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How is it possible that most of the world has forgotten such a dynamic, complex, amazing woman? A woman who, at seventh months pregnant, took control of the papal fort of Castel Sant'Angelo and held it, with some skillfully smuggled-in soldiers, for eleven days in order to defend her family's rights. A woman who went toe to toe, figuratively speaking, with one of the most brilliant wits of the Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli, and not only won but made Machiavelli look like an incompetent fool. A woman who, when the walls of her beloved castle Ravaldino were finally breached by the artillery of Cesare Borgia's army, took up a sword and waded into that breach and for two hours was the equal of any man, wielding her sword against the enemy as she fought side by side with her men. And when one of those men betrayed her and sold her out to the enemy; when she's captured by Cesare, held prisoner by him for months as he brutally rapes, torments, and terrorizes her; when she's taken back to Rome and thrown into a deep, dank cell in the same Castel Sant'Angelo she'd so bravely commandeered sixteen years earlier, her spirit could not be broken and she still managed to be defiant, even down to planning a daring escape from the inescapable papal fort. The story of Caterina Riario Sforza Medici, larger-than-life, full of colorful characters and daring exploits, should be as well known to any schoolchild as that of Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Catherine the Great of Russia and fully belongs in the pantheon of fabulous warrior women.
Elizabeth Lev does a wonderful job of taking some of the tarnish off Caterina's reputation, who during her lifetime and beyond has been vilified, judged as a witch, a whore, a virago (which, initially, was a good thing, meaning a woman of masculine spirit, from the Latin vir, man; eventually virago began to take on shadings of a negative nature, until it's become the word we know now, for an abusive and hostile woman, a woman with no shame). So much of the contemporary writings were lost, so it's hard to know exactly what took place when, but it's also easy to read between the lines of contemporary history-takers (all of them men and all of them at one time either infatuated with Caterina or repelled by her, thus coloring every word they wrote about her) and find a happy medium of truth to the most harsh of rumors and tales spread about concerning Caterina's actions. Like many other powerful, fierce and willful women in an era when women, even those in positions of power (especially those in positions of power) were supposed to be meek, mild and led by the nose by the nearest and most powerful male, Caterina's actions inspired a sort of horrified fascination in the populace and, when her actions finally exceeded the bounds of propriety, they inspired condemnation and fear. There's no way of clearing up every rumor concerning Caterina's actions, especially the more heinous ones ascribed to her (although Lev does a great job of presenting fair arguments as to why or why not Caterina couldn't/wouldn't have taken such an action), but Elizabeth Lev manages to open the curtain and shed quite a bit of light onto this extraordinary life.
As for the book itself, this is no dry dissertation concerning only names and dates, but neither is it history-lite. It strikes the right balance between information and information-overload. The narration moves along at a brisk clip and the situations are well-drawn, fully placing you, the reader, into the midst of the action on the page. There is a map provided at the beginning of the book, which helps you navigate the many Italian city-states, provinces and shifting allegiances which populate the book. Seeing as my copy is an ARC, I don't know what the publisher has in store for final publication, but I'd guess, or at least I'm hoping, they'll place some photo inserts of some of the places mentioned in the book, as well as perhaps a facsimile of some of the artwork the author describes. Such an insert would be a welcome visual aid; however, even without such an aid, the reader still gets a sense of time and place from the descriptions provided by the author. Photos would only be a bonus.
Caterina Sforza managed to straddle the quicksands which are Italian politics and not only survive but thrive, navigating political morasses with a sharp wit and a savvy mind. She endured a tedious first marriage to a corrupt and inept buffoon who only brought shame to the family name; entered into a secret, second marriage for love, which shocked the Renaissance world, and once again chose her own husband for her third, brief and sadly tragic, marriage. During her short, but ultimately brilliant life, Caterina showed herself to be a fearless ruler, a woman with an iron will and a fierce devotion to her children, an ingenious tactician and an inspiration to an entire continent. She truly was the Tigress of Forli.