The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici
By Elizabeth Lev
Published in October 2012
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
I am glad that Hitler wasn’t a woman, because feminists would be praising him today and talking about how misunderstood he was by male historians. The Tigress of Forli is a book that teaches little girls that women can be just as violent, corrupt, and vile as the worst men; tyranny knows no gender.
Caterina Sforza’s history is fascinating. She was a very intelligent and capable woman, but was married to Girolamo Riario, a complete bozo. Girolamo Riario was the lord of several towns, most notably Imola. Caterina bore him a son who was the heir. However, when the son was still a baby, Riario took part in a bungled assasination attempt against the neighboring Medicis and was himself killed. Caterina Sforza found herself as the lord of Forli during her son’s long regency. She would have a troubled reign (although to be fair many of Italy’s rulers at the time did too). Eventually, she would be deposed, raped, imprisoned, and forcefully retired by Cesare de Borgia, the pope’s bastard son.
What bothered me about this book is that Caterina Sforza is obviously evil. She is vengeful, hateful, and has no sense of ethics.
There are some troubled but potentially justifiable incidents - when her son is taken hostage during the first attempt at a failed coup against her, she tells the captors that she doesn’t care and can make another. This actually helps her get her son back. Lev’s generous interpretation is that Caterina Sforza was playing 4D chess and actually knew that was her best bet at getting her son back. I am not so sure.
But there is a far more disturbing incident. During the second failed coup against her, she orders the Milanese army to sack her own town. Her justification was that the citizenry did not support her, so deserved punishment. The amount of rape, slaughter, and theft that ensued is truly horrible.
She regularly has people tortured, killed, and poisoned. She has poor judgement, letting her thirst for sex get in the way of her government. Her affair with a stableboy and his subsequent promotion to high office triggers the aforementioned second coup attempt.
Something really bothered me about this book: compared to other Renaissance rulers (even female ones), Caterina Sforza is, at best, average. However, Elizabeth Lev is entranced by the fact that a woman is fighting battles, torturing people, and ruling over a town. She fawningly describes her reign, and contrives excuses for Caterina Sforza’s constant failings. Historians are justly critical of similar actions when done by male rulers. For example, many male rulers’ thirst for sex and inability to maintain monogamous marriages leads to their downfalls. Lorenzo the Magnificent's otherwise stable reign is castrated by his inability to keep his pants on. Caterina Sforza’s pursuit of men is just as damaging as Lorenzo’s womanizing; but when she does it she is “empowered and modern.”
Some people might make the argument that all late medieval and renaissance rulers were just as bad as Caterina Sforza, but I reject this. True, most rulers of the period seem pretty evil and incompetnant. During this time civilization triumphs despite, not because, of government. Caterina Sforza is far from the worst ruler. However, the renaissance does have its fair share of shining lights of justice, good governance, and genius. For example Cosimo de Medici ruled Florence with a light touch, took care of the poor, enshrined capitalism, and patronized the arts. There are no sacks, massacres, or incidents that can be condemned today under Cosimo’s stable reign.
Other female rulers, like Isabella of Castile are far better examples of competence. She was religious, pious, and monogamous. More importantly, Isabella was incredibly competent: she patronized the arts, funded Christopher Columbus who started colonizing the Americas, reformed the economy, and funded the free market school of Salamanca. Like Caterina Sforza, she also went to war and put herself in harms’ way. She acted as a combat medic, cleaning the festering wounds of soldiers who had been injured during the war with Portugal.
I wish that the real message was that Caterina Sforza was a tyrant, not that different than the others who terrorized the Italian population at the time.
The writing style is OK, neither particularly good nor bad.
I recommend this book if you are curious to learn about Caterina Sforza, but caution that Elizabeth Lev’s interpretations of events tend to excuse her actions rather than report on them objectively. While Caterina Sforza’s ability to govern doesn’t even hold a candle to rulers like Cosimo de Medici, her story is just as interesting.
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