|Isabella of Naples|
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.
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.
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
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
[v] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[vi] The Borgias - Meyer
[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