Caterina Sforza: One of History’s Fiercest Females – Countess Of Forli

The only possible way to describe Caterina Sforza is by making use of the words agitator, rebel, fighter, renegade, and unyielding. She was a woman of substantial strength, intelligence, and tenaciousness. Caterina would take charge and show unbelievable character despite her hard-as-nails attitude.

Always doing what she wanted without a thought.

Caterina Sforza is one of the most infamous women in renaissance Italy, and is well known for her many vendettas; including hostilities with other well know nobles such as the prominent and famous Borgia family. She simply didn’t care what others thought. Life would be quite a journey. She was a true force to be reckoned with! She would surpass the rank of a bastard and be known as Countess of Forli and as Lady of Imola.

Caterina served as an acting regent in the place of her son Ottaviani after the death of her first husband. She was married several times and had around eight children. The Countess endured catastrophe after catastrophe in her life and come out even bolder each time defying tradition, gender norms, and forging a path to the top with mere intelligence.

Caterina Sforza was the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan and his mistress Lucrezia Landriani. Caterina had a pretty decent early life despite being born a bastard. This was because Galeazzo’s father Francesco died when Caterina was very young.

At the death of Francesco, her father would become the next Duke of Milan which allowed the man to bring all his four illegitimate children from Lucrezia to court. Caterina would become accepted and live the luxurious lifestyle of a duke’s daughter.

Things were pretty good at the start of her life. She received the finest education available to nobles including Latin and reading. Caterina learned skills such as horseback riding and hunting.

As a young girl, she was a quick study and quite proficient on all things she attempted at this stage in her life. It would not be long before her status would change. At the age of nine, Caterina would become formally engaged to Girolamo Riario and officially married him January 17th, 1439 at the age of ten.

He was a close relative to a reigning pope and he had lots of power. Caterina remained in her family’s court even after marriage until the age of fourteen. Many historians believe that she did not consummate the marriage until she left her father’s home.

Fleur-de-Gigi, author of La Bella Donna, History is Beautiful, describes Caterina’s complicated background and the events that shaped her life leading up to her arrival in Rome. Below is a snippet that details Caterina’s earlier years.

“Caterina was the second child Lucrezia bore Galeazzo Maria; she would later have two more. In 1466, when Caterina was three years old, her father became duke of Milan, and she became part of the ducal household.

Two years later, her father married Bona of Savoy; he legitimized Caterina, and his duchess “adopted” her husband’s daughter. According to Pier Desiderio Pasolini, the author of an extended biography of Caterina, Bona “loved her as a true daughter, bringing her up with maternal love.” Caterina’s fortunes began to take shape early in 1473 when the ten-year-old girl was betrothed to Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. Between the time of his betrothal and marriage, Girolamo gained possession of the city of Imola, inherited his older brother’s wealth, and, more important, became the padrone della barca vaticana (“the captain of the Vatican ship of state”)–more prosaically, he became the “designer and executor of papal policies.”

When Galeazzo Maria Sforza was assassinated in 1476, the pope and his nephew, eager to protect their relationship with the city of Milan, moved quickly to press forward their alliance with the Sforza family. The fourteen-year-old Caterina was married by proxy to Girolamo in January 1477 and left the ducal palace of Milan to join her new husband in late April; she stopped briefly in the Riario city of Imola, leaving on 13 May. By the end of May, she had arrived in Rome….

Marriage, motherhood, maintaining and manipulating important family relationships and personal contacts: these were the obligations and responsibilities expected of women in her social position. But Caterina’s role developed in an unexpected way as a result of her political “apprenticeship.” In Pasolini’s words, she soon realized that her husband “lacked courage”; in her “bitterness of humiliation,” Caterina, as a true “woman of the house of Sforza,” was forced to become “ruthless” and “formidable” in her desire to protect her son’s future.

To this end, in 1483, Caterina found a new occupation. While helping Girolamo gather arms and men in preparation for a threatened war, Breisach reports that Caterina “soon commanded enormous respect”; she also commanded fear, learning what she could accomplish by her “iron discipline cruelly enforced.” Her martial activity seems not only to have stimulated her but to have defined her in some essential way. Within months, the effect of her transformation was evident.”


At the age of fourteen, Caterina’s father was murdered, and she left to join her husband in Rome. She was impressed and quite taken with Girolamo Riario’s connections, wealth, and nobility. It would not be long before she was pregnant and would give birth to her first child at the age of fifteen. The baby was a girl named Bianca. Things went smoothly for the most part in the next several years and she would have more children. It was about 1484 during extreme turmoil in Rome that Caterina showed just how ambitious and challenging her personality truly was. She would take advantage of the distractions of others to seize control of Castel Sant’ Angelo. The woman was twenty-one during this time and about seven months pregnant. She occupied the fortress for her husband and dictated because it was a time of turmoil due to the death of Pope Sixtus IV. Now this is where things get interesting. Caterina had seized control but the new pope and many others had tried to convince her to surrender and hand control over to the Vatican. She refused outright. Now this is where events become quite more interesting. Caterina’s husband Girolamo Riaro even took up arms against her because he had made agreements with them; however, she wasn’t approving and increased the amount of soldiers she had defending in order to force them to parlay with her and make agreements towards her own demands.

Eventually, Caterina and her husband would return with their family to Rome and then to rule Forli. Girolamo was not the best leader and showed no military promise. It was Caterina herself that would do much of what was needed around Forli. Girolamo would  suffered critical financial losses to his personal income due to his departure from Rome. The monetary loss was more than just a personal hit for the family because around 1485 Forli’s city government completely ran out of money. This would lead to Girolamo to start increasing the taxes on his people. This made him extremely unpopular.

In April of 1488, Caterina’s husband was murdered by the Orsis family leading Caterina’s palace to be sacked. She and her children were taken hostage. Through clever wit and manipulation, the Countess was able to convince her captors to let her leave and go to the fortress of Ravaldino in order to convince the people at the fortress to submit to the Orsis family. Caterina was able to do this because the Orsis didn’t think she would do anything against them considering they had her children as hostages. Once Caterina’s freedom was established, she went into a rage and immediately started planning her vengeance on the Orsis family.

They threatened to kill her children right in front of her if she did not go along with their commands. She made it safely to Fortress of Ravaldino and apparently is recorded saying in response to the Orsis’s threats that “they could kill her children if they really wanted. She had woman parts to make more!”. The vulgar response startled and frightened the Orsis family and they did not dare harm any of the Riario children. Caterina with the help of her uncle Ludovico II Moro destroyed her enemies and regained control of her land. She was also reunited with her offsprings and all was well.

At the end of April in 1488, Caterina became the acting regent of Forli in place of her young son Ottaviani. The boy inherited his father titles but was too young to actually exercise his new power directly. This is why Caterina, who already has taken back the lands for her family would stand in Ottaviani’s place for the time being. The first act she did as regent was continuing her revenge on the Orsis family for the death of her husband. She ordered all those involved including others from different families who assisted imprisoned. Those she imprisoned also included women from the Orsis family. Caterina didn’t care.

The Countess from this point on would personally run all government and deal with all issues in her city-state. Unfortunately, Cesare Borgia would eventually lay siege upon Caterina’s people. The Countess after a long drawn out siege was captured and taken with Borgia’s army to several places. Caterina ended up in the prison of Castel Sant’ Angelo where she was later released when the French army of Louis XIII arrived during their conquest. She released all her fiefs and money to the French and would travel to Florence for the remainder of her life.

When Caterina arrived in Florence in 1501, she lived at the villas of her third husband Giovanni de’ Medici. She would embark on a huge custody battle with her brother in- law Lorenzo de ’Medici for the return of her son Giovanni. He had been placed in Lorenzo custody during Caterina’s imprisonment. After several years, Caterina was successful in getting her son back.

At this point, Caterina Sforza lived her life devoted to her children, alchemy, and writing. She was a woman to be feared and had risen above it all.  At the age of Forty-six, the Countess also known as “The Tiger of Forlì”, who had “frightened all of Romagna” would die after an extremely difficult struggle with pneumonia. She was buried at the chapel of Le Murate in Florence.

Please leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of this very fierce lady! Also please CLICK HERE if you want to read more about Caterina’s feud with the Borgia and how she may have tried to poison the pope!


“In this insightful, fascinating portrayal, Elizabeth Lev brings Caterina Sforza and her times very much to life.”—Kathleen Turner, actress and author of Send Yourself Roses

A strategist to match Machiavelli; a warrior who stood toe to toe with the Borgias; a wife whose three marriages would end in bloodshed and heartbreak; and a mother determined to maintain her family’s honor, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici was a true Renaissance celebrity, beloved and vilified in equal measure. In this dazzling biography, Elizabeth Lev illuminates 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 of Renaissance life, The Tigress of Forlì reveals Caterina Riario Sforza as a brilliant and fearless ruler, and a tragic but unbowed figure.

“A rich, nuanced portrait of a highly controversial beauty and military leader, and her violent, albeit glittering, Italian Renaissance milieu.”—Publishers Weekly

“Well-written and meticulously researched, The Tigress of Forlì recreates the world of Renaissance Italy in all its grandeur and violence. At the center stands a remarkable woman, Caterina Riario Sforza. Mother, warrior, and icon, Caterina is unforgettable, and so is the exciting story that Elizabeth Lev tells here.”—Barry Strauss, author of Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership.”



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