About the Book
The astonishing life of a long-misunderstood Renaissance virago
Wife, mother, leader, warrior. Caterina Riario Sforza was one of the most prominent women in Renaissance Italy—and one of the most vilified. In this glittering biography, Elizabeth Lev reexamines her extraordinary life and accomplishments.
Raised in the court of Milan and wed at age ten to the pope’s corrupt nephew, Caterina was ensnared in Italy’s political intrigues early in life. After turbulent years in Rome’s papal court, she moved to the Romagnol province of Forlì. Following her husband’s assassination, she ruled Italy’s crossroads with iron will, martial strength, political savvy—and an icon’s fashion sense. In finally losing her lands to the Borgia family, she put up a resistance that inspired all of Europe and set the stage for her progeny—including Cosimo de’ Medici—to follow her example to greatness.
A rich evocation the Renaissance, The Tigress of Forlì reveals Caterina Riario Sforza as a brilliant and fearless ruler, and a tragic but unbowed figure.
About the Author
ELIZABETH LEV is a scholar of Renaissance art and culture and professor of Art History in Rome, where she lives with her family. This is her first book.
A Q&A with Elizabeth Lev
Where did you find out about Caterina Sforza?
I ran across Caterina’s story while I was living in Imola, working on my graduate degree. Streets and shops were named for her and clearly she was a big deal in this small town. But when I ran into her portrait in the Uffizi gallery in Florence as grandmother of the first Medici duke and then in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling, I began to realize she was a much more than just a local idol. Then, while reading a book on the history of the Medici family I read a little sketch of her life and I was hooked.
What were the challenges involved in writing this book?
After 20 years in Italy, I thought my Italian was pretty good, but reading documents in various Italian dialects was definitely challenging. During the four years of research and writing, I got used to the way Renaissance Romans spelled, and learned idiomatic phrases from 15th-century Romagna. It was fun—like standing in a town square 500 years ago listening to all the gossip, stories, and news, and even the occasional weather report!
How do you see Caterina as relating to contemporary women?
Caterina amazes me, because she resembles a 21st-century go-getter, multitasking woman, in a world where that was not considered an admirable quality. She ran a business, raised eight children, ruled two towns, fought off assassins, had steamy love affairs, and even had her own cosmetics line! All this in 46 years of life! In our age we love to see people who are passionate about what they do, in her age restraint was the highest virtue. Her ability to think several steps ahead and strategize would have put her at the helm of a Fortune 500 company today, but in her world it was disconcerting to encounter a woman “who thought like a man.”
What did you find most interesting about her?
When I started researching, I was surprised that there wasn’t more out there on her. I wondered why there weren’t stacks of biographies as there are for other celebrated women. When I got midway through her life, I encountered the problem of her colossal mistakes. Caterina did some very controversial things. Some were clever plays and I think, at the end of the day, wisely done. Others, however, were embarrassing and even cruel. I became fascinated with someone who had so publically and terribly fallen from grace through her own actions and how she recovered from it. One of the most interesting things to me about her was that she would never give up, even when the enemy she had to conquer was herself.
How do you see the Renaissance era? Does it seem completely distant from our age, or are you comfortable imaging yourself in that world?
Well, I don’t think I would enjoy a world without penicillin, appliances, and take-out food, or where one in ten women died in childbirth. From the highest echelons to the lowest, people’s lives were much harder and shorter, often ended abruptly by violence or plagues. But as a result they lived with a great deal of intensity—they got very angry, they sought pleasure with great alacrity, and they repented with great sincerity. The Renaissance, much like our age, had a passion for discovery and achievement. People read the ancient texts; travelled to new lands bringing back exotic new foods, objects, and tales; women ran countries and commissioned art; stone carvers became superstars. But side by side with all the refinement and knowledge of the era, I was taken aback by how earthy the Renaissance was. The language, the antics, and the bawdy humor reveal a much more human side of Humanism.
What was it like writing The Tigress of Forlì in Italy?
Writing this book was a blast because it was like seeing all my favorite cities with fresh eyes. In Milan, I could see the Sforza castle in all its glory and imagine Caterina watching Leonardo da Vinci paint. In Rome, I watched the transformation of a medieval village into the glorious city we know today through her eyes, and in Florence, I saw the Medici home bustling with activity while she lived there. Even in little Forlì, devastated in WWI, her story helped me find the traces of the pivotal town that played such a big role in Caterina’s life and times. Writing this story made me fall in love with Italy all over again.