Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Cadet Branch of
the Medici Family
Two lines of Medicis branched out from the man (Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici) most popularly considered the father of the grand dynasty: the Principle line, that which included Lorenzo Il Magnifico de’ Medici, and the Cadet Branch, also known as Dei Popolani, of the people.

Little is written of this branch for two generations; they were, for the most part, regular people living regular lives, working as part of the Medici Banking Empire and marrying well (a union with a Calvalcanti was a particularly prominent association). But in the same generation as Il Magnifico, the Cadet branch makes a contribution, albeit through a marriage, that would change the prominence of the family as no other union had.

When Giovanni dei Popolani de’ Medici married Caterina Sforza, the Medici family could now call the Duke of Milan brethren. He would not be her first husband and the road to the Florence court was a long, twisting, and, at times, treacherous journey for the famed Caterina.

Caterina Sforza
Caterina was born in 1463 ‘on the wrong side of the bed,’ the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, and his feisty mistress, Lucrezia Landriani (b ca. 1440), the wife of the Duke’s good friend, Gian Piero Landrini. By most accounts, the first three years of Caterina’s life were spent with her mother’s family. When her father, Galeazzo inherited his titled with his father’s passing in 1466, he brought Lucrezia and all of their children to his court. There, surrounded by artists and writers, Caterina, and her other illegitimate siblings, were raised in the rarefied, tyrannical air of the Milanese court. There she received a Humanist education, the same education as her brothers, perhaps an indication of the fiery woman she was to become. Classic literature and Latin were taught officially. Unofficially, Caterina learned much from her paternal grandmother, Bianca Maria Visconti, who fostered a pride in her warlike ancestors, audaciousness in the use of arms, and the intricacies of government. It is to her credit that Bona of Savoy, Galeazzo’s second wife, treated all of her husband’s children as her own, showering them all with maternal love and care, eventually adopting them all. With this myriad mix of influences, it is little wonder that Caterina’s personal proclivities including hunting (like her father), alchemy, and dancing.

Girolamo Riario
At the tender age of ten, Caterina was betrothed to the Pope’s newphew, Girolamo Riario. Accounts differ concerning her usurping her own cousin in this marriage, with disputes as to whether Caterina’s marriage was consummated then, in 1473, or four years later, in 1477, when she reached the required legal age of fourteen. When the Holy See conferred upon his nephew the Lordship of Imola in 1477, Caterina went to Rome to take official residence with her husband, a man who came to be known as “The Captain of the Vatican Ship of State.” They welcomed their first child a year later (the first of what would become Caterina’s ten children).

Life in Vatican City was tumultuous; power and intrigue festered among the unscrupulous. Though her husband forbade her involvement in the political arena, Caterina soon found her own place. She became noted as one of the most beautiful and gracious among Roman noblewomen. Every door opened for her, hosted lavishly, and praised by all, including the Pope. Her heightened intellect and her multi-faceted education led her to become a powerful intermediary between the Vatican and the other powerful city/states of Italy. In 1480, the Pope, for his own political reasons, assigned the lordship of Forli to Girolamo, and with it, Caterina’s own scope of influence expanded.

Their meteoric rise tumbled in August of 1484 upon the death of the Pope.

Castel Sant'Angelo
All of Rome was thrown into chaos; rebellions, looting, and disorder became the rule of the day. In the seventh month of another pregnancy, Caterina escaped on horseback to the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo. Much is debated as to the true power in this couple, many stating Caterina held the reins rather than her weaker husband, many state she herself believed him to be her inferior. With Girolamo away plundering other parts of Italy, Caterina, from her position in the fortress and with the strength of the her soldiers behind her, held the city in her grip, refusing to loosen her hold until her husband returned and a new pope was elected. Though Girolamo bowed to the Sacred College of Cardinals and their desire for him to leave the city in their hands, Caterina was not so acquiescent. She increased her army. Only when her own husband took a counterposition to her, did she relinquish the fortress and follow her husband to Forli.

Life there was a ruse, Girolamo’s rule a shame, and in April of 1488, after many failed attempts, Girolamo was assassinated by a conspiracy led by the Orsis family. The lordship's palace was sacked and Caterina and her children taken as hostages. The conspirators ordered her, by sword-point, to order the garrison of the castle to surrender it. Using her wiles, she agreed, asking for time for the negotiation. Once back in the palace, she followed through on her own plans, gathering all the forces of the city in defense.

"My people, I tell you to punish and kill all enemies. For it I will consider you my good brothers evermore. Do not hesitate to act, and fear nothing, because the deeds will benefit you and your children. If you fail to act you will regret it in a few days."

When the lives of her children were threatened, she responded as only she would, lifting her skirts and grabbing her crotch, she bellowed, ‘Fatelo, se volete: impiccateli pure davanti a me... qui ho quanto basta per farne altri!" ("Do it, if you want to: hang them well in front of me...I have just enough to make more!"). With that act, Caterina became the Lady of Imola and Forli.

Caterina acted as regent for her eldest son Ottaviano. Her first act was to punish those who murdered her husband. No one was spared, not even the wives and children of the conspirators or their property. For eight years she ruled and governed all aspects of her position, taxes, building, fostering relations with neighboring courts. She married and was widowed twice more. Despite rumors that she was to marry Antonio Maria Ordelaffi, her second marriage was for love, love with Giacomo Feo, the castellan who had pledged allegiance to her after the assassination of her first husband. It was a secret marriage, done so to protect her custody of her children. But her passionate and abiding love Giacomo was too great, too well know, and he too fell to an assassins blade. Caterina responded by roasting the assassin alive on a spit and dropping his wife and children down a well. In all thirty-eight died in response to the death of her beloved Giacomo.

Giovanni il Popolano de' Medici
Enter Giovanni de’ Medici. Exiled, along with his brother Lorenzo (yes, another Lorenzo de’ Medici) because of a rift with the leader of the Medici family at the time, Piero, who had succeeded Il Magnifico, Giovanni found refuge in Forli, eventually occupying the apartment adjacent to Caterina’s. Handsome, intelligent, and charming, Giovanni soon won the heart of the passionate Caterina. The union of such two powerful families was a dangerous act; Caterina and Giovanni were wed secretly in September of 1497. Seven months later, in April of 1498, their son, baptized Ludovico, was born, named after his mother’s uncle.

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere
Soon afterward, relations between Florence and Venice became volatile. Positioned directly between, Caterina sent forces, led by her husband Giovanni, to the aid of Florence. But there Giovanni became so ill he was rushed back to Forli, but his decline continued. Caterina brought him to Santa Maria in Bagno, a center widely known for their thermal cures. But it was to no avail. In September of 1498, one year after their marriage, Giovanni succumbed to his illness in the arms of his wife. Bereft by his loss, she renamed their son Giovanni dalle Bande Nere. Bande Nere would eventually become one of the most famed condottiero (mercenary military captain) of all of Italy.

Giovanni’s loss was not the end of Caterina’s struggles. She went on to successfully defend her holdings against the Venetians, earning her the title of La Tigre. Caterina was not so triumphant when she came up against one of the most infamous family’s in Italy, Spaniards by the name of Borgia. Stripped of her holdings, accused of attempting to poison the pope, Caterina remained their prisoner for nearly three years..

Caterina Sforza in later years
Upon her release, she retreated to Florence where her children awaited her. Though she tried once more to regain a modicum of her former power, her attempts were in vain. Caterina lived out the rest of her life serving her children, especially Giovanni, and her grandchildren and donned the veil of a nun. She experimented more in alchemy and corresponded prodigiously with family and friends in Romagna and Milan.

In 1509, Caterina was stricken by a severe case of pneumonia, and though for a while it appeared as though she would recover, she took her last breath in May of the same year.

To those who argue that women of the past had neither the ambition nor the desire to become more than what they were allowed, Caterina Sforza is incontrovertible evidence against the illogical notion. In her own words, she denies them, “If I have to lose, although I am a woman, I want to lose in a manly way.”

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