Thursday, 9 April 2015

New life goals: be a de Medici on the streets, a Sforza in the sheets. Alternatively, a goddamn Caterina all the way through.

So back then, Italy in the late 1400s was a huge mess of city states, with political assassinations happening all over the place. If you ever played Assassin's Creed, all that crazy killin' you did in between haystacks doesn't even amount to half of the actual sneaky stabbity shenanigans that took place back then. Everyone had their own army primed and ready to march on their neighboring city-state if its ruler had even so much as a sniffle. 

Enter Caterina Sforza, to all a pawn to be married off to the most advantageous bidder, but to history, a goddamn hero who justified The Dark Knight's philosophy by living long enough to become the villain. Marrying into the then powerful Riario family, she thus begins her education in Italian politics, which has even more twists and turns than a plate full of fusilli.

Little did anyone know that this keen-eyed girl would grow to become one of the most powerful political figures in 1400s Italy, making men look silly before it was cool.



Not everyone can say they've stood in the face of a massive invading Borgia army and laughed (I would peg my own behavior at 80% running far away in abject terror and 20% lying down to die, with a 99% chance of also soiling myself in both scenarios), but if you threw a freaking party while surrounded by the hostile forces of Papal might, you must be the Goddamn Batman (Batman doesn't party) Caterina Sforza.

Elizabeth Lev does a fantastic job in bringing 1400s-era Italy to life. She doesn't romanticize the fact that despite the widespread flourishing of art and culture during this period, Italy was kind of a hive of scum and villainy, despite (or because of--ooooh) being the seat of religious Western domination. The political stratosphere was full of squirrelly bastards itching to grab as much land and power as they could, (for bragging rights presumably). She fills the pages with just enough detail to paint a vivid picture of the political and social atmosphere of the times and sets the stage for the main event: Caterina Sforza.

What's so special about her? My friend, who reads way more biographies than I do, told me that unlike most historical biographies of women, Caterina is a special case in that she actually Gets. Shit. Done. Most of the histories she's read have the woman in this era sort of being peripheral to the men in their lives, watching while others move things along and only stepping in to do whatever it is that merited them their place in history.

Not so our Caterina. She may start out that way, but from the minute she married and got her first taste of power (as the Pope's favorite niece-in-law), she never stopped reaching for it. It helps that the first man she married was an incompetent idiot who was gracious enough to get himself assassinated, paving the way for her own rise to power in his wake (if only more men were half as accommodating). The town she ruled, Forli, is a strategically located waypoint that any army crossing to invade other parts of Italy will have to cross. In the course of her life, Caterina often had to secure her control over the town from scheming upstarts and would often be courted by larger powers for her favor.

It says a lot about Caterina Sforza's strength that riding pregnant across the country to ultimately win the siege of Castel Sant'Angelo, taking charge of a town surrounded by (and infested with) hungry political sharks seeking to capture it for themselves, and of besting Niccolo Machiavelli at his own game are just the events that lead up to her biggest scene, rather than the climactic event of her life. It's not even the time when she was holed up in the siege of Ravaldino where in response to her captive children's lives being threatened, replied from the ramparts: "Do it if you want to; hang them in front of me--I have the mold to make more!" Supposedly, she gestured to her nether regions while doing this, but I'd like to believe my girl stayed classy. She may have been raised with a martial gleam in her eye and a sword in her hand, but she loved fashion and poetry like a true Renaissance woman.

No, the honor of her most climactic life event belongs to the time she led the siege of Forli. For weeks, she held fast against the assembled might of the Papal Armies which were led by the ruthless captain-general Cesare Borgia, fearsome warrior and all around dick. One woman, leading a handful of soldiers and citizens against the combined forces of the most powerful army in town, proceeded to thumb her nose at the corruption of the Papal throne, inspiring the admiration and respect all of Italy and establishing herself as one of the greatest women in history. If I could accomplish just a fraction of the things she did in her extremely colorful life, I would be so inordinately proud of myself that no one would be able to tolerate me ever again.

Powerful women are my kryptonite. I will hoover up anything that has to do with a woman changing the course of history and making all the men look down at their shoes in disgruntled embarrassment. And although Caterina's stellar career sadly ends with more of a whimper than a bang, she was one of the greatest of them all.
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