The Borgia family gives a “human face” to talking about the power balances. However reading about them in isolation of other Renaissance rulers can make them seem like some sort of anomaly: unethical, power hungry people in a world of decent citizens. In order to broaden my kids understanding of the topic and because my oldest needs a bit of practice in using workbooks I’m having them go through a workbook Renaissance by Patrick Hotle. I’m also sharing with my kids stories I read about other Renaissance families.
Caterina Sforza has a particularly fascinating story. Her first husband was Pope Sixtus IV’s nephew Girolamo Riario. Financed by wealthy relatives and wanting to earn the love of the city of Forli he reduced taxes greatly. When Pope Sixtus IV died he could no longer survive on the low taxes and Caterina convinced him to raise taxes. Apparently he hadn’t won the love of the city for he was murdered in his home and Caterina, her sisters, mother and children were taken hostage. Her captors wanted her to give them a fortress, and forced her to beg at knife point for the keeper of the fortress to open the door. A message smuggled to him earlier warned him not to give it over even if she begged, and a later message told him she needed to get inside. So the keeper of the fortress said he needed to negotiate with Caterina and she was allowed to enter the fortress with the warning her children would be killed if she stayed longer than three hours. When three hours were over and her shrieking oldest son was held in front of the fortress she took a tremendous gamble and bluffed. She pulled her skirt up in the air revealing her private parts and announced that they could kill her children because she was pregnant and could make more. How is that for taking the power out of their threats? This was followed by a threat to use cannons to bombard the whole area. Her children were not killed, she regained her position and survived the attack. Later in life she was taken prisoner by Cesare Borgia.
I read that story of Caterina in The Deadly Sisterhood by Leonie Frieda, and when looking at the Amazon page about the book, one reviewer says the story was from a letter written by Galeotto Manfredi to Lorenzo de’ Medici, and that no other contemporary witnesses recorded Catarina behaving that way, though it was later repeated by Niccolo Machiavelli. To learn more about that I went to an article Skirting the Issue: Machiavelli’s Caterina Sforza Julia L. Hairston. It says that Machiavelli was the first to include the gesture of raising the skirt, and earlier writers disagree slightly on whether or not Caterina had claimed to be pregnant or whether she claimed simply to be able to make more kids. Claiming pregnancy would suggest she could still have an heir in whose name she could rule during the child’s youth and who could potential avenge their father. It says nothing about her maternal instinct or the possibility her heart would break in the process but that they do not threaten her state as a political ruler. Claiming simply to have the ability to produce more children does not solve the political problems and thus suggests that the threat they hold is just over her love and devotion for her kids and that she doesn’t really care about them. The slight difference is whether the threat of killing the kids is to her as a private woman or of a political ruler. The lifting of the skirt would refer to a Plutarch reference of Spartan and Persian women lifting their skirts to shame men who ran from battle.
Looking at how different sources can distort things to make a person seem more or less heartless brings up a great discussion topic in itself: the use of lies and slander to break and forge alliances during that time period. The same book The Deadly Sisterhood talks about the use of rumors and slanders in preventing Duchess Bona, Caterina’s step-mother, from maintaining power after her husband died.
References (book titles link to Amazon affiliate link. Check your libraries!):
- The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power, and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, 1427-1527 by Leonie Frieda
- Renaissance, Grades 5 – 8 (World History) by Patrick Hotle
Online: Skirting the Issue. (free but registration required)