Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Tigress of Forli

If I were to write the story of my life, I would shock the world.  
~Caterina Sforza

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.)



Julygirl said...

Seems like an enjoyable way to become acquainted with history and the multi-faceted characters of an exciting cultural time period.


welcome to the site:

Gio said...

Both Caterina and the era she lived in have always fascinated me. I'll definitely check out this book. Thanks for the wonderful review.

Princess of Eboli said...

Hello: great review about this book, I always have like the story behind this women, I read in 2011 the book The Scarlet Contessa,and I will read this book The Tigress of Forli, for me is so fascinating all this history about renaissance women, incredible, of course I am going to read this book, and thank you again for the great review.