Caterina Sforza Part 5 – Ten More Sons.

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. 
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

Caterina Sforza Part 4 – 1488: The Death of Girolamo Riario

San Mercuriale, Forli

In May 1487, Caterina Sforza began to take the reigns of power. Her husband had suddenly been taken ill with a mysterious illness and as he lay in his sick bed she had to govern Forli and Imola in his stead. Yet Caterina had to watch herself. Girolamo was seriously unwell and her eldest son was still only eight years old and there was those who had their eyes on Forli. Thankfully Girolamo recovered, but thanks to his illness as well as his weak character, Caterina knew that he was not a fit ruler. She had to take centre stage, and so she did. And in 1488, her life would change forever.

As Caterina began ruling Forli in mid 1487, she began to make plans should her husband die. She renewed her alliance with Milan and sent feelers to the Bentivoglio family in Bologna. However, the fortress of Ravaldino was under the protection of a man who she distrusted, Melhiorre Zaccheo. He had showed up in Forli as Girolamo was desperate for cash, and in return for a few loans was installed as commander of Ravaldino. Caterina made it one of her first jobs to get rid of the man and, at 8 months pregnant rode to Ravaldino. She then got off her horse and called to Zaccheo to relinquish the castle. He, of course, refused saying that he had heard Girolamo was already dead and he would only vacate the fortress on his terms and when he was damn well good and ready. Caterina rode back to Imola, a plan formulating in her mind. On August 10th, Innocenzo Codronchi turned up at Ravaldino. There was already bad blood between him and Caterina after she had ousted him from the Castel Sant Angelo. But Girolamo had rewarded Codronchi’s loyalty and made him castellan of Ravaldino, which would have displeased Caterina greatly. And when Girolamo had made Zaccheo castellan of Ravaldino in his stead, he was made captain of Girolamo’s personal guard. And Codronchi would have a massive part to play in helping Caterina take back her fortress. The two men knew each other well, and had played cards together often. And when Codronchi returned, it is no surprise that Zaccheo welcomed him, and the two men played at dice. The loser would have to provide lunch the next day. Of course Codronchi lost and the next morning he left Ravaldino, promising to return with lunch. His servant appeared the next morning with a fowl for lunch and Zaccheo admitted him so that he could prepare the meal. As lunch was served, the manservant waited behind Zaccheo’s chair, and as Zaccheo rose from the table Codronchi grabbed him and the servant hit him on the head! Next, Zaccheo’s own servant stabbed his master over and over again. It was Codronchi himself who dealt the final blow, by stabbing Zaccheo with his own sword. Zaccheo’s body was then unceremoniously thrown down a well, and Codronchi threatened to do the same to Zaccheo’s followers. They fled and Codronchi raised Ravadino’s drawbridge. As Caterina was due to give birth on the 11th August, her brother in law brought news of Zaccheo’s murder to her. Despite being so close to giving birth, she rode hard to Forli and rode up to the moat, calling to Codronchi to explain himself. He replied:

“Madam, you shouldn’t entrust your fortress to drunkards and people with no brains”

And that he murdered Zaccheo because he “felt like it”. What a brilliant excuse! Yet as he looked down at Caterina and saw her exhausted from her long ride and being “pregnant up to her throat”, he advised Caterina to get some rest and invited her to lunch the very next day. Yet there was a condition, she was only allowed to bring one servant with her. And the next morning, she and a maidservant rode to Ravaldino. Her maidservant had prepared lunch, to make it look as though she were afraid of a poisoning attempt. Yet as she disappeared into Ravaldino, she and Codronchi disappeared alone where they discussed what was going to happen, and allowed their servants only a glimpse of various documents being signed. Not long after, Caterina got back on her horse and rode back to Imola. Three days later she returned to Ravaldino with a new castellan, Tommaso Feo. The two of them entered the fortress and not long after she emerged with Codronchi at her side. They rode together into Forli and stopped before the steps of the Riaro palace, claiming that Rivaldino was back in her hands and she had chosen a castellan who was suitable. Following dinner within the palace, Codronchi left the palace and was never heard from again.

The next day, Caterina gave birth to Francesco who was lovingly nicknamed “Sforzino”. And at the same time she was busy dealing with international politics. Her main issue was with Erole D’Este, who owned the lands next to hers, and she had to keep an eye on him. Ercole and Caterina often clashed and Ercole never seemed to pass up an opportunity to goad Caterina. Two days after little Sforzino was born, Caterina had finally had enough and built a farmhouse on their borders where she stationed soldiers to constantly watch the Ferrara lands for signs of invasion. Ercole realised what was going on and on 19th August 1487 sent his peasants to tear down the little farmhouse on the basis that Caterina had built it on his territory. Caterina took the case before a tribunal but lost to Ercole. In September of the same year, the old Ordelaffi claimants made their move and stormed Forli’s western gate. Thankfully this was stopped before it could really have begun, and despite only being a month out of her child bed insisted on interrogating the prisoners herself. Upon interrogation, she discovered that the man behind the plot was a farmer by the name of Passi. Yet as she brought Passi before her, Passi shouted that he hadn’t spoken to these men in over eight months. The man who made the acusation was hanged, and Passi was set free.

Yet all the while, Girolamo remained in his sickbed with his mysterious illness. Yet even as he began to recover, he stared back with some of his old tricks. Despite telling his people he would get rid of the dazzi tax, he reinstated it. And the outcome was not a happy one.

Following the reinstatement of the dazzi in 1488, as wedding bells rang throughout the country as Lorenzo de Medici’s daughter married the son of Pope Innocent VIII, two of Girolamo Riario’s enemies united. Riario feared both Rome and Florence following his involvement in the assassination of Giuliano de Medici, and the fact that both states supported the Ordelaffi claimants to Forli. In his fear, Girolamo began to upset the nobles of his own town by trying to relieve the taxes paid by the poor. Riario tried to shift the tax to the rich town dwellers and the move was not a popular one. Ludovico Orsi, a one time friend of Riario, took it upon himself to rebuke Girolamo as acting up to the peasant class would only make things worse. Yet Riario would have none of it, and Orsi grew angry and told Riario that the people would tear him to shreds. And sadly for Girolamo Riaro, these words would become truth soon enough. Riario however accused Orsi of never having been his friend and demanded, “Perhaps you would rather that I die?”. Orsi fled, and having met up with his brother agreed that the Count should die. Giralomo, already paranoid about assassination attempts, kept a constant watch on the piazza and often spotted as Orsi tried to make his way in disguise through the town. On one occasion Girolamo dragged Orsi to his quarters and demanded to know why he didn’t visit any more. Orsi muttered something about needing money for the count but as soldiers stepped forward, he panicked and fled. And now that the Orsi had fully broken with the Riario’s, they decided to act before Riario could. And plans to murder the Riario family began in earnest.

Girolamo Riario took his midday meal in his “hall of the mymphs”, away from his family and in the afternoon, following a small siesta, held audiences. The Orsi assasins already knew how to get a couple of minutes with the count, and persuaded Riario’s new page that his uncle Gasparino needed a few minutes alone with the count. Gasparino was, of course, one of those involved in the plot. Gasparino then agreed to signal from the open window when Girolamo was taking his siesta.

Girolamo Riario

Moday, April 14th was the day when it would all happen. The town was busy with the market, but by lunch time the main piazza had quietened down. Caterina was busy having lunch with her children, and as Riario went to lay down, Gasparino signalled. Six members of the Orsi family, all dressed in armour, climbed the stairs towards the hall of the nymphs and there, Cecco Orsi stabbed Riario over and over. And as they did so they cried “Liberty!”. As the Orsi family ransacked the palace the servants fought amongst themselves, trying to work out if their lord had beenn killed or not, and the gathered townspeople did the same.

Three soldiers dragged the naked, battered corpse of Girolamo Riario and threw him over the balcony into the piazza. The people circled the mangled body, recognising the facial figures of their count. And they ran to the palace in horror. And as they ran, the palace was ransacked.

Girolamo’s body was left laying in the piazza like meat. His body was dragged through the piazza, being spat upon and kicked and some fanatics tried to tear him to shreds. Yet the fraternity of the Battuti Neri stopped them, and they took the body to the cathedral.

Caterina was having lunch with her children at the time, and when she heard the cries of ” Liberty”. Gathering her children to her, she went to the window with little Ottaviano and called for help for the little heir of Forli. The palace was however now in the hands of the Orsis, and there was no help that would come for her, and Caterina knew what was at stake. The assassins would look to kill her children and so she barricaded herself  inside her rooms, and called to those loyal to her that there was no point in fighting as the Orsi family had control. And as she spoke those words, her attackers pounded on her doors. Yet Caterina would not allow her town to fall completely. She was the widow of Forli and mother of the heir. She ordered that those loyal to her meet in Ravaldino, and as she did so, the Orsi burst into her rooms.

It was at Ravaldino in 1488 that those mythical words were cried, “I have the means to make ten more sons!”. Did Caterina Sforza really speak these words?

Alas, as it is late, I feel that the myth of Caterina and “ten more sons” should be saved for the next entry. So please do keep your eyes pealed.

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