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5.0 out of 5 stars Fair Picture of a Notorious Renaissance Noblewoman, 18 Oct 2011
This review is from: The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici (Kindle Edition)
"The Tigress of Forli," is the debut publication of Rome-based Elizabeth Lev. It is a nonfiction treatment of the life of the 15th-16th century Italian woman, Caterina Riario Sforza De Medici, one of the most prominent, and vilified, women in Renaissance Italy. (The Renaissance was generally considered to have taken place between the 14th and 17th centuries, and to have been centered in Italy.The term means, literally, rebirth, and referred to the fact that by rediscovering ancient texts, art, and architecture, scholars infused new knowledge into civilisation). Caterina was a three times married wife, mother of eight surviving children, shrewd leader, and fearless warrior. Elizabeth Lev here re-examines her extraordinary life and accomplishments.

Caterina was an illegitimate child of the mighty soldiers, the Sforza (means strong in Italian) of Milan. Apparently, however, the Renaissance period wasn't much bothered by the concept of illegitimacy, and, as was the norm in those days, Caterina was raised with her half-brothers and sisters at the court of Milan. As was also apparently the norm in those days, she received as good an education as did her brothers, for, as the author mentions, the Renaissance knew that death came early and often. And noblewomen who were married to soldiers - condottiere, as Italy called them--were often widowed early in life, while the rightful heir to their husband's throne was still young. So, such women were named as regents. They had to run and hold their lands for their sons, and that required an understanding of government, politics, and warfare--especially if you were a Sforza.

Caterina was wed at age ten to the reigning pope's corrupt nephew: that too was the way things were done in those days of arranged marriages. This marriage guaranteed that Caterina would be ensnared in Italy's political intrigues early in life. The beautiful fair-haired young girl spent turbulent years at the center of the Renaissance world, in Rome's papal court, as the favorite of the Pope, her husband's uncle. At that Pope's death, and the accession of a Pope hostile to her family, she moved to lands she had been given in the Pope's holdings in the Romagnol province of Forli. Following her husband's assassination--her second husband would be assassinated too-- she ruled Italy's crossroads with iron will, martial strength, political savvy - and, still beautiful, an icon's fashion sense. Her final marriage was to a scion of the junior branch of the De Medici, the famous rulers of Florence; this husband died young, of a sudden fever, while at a spa hoping to improve his health. But Caterina was finally to lose her lands to the monumentally murderous, corrupt and cruel Borgia family, after the accession of the Borgia Pope. However, she put up a resistance that inspired all of Europe and set the stage for her progeny - including Cosimo de' Medici - to follow her example to greatness. She was a shrewd and fearless leader until the end of her brief life, at 46. (Other famous renaissance women, such as Isabella D'Este, born of the house of Ferrara, married to the duke of Mantua, lived into their 60s, but undoubtedly had put less mileage on their odometers.)

Once upon a time, I studied Renaissance History at Cornell University, even took some Italian. I then tried to write a biography of Isabella D'Este Gonzaga, of Mantua. I trudged around the New York Public Library, 42nd Street; and the British Library, doing research; and was stymied, as most of the original material was in Latin, which I've never studied. But I had heard of Caterina; she was called a "virago," which I took as a term of criticism, although Lev says it originated as a word of praise, meaning a woman who had a man's qualities of strength, courage and daring.

In the world of the Renaissance, Caterina is most famous for an incident that may have happened in an early battle of her life. To quote the author:

"According to the most common version of the story, Caterina strode to the edge of the ramparts. With daggers drawn, the Orsis called to her, promising to kill her children, mother, and sister on the spot. In response, Caterina bellowed, `Do it then, you fools! I am already pregnant with another child by Count Riario, and I have the means to make more!' Then she turned on her heel and walked back into the castle.

That retort at Ravaldino would define Caterina Sforza throughout history. The Venetian ambassador, floored by her audacity, dubbed her a `tigress,' willing to eat her young to gain power. Galeotto Manfredi...passed down a particularly earthy version of the retort at Ravaldino. Writing to Lorenzo de' Medici, Manfredi claimed that Catherina, faced with these murderous threats, had brazenly raised her skirts, pointed to her genitals, and crowed that unlike the men below, she had the equipment for making more. Although no one else included these crude details in descriptions of the spectacle, Niccolo Machiavelli chose to repeat this salacious version in his DISCOURSES."

The author says that of all the many witnesses to this happening, only Manfredi reports it as having happened in this vulgar way, and that Machiavelli, the famously scheming and amoral Italian Renaissance figure who lent his name to certain types of underhand behaviors, reported it this way, to live down through the ages, because he hated Caterina: she had out negotiated him on one important occasion. We will never know.

Elizabeth Lev is a scholar of Renaissance art and culture. She is based in Rome, where she teaches college art history, gives tours of the city and the Vatican, and is a columnist for an international news service. She has done a fine job here in giving us a better, more complete picture of a woman probably known for all eternity for a brief incident that may never have happened. Sure worth reading if you are interested in Renaissance history, Italian history, or women's history.
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Location: Wilmington, NC USA

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