravalle near Milan. But was Caterina at her husbands side during these torrid times? She was very close to Lorenzo having spent time in his company in her younger years and grieved deeply for him when he died. And would her husband have shared such plans with his fifteen year old bride. 
Following the confession of one of the conspirators, a man by the name of Montesecco, Giralomo’s part in the conspiracy became publicly known.. Of course, Sixtus would have been furious with his nephew. And with the ridicule that now haunted the steps of Giralomo, Caterina found herself bound to a murderer and included in the jokes of the Roman’s. It was from this moment on that something changed within Caterina, and in the years to come would prove time and again that she would no longer stand by as such important events passed her by. Indeed, she would become a part of them. 
During Christmas in 1478, Caterina became pregnant with her first child. At the time her husband was frequently away fighting for his uncle and striking back at the Florentines, yet upon hearing the news that his young wife was pregnant purchased a new family home for them. The new home was located in the Piazza Navona.
The Piazza Navona as it appears today (image credit)
The child was born on 31st August 1479, and christened Ottaviano. His christening was an incredibly lavish affair, and attended by only the most high ranking Roman citizens, including Rodrigo Borgia – a man who would prove to be a thorn in Caterina’s side as the years went on. Caterina recovered from the birth of her son quickly and was desperate to show off her little boy to her family in Milan. Yet bad news came back from Milan; it was said that Bona of Savoy had taken a young lover, a man by the name of Antonio Tassino who was a footman in her household. Bona shared the secrets of the Milanese court with her new lover and due to this Bona found herself in the centre of a bitter rivalry in her court, and her brother in law Ludovico (The Moor – due to his dark colouring) thought it a good time to introduce himself into the court of Milan. Ludovico used Antonio as a path to Bona, making out he wished to make peace with his sister in law. And on September 7th, Bona agreed to meet with her brother in law. Almost a year later, Bona was ousted from her place in authority and power was taken over by Ludovico, where he acted as regent for the young Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo. By the time that Ludovico had taken the reins of power, Caterina was pregnant again and just three months after she had given birth to her son!  During her pregnancy this time though, she had more responsibilities. The new palace in the Piazza Navona was almost complete and she had to oversee the sumptuous decorations that her husband was so instant on. 
On August 23, 1480, Pope Sixtus formally gave the city of Forli to Giralomo. Forli was a little town just south of Imola and thus doubled the Riario lands. And on August 24th, Caterina gave birth to her second son whom as christened Cesare.
Caterina Riario Sforza was now Countess of Forli, wife to the Pope’s favourite nephew and mother to two sons. She was also becoming a woman to be reckoned with, and as she took her place as Countess of Forli she would prove to be an incredibly popular lady in her new town, and a woman who would prove to be one of the toughest women in Italy at the time. She was becoming a force to be reckoned with, and in the next few years would prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Further Reading

Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli, 
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Paul Strathern, The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior
Ernst Breisach, Caterina Sforza: A Renaissance Virago
Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and Their Enemies
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance In Italy
Christopher Hare, The Most Illustrious Ladies of the Italian Renaissance
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
Will Durant, The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 AD

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