Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Caterina Sforza VI

Isabella of Naples
Tumultuous Times

The Sforza were facing trouble; Charles VIII of France was determined to interfere in the internal affairs of Italy, believing as he did in the general unfitness of Pope Alexander to carry out his papal duties. He was given the excuse when Alfonso of Naples marched on Milan on behalf of his daughter Isabella, married to Gian Galeazzo. Beatrice d’Esté, as wife of the regent was taking precedence over Isabella, the duchess of Milan.

Her father had strong ties to the king and queen of Spain and was able to count on their support. Alfonso decided to make an issue of his daughter’s embarrassment. Caterina’s uncle Ludovico called on Charles VIII for aid; by the time Charles reached Piacenza, it was to the news that Gian Galeazzo was dead[i]. Ludovico arrested his niece by marriage and seized her son Francesco; within the year Ludovico was duke of Milan.

Beatrice d'Este
Caterina was aware that Forli was a bridge the road across the Apennines that the armies would cross. As a papal fief the Lord of Forli was expected to follow papal directives and Alexander supported Alfonso of Naples. At the same time she was pressured by her Sforza relatives to support them. Alexander despatched Cardinal Raffaele Riario to press Caterina; Rafaelle was surprised to have Giacomo join in his meeting with the regent.

By mid-September 1494 Giacomo had become general in chief and vice-Lord of Ottaviano’s domains. Caterina did not push back against her husband’s decisions. Giacomo chose to join the anti-Sforza side and shut the city gates against Caterina’s relatives. Caterina’s spies kept the papal and Neapolitans updated on the movements of the French and Sforza troops. Local people living outside the city walls were ordered into Forli for protection against the armies roaming through the local area.


Giacomo insisted that loyalty to the pope meant that Forli received a stipend from the Vatican. Well aware of the advantages of bribery and corruption, Alexander issued a condotta[ii] for 16,000 ducats[iii] for the privilege of allowing papal and Neapolitan troops passage through the Apennines. Caterina and Giacomo were also awarded the fief of San Mauro.

On October 20th 1494 two thousand French and Milanese troops demanded entrance to the fortress of Mordano and Caterina’s Castellan refused. The fortress was overrun in the late afternoon after the walls were breached. Caterina begged her ally the Duke of Calabria for support but he failed to respond.

Charles VIII
The French show of strength meant a change of heart on Caterina’s part; henceforth she would support them and her family. She complained to Piero de’ Medici[iv], writing to inform her of her reasons for backing out of the papal alliance;

‘There was no reason to treat me this way. I have kept [our treaty] and done more than I was obliged to.’[v]

France’s armies continued to roll over their enemies and Alexander reproached Ercol d’Esté;

‘The triumph of France involves nothing less than the destruction of the independence of every state in Italy.’[vi]

The last troops left Forli on 23rd November as the French marched off down the Via Aemilia in the direction of Rome[vii]. By the time Charles turned his attention back to France he had been crowned King of Naples. His departure merely meant that things turned back to normal….relatively. Now France had given itself a reason to interfere in doings on the Italian peninsula as and when it felt appropriate[viii].

Death of Giacomo

Ottaviano Riario
In 1495 Ottaviano turned sixteen, old enough to take control of his lands. Ottaviano did not care for his stepfather and the pair quarrelled violently; Giacomo responded by slapping Ottaviano’s face hard in front of his mother who refused to intervene. By now the Italian princes had come to the decision that Caterina’s relationship with Giacomo Feo was a liability, although it was believed that Caterina would be unlikely to give him up voluntarily. The Florentine ambassador Puccio Pucci claimed

‘The Countess will bury her children, her allies, and all her belongings, she will sell her soul to the devil, she will give her state to the Turk, before she gives up Giacomo Feo.’[ix]

In the end it was Caterina’s own retainers who decided that the situation could not continue. Giovanni Ghetti[x] led the plot; his wife Rosa was one of Caterina’s ladies-in-waiting. They and other members of their family and two priests were the main conspirators.

On 27th August 1495 the family went out hunting and in the late afternoon returned to Forli. Giacomo, Ottaviano and Cesare were on horseback while Caterina and the others rode in a cart. As they passed through the city gate Ghetti and his fellow plotters stepped out in front of them. Ghetti took the reins of Giacomo’s horse while his servant stabbed Giacomo from behind.

Giacomo fell from his horse and his assassins fell on him. Caterina’s immediate response was to leap out of the cart and onto a horse; she fled to Ravaldino. Ottaviano and Cesare had already taken refuge in the house of a local nobleman while Giacomo’s guards had disappeared at the first hint of trouble.

Revenge of the Fury

From the safety of Ravaldino Caterina was swift to organise her response. When Ghetti and his accomplices strutted into Forli’s main piazza Caterina sent out a squad of soldiers to arrest the killers. Ghetti managed to escape and the chief of police offered one hundred ducats[xi] for the person who brought him in, dead or alive. One of the militia hunted Ghetti down in the local cemetery and cleaved his head in two and chopped off his fingers, scattering the body parts among the graves.

Tommaso Feo was summonsed from Imola to revenge his brother’s murder. Caterina ordered him to raze Ghetti’s house to the ground. Ghetti’s wife and children were thrown into a well in Ravaldino and left to die. The last Ghetti child was found in the care of a family friend and the five year old’s throat was cut.

Caterina had every family known to be hostile to Giacomo rounded up and thrown in the dungeons, hanged in the piazza or exiled. Houses were torn down, warehouses destroyed and entire families thrown into the dungeons of Ravaldino. One entire neighbourhood of Forli was razed to the ground so determined was Caterina on her revenge on those who had taken her husband from her. No-one who had ever adversely commented on Giacomo Feo was safe.

One of the priests involved was tortured with fire until he gave up the names of his accomplices. He was then stripped naked and tied by his feet to the back of a horse and dragged through the town. His face was then cut open by one of Giacomo’s supporters before being beaten and stabbed to death by Caterina’s soldiers.

The Milanese ambassador reported to Ludovico Sforza about his niece’s goings on;

‘She has used maximum cruelty against a priest, that seems most detestable, she had women killed, the wives of the two Ghetti brothers, the young sons aged three and nine months and even the nurse. All Romagna is crying to the heavens.’[xii]

Caterina’s cruel response to Giacomo’s killing was not only a sign of how very much she loved her husband, but also possibly an indication of her father’s influence; his cruelties had become legend in his own lifetime and now Caterina’s were to follow her for the rest of her life.


At the Court of the Borgia – Johann Burchard, the Folio Society 1990

Italian Dynasties – Edward Burman, Equation 1989

Lucrezia Borgia – Rachel Erlanger, Michael Joseph 1979

The Deadly Sisterhood – Leonie Frieda, Harper Collins 2013

The Rise and Fall of the Medici – Christopher Hibbert, Folio Society 2001

The Borgias – Mary Hollingsworth, Quercus Editions Ltd 2014

Tigress of Forli – Elizabeth Lev, Head of Zeus Ltd, 2012

The Borgias – GJ Meyer, Bantam Books 2013

Absolute Monarchs – John Julius Norwich, Random House 2011

Niccolo’s Smile – Maurizio Viroli, IB Tauris & Co Ltd 2001


[i] He was alleged to have been poisoned, possibly by his uncle. Ludovico found the rumours of his nephew’s death so embarrassing he felt obliged to write to his fellow princes protesting his innocence.
[ii] An annual pension
[iii] In 2016 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £11,840,000.00, labour earnings of that income or wealth is £97,970,000.00, economic status value of that income or wealth is £278,400,000.00, economic power value of that income or wealth is £6,603,000,000.00 www.measuringworth.com  
[iv] Shortly before Piero and his family were thrown out of Florence by the supporters of Savonarola
[v] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[vi] The Borgias - Meyer
[viii] See the Italian Wars for further French adventures in the peninsula
[ix] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[x] Who had helped oust Tomasso Feo from the fortress of Ravaldino
[xi] In 2016 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £74,000.00, labour earnings of that income or wealth is £612,300.00, economic status value of that income or wealth is £1,740,000.00, economic power value of that income or wealth is £41,270,000.00 www.measuringworth.com  
[xii] Tigress of Forli - Lev

Monday, 4 December 2017

Caterina Sforza V

After Girolamo

When the Orsi brothers spoke to the town councillors it was decided to submit allegiance to the pope. The council also refused to take action against Caterina, reminding the conspirators that Caterina’s Milanese relations would not be pleased. A solution must not;

‘Further wound or irritate the Countess. That would be not only barbarous and inhuman, but would draw down fatal consequences upon the city, she being of subtle mind and of that high courage that was known to all, indomitable of spirit and inexorable in vengeance.’[i]

After several days imprisonment Caterina was taken to the fortress where the Castellan Tomasso Feo allowed her entrance as previously agreed between the two, leaving the remainder of her family in rebel hands.

The rebels threatened to cut Ottaviano into pieces unless Caterina surrender. She told them, with an obscene gesture, that she had the wherewithal to make more children. The pope sent Bishop Giacomo Savelli[ii] with two hundred soldiers to liaise with the rebels. Savelli was able to safeguard Caterina’s relatives against rebel demands to kill them in front of the fortress in an attempt to get Caterina to hand it over. Bishop Savelli had Caterina’s mother and sisters transferred to the safety of Cesena and increased the guard on her children.

Savelli was waiting for papal reinforcements that did not arrive. Innocent was unable to decide what action to take; while not wanting to upset the powerful Sforza family he toyed with the idea of taking Forli and handing it over to his son Franchescetto Cybo. After a period of stalemate Innocent announced that he had appointed Cardinal Raffaele Riario as governor of Forli.

On 29th April 1488 12,000 men appeared outside Forli’s wall; a small contingent of the Milanese army. A ducal emissary demanded the return of Forli to the Riarios. The citizens had little choice than to do as the Milanese demanded, driving off the Orsi[iii], and Caterina was reunited with her children.


Caterina Sforza
Caterina decided to be magnanimous in victory and instead of allowing her uncle’s troops to sack the town sent them home, much to their dismay[iv]. Girolamo’s body was obtained and sent to Imola for burial. On 18th July 1488 Innocent issued papal confirmation of Ottaviano’s right to be Lord of Forli and Imola, until the end of his family line. Caterina was to act as his regent. It is very possible that Cardinal Raffaele Riario was involved in persuading Innocent to change his mind.

Caterina was still young and her beauty was such that, according to one chronicler;

‘Words fail to describe her glorious beauty and graceful manner.’[v]

The eldest Ordelaffi, hoping to regain Forli for his family, had already proposed that he marry Caterina. When word got out Caterina was inundated with disapproving letters from the pope, Caterina’s uncle[vi], Lorenzo de’ Medici and Cardinal Riario. The pope’s letter was self-serving; he was hoping he could override his grant of Forli to Ottaviano and enable him to present the lordship to his son.

Following a summer in the country with Ordelaffi, Caterina returned to Forli to assure her relatives and well-wishers that she had no intention of marriage, or of handing power to anyone else. She turned to good works to add lustre to her reputation, helping to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary following a miracle at nearby Piratello. She also started on making alliances with other noble families through her children, choosing four year old Astore Manfredi[vii], Lord of Faenza, as husband for her daughter Bianca.

A Stepfather for the Lord of Forli

Fortress at Forlimpopoli
Caterina was concerned about the safety of the fortresses she held for her son. Trouble with the Castellan of Imola over money owed to him by Girolamo resulted in her being locked out of the fortress until Cardinal Riario stepped in to negotiate between Caterina and the Castellan. Caterina placed her stepfather Gian Pietro Landriani as the fortress’ new Castellan while her stepbrother Piero Landriani was made Castellan of Forlimpopoli[viii].

Caterina also doubted Tomasso Feo, despite his support for her during the 1488 crisis. She engineered his arrest. Her reasoning? She wished to install her lover as Castellan, a lover who seemed more than happy to take over his brother’s job, Giacomo Feo, a portent of things to come.

Giacomo was handsome and twenty years old; he’d worked as a hand in the Riario stables and he blatantly adored his mistress. Giacomo and Caterina married in secret; Caterina was trying to ensure that her position as regent for Ottaviano remained secure, unlike that of her stepmother Bona. So intense was the couple’s relationship that Caterina failed to attend the wedding of her uncle to Beatrice d’Esté in January 1491.

Although the marriage was a secret rumours of it spread through Forli, sparking jealousy against the former groom. A plan was hatched to murder Caterina and Giacomo but she was informed of the plot and managed to turn the tables on the would-be assassins. When questioned it appeared that the plotters were concerned that Giacomo would undermine Ottaviano’s right to rule Forli when he came of age. The four ringleaders were imprisoned deep in the dungeons of the fortress at Ravaldino, while their sons were taken hostage.

On 19th February 1492 the twelve year old Cesare Riario was given his first tonsure; he was destined for the church. In the summer of 1492 Caterina remained secluded from her court with an alleged bout of fever. It is believed that she was delivered of Giacomo’s son Bernardino[ix], during this period. She remained blind to the dangers posed by Giacomo who was accruing power for himself, despite being madly in love with Caterina. the Florentine ambassador noted that the couple;

‘Seemed alone in the world.’[x]

Caterina herself seems to have taken her eye off the ball, ignoring the outside world, so entranced by her relationship with Giacomo. Bernardino joined the Riario children in the nursery as Giacomo’s son by an unknown mother.

A New Pope

Alexander II
An era ended in April 1492 when Lorenzo de’ Medici died, leaving his son Piero[xi] to rule Florence. Three months later, on 25th July, Innocent died and the struggle to replace him centred around two men; Rodrigo Borgia and Guiliano della Rovere. Eventually the bribes paid out by Rodrigo won out and he ascended the papal throne as Alexander VI[xii].

One of those opposed to a Borgia pope had been Cardinal Ascanio Sforza who objected to a pope likely to support the Neapolitan king. However when it appeared likely that prolonging the conclave’s deadlock would result in a della Rovere papacy, Ascanio threw his support behind Rodrigo Borgia. The Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini[xiii] wrote;

‘Alexander VI was extremely shrewd and wise, a good judge of character, immensely persuasive, and a skilled master at the political game. But these good traits were utterly surpassed by his vices: obscene behaviour, lack of sincerity, audacity, mendacity, disloyalty, impiety…..’[xiv]

Cardinal Juan de Borgia
Under Alexander nepotism in the papacy was to become an outright scandal as the pope advanced the interests of his children, making his son Cesare a cardinal[xv]. Giovanni Borgia was made Duke of Gandia and Captain General of the church. His daughter Lucrezia was married to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro and Gioffre Borgia, the pope’s youngest child, was married to Sancia of Aragon, the illegitimate daughter of King Alfonso II of Naples. Alexander also bestowed a cardinal’s hat on his nephew Juan de Borgia.

The ascension of Alexander VI was not good news for Caterina and her brood of Riario children, despite Alexander having stood as Ottaviano’s godfather. Guiliano della Rovere had been the family’s man in the Vatican; now his deadly rival was pope the pugnacious della Rovere lost a lot of his power[xvi]. Alexander made Ascanio Sforza his vice-chancellor, and gave him Alexander’s former palazzo.


At the Court of the Borgia – Johann Burchard, the Folio Society 1990

Italian Dynasties – Edward Burman, Equation 1989

The Deadly Sisterhood – Leonie Frieda, Harper Collins 2013

The Rise and Fall of the Medici – Christopher Hibbert, Folio Society 2001

The Borgias – Mary Hollingsworth, Quercus Editions Ltd 2014

Tigress of Forli – Elizabeth Lev, Head of Zeus Ltd, 2012

The Borgias – GJ Meyer, Bantam Books 2013

Absolute Monarchs – John Julius Norwich, Random House 2011


[i] The Deadly Sisterhood - Frieda
[iii] Who eventually found refuge in the Papal States, having been refused harbour by the Venetians. Andrea Orsi was executed in his family’s place
[iv] Under the rules of war pertaining at the time they should have been allowed to sack the town
[v] The Deadly Sisterhood - Frieda
[vi] Who hoped to rule Forli and Imola by proxy
[vii] Murdered by Cesare Borgia in 1502
[viii] A town close to Forli, as its name indicates
[ix] Died 1509
[x] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[xi] Known as the unfortunate; Piero’s arrogance and lack of interest in state affairs was to bring about the downfall of the Medici
[xiii] A friend and correspondent of Machiavelli
[xiv] The Borgias - Hollingsworth
[xv] And appointed him to Alexander’s former Archbishopric of Valencia
[xvi] In contrast to the Sforza, della Rovere had supported a pro-Naples candidate