|assumed to be a portrait of Giovanni il Popolani de' Medici|
Assault from Venice
In the spring of 1498, while his mother was in the latter stages of her pregnancy, Ottaviano organised a carnival with dances, banquets and parties. His half-brother Ludovicowas born on 6th April 1498 in Ravaldino. He was named after his great uncle of Milan in an attempt to foster better relations between the two city states but the Milanese ambassador did not attend Ludovico’s christening.
In May 1498 Savonarola was executed following criticism of the pope. The summer saw Ottaviano depart with his mercenaries for a stint in Pisa. He was accompanied by his stepfather Giovanni. Venice turned its wrath on Caterina and the Riario lands were subject to continued incursions by Venetian troops. Aware that she was likely to be besieged by the Venetians Caterina informed her uncle;
‘When Venice attacks, I will have enough spirit to defend myself….If I must lose because I am a woman, I want to lose like a man.’[i]
|Palazzo di Capitani at Bagno di Romagna showing de' Medici coat of arms|
Giovanni was plagued with gout and he suffered a severe attack following his return from Pisa. After a week with Caterina in Forli, Giovanni left for the thermal baths at Bagno di Romagna on 28th August. Caterina’s daughter Bianca, who was also unwell, travelled with him. On 11th September Caterina was summonsed to Bagno and Giovanni died in her arms on the 12th September 1498.
Giovanni’s body was claimed by his brother and taken back to Florence for his funeral. Caterina returned to Forli draped in black once again, a widow for the third time. The Venetians attacked the city at the end of the month, using tactics that Caterina had already foreseen and made arrangements to foil.
Preparing for the Worst
In 1499 Caterina recklessly turned down an offer of marriage for Ottaviano; the pope proposed that Ottaviano marry his only daughter Lucrezia. Caterina turned the offer down; Lucrezia had already been married to Caterina’s cousin Giovanni and the marriage had been annulled after three years on the grounds of his alleged impotency. This refusal made Caterina a whole host of new enemies in the fiercely tribal Borgia family.
The pope was intent on bringing the Romagna under papal control and Alexander’s blunt instrument was his son Cesare. Cesare held the post of Captain-General of the Papal Army once held by Girolamo Riario. But Cesare was far more dangerous than Girolamo had ever been[ii].
In May Alexander issued a papal bull in which he called Caterina ‘a daughter of iniquity’. Citing three years’ worth of unpaid tribute and tyranny on Caterina’s part Alexander deposed Ottaviano’s lordship of Forli in favour of Cesare. Caterina sent an envoy to Rome, empowered to offer immediate payment of 3,600 ducats[iii] owing. Alexander held the whip-hand and refused to meet with Caterina’s emissary.
|Lorenzo il Popolani de' Medici|
In midsummer little Ludovico fell ill and Caterina spent much of her time at his bedside. When Ludovico recovered she wrote to Giovanni’s brother Lorenzo;
He has recovered enough that if nothing else happens, we hope that he may be cured of this illness. Thank God for everything.’[iv]
In August the plague hit Forli and 179 people died before the outbreak burnt itself out.
When Ludovico had recovered sufficiently Caterina started teaching him to ride. She was also concerned about her son’s inheritance. Giovanni had been a wealthy man and Caterina now proclaimed her marriage before a notary. This attempt was in vain as Lorenzo merely absorbed his brother’s fortune into his own, leaving Caterina with no other alternative but to take her brother-in-law to court, a process that was to last many years
On 9th November 1499 Cesare Borgia left Milan at the head of the combined papal and French troops. When appealed to by Caterina for support, Louis XII[v] informed her that he could not interfere in papal matters. Florence, afraid of retaliation from Rome, was unable to assist and Caterina found herself standing alone against the joint Franco-papal army. Caterina’s agent at Louis’ court wrote to her;
‘Everyone is waiting for your undoing and ruin, most of all Rome, from whence comes all this evil.’[vi]
To further isolate Caterina, Alexander even took the step of writing to the Signoria in Florence accusing Caterina of trying to poison him.
The land around Forli was razed, all trees and buildings within a quarter of a mile to Forli’s walls being taken down. Each major house in the city was stocked with four month’s supply of food. Caterina had ordered modern artillery and the walls of Ravaldino had been improved and strengthened to cope with the pounding of the French artillery.
With the arrival of Cesare Borgia in December the elders of Forli suggested that Caterina take a leaf from her uncle’s book and depart in the night. Caterina had already sent her children to the safety of Florence. On 14th December, unwilling to risk the destruction of the town for Caterina’s sake, two of Caterina’s supporters abandoned her and offered the town’s submission to Cesare Borgia in Imola[vii]. On the 19th Cesare rode into Forli and stationed himself and his men outside the walls of Ravaldino.
A Borgia Kidnapping
On 26th December Caterina strode out onto the ramparts of Ravaldino to defend her eldest son’s fief. She wore a specially made cuirass. In the square below the fortress Cesare Borgia awaited her; he bowed and informed her that if she surrendered his father would bestow another stronghold on her. Cesare offered compensation, land, money[viii] and a house in Rome. In response Caterina informed him;
‘All of Italy knows the worth of the Borgia word. The bad faith of the father has removed any credit from the son.’[ix]
Caterina informed Cesare that the Holy Roman Emperor’s troops were due to arrive any time now. A further attempt at parley saw Cesare almost trapped in Ravaldino. Cesare’s artillery was fired at the fortress and on 12th January a sizeable hole in the walls allowed Cesare’s troops to pour into Ravaldino.
Caterina attempted to commit suicide by blowing up her gunpowder magazine, the attempt failed due to a defective fuse. Caterina was taken prisoner by the French and Cesare had to pay the leader of the French forces 4,000 ducats[x] to hand Caterina over.
On 14th January the news arrived in Rome that;
‘The fortress of Forli; together with Countess Caterina Sforza….had been treacherously and violently captured by Don Cesare Borgia, and that everyone else there had been put to the sword.’[xi]
Cesare now turned his attention to the Sforza city of Pesaro[xii] while the French were diverted north to Milan by the arrival of Ludovico Sforza with 8,000 Swiss and 500 Burgundian troops, in an attempt to seize back control of his duchy.
‘There is news that the lady of Forli has been sent to Cesena, and it seems that Duke Valentino [Cesare] has gone there, and, as I hear, was keeping the said lady, who is the most woman….day and night in his room, with whom, in the opinion of all, he is taking his pleasure.’[xiii]
At the Court of the Borgia – Johann Burchard, the Folio Society 1990
Lucrezia Borgia – Rachel Erlanger, Michael Joseph 1979
The Deadly Sisterhood – Leonie Frieda, Harper Collins 2013
Florence and the Medici – JR Hale, Phoenix Press 2004
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] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[iii] In 2016 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £2,599,000.00, labour earnings of that income or wealth is £21,250,000.00, economic status value of that income or wealth is £60,850,000.00, economic power value of that income or wealth is £1,425,000,000.00 www.measuringworth.com
[iv] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[v] Louis XII had invaded Italy and taken Milan, deposing Ludovico Sforza who fled for sanctuary with the Holy Roman Emperor – see http://wolfgang20.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/renaissance-france-anne-of-brittany-v.html
[vi] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[vii] The town and Caterina’s castellan surrendered to the Franco-papal army and Caterina’s castellan joined forces with them to attack Forli
[viii] An annuity of 4,000 ducats a year - in 2016 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £7,219,000.00, labour earnings of that income or wealth is £59,030,000.00, economic status value of that income or wealth is £169,000,000.00, economic power value of that income or wealth is £3,958,000,000.00 www.measuringworth.com
[ix] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[x] See note viii above
[xi] At the Court of the Borgia - Burchard
[xii] Giovanni Sforza fled the city and did not return until after both the pope and Cesare were dead
[xiii] The Deadly Sisterhood - Frieda