“If I were to write the story of my life, I would shock the world.”
An illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, Caterina was raised in the ducal palace where she received a quality humanist education alongside her half-brothers and sisters. In addition to studying Latin and the Classics, she was taught to ride and wield arms, giving her both a lifelong love of hunting and an early, crucial grounding in the fundamentals of military leadership.
At the tender age of ten she was married to the thirty-year-old Girolamo Riario, a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV and lord of Imola and Forlí, although the marriage was not consummated for another four years. She joined her husband in Rome in 1477, where she quickly took to society life, becoming a popular and sought-after hostess, much admired for her beauty and style.
The death of the Pope in 1484 left Girolamo in a precarious position, in danger of losing all the power he had amassed. Riario took the offensive, amassing his army as a heavily pregnant Caterina rode to seize control of the fortress Castel Sant'Angelo. As Rome descended into disorder, Girolamo presented his demands - the confirmation of his lordship over Forlí and Imola, the retention of his title of Captain-General of the Church, and 8,000 ducats. The cardinals readily agreed, and Girolamo prepared to withdraw. Caterina, however, did not, refusing to budge from the castle until she was at last offered a written agreement that the Riario family would retain Forlí and Imola.
Girolamo’s vast unpopularity among the people of Forlí ultimately caught up with him, however, and in 1488 he was assassinated and Caterina and her six children taken prisoner. While the majority of Forlí quickly surrendered to papal control, the Riario loyalists in Ravaldino continued to hold out. Caterina offered to enter the fortress and negotiate a surrender, leaving her children outside as collateral. Once inside, however, she immediately began organising defences and launching insults against her former captors. It’s from this event that we get the infamous (and utterly false) legend about Caterina, that when her enemies threatened her children’s lives she walked to the edge of the rampart, lifted her skirt and shouted back, “I have the instrument to bear more!”
With the aid of her uncle Ludovico il Moro, she defeated her enemies, regaining possession of all her dominions as regent for her young son and wreaking vengeance on those who had opposed her. She ruled for twelve years, marrying twice more and becoming an important and influential actor in Italian politics.
In 1499 she was faced with another siege, this time at the hands of Cesare Borgia, who sought conquest of the Romagna. Caterina refused to give up without a fight, standing firm against multiple bombardments; her men even wrote insults on their own cannonballs. Even as the walls were broken down and Cesare’s men stormed Ravaldino, she continued to fight with sword in hand until captured.
She remained a prisoner in Rome until 1501, after which, having been forced to renounce all claim to her domains, she retired to Florence, where she lived out her final years with her children and grandchildren.