Gina McKee as Caterina Sforza, shouting down from her ramparts that she had the “means to make ten more sons!”
There is one story about Caterina Sforza that will always stick in someones mind. Ask anyone who has watched Showtime’s recent “The Borgias” what the one thing they remember Caterina for is. and then will say the words “ten more sons”. These three words are some of the most famous attributed to Caterina Sforza, probably more now than before thanks to The Borgias. But did she really say them? When did she say them? Did she really lift her skirts and show her genitalia to soldiers before her walls and shout those words down? Were they really said as Juan Borgia laid siege to the city of Forli?
I can answer that last question straight of the bat. No, she did not utter those famous famous words at the siege of Forli. She actually uttered the words in 1488, as she held the fortress of Ravaldino against the Orsi family and murderers of her husband. The Borgias places Juan Borgia as commander of the besieging army – the problem with this though is that the siege of Forli did not take place until 1499. How on earth could Juan Borgia be at the siege of Forli when he died in 1497? In reality it was Cesare Borgia who besieged Forli in 1499 and who eventually took Caterina prisoner. But that’s another subject for another post. Today, I will be talking about the events that lead up to the supposed “ten more sons”, and the time she spent holed up in the fortress of Ravaldino after the murder of her husband.
Going back somewhat, I left the last entry at the point where Girolamo’s assassins entered Caterina’s chambers. Now, she cowed against the wall, protecting her children. None of her husbands assassins dared to even touch her, however her sister was with her and when one of the men tried to grope her she slapped him away.
As the townspeople greeted Bishop Savelli, who rode into Forli on 15th April 1488, carrying the papal banner and intending to bring Forli under papal control; the fortress of Ravaldino was still in the hands of Riario supporters and it would be prudent for the supporters to get their countess inside the walls of Ravaldino. There she would be safe. Yet the Orsi family had the idea of taking her to the fortress and having her demand the castellans hand the fortress over to the Orsis. Ludovico Orsi therefore took her from her prison in the Orsi palace and dragged her away from her children. They took her before the walls of Ravaldio where she spoke to Tommaso Feo, begging that he give up the fortress for the sake of her children. Feo refused, saying his orders were to keep the castle safe for Ottaviano. And as the crowds listened to the exchange it became clear that this man was Caterina’s friend and ally. He dropped the names of Sforza, Cardinal Riario and Bentivolglio to make it clear to her captors that she had her allies. The Orsi then dragged her away, realising that the whole exchange was likely staged, that there was no plan to hand the castle over to them.
Her captors were of course angry that she had played them for fools, and they threatened to run her though with lances. And as they did so, her whole demeanour changed. No longer was she an upset widow, instead she became strong, “Certainly you can hurt me, but you don’t scare me because I am the daughter of a man who knew no fear. Do what you want: you have killed my lord, you can certainly kill me. After all, I’m just a woman”.
They took her back to her prison, determined to break her spirits. They knew she was a pious woman and thought that by using her religion against her, they would break her. They smuggled a priest into her rooms and confronted her about both her and her husbands sins. Saying that his husband had been killed for her sins, he demanded she give up Ravaldino and if she did not, she would face the same fate as her husband. He said also that if she did not hand over the fortress, she would be punished by starvation and eternal hellfire for both her and her children. She banged on the door and screamed that he be taken away and she later admitted that she found this experience more traumatic than losing her husband. However, bishop Savelli (who had previously rode to the town to bring it under papal control), had her family moved to the tower of Porta San Pietro for their safety, while she was removed across the town and placed in a small cell.
On April 16th, a message came to to a man who was loyal to the Riarios (but pretending to work for the Orsi) by the name of Ercolani. The message was from Feo who said he would give up the castle on one condition: Caterina would have to pay him his back wages and give him a good reference for any future employment. Caterina would have to come alone. Of course, the Orsi would not agree to this so Savelli agreed to a compromise. It would have to be done with Caterina outside the walls, in full view. Once again she made her way up to the walls of Ravaldino and called to Feo, promising he would have everything he had asked for. Feo then said that Caterina would have to come into the fortress to sign a contract and only one person was allowed to come inside with her. The Orsi put up a fight but Savelli sent her inside, wishing for everything to be over with. And she took with her a young groom named Luca. And as she crossed the drawbridge, she turned back to the crowd and raised her hand with the index and ring fingers folded back and her thumb tucked between her. She had just, for all intents and purposes, sworn violently as the crowd.
Savelli had given her three hours to conduct her business. But the three hour limit came and went and she did not set foot outside the front of the castle. After a while, Feo appeared on the battlements and shouted down that he had taken Caterina as his hostage! He then said he would exchange her for several members of the nobility, all of which were supporters of the Orsi family. The Orsi knew that Caterina and Feo had planned this and in anger they went and seized Ottaviano and his nurse before dragging them back to Ravaldino. The child begged for mercy, his cries mingling with the cries of his little brother Livio; and the soldiers shouted threats. The cries of her children summoned her to the ramparts of Ravaldino.
Tradition dictated that she should give in when faced with her endangered children. Yet she was not like other women, she was the daughter of a great family of warriors. She knew that Savelli knew her children were the nephews of the Duke of Milan, and that Milan would bring justice swiftly down on anyone who caused the children harm. She also knew that giving up the castle would give her no advantage whatsoever against the Orsi’s, that if she did so then she and her family would be in danger of imprisonment and of being poisoned.
And this is where the “ten more sons” myth comes from, the most well known and well publicised version of this story. It was said that she walked to the edge of the ramparts and as the Orsi threatened to kill her children on the spot, she shouted back, “Do it then you fools! I am already pregnant with another child by Count Riario and I have the means to make more!”. Others wrote of the event, and Galeotto Manfredi wrote to Lorenzo De Medici that Caterina had raised her skirts, grabbed her genitals and shouted that unlike those men below, she had the means of making ten more sons. Niccolo Machiavelli also repeats this story in his discourses but no one else mentions such a salacious version of events. This however, is a complete myth. There are contemporary accounts written by Cobelli and Bernardi which mention nothing of any such words. Both men, both local authors and diarists, mention that her children were brought to the walls but that Caterina never stepped foot on the ramparts. Cobelli mentions that she stayed inside on purpose while Feo had several cannon shots fired.
Savelli reclaimed the family immediately to take them away from the danger that the Orsi’s were placing them in. He knew they were unstable and he had to protect the children by placing them under a heavier guard.
Caterina held the castle until April 29th. The Milanese army had come, and they demanded that the Riario family be reinstated, and Savelli made it clear of the Papal position on the matter also. The people began to panic, thinking that the Roman army was on its way. Yet as they arrived, only fifty horseman rode through the gates and had been sent by Cardinal Riario to help his aunt. The Orsi ran to the Porta San Pietro where they believed the Riario children to be, and banged o the doors saying that Savelli had ordered them to take the children and keep them safe. The guards refused, knowing full well that Savelli had ordered no such thing.
And as Caterina heard the shouts of her townspeople, and the cheers as the Orsi’s were ousted from power she would have heard the shouts of “Duke!” and “Ottaviano”
Her son was now the rightful ruler of Forli, she had won. She had stepped into the shoes of the warrior noblewoman who has come down to us through the centuries. From that moment on she was known as a Tigress, a woman who really was her fathers daughter. And she would rule Forli until her son came of age.
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