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A Look Up Caterina Sforza’s Skirt October 28, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Caterina Sforza was one of those extraordinary individuals who managed to pack five or six lifetimes into her forty odd years. Wife, alchemist, mother, warrior, seductress, torturer, hunter, general, rape victim and, don’t forget, the model for one of the three graces in Botticelli’s Primavera: she also had a lot of hot Milanese blood swilling around inside her.

On a day when Beach should really be getting ready for the first post holiday lessons he thought he would celebrate his favourite Caterina episode up high on the Ravaldino, the fortress that frowns over Forlì, her husband, Girolamo’s stronghold.

14 April 1488 Girolamo was killed in a conspiracy in that town and his body was cut to pieces. Caterina and her immediate family was taken prisoner by the rebels and she particularly was lucky to escape an immediate lynching.

Given what she would later do to those who were guilty of her husband’s murder there is no question that this was a mistake on their part. The conspirators then compounded their initial error by giving Caterina a finger’s breadth of freedom. The Ravaldino was still in the hands of men loyal to the dead Girolamo and so the conspirators, after some useless parlying, allowed Caterina to go into the castle to negotiate its surrender. They must have reasoned that they had Caterina’s children, mother and half sisters and that no self-respecting woman would risk defiance in those circumstances. But this was Caterina Sforza and the bad Milanese blood was bubbling over the top of the pan…

Caterina immediately took control of the defence of the fortress and went up on to the battlements to insult the men who had been foolish enough to let her go.

When they pointed out that they could kill her children she lifted her skirt exposing her genitals and roared back at them: ‘I have what it takes to make others’.

It is a fabulous story. However, is it true? The tale appears in Machiavelli  and is endlessly repeated from then on, but is the father of political science (and hence the step-father of lies) to be trusted? Common wisdom would say not: Wikipedia writes this off rather airily as ‘a famous legend (without historical veracity)’. And we all know that what Wikipedia says…

However, the early sources are surprisingly good. A letter sent one day after Caterina entered the fortress gives this account:

Madonna [Caterina] does not want to come out. The people can easily say, ‘we will kill your children’. She replies that there’s no way, that they poisoned them anyway, and that she is carrying one in her body and she is capable of having more. By no means does she want to hear a thing about coming out and bombards the whole surrounding area without stopping.

Then two days later another letter – translation taken from Hairston here and above – confirms this behaviour.

The people menacingly demanded of Madonna Caterina to have the castle turned over into their hands. Her Highness replied that if they, while maintaining hold of her children, would have her accompanied into the fortress by four or six of their men, they would see the work she would do with the castellan. After having done so, she stayed in the fortress and told the men who had accompanied her to leave without her, and that they could do with her children whatever they wished, that for her the one in Milan, who’s the oldest, and the one she has in her body are enough. Then the castellan told those men to make the people understand that if in the future the aforesaid children were mistreated, or if they were killed or harmed in any other way, that they would level the town with bombards.

Here we see a woman of great spirit playing the poor cards dealt to her with style: the claim that she was pregnant seems to have been a lie! As to the skirt lifting this doesn’t appear in contemporary accounts, sadly. But there is a reference to an obscene hand gesture that the livid Caterina makes at her husband’s murderers from the castle walls: the dreaded four figs, to be found in Dante and the medieval Italian equivalent of Darth Vader’s choking trick.

The Orsi family, for the record, were virtually wiped out in the next weeks: if memory serves Beachcombing correctly parts of one of the conspirators were eaten by Caterina’s loyalists.

Nice place renaissance Italy.

Any other memorable wish-I’d-been-there moments from history: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

***

28 Oct 2011: Ricardo writes in. ‘Reading Herodotus on Ethiopia and Egypt, probably you know the story. Quoting from memory, the Egyptian king had left a garrison of a few thousand to guard the borders with Ethiopia. Well, he ‘forgot’ them there so after some years they got upset, packed up and decided to cross to the other side. And so the word reached the King who decided to run over and get them back. He rounded them up and made an appeal (ah, some nice Hollywood speech?) about their homeland and the women who soon they would be leaving behind. One from the army them come forward, holding his testicles in hand and saying: ‘where these go, my sons and daughters go’ and so they left. Herodotus gives this a reason for an increase in culture in Ethiopia about this time!’ Thanks Ricardo!

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