"She was not a guilty woman, neither was she a saint; she was an upright, charming woman, a little frivolous, somewhat impulsive, but always pure; she was a queen, at times ardent in her fancies for her favourites and thoughtless in her policy, but proud and full of energy; a thorough woman in her winsome ways and tenderness of heart, until she became a martyr."
"We have followed the history of Marie Antoinette with the greatest diligence and scrupulosity. We have lived in those times. We have talked with some of her friends and some of her enemies; we have read, certainly not all, but hundreds of the libels written against her; and we have, in short, examined her life with– if we may be allowed to say so of ourselves– something of the accuracy of contemporaries, the diligence of inquirers, and the impartiality of historians, all combined; and we feel it our duty to declare, in as a solemn a manner as literature admits of, our well-matured opinion that every reproach against the morals of the queen was a gross calumny– that she was, as we have said, one of the purest of human beings."
"It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely there never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like a morning star full of life and splendor and joy. Oh, what a revolution....Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fall upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look which threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded...."
~Edmund Burke, October 1790
A Note on Reviews
Unless otherwise noted, any books I review on this blog I have either purchased or borrowed from the library, and I do not receive any compensation (monetary or in-kind) for the reviews.
The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici by art historian Elizabeth Lev is a biography which paints a portrait not only of one of the most colorful characters of the Renaissance but of the Renaissance itself. If ever I thought that the films and novels I have seen and read about Renaissance Italy were exaggerated in either the violence or the splendor, thinking that people could not really have lived that way, I see now that they were only showing the tip of the ice burg. Every page of Tigress is rich with abundant details of palaces, churches, cities, wars, assassinations and weddings and yet I had no trouble keeping the characters straight, which attests to the clarity of the prose. The story told therein combines a war epic with heartrending love story and searing tragedy as well as scenes that would do justice to a horror flick.
Caterina Sforza is one of those larger than life characters whom no novelist could invent, and who would have shone in any era of history. As it happened, Caterina, as an illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, was reared in one of the most sophisticated courts in Italy, where art, learning, and fashion were as de rigeur as riding and hunting. Children born out of wedlock were treasured alongside legitimate offspring, Renaissance Italy not being anything like Victorian England. Caterina received the finest education and had the most brilliant marriage arranged for her, to the Pope's own nephew Girolamo Riario. Now here is the one quibble I have with the book: Girolamo is portrayed as consummating the marriage to Caterina when she was only ten and when the couple were merely betrothed. While they might have had a symbolic bedding down ceremony to seal the betrothal, I can hardly believe that the Sforzas would break all convention and permit Girolamo to deflower Caterina when she was only ten, even if he was the Pope's nephew. When the bride was fourteen, they had a sumptuous wedding that lasted days and days and it was at that time that the pair began to officially live together. Thus began Caterina's adventures in the wider world.
The Riarios were given two city states to govern, Imola and Forli. Most of Caterina's life would be spent defending and maintaining the family lands so that her eight children would have an inheritance. Whatever else one can say about her, she was a devoted mother, with solid faith and sincere piety. (I must say it is amusing how the Riarios consulted their astrologer before taking possession of Forli, but that's the Renaissance for you.) Caterina was a generous alms giver and supported many religious houses, particularly a community of nuns in Florence with whom she was later buried. She took her responsibilities as a Lady and Countess to heart and made every effort to protect her people and maintain the prosperity of their cities, except, I hate to say, when she lost her temper with them.
With Caterina, everything was always in extremes. When she sinned, it was with abandon, fury and passion, but then she just as passionately confessed her sins and amended her life. Part of it was the culture she lived in and part of it was her personality. As a Sforza, who were a dynasty of condottieri, Catherina had been taught how to use weapons, especially when hunting, and had been encouraged to be fearless. Her boldness in crisis situations came to the fore on several occasions, such as when she held the Castel Sant'Angelo in order to force the college of cardinals to elect a new pope. Most dramatic of all was Caterina's stand against Cesare Borgia at Forli; it is certainly the climax of the book to have two legends in their own time face-to-face. Her courage won over the French knights who were fighting alongside Cesare. The Borgia, however, behaved like a beast, bringing the episode to a tragic and horrendous conclusion.
I can not recommend this book highly enough to those who enjoy the history of the Renaissance and biographies of some of the era's personalities. I certainly gained a greater understanding of the tumultuous events which shaped the politics of the day. While Caterina is often forgotten when great ladies of the past are named, she has been immortalized by this work of Elizabeth Lev even as she was once immortalized by the great artists of her time. While reading of her exploits, of her loves and hates and follies, it is good to murmur a prayer now and then for Caterina's soul, knowing that of all people she would be humbly grateful to be remembered in such a manner.
(*NOTE: The Tigress of Forli was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.)
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