Monday, 1 January 2018

Caterina Sforza IX

Caterina Sforza

On 26th February Caterina arrived in Rome in Cesare’s entourage during carnival. Cesare was met at the gates of the city by all the cardinal’s households and the papal guard. According to some accounts Caterina was allegedly dressed as the Queen of Palmyra, in black with a restraining gold chain round her neck. Cesare was also soberly garbed;

‘Don Cesare had around him a hundred grooms, each one dressed in a cloak of black velvet with black leather boots and carrying a new halberd in his hand. Don Cesare himself was dressed in a coat of black velvet reaching to his knees, with a collar of simple and severe design.’[i]

Alexander VI greeted Caterina cordially upon her forced return to the eternal city. She was lodged in the Villa Belvedere[ii] within the Vatican grounds; the pope carefully avoided treating her like an exhibit in Cesare’s triumph, for fear of an adverse reaction on the part of his ally Louis XII. On the 27th February the Mantuan ambassador met with Caterina and described her as ‘still furious and strong-willed’.

Caterina was allowed her servants and ladies-in-waiting along with her confessor. Upon Caterina refusing to relinquish formal control of Forli and Imola back to the church twenty soldiers were sent to guard her day and night. In late May, with the help of a Milanese friar, one Lauro Bossi, Caterina attempted to escape. She was betrayed by one of Bossi’s go-betweens and was captured by the guard.

For her pains Caterina found herself imprisoned in a small dungeon in the Castel Sant’ Angelo. She was allowed two servants to attend to her. Caterina’s plight was not aided by the fall of Ludovico Sforza who was taken off to imprisonment in France. Hitherto, Caterina had been looked after for fear that Ludovico would march on Rome in defence of his niece.


Ottaviano was reluctant to aid his mother, with whom he had a conflicted relationship. While Caterina got on with her younger children, she had a troubled relationship with both of Girolamo’s sons; Ottaviano, who had inherited much of his father’s character and had not cared for Caterina’s refusal to turn over control of his lands to him, and Cesare[iii].   

Ottaviano offered to hand over the lordship of both Imola and Forli in return for his mother’s release and a cardinal’s hat for his brother Cesare. Ottaviano and Cesare wrote to Caterina saying that they were now washing their hands of her.

Fortezza Vecchia, Livorno
‘If His Holiness does not grant our latest petition then don’t expect any more from us. We have impoverished ourselves.’[iv]

Alexander refused the offer.

In June 1501 Alexander received a demand from Yves d’Allègre[v], on behalf of Louis XII, that Caterina be freed. He agreed in return for her formal renunciation of Imola and Forli. By this time a shadow of her former self, Caterina signed the required documents on 30th June and left the Castel Sant’Angelo. She stayed as a guest of Cardinal Raffaele Riario for a few days. 2,000 ducats[vi] were forthcoming from Florence to cover the cost of her return there. Caterina travelled by night in an attempt to avoid any mischance on the part of Cesare or his family. She left from Ostia and travelled by sea to Livorno.

Legal Troubles

Throughout her confinement Caterina’s main worry was Ludovico who had fallen into the hands of his paternal uncle, who had made himself Ludovico’s guardian. Lorenzo di Popolani de’ Medici had his eye on his nephew’s inheritance and he applied to have Caterina declared unfit. With judicial use of his fortune Lorenzo was able to persuade the Florentine courts to award him custody of the four year old Ludovico.

As soon as she arrived in Florence Caterina received news from a relative who reported that;

‘He [Ludovico] has grown and is a beautiful gallant boy.’[vii]

Villa di Castello
Lorenzo il Popolano left Florence with Ludovico almost immediately and Caterina wrote to Mantua and to her sister Bianca Maria the Holy Roman Empress. Caterina was looking for support in high places to get her son back. She was not allowed to see Ludovico during the battle for custody.

Caterina moved to the Medici Villa di Castello[viii] to get away from her brother-in-law’s harrying. Penniless herself, Caterina was being pressed by Ottaviano and Cesare for financial assistance.

Julius II
In June 1502 Lorenzo tried to force her to leave the sanctuary she had found, claiming the Villa di Castello as his own personal property and used the caretaker to make her life miserable. She had no sheets or tablecloths and had to beg her children for six forks. When her stepson Scipione Riario arrived to visit Caterina was worried about the additional cost of providing for him and his companions.

On the 20th May Lorenzo died and Caterina was able to take custody of Ludovico once again. The dispute over the control of Caterina’s dower monies was not settled until 5th June 1505. Caterina returned to the Villa di Castello with Ludovico, whose name she now changed to Giovanni, and Carlo, her son by Giacomo Feo. She taught Giovanni how to ride and hunt.

On 28th July 1503 Caterina married her daughter Bianca off to Troilo Rossi, the first Marchese di San Secondo. Less than a month later Pope Alexander died and Cesare fell ill[ix]. After a short reign by Pius III, Guiliano della Rovere ascended the papal throne as Julius II.

Alchemical Experiments

Isabella d'Este
Like many other fashionable ladies, including Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella d’Este, Caterina made her own perfumes and love potions and diverse ointments to encourage ‘masculine virility’ as well as salves and cosmetics, sleeping potions and painkillers. The ingredients Caterina used were often esoteric and included such items as newts and the juice of red ants. Her expenditure on ingredients outran her income[x]. Her experiments were posthumously published as Gli Esperimenti.

Caterina still held hopes that Julius II would grant Forli to Ottaviano and in October 1503 advised him to press the pope on the matter, writing;

‘The iron is hot and it is time to strike it….Guard yourself from those you trust and those who offer you advice. Know the foul tempers that are all around you; if you allow yourself to be led by others, you will wind up with your cap over your eyes, so wake up!’[xi]

Viterbo Cathedral
Alas for Ottaviano Caterina’s hopes came to nothing; Ottaviano and Cesare did not make many friends, having inherited their father’s arrogance. In 1507 Ottaviano became bishop of Viterbo and Volterra, the dioceses having been ceded to him by his uncle Raffaello Riario. He still hung on his mother’s purse strings and wrote demands for money for clothing, so that his fellow prelates did not outshine him.

For herself Caterina spent her days in correspondence and took lovers to her bed, although neither they nor she were as young as they were in her heyday. In 1508 Bianca brought her son Pietro Maria and her new daughter to visit their grandmother. Pietro Maria was left in Caterina’s care so that she could teach him to ride and hunt, as she had done for Giovanni who had little interest in schooling.

Caterina died on 28th May 1509; she suffered pleurisy which made breathing difficult, brought on by the quartan fever she had suffered from for most of her adult life. She made her will that day, leaving a bequest for the upkeep of the cathedral in Florence and paying for 1,000 masses for her soul. She left provision for her grandchildren and left Carlo Feo 2,000 gold ducats[xii].

Caterina’s favourite child Giovanni was to follow in his maternal grandfather’s footsteps to become a condottiere; known as Giovanni della Bande Nere. He married Maria Salviati, the daughter of Jacopo Salviati and Lucrezia di Lorenzo de' Medici. His son was Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.


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

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] At the Court of the Borgia - Burchard
[ii] Connected to the main body of the Vatican Palace by the Cortile Belvedere
[iv] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[v] Commander of the French troops in Italy
[vi] In 2016 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £1,322,000.00, labour earnings of that income or wealth is £13,040,000.00, economic status value of that income or wealth is £34,600,000.00, economic power value of that income or wealth is £808,200,000.00  
[vii] The Deadly Sisterhood - Frieda
[viii] In the hills above Florence
[ix] Rumour had it that the two men ate from a poisoned dish intended for another victim
[x] She was in debt to the tune of 587 florins at the time of her death. In 2016 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £483,000.00, labour earnings of that income or wealth is £3,817,000.00, economic status value of that income or wealth is £9,866,000.00, economic power value of that income or wealth is £227,700,000.00  
[xi] Tigress of Forli - Lev
[xii] In 2016 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £1,646,000.00, labour earnings of that income or wealth is £13,010,000.00, economic status value of that income or wealth is £33,610,000.00, economic power value of that income or wealth is £775,900,000.00  

1 comment:

  1. 2,000 ducats, a sum mentioned twice, would have been about the equivalent of 400 English sovereigns, about the yearly income of a baron or a wealthy wool merchant, enough to pay the salary of 20 schoolmasters or one hundred labourers for a year. A ducat was approximately 4/- to 4/8d and I've erred there on its lowest purchasing power. It was considered approximately equivalent to the Florentine Florin, the French Écu and the English Crown. The Crown was generally reckoned to be 5/-