Italian heiress Caterina Sforza was a bold, strong woman who earned her titles of “Tigress.” As Sforza reportedly once confessed to a monk, “If I could write everything that happened, I would shock the world.” Yes, indeed. We may not know everything, but what we know might be enough to shock quite a few. Here are 46 ferocious facts about the Countess of Forli and Lady of Imola: Caterina Sforza.
Caterina Sforza Facts
1. Born This Way
Sforza was born in Milan in 1463 to Galeazzo Maria Sforza and his mistress, Lucrezia Landriani. When her father became Duke of Milan in 1466, he brought his children to the court. But if the kids thought they’d get to spend quality time with dear old dad, they were so wrong. The Duke handed them right over his mother, Bianca Maria Visconti.
2. Cool Grandma
In the Milanese court, the family received a “humanistic” education. However, Sforza’s grandmother also trained her in decidedly cooler pursuits, like the art of diplomacy and even how to wield a weapon.
3. A Doer, Not a Dreamer
Sforza wasn’t a huge fan of her academic schooling. She did, however display exceptional prowess in all activities that challenged her physically. If you needed a girl who could ride a horse, hunt, and dance, Sforza had your back. As we’ll see, young Caterina’s daring side would see her through plenty of heroic feats when she got older.
4. First Marriage
Sforza was barely 10 years old when she got betrothed to Girolamo Riario, who was 29 at the time. Riaro was harsh and immoral, but Sforza’s family considered him a proper match because of his good qualities, like the fact that his uncle was the Pope Sixtus IV and…well, that’s pretty much his only good quality. When Sforza was barely a teenager, the consummated the marriage. Ew.
5. What a Great Guy
Sforza’s wedding was a messy affair for more reasons than one. Right before the marriage, tragedy struck: her father was assassinated in December 1476. Historians believe that three men did the deed, each for a different reason. One was fighting with the Duke over some land, another hated the Duke’s politics, while the third had a personal axe to grind.
Heads up, if people have three distinct reasons to kill you, you are maybe not living life right.
6. A “Groom-less” Wedding
Young Caterina’s wedding was not off to a great start, and unfortunately, things only got worse. Her husband Riario couldn’t make it to Milan, so the marriage took place by proxy. Since there was no internet or videoconferencing at the time, this meant that another person represented him and took his vows. So romantic.
7. A Lady Admired, and A Gentleman Despised
After travelling to the Romagna region, Sforza ended up in Rome. Her husband Riario had a disturbing gift for her: discrimination. He immediately forbade his wife from participating in politics. Joke’s on him, though. Caterina gained popularity among Roman aristocracy who admired her for her intelligence, spirit, and beauty.
As for Riario? Oh, everyone hated him. Several people even tried to kill him, though unfortunately without success.
8. The Day the Pope Died
The death of Pope Sixtus IV in August 1484 suddenly changed the couple’s fortunes for the worse. Mobs attacked and plundered the houses of the Pope’s relatives, including the Riario residence.
9. Fighting Trim
While waiting for a new Pope to get elected and put an end to the disorder, Sforza took matters into her own hands to protect her family. She rode to the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo, seized in the name of the “new Pope” with her troops, and simply refused to leave. But that’s not even the best part. Did we mention she was seven months pregnant at the time?
10. Crashing the Party
Sadly, Sforza’s first rebellion was doomed to a heartbreaking end. The Cardinals immediately went to her husband Riario with a plea deal. Being the upstanding gentleman he was, he accepted it almost immediately and then demanded that Sforza vacate the fortress. Though she tried to fight him off at first, she eventually gave in. Every party has a pooper and that pooper is Riario.
Still, Sforza wouldn’t soon forget the lessons she learned that day…
11. Dark Arts
Sforza is also famous for her occult experiments in alchemy. Her prized manuscript was titled Experimenti and contained over 454 recipes. Of these most were recipes to make medicines, but there were some for cosmetics and a few for other alchemical processes. It’s also rumoured that the book contained a method to make false gold.
12. Choosing Kind
Sforza’s medicinal recipes came in use when epidemic of the bubonic plague broke out. Ever a baller, she thought nothing of truly dangerous tasks. She tended to the poor and sick with food and medicine of her own making. The people were overwhelmed by her kindness and beauty, and thought highly of her for braving it in their infected quarters.
13. Fictitiously Yours
Even famed Italian writer Niccolo Machiavelli couldn’t ignore Caterina Sforza; she is one of very few women to make an appearance in his books.
14. All My Children
Sforza had a total of eight children throughout her lifetime: six with her first husband, Girolamo Riario, and one each with her last two husbands.
15. In Sickness and in Health
When she was 19 years old, Sforza fell victim to quartan fever, a dangerous type of malaria. The illness affected her for the rest of her life, and she absolutely despised being an invalid. To make matters worse, she was utterly alone during the peak of it; Riario was away during her sickness. Given his reputation, though, would he really have been that much help?
16. Trouble in Paradise
There are no accounts that prove Sforza was ever in love with Riario. This, coupled with harsh circumstances, meant they were doomed to implode. After the couple moved from Rome to Forli, they had to grapple with significant money problems. As their bank accounts dwindles, their quarrels and arguments increased.
17. Da Vinci Connection
Sforza’s uncle Ludovico il Moro was friends with none other than Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, he’s the one who brought da Vinci to Milan. Da Vince painted a little something while he was there, maybe you’ve heard of it? The Last Supper.
18. The End of Riario
In 1488, utter tragedy struck the Sforza family. Riario was finally assassinated by the Orsi family, who then took Sforza and her children prisoner. Except Sforza had an ace up her sleeve. Her trusted guard Tommaso Feo refused to negotiate with her captors or give up her fortress, so Sforza suggested that she could convince her friend to submit if the Orsis let her go.
They agreed, but it was a huge mistake. Even though her children were still being held hostage, Sforza turned on the Orsis anyway.
19. Mother Knows Best
Now free, Sforza dealt her enemies a crushing blow. Not one to forgive or forget, she arrested and executed the Orsis. More than that, she then also became the ruling regent for her son, and took to power like a duck to water. She lowered taxes, spearheaded military training, and initiated alliances. So basically, she was an awesome ruler.
20. The New Pope
Rodrigo Borgia became the new Pope Alexander VI in 1492, which was good news for Sforza—he was godfather to her son Ottaviano. But, much like Sforza, the Pope was a crafty man of action. Eventually, it was he who caused Sforza’s downfall.
21. Choosing Sides
In the late 15th century, France and Spain were locked into a war inside Italy. Naturally, Sforza cleverly started playing both countries off each another. But if she hadn’t been so scornful of her academic education, she might have learned from the history books that double agents and double crossings don’t always end so well. Be careful…
22. Third Time’s the Charm
A year after her second husband’s death, Sforza developed feelings for another eligible man: Giovanni de Medici Il Popolano. However, they hid their love from the public and secretly wed in 1497. A year later, Sforza gave birth to her youngest son, named Ludovico after her uncle but later known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere.
23. Trouble Brewing
In the 1490s, Sforza realized that trouble was brewing between two major powers: Florence and Venice. She feared that the Venetians would try to sieze Forli and use it as a passageway to enemy territory, and she got ready to fight back. Over the course of her preparatoins, she trained her army and strengthened her strongholds like a boss.
24. Third Time Unlucky
While Sforza was busy protecting her territory, tragedy was about to strike. Her husband Giovanni de Medici contracted pneumonia. Though he was treated at Santa Maria in Bagno, he sadly remained bedridden with no chance of survival. When Sforza learned about his weak condition, her heart broke. She was with him when he passed away in September 1498.
25. La Tigre
Despite her recent devastation, Sforza rallied and came through for her people. She kept the Venetians at bay, and after several attempts, they had to retreat and find another way to get into Florence. This defence of her city earned Sforza a truly impressive title. She was now “la tigre” (the tiger). Pretty fierce, right?
26. The Pope’s Betrayal
In 1499, Sforza gained a formidable enemy: Pope Alexander VI himself. This didn’t just sting because of the enormous power held by the Pope, but because Sforza and the Pope used to be on pretty good terms, hence the whole “godfather of my son” thing. But for the Pope, his own family mattered more than his godchildren…
27. Bad Boy Pope
Pope Alexander VI allied with the French king to claim Sforza’s region of Romagna for his own son, Cesare Borgia. Continuing his bad boy behavior, the Pope claimed that Sforza’s rule was illegal because her land belonged to the Church. It was a cold-hearted betrayal, but Sforza wasn’t stressed. She just got down to business and prepared for battle.
If you wanted to scare this lady, mere threats weren’t enough.
28. Independent Woman
Despite all her fierce preparations, Sforza wouldn’t end this conflict happy. Before she knew what was happening, the citizens surrendered to Cesare Borgia without even trying to fight. That’s right, there was no battle at all. Sforza was far from impressed, but it only made her even more resolved to defend her lands for herself.
29. Boy Bye
Since it looked like Sforza had to solve this problem herself, she came up with an incredible plan. The Tigress sealed herself inside the fortress where the Borgia troops had a very difficult time touching her. In the midst of battle, Cesare figured he’d try to negotiate with Sforza. Unfortunately for him, she simply refused to listen.
30. Curtain Call
Tragically, Sforza’s epic defence was short-lived. In time, Borgia breached the walls and seized the fortress and its mistress.
36. Sly as a Fox
Sforza had one more trick up her sleeve. Knowing that the French refused to take female prisoners of war, she tried to surrender to them rather than to Cesare Borgia. However, Cesare was just as crafty as Caterina: He stopped that plot by convincing the French General that he would treat Sforza as a guest and not as a prisoner. Sure, Jan.
31. Poisoning the Pope
According to Pope Alexander VI himself, Sforza once plotted to kill him. Even better, she had an ingenious method. She’d use a “package of letters, swaddled in scarlet cloth.” Some believe that Sforza would have used one of her alchemy recipes for the poison, while others suggest her plan was even darker: She wanted to contaminate the cloth with the bubonic plague.
32. But I-
Of course Cesare Borgia wasn’t actually going to treat Sforza like an honored guest. Instead, he totally went back on his word and imprisoned his enemy in Belvedere Palace in the Vatican for four months. After the Tigress attempted an escape, things only got worse. She was confined in an even stricter prison.
The Pope cited the reason for her imprisonment as her attempt to poison him. Historians insist that there is no conclusive evidence for this.
Finally, in 1501, the rebellious Caterina Sforza was free. Sadly, her freedom had a terrible cost. The Pope claimed Sforza signed away her lands to his son, Cesare Borgia. Defeated (but hey, at least not in jail), Sforza moved to Florence to live in the villas belonging to her third husband Giovanni de Medici.
34. Last Days
Sforza made one last attempt to regain control over her lands. After Pope Alexander VI died and Cesare Borgia lost his title (good riddance), she rode back into town, hoping to become the Tigress once more. It had a heartbreaking end. The people were unwilling to accept her. After all the messy battles and seizes, Sforza’s reputation had taken quite a beating.
35. New Plan
In the end, Sforza gave up the idea of leading her old territory. She decided to concentrate on her children, alchemy, and on staying in touch with her family and friends.
36. The End
In 1509, Sforza started to feel unwell. Even though doctors tended to the Tigress, no one could have known that it was already too late. The warrior woman passed away in 1509 due to a liver disease combined with peritonitis and pleurisy. She was only 46 years old at the time.
37. A Man’s World
Caterina Sforza has been a subject of many differing opinions. Some historians praise her resourcefulness and her gall, while others slam her as a dictator and tyrant. There is no denying that she was a woman who knew what she wanted and was unafraid to get it by any means. She definitely did not fit in with the ideals of the Renaissance Woman, for better or for worse.
According to one modern historian, Sforza “ was hated because she did what men did, and triumphantly.”
38. You Are NOT the Husband!
For a brief period, people thought that Sforza would take the powerful Antonio Maria Ordelaffi as her second husband. The two were close, but when Ordelaffi started getting cocky and spreading the news that they were to wed, Sforza taught him a brutal lesson. She started arresting anyone who had propelled the false information—including Ordelaffi, who spent 10 years in prison.
39. Love, Actually
Shortly after her husband Riario’s assassination, Sforza kept a dark secret. Before long, she fell in love with Giacomo Feo, the brother of the loyal Tommaso Feo. Though she was happy, she had to keep their passion under wraps so as to not lose the custody of her children or her authority. In 1488, the pair even married in a hush-hush ceremony.
40. Little Joy
Sforza’s relationship with Feo couldn’t remain hidden for long one she started showing. She had their son, Bernardino, in 1491.
41. Blinded by Love
Sforza’s love for Giacomo Feo influenced her in disturbing ways. Though she was infamous for her headstrong will, somehow Sforza agreed to everything he said. Some even feared her devotion would lead her to strip her son of his titles and give them to Feo instead. Unsurprisingly, her children despised Feo—and one day, he went too far.
After a fight with Ottaviano, Feo slapped the Sforza heir in front of everyone. Obviously, Feo didn’t understand tact and diplomacy.
42. More Conspiracies
Eventually, Sforza’s children had enough: Feo had to go. In 1495, they hired assassins to strike him after a family picnic, killing him brutally. The attackers thought that Sforza knew about the plot and gave the go-ahead because Feo was trying to usurp her son’s powers. Unfortunately, they soon discovered how wrong they were.
43. No Fury Like
Sforza’s rage was terrible to behold. She was not content with just executing the conspirators. She wanted them to die terrible, painful deaths, and tormented them endlessly before murdering. Her lust for revenge didn’t stop there. She extended her fury on their wives, mistresses, and even their children. Around 20 children, including infants, were killed in her aftermath.
44. The Bigger They Are…
Driven mad with vengeance, Sforza made a foolish mistake. During her rampage, she killed many current or potential allies, and her rage lost her the favor and support of her people forever.
45. Infamous Words
Sforza’s kidnapping at the hands of the Orsi family has one more chilling legend. After she turned on them, the Orsis threatened to kill her children. Unfazed, Sforza made an utterly disturbing reply. It’s said that she lifted up her skirts and shouted a truly epic command. “Do it, if you want to: hang them even in front of me…here I have what’s needed to make others.” Mic. Drop.
46. Pregnant Pause
Unfortunately, there is no proof this really happened. But the likely story is still juicy: Apparently, Sforza faked being pregnant. Regardless, the conspirators were so shocked, they didn’t make good on their threats.