Monday, 18 December 2017

Caterina Sforza VII

Caterina Sforza
The Fury Drives On

During Caterina’s mad rampage through her son’s domains, Ottaviano and Cesare, afraid of their mother’s anger, had remained in the safety of the house of Raoul Denti, one of Forli’s nobility. Seven years before he’d refused to hand over Girolamo’s children to the mob after Girolamo had been killed. Hiding in Denti’s house, Ottaviano had not attended his stepfather’s funeral making him suspect in his mother’s eyes.

Now Caterina’s anger was focussed on her son who she knew had resented Giacomo’s usurpation of Ottaviano’s authority. Ottaviano was summonsed to appear before his mother in his own fortress of Ravaldino, he was escorted there by Caterina’s soldiers. An angry crowd followed their lord to Ravaldino where they were met by cannon fire. Ottaviano was left to face his mother’s ire alone.

Ottaviano was placed under house arrest and his half-brother Scipione Riario, who had objected to the violence of his stepmother’s reactions, was locked in a dungeon for eighteen months. The reprisals continued, with the mistress of one of the conspirators and her children being murdered. The second priest involved in the conspiracy was burnt over hot coals before being beheaded.

Horror and disgust of Caterina’s actions was to be found the length and breadth of the Italian peninsula. Her name was vilified; thirty eight people had been killed and numerous others tortured, imprisoned or exiled. Even the pope, Ludovico Sforza and the Signoria of Florence all recoiled at what Alexander claimed was the;

‘Unheard of bloodthirstiness committed to satisfy her passions.’[i]

Caterina remained in Forli mourning her beloved throughout the following winter, only rousing herself in November 1495 to engage in an alliance against Count Guido of Gaggiolo who had taken a number of towns from the Archbishop of Ravenna. Guido was killed during the fighting and Caterina’s prize for her soldiers involvement in the campaign was the town of Castrocaro. Venice objected strongly to this transfer and Caterina’s Uncle Ludovico advised her to return the town to the archbishop, which she duly did.

Rebuilding a Life

That winter was exceptionally hard and the province was facing a famine; not only the cold but the troops had ruined the previous summer’s crops as they marched across the fields. To avoid wide-scale starvation among her people Caterina was forced to buy in large quantities of grain. Four to five hundred pounds of flour per day were distributed to the poor of Forli from February to June[ii].

Caterina had the palazzo where she had lived with Giacomo torn down; Caterina moved into the fortess of Ravaldino, the better to protect herself. She turned part of the fortress into a luxurious home, building a palazzo abreast of the keep. The remains of the old house were used for new building projects. The fortress itself was upgraded and repaired.

Giovanni Bentivoglio
At the same time that the destruction and reconstruction was being undertaken Giovanni Livio fell ill and died after a short illness. He was only twelve. During that year Caterina's half-sister Bianca died in child birth. Caterina joined her sister’s husband Tommaso Feo to mourn this loss in their family.

Caterina decided to arrange a marriage for Ottaviano and her eye fell upon Isotta Bentivoglio, daughter of Giovanni Bentivoglio of Bologna. Isotta declared that she was going to become a nun. Caterina considered the refusal a betrayal; she already knew that a number of those implicated in Giacomo’s death had taken refuge with the Bentivoglio. She sent assassins to Bologna in a failed mission to kill one of her bitterest enemies, much to her uncle’s irritation. Caterina confessed to him;

‘I have been gravely wronged, and I still want to get my hands on him, to further thwart those who would conspire against me….I confess, I did not do a good thing, as you said.’[iii]

Instead of looking around for an alternative bride for her son, Caterina decided Ottaviano needed to gain military experience and she asked her uncle to arrange for this. Instead Ludovico suggested that Ottaviano marry one of the Marquis of Mantua’s daughters. Caterina refused to consider the idea. By 1497 Ottaviano already had one illegitimate daughter by the daughter of a carpenter even as his mother continued to refuse an offer from the de’ Medici and a renewal of the Mantua offer.

Looking Out For the Kids

Niccolo Machiavelli
Eventually Caterina had her way and Ottaviano was employed twice by the Florentines as a condottiero to defend Florentine interests. He was offered 15,000 florins[iv] in 1497 and 10,000 florins[v] in 1499; both times his mother was the negotiator between the two parties; the second time she was negotiating with Nicholas Machiavelli.

Caterina now sought out benefices for Cesare; she had fallen out with Cardinal Raffaello Riario, believing that he had encouraged Giacomo’s assassins. In the summer of 1496 as Raffaello lay seriously ill Caterina persuaded her uncle to transfer all the benefices that Raffaello held in Milan to Cesare once his second cousin died.

The Venetians were sending raids into Ottaviano’s lands with increasing regularity. Like many of his neighbours Ludovico Sforza was unwilling to offend Venice or help Caterina defend Forli and Imola and so Caterina raised an army of 8,000 troops to defend her son’s heritage. Caterina looked to Florence, the only other regional power willing to oppose la Serenissima, for an ally.

Fra Savonarola
Following the fall of the Medici Florence was all but ruled by Fra Savonarola; those of the Medici who had not left Florence had changed their name to il Popolani to curry favour with the new rulers. One such was Giovanni de’ Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who visited Forli in the summer of 1496 to negotiate terms with Caterina for the use of her army in a fight against Pisa which had declared independence from Florence.

Giovanni was wealthy, thirty and attractive; an able conversationalist he talked to Caterina about art and literature. Like Caterina Giovanni was interested in botanical experiments and he also got on well with all her children, including Ottaviano.

Before long Giovanni was lodged in Giacomo’s former apartments, in Rivaldino, with his own household. When Caterina fell ill in the autumn Giovanni paid Caterina daily visits in her private apartments. Ludovico Sforza was informed that Caterina had been seen caressing Giovanni and that she might marry to ‘satisfy her appetites.’ She made haste to inform her uncle that;

‘I am no longer at that age when others should think that these youthful appetites reign in me; foremost in my mind is my duty to govern these states.’[vi]

Whether she assuaged her uncle’s fears is not known but he cannot have been pleased to receive a letter in January 1497 from his ambassador informing Ludovico that Giovanni and Caterina were married. Caterina denied the marriage until she found herself pregnant in the summer. Pro-French Florence and Ludovico Sforza, a member of the Holy League[vii] were on opposing sides and Caterina was loath to make an enemy out of a family member.


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

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
[ii] The following year province was short of salt as the salt beds at Cervia had not dried out, due to the excessive rains. Caterina bought four hundred sacks of salt from the Adriatic under military guard.
[iii] Tigress of Forli
[iv] In 2016 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £10,380,000.00, labour earnings of that income or wealth is £101,800,000.00, economic status value of that income or wealth is £242,500,000.00, economic power value of that income or wealth is £5,705,000,000.00  
[v] 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  
[vi] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[vii] Also known as the League of Venice, whereby Milan, the papacy, Venice, the Aragonese and the Holy Roman Emperor joined forces to force the French out of Italy

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