Looking to meet a fascinating woman? Elizabeth Lev, an American art historian who lives in Rome, is ready to make an introduction. She’s a Renaissance countess named Caterina, and Lev’s intimate portrait of her, The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici, is as riveting as any novel. But Sforza is no fictional creation. Rather, she is a woman of culture and politics who left one Signor Machiavelli none too happy and whose likeness can be found in the Sistine Chapel. Lev talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about her dear friend, whom she’d love for you to get to know. (She’ll explain, and leave you wanting more.)
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You clearly love Caterina Sforza. What’s the attraction?
ELIZABETH LEV: She was a strong, creative woman in a world where those traits were seen only as the attributes of men. She was a doer, not a spectator, in the thrilling age of the Renaissance. But mostly she was a woman who could overcome fear, both of her enemies and of her own weaknesses. Oh, and that she was a successful single mother is kind of cool too.
LOPEZ: Why was the Sforza name so important to her?
LEV: Sforza means “strength” in Italian: It was the name given to her great-grandfather Muzio Attendolo, who fought his way up from serf to military commander. I think the family kept the name to remind every generation that courage and fortitude were their most prized virtues. Certainly Caterina had more than her share of these qualities.
LOPEZ: How did Caterina wind up in the Sistine Chapel — permanently?
LEV: One of the prized “chicche” (Italian for morsels) that made me the most proud as an art historian was identifying Caterina in the Sistine Chapel. When the “dream team” of Florentine painting — Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and Perugino — arrived in Rome to paint the walls of Pope Sixtus’s new chapel, every courtier in Rome showed up hoping to make a cameo appearance in the project of the decade. Caterina, as a member of the papal family, was among the first to be depicted. In the book, I argue that rather than putting her in the panel of Moses and the Daughters of Jethro (where most art historians place her), Botticelli portrayed her as the pregnant woman carrying logs in the panel that faces the papal throne, The Temptation in the Desert, with a child at her feet. The small viper playing around their ankles is the symbol of the Sforza family, and Caterina certainly never let pregnancy slow her down!
LOPEZ: She could have been the model for the Mona Lisa? You don’t rule it out entirely!
LEV: In 2002, an article by German art historian Magdalena Soest proposed Caterina as the model for the Mona Lisa, which is unlikely for a multitude of reasons, not least of which being that Caterina couldn’t afford to commission a portrait by Leonardo at the time. However, I thought it was interesting that people found it easy to believe that this enigmatic portrait could be of a woman like Caterina, who was hard to fathom, especially by the men of her age.
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.
LOPEZ: In the book, you explain in dramatic detail how she got the “Tigress” name. But she really wasn’t as bad as that — “willing to eat her young to gain power” — was she?
LEV: A big discovery in researching this book was that scandal sheets are not a new invention. Caterina was featured in anti-papal yellow “journalism” as the mistress of the pope, and she appeared regularly in the published diary of a certain Sanuto, sensationalist extraordinaire, alternating roles of nymphomaniac and murderess. After Caterina’s retort to her children’s captors at Ravaldino, a Venetian ambassador wrote of her as a tigress who would even eat her young for power. Machiavelli reprised this theme when writing about her, and so she was perceived, even in the most recent biographies. It occurred to me, however, that if a man had been on those ramparts and responded to the same threats as she did, he would be hailed as a brilliant strategist, one who had weighed all the circumstances and decided on a course of action. It was precisely in thinking about this incident and that epithet that I realized I had a fresh way of telling her story. Caterina was indeed a tigress, just not in the way that commentators have typically understood her.
LOPEZ: There was scandal and adventure to her life. But there was faith, too. What role did religion play in her complicated life? You write about her “spiritual scars.” Is there a message there for all about Christianity?
LEV: When Caterina sinned, she sinned big, from clandestine affairs to murder. She was also the victim of others’ wrongful acts and saw the pervasive corruption at the heart of the papal court. Despair, however, was not an option for Caterina, and neither was apostasy. When things looked bleakest, she looked for hope of salvation and turned her suffering into expiation. It never occurred to her to suggest that the Church should change to accommodate her times and her lifestyle, and yet she worried about the beauty of her soul as much as she fussed over her physical appearance. There are countless references to Caterina seeking out places of prayer and pilgrimage, and during the hardest time of her life, her closest friend was a priest.
LOPEZ: Talking about her early education, you write, “From the legend of her namesake, Catherine of Alexandria, Caterina learned that faith can make a young girl wiser than fifty philosophers.” Did she really believe such a thing?
LEV: I think the Catholic Church gave young women the strength to believe they could make choices about who they wanted to be and live with them. The female martyrs, young girls discounted by Roman society as mere chattel, withstood the massive machinery of the empire to proclaim their faith in Christ in the face of ridicule, torture, and death. They chose what to do with their bodies, eschewing marriage for chastity, and were willing to die for that choice. They are honored as heroines in the Church with beautiful churches, marvelous feast days, and endless portraits. What other society honored women the same way? Caterina was born two years after the canonization of Catherine of Siena. Saint Catherine was another one of those extraordinary women who could exist only in Christendom. Although barely schooled, Saint Catherine spoke more wisely than those with much more education because she spoke truth, spoke it plainly, and was assisted by grace. Caterina herself would rebuke the men in her life for “speaking to her like a woman,” when indeed she knew she could outwit most men of her age.
LOPEZ: Her childhood ended early. We talk today of attacks on innocence, but are we that much worse off than in ages past?
LEV: Childhood is a fairly modern notion. The laws that protect children from forced labor, early marriage, or simply being sold like merchandise were only implemented in the last century and not even universally.
Caterina was married at age ten to a man three times her age. That this was wrong (insofar as the consummation was concerned) was acknowledged by most of the people involved, but first and foremost her duty was to her family and its interests. She never expressed resentment toward the father who gave her away or toward the stepmother who didn’t intervene; she just got on with her life. This era spent less time justifying present failures through past wrongs than our age does.
At the same time, our society has an oddly contradictory outlook toward childhood. We created all these protective laws so no child has to be forced into marriage, yet we spur them to become sexualized at an equally early age and encourage them incessantly toward behavior that will damage their sense of self-worth, cause physical and moral harm, and end that “treasured” age of innocence just as much as being married at ten would. Children also are encouraged to become consumers very early on and learn to depend on material goods for happiness, which also curtails their childhood. We expose children to the same “adult” themes as the past, but we don’t give them the sense of responsibility and duty that the earlier ages did.
LOPEZ: What was your most surprising discovery about Caterina?
LEV: Frankly, her crimes. It seems that while many a man in history has been known to let power go to his head, women are not immune from this weakness either. The amazing thing was her ability to deal with her past wrongs and turn them to good, with the power of God’s grace.
LOPEZ: What was your most frustrating discovery?
LEV: Trying to figure out the endless shifting political alliances and the hows and whys of Renaissance statecraft. Trying to understand why Caterina did what she did, reacted as she did, and the factors that went into her decisions was long and difficult, but also rewarding.
LEV: Seeing her come back from utter disaster: personal, spiritual, and political. She never gave up, and she was never shamed into submission.
LOPEZ: Can you, personally, go anywhere in Rome without seeing her? What’s your favorite Caterina spot to take tourists, students, and friends?
LEV: I say hello to her practically daily in the Sistine Chapel and often visit the Castel Sant’Angelo, where I can talk about the site of her first rousing triumph and her last devastating defeat.
LOPEZ: Have you written the screenplay for Caterina & Giacomo already? How might you write the two-minute pitch?
LEV: Oh heavens, no! It is true that I love movies, and I saw the story in my head very often when I was writing. I tried to use a lot of description and action in the book, because that is what I enjoy in film.
I’d say a sound-bite version could be: “Caterina was like a modern-day career mom, brainy, brave, and beautiful, who fought, loved, and lived in the world’s most fascinating country, Italy, in its most wondrous era, the Renaissance.”
LOPEZ: How do you bear Rome, as oppressive and patronizing as the Catholic Church is to women?
LEV: The Catholic Church gave us Saint Teresa of Avila, St. Joan of Arc, St. Edith Stein, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and St. Gianna Beretta Molla, just to name a few. I can’t think of any other religion or society that has allowed and encouraged women to flourish to the same extent — not just with money or power or looks, but with admiration and recognition through the centuries. The choices of these women were unique, and they defied the mores of their times. The Church, with all its human foibles, gave them the strength to achieve their greatness. In other realities of her age, Caterina would have never been able to spread her wings; she would have been shut away by her husband or put to death.
LOPEZ: How does it feel to have to written a sentence such as this one? “Even as the pope was offering salvation to everyone in Christendom, his second-born son was bent on eradicating the ruler of Forli.”
LEV: It feels as if I am writing about the Renaissance. It was a time of great worldliness, when members of the Church were easily seduced by the temporal. Even so, the Church understood the need for repentance, and I doubt that it is a coincidence that the Jubilee Year 1500 fell right as the Renaissance reached its peak. Michelangelo’s Pietà, which still produces conversions today, was produced by the court of Pope Alexander VI Borgia, a notoriously sinful pope.
LOPEZ: What would bring me to Forli today?
LEV: Very little. It was seriously damaged during WWII, and only Caterina’s fortress remains, along with a wonderful little art museum that contains her picture next to that of Cesare Borgia. The food, however, is still fabulous!
LOPEZ: What do you hope comes of this book? Who do you hope reads it? What do you hope they come away with from it?
LEV: I was taken with Caterina and her life and wanted her story told well by someone who tried to understand her and love her in all her complexity. But I also hope people reading the book will come to see Italy and the Renaissance and the Church itself not as cut out of two-dimensional worlds, but that in their recognition of humanity and its failures, in its search for greatness among the humblest of material, there is something almost sacramental about this world where the ordinary or even damaged can rise above its circumstances and station to become extraordinary.
LOPEZ: What have you observed about human nature and our current culture in showing people around Rome as an art historian?
LEV: Two things come to mind. One is that people have become less and less culturally literate over the years. History, the Bible, geography, and literature have given way to TV series and People magazine as a common point of reference. A second is that beauty frightens people far more today than it did in the Renaissance era. The Renaissance reveled in beauty; the stunning churches, the graceful sculptures, and commanding fresco cycles were a source of joy. Although people travel incessantly today to see these wonders, the vulnerability that beauty causes discomfits them. For example, how often in the Sistine Chapel, faced with the triumph of the stories of salvation, do people distract themselves by asking about Michelangelo’s self-portrait, whether he was lying on his back or simply what’s that missing spot in the ceiling. I think it is a way to dodge how beauty demands things from us. It may seem strange, but I think our modern age fears beauty, especially transcendent beauty, and the challenges it poses.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online .