|Intro||Lady of Imola and Countess of Forlì|
|Birth||1463, Milan, Italy|
|Death||28 May 1509, Florence, Kingdom of Italy (aged 46 years)|
Caterina Sforza (1463 – 28 May 1509) was an Italian noblewoman along with the Countess of Forlì and Lady of Imola, firstly with her husband Girolamo Riario, and after his death as a regent of her son Ottaviano.
Caterina was the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan and Lucrezia, the wife of the courtier Gian Piero Landriani, a close friend of the Duke. She was raised in the refined Milanese court. The descendant of a dynasty of noted condottieri, from an early age, Caterina distinguished herself through her bold and impetuous actions taken to safeguard her possessions from possible usurpers and to defend her dominions from attack, when they were involved in political intrigues.
In her private life Caterina was devoted to various activities, including experiments in alchemy and a love of hunting and dancing. She had many children, but only the youngest, Captain Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, inherited his mother's forceful, militant personality. Caterina's resistance to Cesare Borgia meant she had to face his fury and imprisonment. Once she gained her freedom in Rome, she led a quiet life in Florence. In the final years of her life, she confided to a monk: "Se io potessi scrivere tutto, farei stupire il mondo" (If I could write everything that happened, I would shock the world).
Caterina Sforza was born in Milan in early 1463, the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza by his mistress, Lucrezia Landriani. It's believed that she spent the first years of her life with her mother's relatives. The bond between mother and daughter was never interrupted: in fact, Lucrezia followed Caterina's growth and was always close to her in the crucial moments of her life, even in the final years that she spent in Florence.
Upon the succession of Galeazzo Maria Sforza as Duke of Milan in 1466, following the death of his father Francesco, Galeazzo arranged for his four children by Lucrezia Landriani to come to court: Carlo (born in 1461; later Count of Magenta), Caterina, Alessandro (born in 1465; later Lord of Francavilla) and Chiara (born in 1467; by her first marriage, she became Countess dal Verme di Sanguinetto and Lady of Vigevano; by her second marriage, she became Lady of Novi). The children were entrusted to their paternal grandmother, Bianca Maria Visconti. In 1466 Galeazzo had married Dorotea Gonzaga, but after her death he remarried to Bona of Savoy on 9 May 1468, who eventually adopted them all.
At the Sforza court, frequented by writers and artists, Caterina and her siblings received a humanistic education. At that time, in the Italian courts, daughters of noble families received the same education as their brothers. In addition to Latin and the reading of the classics, as prescribed by her teachers, Caterina learned, especially from her paternal grandmother, to take pride in her warlike ancestors, to show boldness in the use of arms and astuteness in the skill of government. From her adoptive mother, she received her share of the maternal warmth and affection that Bona of Savoy poured over all of the children of her husband; this continued – after Caterina had left the Milanese court – in the form of correspondence between the two women.
The duke's family resided in Milan and in Pavia, and often stayed at Galliate or at Cusago, where Galeazzo Maria devoted himself to hunting. At one or the other of the two places Caterina also probably acquired her lifelong passion for hunting.
In 1473 Caterina became betrothed to Girolamo Riario, the son of Paolo Riario and Bianca della Rovere, sister of Pope Sixtus IV (in office: 1471-1484). Caterina replaced her cousin, the eleven-year-old Costanza Fogliani, as Girolamo's bride because, according to some historians, Costanza's mother Gabriella Gonzaga (illegitimate daughter of Marquis Ludovico III of Mantua) refused to allow the consummation of the marriage until Costanza reached the legal age — then fourteen — while Caterina, although only ten years old at that time, agreed with the demands of the groom; other sources instead reported that the marriage of Caterina and Girolamo was celebrated on 17 January 1473, but consummated four years later (1477) when Caterina reached the age of fourteen, without giving further details about the broken betrothal with Costanza.
Pope Sixtus IV gave Girolamo the Lordship of Imola, already a Sforza city, but at the time a fief of the Riario family. After a triumphal entrance into Imola in 1477, Caterina went to Rome with her husband, where he lived for many years in the service of his uncle, the Pope. The following year, in March 1478, Caterina gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Bianca after both Girolamo's mother, Bianca della Rovere, and Caterina's paternal grandmother, Bianca Maria Visconti. Caterina subsequently gave birth to five more children in the next nine years.
In the Vatican court
At the end of the 15th century, Rome was no longer a medieval city, but not yet the important centre of artistic endeavors it would become a few decades later as one of the most important cities of the Renaissance. Upon her arrival in May 1477, Caterina found a city full of cultural fervour, with a desire for renovation.
The atmosphere was a mix of intrigue and power, which was pursued without scruples, with material interests far exceeding the spiritual. Caterina was banned by her husband from meddling in politics, but she quickly integrated — owing to her extroverted and sociable character — into aristocratic Roman society.
As evidenced by correspondence from that period, Caterina immediately became admired as one of the most beautiful and elegant among noble Roman women. She was welcomed everywhere, treated with great respect and lavishly praised by all of society including the Pope, and she soon transformed from a simple adolescent into a refined and powerful intermediary between the Roman court and other Italian courts, especially Milan.
Girolamo was given a leading position in the expansion policy of Pope Sixtus IV after the premature death of the Pope's favoured nephew, Cardinal Pietro Riario. His power grew daily, and he soon displayed increasing ruthlessness towards his enemies. In 1480, the Pope, with the objective of attaining a strong domain in the land of Romagna, assigned Girolamo the lordship of Forlì, which had remained vacant after it was sequestered from the Ordelaffi family. The new Lord tried to earn the favour of the populace by erecting magnificent public buildings and churches, and by abolishing taxes.
The lives of Caterina and Girolamo changed abruptly with the death of Sixtus IV on 12 August 1484.
Occupation of Castel Sant'Angelo
When Pope Sixtus IV died, rebellions and disorder immediately spread through Rome, including looting of his supporters' residences. Girolamo's residence, the Orsini palace in Campo de' Fiori, was stripped of its content and almost destroyed.
In this time of anarchy, Caterina, who was in her seventh month of pregnancy, crossed the Tiber on horseback to occupy the rocca (fortress) of Castel Sant'Angelo on behalf of her husband. From this position and with the obedience of the soldiers, Caterina could monitor the Vatican and dictate the conditions for the new conclave.
Meanwhile, the disorder in the city increased. A militia accompanied the arrival of the Cardinals. The latter did not want to attend the funeral of Sixtus IV and refused to enter into conclave, for fear of coming under the fire of Caterina's artillery. The situation was difficult because only the election of a new Pope would put an end to the violence in the Eternal City. Unsuccessful attempts to persuade her to leave the fortress failed, as she was determined to give it only to the new Pope, claiming that Pope Sixtus had bestowed its control to her family.
Girolamo and his army occupied a strategic position at that point, yet could not implement an effective solution. The Sacred College asked Girolamo to leave Rome, offering in return the confirmation of his Lordship over Imola and Forlì, the military post of Captain-General of the Church, and 8,000 ducats in compensation for the damages to his property. Girolamo accepted. When Caterina was informed of the decisions taken by her husband, she increased the quota of her soldiers and made preparations for resistance in order to force the Cardinals to parley with her. The Cardinals again approached Girolamo, who took up a counterposition against his wife. On 25 October 1484, Caterina surrendered the fortress to the Sacred College and left Rome with her family. The Sacred College were then able to meet in conclave to elect the new Pope.
In Forlì, law and order had been maintained by Caterina's uncle Ludovico il Moro Sforza, Duke of Milan. On their arrival, the Riarios learned of the election of Giovanni Battista Cybo, an old opponent, as Pope Innocent VIII. He confirmed Girolamo in his lordships of Imola and Forlì and his appointment as Captain-General. That appointment, however, was only nominal; Girolamo had no real control over the Papal army and Innocent VIII refused to pay Girolamo for leaving Rome.
Despite the loss of income, Girolamo did not reinstate taxes on the people of Forlì.
This situation lasted until the end of 1485, when the city government completely ran out of money. Girolamo, pressed by a member of the Council of Elders, Nicolò Pansecco, was forced to levy taxes. The taxes were deemed excessive by the population and led to Girolamo's increased unpopularity among all citizens of Forlì.
The tax increase, which affected mainly the artisan class and landowners, added to the discontent that had previously been limited to the families who had suffered under Girolamo's persecution of those whom he suspected of treachery. His enemies began to conspire against him with a view to making Franceschetto Cybo, the illegitimate son of Pope Innocent, lord of Imola and Forlì in his stead.
After more than a half dozen failed attempts, Girolamo was killed on 14 April 1488 by a conspiracy led by the Orsis, a noble family of Forlì. The lord's palace was sacked, while Caterina and her children were made prisoners.
The fortress of Ravaldino, a central part of the defensive system of the city, refused to surrender to the Orsis. Caterina offered to attempt to persuade the castellan, Tommaso Feo, to submit. The Orsis believed Caterina because she left her children as hostages, but once inside she let loose a barrage of vulgar threats and promises of vengeance against her former captors. According to one rumour, when they threatened to kill her children, Caterina, standing in the walls of the fortress exposed her genitals and said: "Fatelo, se volete: impiccateli pure davanti a me ... qui ho quanto basta per farne altri!" ('Do it, if you want to: hang them even in front of me ... here I have what's needed to make others!'). This story, however, is most likely an untrue embellishment. The historical record tells that Caterina, in fact, claimed to be pregnant. Although her statement that she was pregnant is, by most historians, considered to have been a ruse, it rendered worthless any power the conspirators had in holding her children, Girolamo's legitimate heirs.
Shocked by this response, the Orsis didn't dare to touch the Riario children. With the assistance of her uncle Ludovico il Moro (very interested in securing some influence in the Romagna, to counter the influence of Venice), Caterina defeated her enemies and regained possession of her dominions.
Lady of Imola and Forlì
On 30 April 1488, Caterina became regent for her eldest son Ottaviano, formally recognized by all the members of the Comune and the head of the magistrates as the new Lord of Forlì that day, but too young to exercise power directly.
Caterina's first act as Regent of Forlì was to avenge the death of her husband, according to the custom of the time. She ordered that all those involved in the Orsi conspiracy were to be imprisoned, along with the Pope's governor, Monsignor Savelli, all the pontifical generals, and the castellan of the fortress of Forlimpopoli, and also all women of the Orsis and other families who had assisted in the conspiracy. Soldiers sought out all who had taken part in the conspiracy. Houses owned by those imprisoned were razed while their valuables were distributed to the poor.
On 30 July news came that Pope Innocent VIII had given Ottaviano Riario the official investiture of his state "until his line ended." In the meantime, Forlì was visited by Cardinal Raffaele Riario, officially to protect the orphan children of his late cousin Girolamo but actually, to oversee the government of Caterina.
The young Countess personally dealt with all issues concerning the government of her city-state, both public and private. To consolidate her power, she exchanged gifts with the lords of neighbouring states and involved herself in marriage negotiations for her children. She decreased taxes by reducing some and eliminating others, and sharply controlled her realm's spending. Caterina dealt directly with the training of her militia in the use of weapons and horses. It was her intention that her cities and towns be orderly and peaceful, and she expected her subjects to appreciate these efforts.
The states of Forlì and Imola were smaller than the great Italian states but, due to their geographical position, had a considerable strategic importance on the political affairs. In those years there were significant events that changed the geopolitical situation of Italy. Lorenzo il Magnifico, whose shrewd policy had curbed claims and rivalries of the various Italian states, died on 8 April 1492. Pope Innocent VIII also died on 25 July of that year, and was replaced by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who took the name of Pope Alexander VI. His election seemed to strengthen Caterina's rule. While she and her husband had lived in Rome, the Cardinal had often been a guest at their home, and he was godfather to Ottaviano.
These events directly threatened the stability and peace in Italy. With the death of Lorenzo there came about friction between the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, leading up to the crisis of September 1494, when, incited by Ludovico il Moro, King Charles VIII of France entered into Italy to claim Naples as the Anjou heir. At first Pope Alexander VI also gave his support to Charles' claim, leading to four years of war.
During the conflict between Naples and Milan, Caterina, who knew that she was placed in a strategic position of passage for anyone who wanted to go to the south, tried to remain neutral. She knew Forlì was exposed to invasion, located in a strategic position on the way to Rome. On one side, her uncle Ludovico had allied with Charles VIII; on the other side, Pope Alexander VI now opposed France's ambitions in Italy, and her brother-in-law, Cardinal Riario, argued in favor of the incumbent King Ferdinand II. Caterina chose to join Naples and the Pope, and prepared the defence of Imola and Forlì against the French.
Betrayed by her Neapolitan allies, who at the first French attack didn't help her, Caterina changed sides and submitted to Charles VIII, giving his army via libera ("free passage") to Naples; however, he preferred to avoid the Romagna and cross the Apennines, following the road of the Cisa pass. Naples was conquered by the French army in only thirteen days. This frightened the Italian principalities, and they formed the League of Venice against Charles VIII. The League defeated the French King at the Fornovo and he was forced to retreat to France.
This time, Caterina managed to remain neutral. By not participating in the expulsion of the French, she maintained the support of both her uncle Ludovico in Milan (now legitimate Duke of Milan) and also that of the Pope.
Two months after the death of Girolamo, a rumor was spread that Caterina was close to marrying Antonio Maria Ordelaffi, who had started to court her. This marriage would end the claims of the Ordelaffi family on the city of Forlì. Antonio Maria, feeling confident, wrote to the Duke of Ferrara that the Countess promised to marry him. When Caterina saw how things stood, she imprisoned those who had spread the false news. These promises were addressed by the Senate in Venice, which summoned Antonio Maria to Friuli, where he remained confined for ten years.
In point of fact, Caterina had fallen in love with Giacomo Feo, the brother of Tommaso Feo, the castellan who had remained faithful to her after the assassination of her husband. Caterina married him in 1488, but secretly, to avoid losing custody of her children and the regency of her dominions.
All the contemporary chronicles reported that Caterina was madly in love with the young Giacomo. It was feared that she could strip her son Ottaviano of his future lordship, in order to give it to her lover and secret husband.
Giacomo was appointed castellan of the fortress of Ravaldino in place of his brother, and was awarded with an order of chivalry from Ludovico il Moro. In April 1489, Caterina gave birth to Giacomo's son, Bernardino, later called Carlo in honour of King Charles VIII, who had made Giacomo a baron of France. Also, she had replaced the castellans of the fortresses of her dominions with her closest relatives: the fortress of Imola was given to Gian Piero Landriani, her stepfather, and the fortress of Forlimpopoli to Piero Landriani, her half-brother, while Tommaso Feo was married to Bianca Landriani, Caterina's half-sister.
At Tossignano, a conspiracy was formed to seize the fortress in the name of Ottaviano, and murder both Giacomo and Caterina. The Countess discovered the plot and imprisoned or executed those who were involved. Immediately after this conspiracy was foiled, another plot was organized by Antonio Maria Ordelaffi, who had never become resigned to the loss of Forlí, but this also failed.
Giacomo's power increased, and with his cruelty and insolence he incurred the hatred of all, including Caterina's children. On one occasion, in full view of the public, he slapped Ottaviano (the rightful Lord of Forlì), but nobody had the courage to defend the boy. After this incident, adherents of Ottaviano decided to liberate the city from the domination of Giacomo Feo.
Gian Antonio Ghetti and some of Caterina's own children formed a conspiracy. On the evening of 27 August 1495, Caterina, Giacomo Feo, and their entourage were returning from a hunt. Caterina, her daughter Bianca Riario and some of her ladies-in-waiting rode in a carriage, followed on horseback by Giacomo, Ottaviano and his brother Cesare, and many staffieri and soldiers. Agents of the conspiracy attacked and mortally wounded Giacomo. The same day, Ghetti went to Caterina, thinking that she had secretly given the order to kill Giacomo. Caterina was unaware of the plot, and her revenge was terrible. When her first husband was murdered, she avenged his death according to the justice of the time; now she reacted with vindictive fury. Caterina was not satisfied with mere executions: their deaths had to be among the most cruel and painful. She not only prosecuted the wives and mistresses of the conspirators, but she also sought out the children, even those in early infancy, and all were summarily tortured and executed.
Caterina's fury blinded her to the politics that had inspired the plot. It had involved almost all the supporters of Ottaviano Riario, who were convinced that Caterina had given her tacit consent to the killing of the man who was considered the "usurper" of the state's rightful ruler. They had wanted to uphold the power of the Riario family. Caterina, as a result of the massacre which followed the assassination of Giacomo Feo, lost forever the good will of her people.
In 1496, the ambassador of the Republic of Florence, Giovanni de' Medici il Popolano, paid a visit to Caterina. The second son of Pierfrancesco il Vecchio, he belonged to a collateral branch of the Medici family. Along with his older brother Lorenzo, he had been sent into exile because of his open hostility toward their cousin Piero, who succeeded his father Lorenzo il Magnifico in the government of Florence. In 1494, when Charles VIII invaded Italy, Piero was forced to sign a treaty which allowed the French army to move freely into the Kingdom of Naples. The people of Florence were liberated, deposed Piero and proclaimed a Republic. Giovanni and his brother were able to return to their homeland. They renounced the Medici surname and took the name of Popolano. The Florentine government appointed Giovanni as ambassador to Forlì.
Shortly after coming to Forlì, Giovanni and his entourage were housed in the apartments adjacent to Caterina's in the fortress of Ravaldino. The rumours of a possible marriage between Giovanni and Caterina and that Ottaviano Riario accepted the post of Condottiero from Florence threatened by the Venetians, alarmed all the lords of the League and the Duke of Milan.
Caterina couldn't hide her wedding plans and her own feelings from her uncle Ludovico; she truly fell in love with the handsome, charming, and intelligent Giovanni. The situation differed from the previous one as this time Caterina had the approval of her children and she also obtained the consent of her uncle. The marriage of two people from such powerful families, however, was likely to arouse opposition, so they were wed in secret in September 1497.
In April 1498, Caterina bore Giovanni a son, the last of her children. The child was baptised as Ludovico after his mother's uncle, the Duke of Milan, but later he became known by the name Giovanni dalle Bande Nere.
Meanwhile, affairs between Florence and Venice were getting worse and Caterina, who occupied the main route between the two cities, prepared her defenses. She sent a contingent of knights to the aid of Florence, led by Giovanni and her eldest son, Ottaviano Riario, accompanied by men she had trained herself.
Giovanni became seriously ill and was compelled to leave the battlefield and return to Forlì. There, despite treatment, his condition deteriorated and he was transferred to Santa Maria in Bagno, where he hoped for a miraculous recovery. On 14 September 1498, Giovanni died in the presence of Caterina, who had been summoned urgently to attend him. Giovanni's death left Caterina alone to face the Borgias.
Defence against Venice
After having returned to Forlì in order to make preparations for the defense of her states, Caterina was occupied by military concerns, especially logistics. Training the militia was executed by the Countess in person. To find additional money and troops, she wrote to her uncle Ludovico, the Republic of Florence and the neighbouring states who were her allies. Only the Dukes of Milan and Mantua sent a small contingent of soldiers to aid her.
After an initial attack by the Venetians, which inflicted severe destruction, Caterina's army managed to outmanoeuvre them. Afterwards, the war continued with minor skirmishes until the Venetians were able to circumvent Forlì to reach Florence by another route.
Because of this staunch defence, Caterina Sforza gained the nickname of "La Tigre" ('The Tiger').
Capture by Cesare Borgia
In the meantime, Louis XII had succeeded to the French throne. Louis claimed the rights both to the Duchy of Milan as a grandson of Valentina Visconti, and to the Kingdom of Naples as heir to the House of Anjou. Before starting his campaign in Italy, Louis XII secured an alliance with Savoy, the Republic of Venice and Pope Alexander VI. In the summer of 1499, he came to Italy with a formidable army; without having to fight a single battle, he occupied Piedmont, as well as Genoa and Cremona. On 6 October, he settled in Milan, which had been abandoned the previous month by Duke Ludovico, who fled to the Tyrol under the protection of his nephew-by-marriage Emperor Maximilian I.
Alexander VI allied himself with Louis XII in return for the King's support in establishing Alexander's son Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Valentinois, as ruler in Romagna. Alexander issued a Papal Bull on 9 March 1499 to invalidate the investiture of the feudal lords, including Caterina.
When the French army left Milan with Cesare to begin the conquest of Romagna, Ludovico il Moro regained the Duchy with the help of the Austrians.
Caterina sought relief from Florence against the approaching French army, but Florence was threatened by the Pope, so she was left alone to defend herself. She immediately began to recruit and train many soldiers and began to store weapons, ammunition and food. She reinforced the defences, especially that of Ravaldino where she resided and which was already considered impenetrable. She also sent her children to Florence.
On 24 November, Cesare Borgia arrived in Imola. The city gates were opened by the inhabitants, and he was able to take possession, after having conquered the fortress where the castellan Dionigi Naldi of Brisighella had resisted for several days. After seeing what had happened there, Caterina asked the people of Forlì if they also wanted to capitulate to Borgia, or if they wanted to be defended and endure the resulting siege. Because the people hesitated in answering, Caterina absolved the citizens of Forlì of their oath of fealty, and sealed herself in Ravaldino.
On 19 December, the Duke of Valentinois also took possession of Forlì and began the siege of the fortress. Caterina repeatedly refused all offers of peace, from Cesare and from Cardinal Riario. In response, Cesare offered 10,000 ducats for her, dead or alive. Caterina tried to capture Cesare when he came near the fortress to talk to her, but the attempt failed.
For several days the artillery of both factions engaged in a mutual bombardment: Caterina's cannon inflicted heavy losses on the French army, but the French artillery damaged the defences of the main fortress. What was destroyed during the day was rebuilt during the night.
Caterina's solitary resistance was admired throughout all Italy; Niccolò Machiavelli reports that many songs and epigrams were composed in her honour. All were lost except that of Marsilio Compagnon.
As time passed without decisive results, Cesare changed his tactics. His troops bombarded the walls of the fortress continuously, even at night. After six days, they opened two breaches in the walls. On 12 January 1500, his forces stormed the fortress. The bloody battle was quick and decisive, and Caterina continued to resist, fighting with weapons in hand until she was taken prisoner. Among the gentlemen who were caught together with her, was also her secretary, Marcantonio Baldraccani. Immediately she surrendered herself to Antoine Bissey (the bailli of Dijon) as a prisoner of the French, as she knew there was a law that prevented French forces from holding women as prisoners of war.
According to Machiavelli, the defense operations were misdirected by Giovanni da Casale: "The poorly built fortress and the scant prudence of the defender, therefore, brought disgrace to the magnanimous enterprise of the Countess ...".
Cesare obtained custody of Caterina from the French general, Yves d'Allègre, promising that he would treat her not as a prisoner but as a guest. Caterina and her entourage were therefore forced to go with the army that was preparing to conquer Pesaro. The conquest had to be postponed because on 5 February Ludovico il Moro returned to Milan, forcing French troops to turn back.
Cesare departed alone with the Papal army for Rome, where he took Caterina. In Rome, she was held in the Belvedere Palace. Towards the end of March, Caterina tried to escape but she was discovered and immediately imprisoned at Castel Sant'Angelo.
In the prison of Castel Sant'Angelo
To justify Caterina's imprisonment, Pope Alexander VI accused her of trying to kill him in November 1499 with letters impregnated with poison, as a response to the Papal bull which had deprived the countess of her fiefdoms.
Even today it is not known if the accusation was founded or not. Machiavelli believed that Caterina had tried to poison the Pope, while other historians, such as Jacob Burckhardt and Ferdinand Gregorovius, are not certain. An inconclusive and unfinished trial took place, and Caterina remained imprisoned until 30 June 1501, when she was released by Yves d'Allègre, who had come to Rome with the army of Louis XII for the conquest of the Kingdom of Naples. Alexander VI alleged that Caterina signed documents renouncing all of her fiefs, because in the meantime his son Cesare, with the acquisition of Pesaro, Rimini and Faenza, was appointed Duke of Romagna.
After a brief stay in the residence of Cardinal Riario, Caterina embarked from Livorno to Florence, where her children were waiting for her.
In Florence, Caterina lived in the villas which had belonged to her third husband Giovanni de' Medici, often staying at the Villa Medici di Castello. Soon, she complained of being mistreated and living in a straitened financial situation.
For many years she conducted a legal battle against her brother-in-law Lorenzo de' Medici for the custody of her son Giovanni, who was entrusted to him during her detention. In 1504, her son was finally returned to her, because the judge recognized that her confinement as a prisoner of war was not comparable to the detention of a criminal.
With the death of Pope Alexander VI on 18 August 1503, Cesare Borgia lost all his power. This reopened the possibility of restoring to power all the old feudal lords of the Romagna who had been deposed. Caterina lost no time in sending letters to adherents, and pleaded her case to Pope Julius II in her own name and that of her son Ottaviano Riario. The new Pope was favourable to restoring the lordships of Imola and Forlì to the Riarios, but the populace of both cities declared that a majority of the people opposed the return of the Countess, so that the domain passed instead to Antonio Maria Ordelaffi on 22 October 1503.
After having lost her last chance to return to her former power, Caterina spent the last years of her life dedicated to her children, in particular to her youngest son Giovanni (her favourite and the most like her in personality and character). She also conducted a series of experiments in alchemy, the results of which were recorded in a manuscript titled "Gli Experimenti de la Ex.ma S.r Caterina da Furlj Matre de lo inllux.mo S.r Giouanni de Medici", or "Gli Experimenti". The book, dating back to 1500, contains a total of 454 recipes, roughly 66 of which are cosmetic related, 358 medicinal, and 38 alchemical. Her experimental activities situate her at the origins of a Medici interest that stretched well into the seventeenth century.
Death and burial
In April 1509 Caterina was stricken by a severe case of pneumonia. She appeared to have recovered, but had a relapse of the disease, after which she made her will and arranged her burial. At the age of forty-six years, "The Tiger of Forlì", who had "frightened all of Romagna", died on 28 May 1509. Her body was placed in a small tomb in the chapel of Le Murate in Florence, a convent of nuns whom Caterina had befriended during her time in that city, and where she had kept a cell as a spiritual retreat. During the 1830s the nuns were forced to leave the property, and in 1845 it was redesigned as a prison. Sometime during this renovation, Caterina's body was lost.
From her first marriage with Girolamo Riario, Caterina had six children:
- Bianca (b. Rome, March 1478 – d. after 1522), married firstly in 1494, Astorre III Manfredi, Lord of Faenza (d. 1502), and secondly in 1503, Troilo I de' Rossi (d. 1521), the first Marchese di San Secondo. From her second marriage, she had 9 children.
- Ottaviano (b. Rome, 31 August 1479 – d. Bologna, 6 October 1523), Lord of Imola and Forlì (1488–99), later Bishop of Volterra and Viterbo.
- Cesare (b. Rome, 24 August 1480 – d. Rome, 18 December 1540), Archbishop of Pisa and Patriarch of Alexandria.
- Giovanni Livio (b. Forlì, 30 October 1484 – d. 1496).
- Galeazzo Maria (b. Forlì, 4 December 1485 – d. Bologna, 1557), married in 1504, Maria Giovanna della Rovere (b. Senigallia, 1486 – d. Bologna 1538), Dowager Lady of Camerino, and eldest sister of Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. They had a daughter, Giulia, and a son, Giulio (d. 1565). Their descendants, who later received a Ducal title, became extinct in the male line with Francesco Maria Riario della Rovere in 1676.
- Francesco, called "Sforzino" (b. Imola, 17 August 1487 – d. after 1509), Bishop of Lucca.
From her second marriage with Giacomo Feo, Caterina had one son:
- Bernardino (later Carlo) (b. April 1489 – d. 1509).
From her third marriage to Giovanni de' Medici, Caterina had one son:
- Ludovico (b. Forlì, 6 April 1498 – d. Mantua, 30 November 1526), renamed Giovanni after the death of his father, one of the greatest condottieri of his time and a national hero, known as "Giovanni dalle Bande Nere". He married Maria Salviati (17 July 1499- 29 December 1543), the daughter of Jacopo Salviati and Lucrezia di Lorenzo de' Medici. Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1519–1574) was their son.
In June 1537, twenty-eight years after Caterina's death, her grandson Cosimo de' Medici, the only son of her own son Giovanni, became the Duke of Florence and in 1569, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Through him, Caterina was the direct ancestress of the later Grand Dukes of Tuscany, the Dukes of Modena and Reggio, and the Kings of Spain and France.
In her book The Warrior Queens: Boadicea's Chariot, British historian Antonia Fraser presents Caterina Sforza as a contrasting figure to her contemporary Isabella I of Castile. Fraser points out that whilst the murders ordered by Caterina were no worse than the massacres ordered by Isabella, historians have been much harsher in their judgment of the former. Fraser accounts for this fact by pointing out that Isabella's actions were sanctioned by the Church, as they were carried out in the name of Catholicism, whilst Caterina's were motivated by the personal, secular desire to preserve her property and rights.
- Caterina is the subject of Scarlet Contessa, a historical novel by Jeanne Kalogridis, pub. 2010
- In the 2011 Showtime series The Borgias she is portrayed by Gina McKee; the show takes significant dramatic liberties with the details surrounding the siege undertaken in the name of Alexander VI. Her capture by Cesare Borgia is the final episode of Season 3, which was also the last-ever episode due to the show's cancellation.
- Caterina Sforza appears as a minor character in the 2009 historically-set video game Assassin's Creed II and its novelization, Assassin's Creed: Renaissance. She plays a larger role in "The Battle of Forlì" downloadable content pack, wherein she is aided in the titular battle by the game's protagonist Ezio Auditore. Caterina also appears in the 2010 sequel game Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and its novelization, as a sometime love interest to Ezio Auditore. Three missions are dedicated to Ezio rescuing her from her imprisonment in the Castel Sant'Angelo.
- A fictionalised account of Caterina Sforza's capture by Cesare Borgia features in Sarah Dunant's 2013 novel Blood & Beauty.
Caterina is one of the few women discussed by Machiavelli at length. The incident of her having shown her genitalia in regaining the fortress of Ravaldino was recounted at some length by him in his Discourses on Livy, and his Florentine Histories, while being only briefly mentioned in his Prince. Elizabeth Lev wrote on the matter in her biography of Caterina Sforza, The Tigress of Forli. Lev took the position that Machiavelli's account on the matter, being quite vulgar, may in fact have been more a reflection of his own dislike of Caterina. Indeed, Machiavelli had met the countess as a young diplomat and had not fared well. Various historical records tells us instead that Caterina, falsely, claimed to be pregnant, thereby neutralising the conspirators' power in holding her children hostage.