The Noblewoman Who Tried to Poison the Pope - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Noblewoman Who Tried to Poison the Pope

The Noblewoman Who Tried to Poison the Pope

By Fiona Zublin


Because sometimes you’ve just got to take charge.

By Fiona Zublin

Meet the badass women that history forgot — but we didn’t. Check out the rest of this OZY series here.

Mothers are often vilified for putting themselves first, and for making questionable parenting decisions. We can all probably agree, though, that leaving your children in enemy hands as hostages is not good parenting. Nor is hiking up your skirts and screaming that you don’t care whether or not they kill your kids because you can make more babies.

Meet Caterina Sforza, of the aforementioned skirts, children and fearlessness. The skirt-hiking anecdote, recounted by Machiavelli, is believed by many scholars to be apocryphal. It’s more likely that the pregnant Sforza told the rebels who had assassinated her husband that they could kill her children too if they liked, because, once born, the baby in her womb would grow up and exact revenge. But Machiavelli’s version is certainly more dramatic — not that Sforza’s life ever lacked for drama.

“The legend of Caterina Sforza began during her life.… She shaped her public persona,” says Joyce de Vries, author of Caterina Sforza and the Art of Appearances. “One of the dominant themes in her legend is that she is the exception that proves the rule.” Sforza’s brazen wielding of political, military and sexual power made her a legend in her own time.

Cardinals were arriving to attend the pope’s funeral, but they didn’t want to enter the city for fear of being bombarded by Sforza.

Sforza was born in Italy, in 1463, the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, duke of Milan. Raised as part of the duke’s family, the 15-year-old Sforza was married off to Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV and, by most accounts, something of a wastrel. But being the pope’s nephew was nothing to sneeze at, and the couple lived prosperously in Rome for the next decade, until the death of Pope Sixtus, in 1484, and with it the end of their security and position. 

Sforza was seven months pregnant at the time — she and her husband had five children already — but that didn’t stop her from riding horseback, allegedly in full armor, and occupying the city’s papal fortress, Castel Sant’Angelo. Cardinals were arriving to attend the pope’s funeral, but they didn’t want to enter the city for fear of being bombarded by Sforza, who refused to leave until she could give the fortress to the new pope. The cardinals had to guarantee her husband control of the cities of Imola and Forli and offer a huge ransom before she relented, allowing them to meet and elect the church’s next leader.

Sforza and her husband then moved to Forli, where his lackluster governance of the city — he had already been the town’s hapless lord — grew even worse. He levied huge taxes, sparking a revolution, and was slashed to death by a group of nine assassins. Sforza had just enough time to send for help, telling her chief castle guard to refuse to surrender, before she was taken prisoner alongside her mother and children. When her captors paraded her in front of the Rocca di Ravaldino and made her beg her chief castle guard to give in, he knew she didn’t mean it. Finally, Sforza, her captors and her guard agreed: He would surrender the fortress after meeting with Sforza first — if she tried any funny business, her captors would kill her children. Once Sforza got into the castle, her skirt-lifting antics — which scholars agree were likely exaggerated to make her seem particularly heartless — began, and she refused to leave. With the help of a powerful uncle, she defeated the rebels, and her children survived.

Caterina Sforza

Caterina Sforza, warrior noblewoman extraordinaire.  

Source Mansell / Getty

Sforza took revenge in the customary way, imprisoning the conspirators, their families and their allies. But her second marriage — which included a secret wedding to Giacomo Feo, the brother of her chief castle guard — ended with Feo’s assassination. To get back at her second husband’s killers, Sforza threw out the rules of revenge, ordering the torture and execution of the conspirators and their wives, mistresses and children.

Her third marriage, to Giovanni de Medici, was reportedly also for love. After another secret wedding, and their only child born eight months later, de Medici died of gout. A territorial dispute with Cesare Borgia saw Sforza, now alone, going into battle against the legendary Italo-Spanish family — an association that’s seen her featured in the Showtime series The Borgias and Assassin’s Creed video games — and landing temporarily in prison, in 1499, in Castel Sant’Angelo, the same fortress she had held by force just 15 years earlier. After 18 months, during which she was accused of trying to kill the pope with plague-contaminated letters, Sforza was freed, whereupon she spent years fighting for her third husband’s inheritance and custody of their son, both of which she won. 

Many public figures retire and devote themselves to a hobby, and Sforza was no exception — but it was perhaps this part of her dramatic life that would offer the most staying power. Sforza holed up in her house writing The Experiments, a text on alchemy that is still considered important to the history of pharmacology. Alchemy was her forte — her recipes were part of a massive trend, mostly marketed to women, of devising recipes for cosmetics, medicines and alchemical “secrets” supposedly passed down by noblewomen, according to Meredith K. Ray in Daughters of Alchemy.  

Don’t turn to Sforza for parenting advice, then, but if you want a recipe for counterfeit gold, or the secrets to restoring the dead to life, you know whose work to consult.

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