LOPEZ: How was she “a living icon,” as you describe her?
LEV: Isabella D’Este, a contemporary woman not lacking in charisma herself, said of Caterina’s defense of Forlì, “If the French criticize the cowardliness of our men, at least they should praise the daring and valor of the Italian women.” Caterina’s courage gained the admiration of her enemies, her intelligence earned her the enmity of prelates and princes, and her beauty left a trail of broken hearts in her wake. If the “Renaissance man” excelled in mind, body, and spirit, then Caterina was the quintessential image of a “Renaissance woman.”LOPEZ
: She’s clearly a powerful woman in Western history, which knew so many powerful men. What of that? What are the lessons there?
LEV: Caterina had to carve her life out of a hard place. She was the illegitimate daughter of a duke, born to be a political pawn. Circumstances conspired, however, so that in her marriage to a vicious man, opportunities would arise that would let her shine. Caterina’s family came from a line of men who knew how to act and react quickly and decisively, and that quality would carry her far. Caterina took chances, defied public opinion, and always accepted the consequences of her actions. She was the kind of person you’d want to play cards with; she could bluff brazenly and play a good hand exceptionally well; she gambled big, won magnanimously, and lost graciously.
LOPEZ: Does Caterina make it easier to be an American in Europe?
LEV: First off, I have lived in Italy for over 20 years, and I have never been made to feel disliked because I am American. If the occasional “spaccone” (annoying person low on facts and big on attitude) ever starts the “America this, America that” silliness, I find two words to end that: Marshall Plan. Of course you have to explain what it is to the younger generation, as that has been left out of their history books.
Finding Caterina was like finding a friend who thinks like you do. She never allowed herself to be talked down to, she always knew her inherent worth as a person, and yet she never lorded it over people, either. She knew she had a mind and determination and that she could rely on that. She has helped me through many moments of self-doubt, even in the process of writing this very book.
LOPEZ: What do you wish you could get her insight on?
LEV: What is wrong with these Italian men??? They look good, but always seem to have at least one fatal flaw. Caterina’s men had even more serious defects than living with their mothers until the age of 40.
LOPEZ: Did Machiavelli overreact in his hatred of Caterina?
LEV: Machiavelli was one of the most crucial knots in understanding her story. He mentions her in almost all of his books, usually in the harshest of tones. She is like a bee in his bonnet — no other woman got this much literary attention from Machiavelli. Indeed, Machiavelli’s attentions toward women were generally limited to the physical. Caterina got the better of him when he was younger; she was so renowned for her beauty that his friends asked for pictures; she was so charming that she took him off guard, and Machiavelli found himself bested by a woman. I think that he kept venting, and venting seems pretty normal.
The problem here is that other authors have unquestioningly taken his depictions as a lens through which to view Caterina’s life — a strange source for an objective account. Oddly enough, one of the few people “il Machia” really admired was Caterina’s son Giovanni, whom she trained herself and whom Machiavelli considered the finest soldier in Italy.