Caterina Sforza and the Defence of Forli

Callum Doyle-Scott, Dickson College 2007

Caterina Sforza Riario was born in 1463, the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza and his mistress Lucrezia Landriani. She was a ‘cultured, beautiful and heroic woman’ possessed of ‘immense physical courage.’ First used as a political pawn, Caterina matured into an indomitable woman who, like Isabella of Castile, challenged the gender conceptions of the Renaissance by proving herself more courageous then any man in both battle and politics.

Despite her illegitimacy, Caterina was raised within the Sforza household with all the trappings of high society. Her stepmother, Bona of Savoy, treated her like her own daughter and saw that the young Caterina, like all other young women of the age, was given a solid humanist education along with her brothers (i.e., an education that emphasised the power of the individual.) From this education Caterina learned a great many skills that would carry her through the hard times she was fated to endure, not the least of which was the idea that one could create oneself through one’s appearances and actions. However her learning ability, not to mention her determination and beauty, marked her out as a special girl fit to use as a political gaming chip. In order to strengthen the ties between the Sforza family and the Papacy, therefore, Caterina was married to Pope Sixtus IV’s favourite nephew, Girolamo Riario, in 1477, when she was just fifteen years old. With this marriage came the Sforza city of Imola, situated in the north-eastern portion of the Papal States.

Caterina loathed her husband, who was portrayed as being a murderer and a ‘boor,’ but they had a prosperous life in Rome. Girolamo was the General of the Papal armies and Castellan of the castle St. Angelo, and Caterina enjoyed the company of Girolamo’s relatives, in particular the Papal Chamberlain, Raffale Riario, who was Girolamo’s cousin. Caterina played the archetype of the dutiful wife to perfection. She had a child almost every year of her marriage (six of these children survived,) and showed her political acumen by increasing Milan’s favour with Rome. Together, Girolamo and Caterina acquired the city of Forli in 1480, when Girolamo was made its vicar, and the whole family decided to go on a tour of their domains not long after. Although Imola was accepting of their rule, Forli was less so. The family had to repulse a usurper, Antonio Maria Ordelaffi, twice in 1480 and a third time in 1483. The tensions in Forli never really ceased, as Girolamo was a mediocre ruler at best, but life was more or less bearable. This all changed when Sixtus died in 1484. The family fell out of power in Rome and Girolamo was stripped of his honours. Caterina managed to convince Pope Innocent VIII to let Girolamo keep his hold on Imola and Forli, but the family was forced to flee Rome. Girolamo was no longer an untouchable Papal favourite. They transferred their court to Forli in 1484. As Girolamo could no longer rely on the pay he had received as Papal General, he foolishly instigated enormous taxes in Forli, despite the advice of Caterina and his council of advisers. This incurred the wrath of the rebels once again, who plagued the family throughout 1486 and 1487 before succeeding in killing Girolamo in 1488. They swiftly took possession of the city. Only the Riario family’s home fortress, the Rocca di Ravaldino, remained unbreached.

Even though her husband was dead and she was captured, Caterina was not about to turn her city over to the rebels. Although she and her children had been captured by the rebels, Caterina convinced them to let her go free so she could convince her loyal soldiers, who were defending the Rocca di Ravaldino, to surrender. She left her six children as hostages. Once inside, however, she ordered a bombardment of the city and yelled to the rebels that she was going to fight them instead. There are two different beliefs among historians as to what she did next. The accepted one is that she brushed off the threats that they would kill her children by lying through her teeth that she was pregnant with another child, who would grow up and get revenge on all of them if they dared harm her other children. This comment was an incredibly smart one on the part of Caterina, as the Rebels were gambling that, among her children, they also had imprisoned Girolamo’s heir. By stating that she had another child, Caterina completely nullified their hold on her, as this other child would inherit everything and, as she said, take revenge. In a way, this was true, as her eldest son Ottaviano Riario was safe in Milan, but Caterina was not in fact pregnant. Nevertheless, this comment (and many more blatantly obscene ones) had its effect. Together with the intervention of the armies of her uncle Lodovico ‘El Moro’ Sforza, and the forces of the furious Raffale Riario, (Both of whom had taken her imprisonment as a personal insult), the rebels were persuaded to surrender.

The other version is far more malicious, and perhaps unsurprisingly supported by Niccolo Machiavelli. Instead of the calculated bluff, Caterina is reported to have, upon hearing that the rebels would kill her children, simply shouted back that she did not care in the slightest about her children as she still possessed the mould for making more. To prove her point, Caterina is then reported to have lifted her skirts to show that the ‘mould’, as it were, was not broken. This version casts Caterina as a heartless gorgon, but lacks the evidence to prove it actually happened. Several eyewitness accounts from the era support the ‘bluff’ version of events. It is more likely that Machiavelli was so impressed by Caterina’s bravery that he decided to add his own spin to the story. Whichever story is true, Caterina became Regent of Forli, ruling in the stead of her eldest son, Ottaviano Riario. Afterwards, both Raffale Riario and Lodovico Sforza vied for control of the city, but Caterina held on to power and managed to cultivate a balance between them. She used them for both financial and political support to protect herself from Florence and Venice, both of whom wanted Forli and Imola, key military locations between the two city states.

After this she had an illicit relationship with Giacomo Feo in 1489, one of Girolamo’s former courtiers: a marriage for love. She bore him a single son, Carlo, and through her he gained an enormous amount of power in Forli. Fearing that Caterina was completely under his control and that the social stability of Forli would collapse if this self-serving, arrogant man was allowed to gain more power, the Riario line, headed by the newly-promoted Cardinal Raffale Riario, plotted to have him removed from court (He wasn’t even a noble, and his education was non-existent). He was murdered in 1495, when Caterina was 31, by a local conspiracy of nobles and citizens, secretly backed by Raffale. They claimed to be loyal to Caterina and pleaded that they were only helping her to retain her grip on power when it was obvious that she could not hold it herself. Caterina took violent offence at this slight on her ruling ability and had the conspirators and their families, women and children, massacred. Publicly, however, Caterina maintained the image of the chaste, pure and virtuous widow of Girolamo, playing to the ideal that one’s actions create one’s image, in this case one’s public actions. No matter what she did in private, publicly Caterina was that pure, chaste widow, masking her beauty and assets, until her son Ottaviano came of age. Good thing she did too. It was only by reminding the Renaissance world that she was Girolamo’s widow that she was able to hold onto the Regency.

In 1494-95, Caterina faced possible invasion by Charles VIII when he swept through Italy to conquer Naples with the backing of Lodovico Sforza. Caterina at first aligned herself with the Pope, Naples and Florence (i.e., the group she thought would best be able to protect her,) but when her own uncle attacked the boundaries of her territory and Caterina received no help from her allies, she changed her allegiance and stuck close to Lodovico, alongside whom she managed to ride out the turmoil, breaking almost as many heads (both politically and literally,) as he did and risking her precious public image many times. In fact, Charles was so impressed by the fiery courage of the apparently humble widow that he based his crest on Caterina’s personal coat of arms!

After the war with the French, Caterina married Giovanni de’ Medici in 1497 to strengthen ties between her territories and Florence. This political match quickly turned into a proper love affair and she bore his son not long after their marriage. This romance was seen as a wise move by the Riarios, as Florence became a powerful ally and increased the Riario family’s power. Around this period Caterina’s son Ottaviano came of age. Caterina did not want to give up the regency so she instead enlisted him in the military, giving her an excuse to govern the country while he was away in battle. This proved to be a good move, as Ottaviano found he enjoyed the thrill of battle (some reports state that he went on to become a famous condottiere, but evidence is scant,) and spent more and more time away. It was only natural that he should choose the best individual for the job to rule Forli and Imola while he was away...his mother. Back home, life took a turn for the worse. In 1498, Giovanni died of gout, when Caterina was 34. Despite this, good relations with Florence continued through several ambassadors, one of whom was the famous Niccolo Machiavelli. Caterina’s public appearance changed yet again. Now that her son was of age and had appointed her Regent, she had no need to act the widow in order to retain the position. Instead, she became a beautiful, influential fiery warrior woman, the public image of her private self that Charles VIII had seen and admired when she had fought both against him and alongside him three years before. This image was the one she kept until she died, and would impress and terrify people even after she had passed away.

After this, Caterina became involved in a great many political disputes, the greatest of which was with Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander IV. Cesare wished to rule a large swathe of land within the Papal States, and Forli and Imola lay in his path. Caterina and a few allies raised a mighty political defence to try and save their cities in the late 1490’s, but Cesare proved to be unstoppable, backed as he was by his influential father. In 1500 Cesare and his forces marched on Caterina’s holdings. Imola surrendered without a fight, as did the city of Forli, but Cesare was halted at Forli’s Citadel, the Rocca di Ravadino, by a ferocious defence led by Caterina, who refused to abandon the castle. (She had sent her children and assets away to her late husband’s holdings in Florence.) Caterina was a born general, and, using Forli’s considerable stock of men and artillery, was able to hold Cesare at bay, many times wielding a sword herself. She refused to surrender, but the manpower at Cesare’s disposal was near limitless, and Caterina’s was fast running out. Eventually, Cesare brought his own cannons to bear and battered down a section of the walls. This attack sparked a panic attack in Caterina’s men, and, despite her best efforts to keep them in the fight, they abandoned their posts and fled into the inner keep of the castle. Cesare’s men, streaming through the breach, cut them down as they fled, and only Caterina and her lieutenants survived, retreating into one of the castle’s towers, where they barricaded themselves inside. Cesare’s men had to drag them out. Surprisingly, Cesare did not kill Caterina as he respected her incredible bravery and valour. However he sent her to his father in Rome, who was not so lenient. She was imprisoned in a dark, narrow cell in the Castle of St. Angelo for eighteen months before being released, thanks to the influence of Raffaele Riario, and took up residence in Florence.

Once there, Caterina began a monstrous legal rampage through the city as she fought for control over Giovanni de’ Medici’s inheritance and custody of his son, which she lost during her imprisonment. The battle lasted for four years, but Caterina produced enough information to prove herself a legitimate Medici widow and won the suit in 1505, a suit which included all of Giovanni’s estates.

Thus secured, Caterina poured her time into educating her children and plotting with her eldest Riario sons to re-take Forli and Imola from Cesare. However, the politics of the Papacy worked against them, and they never got their chance. Nevertheless, Caterina remained a powerful, influential woman, supporting her children and preparing the foundations for what would become the Medici takeover. But, In 1507, Caterina became ill and after a long battle with sickness she died on the 28th of May, 1509, at the age of 46, honoured by her countrymen and respected by her enemies.


Joyce de Vries, Caterina Sforza’s Portrait Medals: Power, Gender and Representation in the Italian Renaissence Court, Women’s Art Journal, Vol.24, No. 1, (Spring – Summer, 2003), pp. 23-28

Julia. L. Hairston, Skirting the Issue: Machiavelli’s Caterina Sforza, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol.53, No. 3, (Autumn, 2000), pp. 687-712

Melozzo da Forli: Life and Work, Grove Art online, Oxford University Press, 2007, (Accessed 06 April 2007)

Scher, Stephen K., Spinelli: (3) Niccolo di Forzore Spinelli, Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, 2007, (Accessed 06 April, 2007)

Jacob Burckhardt, S.G.C. Middlemore (trans.), The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy: Part Five; Equality of Men and Women.

Armstrong, E., The Medici Archives, Jan 1918, pp. 10-20

The Italian Renaissance, pp. 72-73, Course handout. Source: Guicciardini, Storia d’Italia, Eng. Ed. A.P. Goddard, ii, 358)