Renaissance and Reformation Caterina Sforza
Joyce de Vries
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0180


Caterina Sforza (b. 1462/63–d. 1509) was the daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza (b. 1444–d. 1476), duke of Milan (r. 1467–1476), and his mistress Lucrezia Landriani (b. 1440/45–d. 1507). In 1477, she married Girolamo Riario (b. 1443–d. 1488), nephew of Pope Sixtus IV and ruler of Imola since 1473. He gained possession of Forlì in 1480. Sforza bore at least eight children with Riario, six of whom survived infancy, and she became regent for her son Ottaviano (b. 1479–d. 1533) when Riario was assassinated in 1488. She survived several conspiracies against her rule of Imola and Forlì in the 1490s, and she was deposed only when Cesare Borgia (b. 1475/76–d. 1507) invaded the Romagna region in late 1499. Taken prisoner in early 1500, she was released in July 1501. Sforza moved to Florence, where she plotted to retake the family territories. Neither she nor the Riario family ever resumed power and she died after a long illness in 1509. She was buried in the Murate convent, where she had maintained a cell for spiritual retreat. Sforza’s political cunning and forceful rule fascinated many in early modern Italy, including Niccolò Machiavelli, who came to Forlì in 1499 to negotiate her son Ottaviano’s military contract with Florence. In The Prince, Machiavelli highlights Sforza’s use of fortresses for protection. His version of her actions after Riario’s assassination in 1488 did much to promote her reputation as a sexually bold and merciless ruler. By all accounts, when Sforza entered the Rocca di Ravaldino to facilitate its surrender to the rebels, she instead mounted the ramparts with the intention to rule and challenged her enemies to kill her children, who were hostages. According to Machiavelli, in the Discourses, she then lifted her skirts to reveal her genitals, a gesture meant to emphasize her claim that she could bear more children, who would eventually avenge Riario’s murder. This purported act is an exaggeration of her actions, but this version of the events remains influential as part of her legend. Sforza has often been cast as an exceptional woman not only because of her long regency, but also because of her sexual independence during her widowhood and regency. Without a husband or father to patrol her sexuality, Sforza inspired many rumors about possible sexual partners. During her widowhood, she did indeed maintain relationships with at least two men, whom she claimed after their deaths to have married. Giacomo Feo (b. 1470–d. 1495) achieved much power in her court and was assassinated. They had a son, Carlo (b. 1490–d. 1550s). The second, Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (b. 1467–d. 1498), of the cadet branch of the Florentine family, did not gain political power and died of natural causes. During her final years in Florence, Sforza won custody of their son, Giovanni (b. 1498–d. 1526). She then oversaw his education and estates, and he grew up to became a famous military commander in Italy, known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, and father of the future duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’ Medici (b. 1519–d. 1574). Sforza’s Medici connections augmented her fame after her death.

General Overviews

Numerous general overviews and histories of early modern Italy are available. The sources included here are among the most accessible and comprehensive. Cohen and Cohen 2001 and Najemy 2005 offer information on the historical context of Italian politics, society, and culture during Caterina Sforza’s lifetime. Brown and Davis 1998, King 1991, Levy 2003, and Schaus 2006 focus especially on the status of women and gender issues in early modern Italy and Europe.

  • Brown, Judith C., and Robert C. Davis, eds. Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy. London: Longman, 1998.

    This anthology features ten essays that examine social and cultural developments in Renaissance Italy through the lens of gender analysis. Topics include politics, law, economics, spirituality, sexuality, medicine, and artistic practice. Especially interesting are the essays on Renaissance notions of what was public and private and ideas about personal honor and virtue. It includes an excellent bibliography.

  • Cohen, Elizabeth S., and Thomas V. Cohen. Daily Life in Renaissance Italy. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

    A thorough and accessible study of the everyday lives of people in Italy from 1400 until 1600, including analysis of the work, eating, housing, and leisure time activities of peasants, artisans, merchants, and nobles. The authors discuss historiographical trends on the topic and provide a bibliography and a list of resources, such as museums, novels, and sound recordings, all very helpful for further research.

  • King, Margaret L. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226436166.001.0001

    An introduction to the lives of women from all social classes in western Europe from 1350 until 1650. King discusses women, both exceptional and average, who were nuns, scholars, merchants, rulers, and patrons. She examines family structures that influenced women’s activities as well as theological and intellectual discussions of their virtues and duties.

  • Levy, Allison, ed. Widowhood and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003.

    An anthology of essays that explores the representation of widowhood throughout early modern Europe. The authors examine how ruling and noble widows such as Caterina Sforza, Margaret of Austria, Marie de’ Medici, and Maria Theresa of the Habsburg family formulated their personal iconographies to advance their political and social goals.

  • Najemy, John M., ed. Italy in the Age of the Renaissance, 1300–1550. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    The twelve essays here offer excellent overviews of developments in education and literacy, humanism, religion, family, medicine, economics, politics, and art. A lucid discussion of historigraphical trends is integrated into each essay. The volume is highly readable and includes an extensive and very helpful bibliography.

  • Schaus, Margaret, ed. Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    This encyclopedia offers brief biographies of hundreds of women active in Europe c. 450–1500 CE as well as essays on thematic issues such as daily life, sexuality, medicine and science, literature, religion and theology, politics, education, and economics. It includes key bibliographic references for each subject, and it is a useful tool for initial research.

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