I’ve been reading a bit of Italian history recently. Partly inspired by a trip to Venice, partly just because the patchwork renaissance world of advanced, somewhat independent city states intrigues me. Maybe I’ve played too much Europa Universalis, but those strategy video games kept coming to mind here. Caterina Sforza was born the daughter of the powerful Duke of Milan, but married a member of an up and coming papal family, and found herself helping him to govern the small towns of Forli and Imola. In an Italy increasingly under the sway of major powers, this would be playing the game on quite a difficult mode,
Girolamo Riario, the husband, was erratic and got himself involved in the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici. His uncle Pope Sixtus IV eventually passed away and Caterina (although pregnant) jumped into the news by occupying parts of Rome to push for a beneficial result in the papal election. Neither of these were particularly successful and Riario soon found himself assassinated, and Caterina besieged by enemies. She would again show a ruthless side by taking an aggressive line in the face of enemies holding her children hostage (there’s a famous quotation “here I have what’s needed to make others”). She would rule the towns for more than another decade, with another two marriages (her choices this time) before being defeated and captured by the infamous Cesare Borgia.
This book by art historian Elizabeth Lev tells that story very well. The writing generally flows very well. An exciting tale of an independent woman in the world of the Medicis and the Borgias. There are however small touches in the writing that I didn’t like – there was a tendency to suggest what Caterina may have been thinking, and to repeatedly point out that she was a strong woman (telling rather than showing). She also can’t resist going into (what feels like) unnecessary detail on some artworks of the time. The main plot is good enough to make up for those minor issues.