Caterina Sforza Part 3 – Countess of Forli

The fortress of Ravaldino, Forli

When Giralomo Riario and his wife Caterina Sforza were given the town of Forli, trouble was already brewing. The town itself had been politically unstable for over 500 years and was still subject to bitter rivalries, battles and destruction and thus the townspeople were suspicious of any new rulers. Forli itself was separated from the other town owned by the Riario’s, Imola, by the little town of Faenza which was owned by the Manfredi family who were backed by the military powers of the Este’s from Ferrara. To bring the two lands together, Count Giralomo Riario would have to take Faenza. For a long time Forli had been ruled by the Ordelaffi family, and in 1480 when Pino Ordelaffi was on his death bed he had no legitimate heir. He decided to recognise his bastard son Sinibaldo and make him heir to the town. The problem was that Pino was hated by the people of Forli and when he fell so ill they rose up against him. The people dragged him from his sick bed into the central piazza and beat him to death. Pino’s wife Lucrezia immediately assumed the regency for her son Sinibaldo, literally just as Cecco Ordelaffi’s (the ruler previous to Pino, who had been been stabbed to death by Pino) exiled sons rode into the town. Lucrezia holed herself up in the Castello Ravaldino, and waited. Whilst there, Sinibaldo mysteriously died. Giralomo, who had his eyes on the town for a while, and Pope Sixtus IV made their move and declared the Ordelaffi’s claim to the city completely invalid, sending soldiers into the city to take possession of it. Lucrezia then thought it prudent to leave the city and left with over 130,000 ducats and over 32 baggage carts, while the exiled sons of Cecco went to Faenza where they waited.

Giralomo did not visit his new lands straight away. Instead he sent his trusted condottiere Gian Francesco Maruzzi as Governor to the city. People wondered why he was so reluctant to leave Rome, it was probably because he was busy cooking up more schemes to get himself more power in the city. Whilst still there, the notables of Forli sent a delegation to Rome to meet their new lord and they came away impressed. Giralomo had welcomed them warmly and promised them all good positions as well as a relief from certain unpopular taxes in the city. They returned to Forli with this good news. Meanwhile the Ordelaffi brothers who had escaped to Faenza were plotting again and on October 1480 sent 60 men to take the fortress of Ravaldino. Their orders were to kill the keeper of the castle and occupy it. Thankfully Maruzzi smelt a rat and discovered the plot, before exiling the soldiers and executing the two priests who were supposed to have assassinated the castle keeper.

Tranquillity had returned to the town, at least for now, and Caterina began to make ready to visit her new town. In the spring of 1481, Caterina and Giralomo departed Rome with an armed escort and accompanied by their children. At this point, Caterina was also pregnant again and so they travelled at a leisurely pace and stopped each evening on the way. Two weeks later they had arrived and saw their new town for the first ever time. At sunset they entered the city, and it was comprised of the grandest procession that the people of Forli had ever seen. Nobles carried banners and lances, trumpets announced their arrival, clergymen walked in a stately order holding reliquaries and golden crucifixes and acolytes waved palm leaves as had been done at Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Caterina and her husband were dressed in beautiful silks while their soldiers wore silver cloaks and the knights in the escort wore gold brocade. As the procession entered the central piazza of Forli, they were greeted by a group of actors playing the parts of prominent citizens from the past including the founder of the town , Claudius Livy; famous Roman play write Titus Maccius Plautus and the towns first bishop Saint Mercuriale. Following this, the party then rode up to their new palace and despite being heavily pregnant Caterina dismounted her horse gracefully, and several of the townsmen came forward begging to carry her up to the palace. She then promised that if her horse was well looked after then she would give the gentleman who had taken her horse away her jewelled headdress. And she kept that promise most gracefully.

Caterina dazzled her new people. They jostled to get a glimpse of her and her astounding beauty, and she dazzled them with the latest fashions which the towns noblewomen did their best to copy. Caterina Sforza was certainly a trendsetter! Indeed the people of Forli noted that in her first four weeks in the town, she never wore the same outfit twice but it didn’t matter to them. Their countess was beautiful, they loved her and were completely enchanted by her, her beauty and her incredible fashion.

During the weeks of celebration, Giralomo addressed his new subjects, promising that he would be a good ruler to them, and promised that he would get rid of the dazzi, a tax that was levied on entering the city and purchasing grain for personal use. Giralomo promised that he would never repeal this promise, and nor would his heirs. This new policy was met with huge rejoicing but in reality, as the Popes favourite nephew who could dip his hands into Papal moneys whenever he needed it, this would only last until his Uncle died. Yet at the time this didn’t matter, the town was rejoicing at their new rulers and one diarist described it as the beginning of a golden age. The diarist in question, Leone Cobelli was immediately enamoured with Caterina from the moment he first laid eyes on her as he played his badosa (like a guitar) for one of the many dances that were given and saw her dancing. His very first lines about her were: “(she danced) the most beautiful dance I have ever seen or think I ever will”. Over the years he would watch her from afar and studied every moment of her life in Forli. He only ever spoke to her once, and that proved to be rather unpleasant and changed his opinion of her greatly, although this comes much later in her story.

For the month that they stayed in Forli, Caterina made the effort to visit and socialise with her new subjects. Her husband however holed himself up in his apartments. Caterina was not afraid to walk amongst her subjects and they loved her for it, but Giralomo constantly avoided doing the same. It was a pattern that Giralomo would repeat throughout the years and it did not endear him to his people. Even when they moved onto Imola, after the banquets and festivties, he locked himself in his rooms too. But the Imolese people still loved their ruler thanks to the improvements he had made to their town. But after a while, the people started to mutter, why did he lock himself up? It seems the Count was afraid of Assassins, particularly in Forli and rightly so, as will be seen later. And so when he came to the area, he preferred to stay in Imola. It also seems as if he distrusted Caterina and refused to let her visit her family in Milan, brushing off her requests angrily. Even when the Milanese ambassador stepped in for her, Giralomo still refused and said if she went he “wouldn’t know how to live without her” which proved to be a lie when he said he had every intention of leaving Caterina in Forli while he went back to Rome. When Caterina heard this she began to make plans of her own to visit Milan, despite being pregnant, the plans were scuppered and she had to remain in Forli and comply with her husband and his distrust.

In September, the couple made their way to Venice and when they arrived on 8th September, the Doge of Venice came out to greet them. The trip was not just for fun however but rather Giralomo was making plans to ally with Venice against Ercole D’Este. It was his plan to carve the lands up and give them away, and would keep Faenza all for himself. Giralomo never got what he came for, despite the flamboyant banquets and parties thrown for him, and Venice did not wish to go to war against the Duke of Ferrara, King Ferdinand of Naples. On their way back, they took a round about route avoiding passing through Ferrara, and stopped in the little village of Cotignola. The villagers came out to greet them crying out the name of Sforza. But when the came back to Forli, their welcome was not as ostentatious as it had been before. The people were discontent, and having not forgotten the murder of his brother, Lorenzo De Medici was helping them along. The Artisan conspiracy was planned, with the goal of killing both Giralomo and Caterina on the road between Imola and Forli. Maruzzi again smelt a rat and discovered the plot. When Giralomo heard of the plot he flew into a massive rage yet ordered Maruzzi not to say a word of it to anyone. He needed to keep his authority.

Shortly after, Giralomo and Caterina set out for Rome once more, taking a number of Forli citizens with them as hostages. She rode to Rome on the back of a mule carrying two baskets due to the fact she was now 9 months pregnant and should ideally have been “lying in” and waiting to deliver her child. Yet despite this, she made the journey anyway and just a few days after arriving in Rome she gave birth to her first daughter, whom she named Bianca. In November 1481, Giralomo finally acted out justice for the Artisan Conspiracy and in Forli, Maruzzi had five men hanged in the central piazza and exiled many more.

In the spring of 1482, war began. Venice had decided to go to war against Ferrara, and all over the subject of salt. This may seem like a petty thing to go to war over these days, yet in the fifteenth century salt was incredibly precious and used to preserve food. Venice owned much of the salt marshes and when Ferrara began extracting salt and selling it from land it leased from Venice, the Venetians forbade the Ferrarese from doing so. When Ferrara ignored them, war began. Alfonso, Duke of Calabria was dispatched to relieve Ferrara by his father King Ferdinand of Naples and when he approached the borders of the Papal states with his army and asked to be let through, Pope Sixtus refused. Alfonso passed through anyway. Giralomo Riario was captain of the papal armies and so summoned to help defend Rome. He camped by the southern gate on the Via Appia and not far from the cathedral of Saint John Lateran, but stayed inside the walls claiming he was doing so to stop the people of Rome from revolting. In fact he was a coward. The subject of her husbands cowardice must have been disgraced at the behaviour of her husband. After all, she was a Sforza and had the blood of those who got their lands through battle, and the name had never before been associated with cowardice. Not only that but disturbing stories of her husbands conduct made their way to her – he had been seen playing dice on the high altar of the cathedral, he and his soldiers sat on boxes containing sacred relics and told scandalous stories as they did so. And so she spent her time praying for her husbands soul, and spent many hours on her knees in church, praying for him. On August 20th, the final battle of the war happened at Campo Morto, beginning at 4pm and finishing at 11pm. The Papal Armies had won the day, although cowardly Giralomo had not taken part. He had stayed at the camp to guard the tents, although he did try and claim credit for the victory. All knew of his cowardice however and Sixtus gave the honours of the day to Malatesta. Sadly, nine days after the battle, Malatesta died of dysentery. On December 13 1482, an an armistice had been reached, and a new church was built in celebration.

During her years in Rome, Caterina would have spent many hours within the Papal apartments in the Vatican.  During the years 1479-81 she would have been aware that Pope Sixtus was working on a very impressive project, the painting of the murals within the Sistine chapel which had just been completed. In 1481, Lorenzo De Medici offered to send his own painters to paint the chapel including the famous Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio (Domenico would soon receive Michelangelo as an apprentice, and this apprentice would paint some of the most beautiful paintings in the chapel) and Pietro Perugino. The panel “The Purification of the Leper” was one of the first panels to be started in 1481 by Boticelli. This is actually one of the only panels in the whole chapel in which Jesus is not depicted, instead the background is made up of lots of little paintings from the temptation of Christ and the foreground of the painting shows a high priest accepting a sacrifice offered by the Leper who Christ had healed. A certain building dominates the painting, Santo Spirito, a hospital recently completed and which still exists today. Within this portrait are the figures of Giralommo Riario (showing his famous scowl) and Giuliano Della Rovere and the two papal nephews face each other on either side of the priest. To the right of them is a single female figure, Caterina Sforza, shown in her sixth month of pregnancy and carrying wood on her shoulder.

The Purification of the Leper by Sandro Boticelli, both the full image and detail of Caterina

Despite the hustle and bustle going on the Sistine Chapel, Sixtus was becoming unwell and getting weaker. The people of Rome realised that the days of Sixtus’ papacy were almost over and the people began to plan to get their revenge on Giralomo and his outrages. And so Giralomo made sure that the armed guard that surrounded him and his wife grew to massive proportions. Of course, Giralomo made sure he made the most of his uncles waning papacy to get as much money out of the Papal coffers as possible, and alongside his nephew Cardinal Raffaello ruled Rome from behind the dying Pope.

In 1483, with the Pope’s health waning, Giralomo purchased a new house for his family and placed the deeds in the name of the four year old Ottaviano. In the first few months of 1483, Sixtus fell seriously ill, but recovered against the odds. He lasted until August 1484 and when news of his death reached Caterina, she immediately jumped on a horse and rode from the Orsini camp near Paliano (she was staying with her husband there as he fought with the Orsini’s against the Colonna’s) to Rome. She headed straight for the Castel Sant Angelo and on August 14th she took control of it. The college of Cardinal’s were in an uproar as she dismissed the seniour keepers of the castle and trained her cannons on the Vatican, making it impossible for the Cardinal’s to reach the Sistine Chapel for conclave. The cardinals demanded that she vacate the castle yet she refused, saying that the Pope had made her husband responsible for it and she would only hand it over to the next Pope, which of course given her cannon would be a rather difficult thing for them to do. Even Sixtus’ funeral was affected by it, all of the cardinal’s were too afraid of approaching the Vatican when she had her cannon trained on its walls. The day after Sixtus’ funeral, Cardinal Raffaello approached the castello as he was in charge of organising the conclave, and as a relative he thought he could smooth things over. Yet Caterina stood her ground and declared:

“So he wants a battle of wits with me does he? What he doesn’t understand is that I have the brains of Duke Galeazzo and I am as brilliant as he!”

The Castello Sant Angelo, held by Caterina in 1483

On August 23rd, the College of Cardinals came to a desperate agreement with Giralomo, offering 8000 ducats to pay his soldiers as long as he left Rome immediately. He got ready to leave. Caterina did not. She had no faith in the promises of the cardinals and decided to wait until the conclave was over and deal directly with the new pope. The cardinal’s were furious and demanded the Giralomo sort it out, but he was too busy getting ready to leave Rome. She was heavily pregnant once more, and although her pregnancy and feeling unwell could not move her, abandonment by her husband could. On August 25th, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza came to the castle with eight other cardinals, and they agreed to treat her with the utmost respect, that they would look after her as she and her family left Rome. They also gave her a written agreement that the Riario family would still get to keep Forli and Imola. On the morning of 26th August, Caterina exited the Castello wearing a brown silk dress and a black feathered cap. She was exhausted and of course heavily pregnant, but she made her mark by wearing a mans belt adorned with a coin purse and sword.

It was a sign that she was not to be messed with. Caterina had made her mark, as she would do time and time again.

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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