The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev

18th Dec 2012


If you consider that she lead wars, bore eight children and buried three husbands, it begins to sound increasingly plausible.

Elizabeth Lev’s account of Caterina’s life – The Tigress of Forli  – is a bold début from the American art historian, one which evokes a woman at the centre of the Italian Renaissance, a constant fighting spirit, with a dynamism that will inspire female readers.

Caterina was born in 1463, the illegitimate child of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, himself heir to the duchy of Milan. She was raised in a luxurious fashion, with a privileged education, and developed a certain vanity (she was a renowned beauty).

Like the boys in her family, she too was trained as a warrior. With obvious motives, Caterina’s father proposed that his 10-year-old daughter marry Girolamo Riario, a man 20 years her senior, and nephew to the Pope.

She became accustomed to life in Rome’s Papal Court life – until the assassination of her husband, which made her the ruler of two city-states.

She was certainly a woman of endurance and courage, exemplified by the many months during her pregnancy which she spent literally guarding the castle and protecting her family.

And if that was not enough, she suffered rape, humiliation and imprisonment at the hands of Cesare Borgia, and slander by Machiavelli, after his vain attempts to overpower her.

Born into a warrior’s life, defying ruthless families, battling for her own and her children’s legacy, she was inevitably vilified by her people.

Caterina was, and still is considered a fierce fighter who still at the end, after sacrificing dignity and accepting scrutiny, fought for this legacy above all else.

Lev’s account is a thorough, academic, fully-referenced work, documenting Sforza’s powerful love for her children, but also allowing the reader to question her treatment of them, seen by some to have endangered their lives.

However, there are moments throughout when Lev makes it crystal clear the immense audacity and notoriety of this warrior woman. Lev states near the beginning of the text, ‘Once again she had acted with ingenuity and boldness, qualities that made her an object of fascination.’

Furthermore, Lev’s portrayal of the male characters allows the reader to see them as weak –  particularly in comparison with the ‘first lady’.  While in the midst of war in 1482, Sforza’s husband acted with sufficient cowardice to allow Caterina to realise that, despite her husband’s ‘ornately trimmed garments, nothing of substance existed within’.

Even the likes of Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia are painted as pathetic, desperate beings that employed underhanded techniques to destroy this strong character.

The fact that her three husbands were all killed is suggestive of the lack of strong male figures in Sforza’s life. Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici shines vividly amidst these Italian cavaliers, emerging as ‘Renaissance Italy’s most courageous and notorious countess’ – oh, and the main protagonist in a historical, action-adventure video game.

The Tigress of Forli is available now from Head of Zeus in hardback priced at £25, and is available from  Foyles, Amazon and your local independent bookshop. An e-book version is also available, priced at £1.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Historians and students

Other recommended reading: Check out Blood Sisters: The Hidden Lives of the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood and also Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England by Louise Wilkinson for more inspiring historical female biographies.

Keira Brown