Biographies & Memoirs


THE RETURN OF THE Riario family to Forlì was a far cry from their triumphant arrival three years earlier. Although the Forlivesi put on elaborate shows of welcome and organized a multitude of festivities, Count Riario's "return was very bitter for him, his wife, and his children, and... those days were filled with great sadness,"according to the local chronicler Andrea Bernardi.1 Upon the death of Sixtus IV, Girolamo's days as a papal favorite were finished, along with the funding and protection he had enjoyed.

Despite the promises of the College of Cardinals, Girolamo maintained only a tenuous hold on the lands of Imola and Forlì. The new pope, Giovanni Battista Cybo, who had assumed the name Innocent VIII when crowned with the papal tiara, struck contemporaries as a sincere and kind man. But as the Florentine ambassador informed his city, "As cardinal he was no friend to the count."2 Furthermore, the new pope numbered among his close friends Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, Girolamo's cousin and nemesis who had opposed him during the Colonna hostilities. Cardinal Giuliano had not forgotten Girolamo's threats and accusations nor the damage inflicted upon his own palace. For his part, Pope Innocent fervently hoped that the conflicts that characterized the era of Sixtus had ended and that his reign would be remembered for its peace and prosperity. The diplomats from the Italian courts, however, had already spotted an indecisive streak in the pontiff, a weakness that Girolamo's enemies were quick to exploit. Cardinal Savelli, embittered by his imprisonment in the Castel Sant'Angelo at the count's hands, had immediately sought and obtained an appointment as legate to Bologna, only a few miles from Girolamo's territories. Lorenzo de' Medici had long been friends with Cardinal Cybo before the latter's election and thus knew that the pope would not impede his long-awaited revenge on the perpetrators of the Pazzi conspiracy. Closer to home, the Manfredis of Faenza nurtured an intense hatred of Count Riario for his designs on their lands; in addition the duke of Ferrara still fumed over the Salt War. Surrounded by hostile neighbors, Girolamo was becoming aware that Caterina's powerful connections could be more instrumental in keeping his enemies at bay than respect for his personal might.

Three days after their arrival in Forlì, a papal bull arrived confirming the agreements Caterina had signed on her last day at the Castel Sant'Angelo. The document relieved some concerns; Forlì and Imola were officially theirs and the title would remain hereditary for their descendants. Girolamo maintained his position as captain of the papal armies, but the pope had relieved him of any obligation to come to Rome in that capacity, making it abundantly clear that the family's close connection to Rome had been truly severed. Caterina and Girolamo were on their own.

In public, the Riarios put on an optimistic face. Two months after their return to Forlì, Caterina's fourth child was born, on October 30, 1484. On a rainy morning two weeks later, Ludovico Orsi, Girolamo's closest friend among the Forlì nobles, cradled the infant in his arms as he walked from the Riarios' palace across the piazza to the Abbey of San Mercuriale. In the chill of the dimly lit church, he was joined by the ambassadors of the marquis of Ferrara, the marquis of Mantua, and the lord of Rimini. This array of northern nobility stood as godparents to the newborn Riario, who was baptized with the name Giovanni Livio, for the legendary founder of Forlì.

Girolamo strove to win the favor of his people during his first year as the resident ruler. He upheld his promise of limiting taxation, even though it became increasingly evident that this system was driving the city into ruin. To save money, he decreased the number of guards on the city gates, discontinued certain public offices, and delayed payment of salaries to public employees. At the same time, terrified of assassination plots, he maintained a heavy personal guard. Although almost as hampered by armed soldiers as she was in Rome, Caterina must have been pleased by the energy and resources Girolamo put into modernizing the fortress of Ravaldino. The family lived in a modest palace overlooking the main square, but the fortress was being equipped with the latest designs in defensive architecture and would eventually serve as a sumptuous residence.

Yet even nature itself seemed to conspire against the new rulers. During their first year in Forlì, drought struck the region of Romagna, destroying the harvest and driving grain prices to the skies. Girolamo struggled on, scraping the bottom of his personal coffers to purchase grain from abroad, which he sold to the citizens of Forlì at the considerable discount of 4.5 soldi per bushel instead of the market rate of 5.7.

But neither Girolamo's gentler public relations strategies nor his belated displays of civic generosity rendered his reign easier. On October 22, less than a week before the birth of Giovanni Livio, the exiled nobleman Hector Zampeschi and his two brothers stormed and occupied three fiefs on the outskirts of Forlì. Pope Paul II had originally transferred these territories to the brothers, but after the Zampeschis fought for Florence against the papacy, Pope Sixtus had reclaimed the lands and donated them to Count Riario. Enraged by the Zampeschis' aggression, Girolamo immediately summoned Il Tolentino to win the fiefs back by force, but Caterina intervened and her wisdom prevailed. She suspected that Pope Innocent had funded the soldiers and weaponry for the assault. Therefore, any retaliation would find no military or legal support from Rome. Thinking practically, Caterina also pointed out that the Zampeschis had crossed through Florentine territory to invade the lands, suggesting the complicity of Lorenzo de' Medici. Moreover, by sending his best soldiers to reconquer the fiefs, Girolamo would be leaving his own family unprotected, providing a golden opportunity for the pope and the Florentines to attack. Caterina counseled patience. This conciliatory approach, so unlike her adamant stand at the Castel Sant'Angelo, was motivated by political expediency, not a sense of forgiveness. The loss of those fiefs could be tolerated until she had time to contemplate the best response and procure the resources to effect it. Nonetheless, this first nibble into the Riario holdings indicated what might lay in store for the count and countess. Once their predatory neighbors smelled blood, would they all take bites out of the Riario lands?

Then, as 1484 drew to a close, Caterina fell deathly ill. The battles in the Roman countryside that summer, Sixtus's death, the commandeering of the Castel Sant'Angelo, the hard ride to Forlì, and the delivery of Livio had taken their toll. Quartan fever, a malarial illness characterized by a high temperature recurring every seventy-two hours, kept her bedridden for a month. She probably contracted malaria during the hot summer at Campo Morto; she had spent the autumn of 1483 sidelined by the same illness, and the malady would sporadically assail Caterina for the rest of her life.

That Christmas, while the ciocco smoldered, the young countess burned with fever. Doctors poured down her throat a concoction of mint, vinegar, and opium extract dissolved in wine, but this standard remedy of the time did nothing to improve Caterina's condition. In the end, her strong constitution and fighting spirit likely served her better than medicinal brews. Early in the new year she regained her customary health and vigor, and by the end of January, Caterina was hunting in the Romagnol countryside again. The near loss of his wife evidently increased Girolamo's appreciation for her. By the spring of 1485 Caterina was pregnant with her fifth child.

During the distraction caused by Caterina's illness, the formerly tranquil town of Imola staged its first insurrection. Taddeo Manfredi, the former ruler, possibly abetted by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Savelli in Bologna, came out of retirement in Milan and attempted to organize a coup d'état with several citizens of Imola. Again the loyal Il Tolentino sniffed out and squelched the plot and hanged thirteen of the ringleaders in the town square. Manfredi alone escaped.

Caterina's resilience allowed her not only to recover from illness but also to adapt to her change of station. Cast from the world stage to the backwoods, Caterina was not petulant; rather, she embraced her new life. She took over her duties as countess of Forlì gracefully and with ease. Her court was much reduced; ladies in waiting from the loftiest houses in Italy were replaced by local girls with clumsier manners. Her former entourage of philosophers, poets, and musicians was gone, replaced by the tough soldiers of Girolamo's personal guard. Her master of court was a local artisan made good, so the fabulous entertainment that had filled many an evening in Rome became a memory. In her letters to family and friends, and according to the writings of the diarists and ambassadors in her court, she never expressed nostalgia for her old life nor impatience with her new one.

The Riarios were not in high demand on the Italian social circuit, but they did welcome a few illustrious visitors over the course of 1485. In the spring, Giovanni Bentivoglio of Bologna spent a few nights in Forlì on his way to the pilgrimage shrine of the Holy House of Loreto in the nearby Marche region. Caterina and Girolamo, eager to show their neighbor that exclusion from Rome had not weakened them in the slightest, lodged him in the palace. During these days Caterina delighted her guests with the beauty, style, and elegance that had endeared her to both Rome and Forlì.

Girolamo's nephew Cardinal Raffaello Riario and his huge retinue also descended on Forlì, bearing news from Rome. In the papal court, he said, plots abounded to remove the despised Girolamo. Despite these concerns, Caterina and Girolamo took full advantage of the presence of their important nephew, putting aside the antagonism of the days of the Castel Sant'Angelo. They paraded the tall figure, wearing his rich red robes, through the city so the people of Forlì could gawk at the prince of the church, flanked by two bishops as he blessed children and accepted marks of obeisance. Girolamo wished everyone to know that he still had powerful relatives. The cardinal presided over a splendid Mass in the cathedral and awed the townspeople with the grandeur of Rome.

Several months later, Duke Alfonso of Calabria also arrived in town, with Girolamo's former ally Virgilio Orsini in tow. Custom held that such exalted company would stay in the palace of the leading citizen, while his entourage would be housed in the homes of various local nobles, but word had spread of the count's straitened finances. To spare Girolamo the expense, Duke Alfonso and the Roman noble rented rooms at local inns. Girolamo showed little gratitude for the duke's tactful gesture. Girolamo and Alfonso had faced each other as enemies at the Battle of Campo Morto and had reconciled the following year. After Alfonso had betrayed Pope Sixtus by allying with Florence in the armistice of 1484, Girolamo was apprehensive about the presence of such a powerful but unreliable figure. The count declined to greet the two men, pleading illness. To save face, Caterina mustered the diplomatic skills she had learned in her twenty-two years at court and invited the men to dinner. Despite the count's absence, the two aristocrats were impressed by how elegantly Caterina had navigated her reversal of fortune. No music or theatrical performances accompanied their meal, but fresh local food was exquisitely prepared and her lively conversation convinced the two men that the countess was flourishing in her new role.

Caterina lamented little about life in Forlì, but the dearth of good dressmakers dismayed her greatly. After a lifetime in the great centers of Italian fashion, Caterina balked at the prospect of wearing the simple smocks made of plain materials that were available in Forlì and did her best to keep up with what aristocrats were wearing elsewhere. She wrote to her friend Eleanora of Aragon, the duchess of Ferrara, whose style and beauty were much admired. Despite the enmity between Duke Ercole and Count Girolamo, Eleanora maintained easy and friendly relations with the Riarios, and when Caterina explained her sartorial predicament, the duchess sent her own Maestro Tommaso, the cleverest designer in the region. Caterina ordered a new wardrobe and wrote back effusive thanks, well pleased with the new styles.

As in Rome, correspondence filled her days, but Caterina was no longer saving lives and dispensing patronage in the form of high benefices as she had once done at the papal court. Now she could obtain only a few midlevel jobs at smaller courts for her favorites. At eighteen, she had been one of the most powerful women in Europe; now at twenty-two, she was countess of a relative backwater. Nonetheless she persevered, tending to the education of her oldest son, Ottaviano, now five years old. The Riarios' tight budget precluded hiring illustrious tutors, but Caterina found a local pedagogue to begin teaching the heir. The countess personally ensured that he learned to ride and hunt, hoping to shape a bold Sforza from the soft stuff of the Riarios.

Country life brought both pleasures and discomforts. The severe climate of Forlì required some acclimation. Rome was warm most of the year, with hot weather always posing more of a threat than the cold, but in Romagna winters were harsh and long. Caterina bought twenty-five new warm feather beds to ensure the comfort of everyone in her house. Accustomed to foods from her well-stocked farm outside Rome, where she raised her own livestock and vegetables, she may have preferred the simpler foods of her new home to the complicated confections of the city. Forlì was also surrounded by hilly countryside, ideal for hunting, which perfectly suited the athletic countess.

Though the Riario house dominated Forlì from its position in the main square, it was unassuming compared with the Roman palace destroyed by looters. One particular room, the Hall of the Nymphs, was the family favorite. Overlooking the piazza, the large hall had been painted for Pino Ordelaffi by a local artist, Francesco Menzocchi. The walls pictured nymphs dancing while pensive muses struck dignified poses against a light background—a place for pleasure as well as business. The family hosted receptions, took meals, and often simply whiled away the hours in the luminous, airy space.

While Girolamo kept to his rooms and went out only when surrounded by guards, Caterina tried to participate in the public life of the city, particularly in religious events and feast days. In June 1485, the townspeople arranged the most elaborate procession in the city's history to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi. Throughout the spring, artisans had constructed nineteen papier-mâché floats, each one representing an allegorical scene. The Battuti Neri (the Black Flagellants), a religious confraternity responsible for collecting the abandoned dead, masterminded the whole procession. Caterina not only attended but made a point of lauding the confraternity effusively for its extraordinary work. Although no dark dreams of death had crossed her mind while chanting psalms, the time would soon come when Caterina would be beholden to these dedicated brothers. The countess's public piety was well supplemented with her private charities. The Riario family never turned away beggars empty-handed, and many religious orders prayed daily for their magnanimous Riario benefactors.

Although their main architectural undertaking in Forlì had been the fortress, Girolamo and Caterina had contemplated leaving a religious legacy of their lordship. After the death of Sixtus IV, the painter Melozzo da Forlì resurfaced in Forlì. Pope Innocent took little interest in the arts, and without friends in the Curia, Melozzo had no chance of landing the few projects available. Having served the count well while designing his Roman palace, Melozzo hoped that Girolamo would find work for him. Like Sixtus, who had rebuilt the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo as a family shrine, the Riarios commissioned Melozzo to refashion the Church of San Giovanni in Faliceto into a sophisticated Renaissance monument intended to dwarf Pino Ordelaffi's tomb in the cathedral. After he completed a few drawings and models, however, it became clear to the artist that the Riarios could not finance such a project, and Melozzo allowed himself to be lured away by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who had taken charge of reconstructing the shrine of Loreto.

On December 18, 1485, Caterina bore her fifth child, another boy. He was named Galeazzo in honor of the father Caterina idolized. Despite his death eight years earlier, Caterina had Galeazzo Maria in the forefront of her mind when she held the Castel Sant'Angelo, and later in life she would use only his surname, Sforza, as her own. Her father defined her ideal of bravery and elegance. Little Galeazzo was also baptized in San Mercuriale. In their boldest bid for peace yet, Caterina and Girolamo asked a personal representative of Lorenzo the Magnificent to serve as godfather to their fourth son. For a brief moment, the count of Forlì seemed to find serenity in his new land.

But that cold Romagnol winter was only briefly warmed by the new addition to the Riario family. Bordering on bankruptcy, without hope of paying public officials or other duties of seigniorial upkeep, Girolamo desperately needed to raise money to keep his town afloat. During December, he had been deep in counsel with his most trusted advisers, the notary Niccolò Pansechi, Andrea Chelini, and Ludovico Orsi, Girolamo's closest friend. The most acrimonious debates always revolved around the problem of taxation. After five years without sales taxes or gate duties, the count was considering bringing back the dazi, as these taxes were called. Pansechi, realistically surveying the terrible financial situation of Forlì, adamantly argued that without sales and customs taxes the city was finished. The Forlivesi had long been the envy of Italy and had for a time enjoyed the opportunity to prosper with few taxes and enormous subsidies from the papal coffers. Now that the generous pope was dead, the city had to bid farewell to privilege and join the ranks of the taxpayers.

Girolamo objected, with the support of Chelini and Orsi. Pansechi scoffed at their objections, exclaiming that "in all of Romagna there is no people more stupid than the Forlivesi!"3

Two days after Christmas 1485, the Council of Forty, the representative body of Forlì, met with Pansechi and a sullen Count Riario. The notary began his announcement with a dramatic flourish. "The traitor ... Pino Ordelaffi ate our hearts and sucked our blood with his heavy gate and sales duties, but Count Girolamo is benign and clement like a gentle lamb. Would the city demand that the Riarios impoverish themselves in order to sustain expenses that rightfully belong to all who live in a city?"4 Pressing his advantage, Pansechi called on each member by name to vote for or against the dreaded tax. They voted with beans, dropping a white one into the basket for an affirmative vote or a black one to signify a nay. One by one the dazed men walked to the desk and dropped a white bean into the basket. By unanimous vote, on December 27, 1485, the sales tax and gate duties were reinstated in Forlì.

The council dispersed, some sighing, some weeping, but all permanently alienated from their ruler. Pansechi's efforts were well rewarded. Appointed chief collector of the new taxes, he was ensured great wealth as well as the implacable hatred of the city. His sons in turn profited from comfortable city jobs, now that the means had been found to fund them.

Niccolò Machiavelli, commenting on different errors of government concerning taxation, seemed to have had Forlì in mind when he wrote in The Prince that while it "would be well always to be considered generous," by dropping taxes too radically the ruler "will consume all his property in such gestures." The result would be that "he will be forced to levy heavy taxes on his subjects ... Thus he will begin to be regarded with hatred."5

Machiavelli's observation was borne out immediately in 1486 when the assassination attempts increased. In March, Girolamo's soldiers apprehended a certain Antonio Butrighelli under the window of the Hall of the Nymphs; he was carrying letters to co-conspirators from Antonio Maria Ordelaffi, one of the ousted heirs to the city. Butrighelli was a known enemy of the Riarios. He had been twice implicated in plots to kill the count and had been twice pardoned. This time the letters were damning: that very afternoon, a group of Ordelaffi supporters were poised to take control of the Porta San Pietro, the northern gate that led to Ravenna. Others were to raid the church, where Girolamo and Caterina would be attending Good Friday services, and murder them both. The spine-chilling similarity of this plan to Girolamo's Florentine conspiracy eight years earlier was not lost on the count. Butrighelli was hanged outside the Riarios' window, but the hydra of hatred that now infested Forlì would spring more heads.

Then a wave of bubonic plague hit hard in April, giving Girolamo and Caterina a chance to prove themselves benevolent rulers. Caterina made forays into the poorest quarters where the death toll was highest and the suffering greatest. There she tended to the ill and brought food and medicines of her own preparation. Many were shocked that the young and beautiful countess would be so heedless of her own health and life, but she dismissed the danger, claiming that she had seen the plague many times in Rome and had noticed that "those who die are weak and downtrodden." The people were grateful to the countess for her personal warmth, bravery, and practical advice. Girolamo, on the other hand, never left his rooms, but he did send for doctors, priests, and friars, all trained in dealing with the pestilence, to care for his subjects.

Spring rains washed away the disease and brought a good harvest, and it seemed that secret plots, taxes, famine, and epidemics had been forgotten. But more setbacks awaited the couple in August when the trusty Il Tolentino left their service. Skilled, brave, and tactically brilliant, he couldn't last long in a petty court, watching the back of a washed-up noble. He was paid only sporadically and no opportunities for glory would ever arise in this position. Financial tensions weighed heavily on Caterina and Girolamo and they frequently fought over expenses. Two Milanese observers in the Riario court witnessed the conjugal disputes over finances and kept their duke informed.6 Each of Il Tolentino's demands for payment ignited another battle between husband and wife, and these confrontations became increasingly bitter until Il Tolentino left to join the Venetian army in 1486. The soldier of fortune was killed a year later, torn to pieces by angry peasants.

A flurry of correspondence between the Milanese ambassador and the duke of Milan lifts the veil on one very intimate moment in this floundering marriage. In November, on behalf of the duke, Francesco Visconti extended an invitation to Caterina to come to Milan for the wedding of her sister Bianca Maria to Maximilian I, the son of the Holy Roman Emperor. The sealing of this exalted match was the most exciting social event of the year and nobles from all over Europe would be attending or sending representatives. Girolamo made Caterina's response for her, by explaining to Visconti that although he would be delighted for her to attend, she herself had refused to go. The count divulged that her gems had all been pawned in Bologna and Ravenna and she was ashamed to appear before her family bereft of the jewels and pearl-speckled robes she had worn when she had last seen them. Girolamo then launched into a long lament about the family finances; they were slowly sinking in a sea of debt. "Clothed or unclothed, bejeweled or not, I would be happy to let her go just to please her," Girolamo told the ambassador, with tears glistening in his eyes, "but she says that she will not go without her jewels!"7

Though it would be perfectly normal for a young woman to avoid a major social event if she lacked the proper attire, Girolamo's response nonetheless does not ring true. Borrowing jewels was the norm among noble families, especially for weddings. Silver and gold plate, pearls and gem-encrusted gowns crisscrossed the regions. Certainly Caterina had enough appropriate clothes to make an impressive arrival in Milan, and once there, her brothers and sisters would have supplemented them, if only to maintain the family honor. Appearances concerned Caterina only up to a point. It stretches belief that the woman who had arrived in Rome nine months pregnant and carried in a vehicle made of two baskets, then walked away from the Castel Sant'Angelo wearing a sword and a money belt, would worry about how many strands of pearls she would be wearing. After years of trying to get to Milan to see her mother and her sisters on Sforza soil, Caterina would not likely have been deterred by considerations of dress and adornment.

It seems that the duke of Milan had a similar impression and wanted to change Caterina's mind, because the next letter startles for its sudden vehemence. Visconti affirms that Caterina burst into his rooms in a state of great anxiety and revealed the tragic situation of her marriage in an uncharacteristic torrent of words. "You don't know how awful things are between my husband and me," she confided. "The way he treats me is so bad that I envy those who have died by him."8 The discretion and reserve that distinguished Caterina ever since her first journey to Rome crumbled, and she revealed her miserable state as a "derelict, neglected, and abandoned" wife. Visconti was not a close friend or confidant; he was the eyes and ears of the duke, yet Caterina revealed to him her situation. As Visconti's role was simply to record what happened, Caterina knew that her tearful outburst would be on the duke's desk in a few days. Then she quickly regained her composure and reported that the duke's regard for her over the past few days had slightly improved her husband's behavior. More inclined to solve problems than bemoan them, she enlisted her family's help to sell a few of her properties in Milan in the hopes of solving their economic problems at least temporarily.

Marital discord was not the only threat to Girolamo and Caterina. For the first year after the announced change in fiscal policy in Forlì, taxes were not collected until the final month, so for twelve months most people continued to favor the count, perhaps thinking that he might change his mind before it was time to make any payments. When the taxes actually came due, many townspeople flatly refused to pay, and Pansechi received constant death threats. During January 1487 a steady drone of grumbling filled the streets of Forlì. After losing Il Tolentino, Girolamo knew he was vulnerable to violent attack.

In March, the Riarios tried for a change of scenery. Leaving Forlì, they moved to Imola, which they had always considered the safer of the two towns. Domenico Ricci, Girolamo's brother-in-law, was transferred from his post as governor of Imola to act as surrogate ruler of Forlì. Girolamo, relaxing at last, finally conceded and allowed Caterina to take a long-awaited sojourn in Milan, and on April 9, the countess embarked on the Via Emilia toward her childhood home. No extant documents reveal whether the gesture signified a truce between the two, or whether Caterina decided to leave on her own. But she set out, pregnant once again, to at last see her family, almost ten years to the day since she had left in the wake of her father's murder.

When Caterina arrived at the sumptuous court of Milan, it bore little resemblance to the one she had left. Her father had been surrounded by an earthy, fun-loving gang of friends given to unchecked luxury. The Milan of 1487, while as opulent as ever, was more focused on industry and achievement—engineers, architects, doctors, and scientists were all presenting plans and projects for approval and funding. It was a busy, exciting, flourishing environment presided over by Ludovico the Moor, the de facto ruler behind the throne of Gian Galeazzo. While Caterina's father had made a dozen false starts to rebuild his city, Ludovico was accomplishing great things. Milan was now one of the liveliest and most sophisticated cities in Europe.

By far the most fascinating member of Ludovico the Moor's court was a Florentine artist named Leonardo da Vinci. He had come to Milan five years earlier, bearing a gift from Lorenzo the Magnificent: a silver lyre of Leonardo's own construction, in the shape of a horse's head. His talent at playing the instrument and composing songs delighted the music-loving court, and his remarkable abilities as a military engineer, architect, and artist had obtained him a job.

The thirty-five-year-old polymath turned heads with his physical beauty. Boasting long, flowing hair, he was lithe and strong and his every move had the graceful ease of an athlete. After the plump prelates of Rome, Caterina must have delighted in the charm of the artist, who also loved horses as much as she did. Leonardo frequented the duke's innermost circle and Caterina would have heard him entertaining the court with word games or outlining plans for his latest project.

Leonardo had recently finished his first altarpiece in Milan, The Virgin of the Rocks, today housed in the Louvre. Caterina viewed this enigmatic painting in its original setting, the Chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. Although she had seen Botticelli at work—he had studied with Leonardo in Verrocchio's Florentine studio—the golden figures emerging from dark, mysterious landscapes were completely new to her.

Leonardo filled the role of court portraitist for Ludovico the Moor, painting images of his succession of mistresses. In 1487, Leonardo had just completed his portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, the duke's seventeen-year-old paramour. Stiff portraits in profile had been the norm in Rome, and the likeness of Cecilia was astoundingly different. She was captured in a three-quarter view, with almost her entire face turned toward the viewer. Although she modestly avoided a direct meeting of eyes, her body filled the space of the canvas. Leonardo had posed his model in a dynamic twist that breathed verve and energy, qualities studiously shunned in earlier female portraits, which were placid in character. The long, thin fingers of the beautiful courtesan stroked an ermine cradled in her arm. The nimble creature seemed to stop momentarily, calmed by Cecilia's soft touch. Leonardo's work introduced an element of sensuality into Italian art. Years later, Caterina would hire Lorenzo di Credi, a follower of Leonardo, to paint her own portrait, remembering the power of Leonardo's images. In 2002, the German art historian Magdalena Soest went so far as to propose that Leonardo's famous portrait of the Mona Lisa was indeed an image of Caterina Sforza.9 Although most likely untrue (at the timeMona Lisa was painted, Caterina was not in a position to commission such an expensive work), the comparisons show how Leonardo's style permeates the painting by di Credi.

Fortune favored Caterina: she arrived in Milan during the first stages of Leonardo's most exhilarating project, an equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza. Originally conceived by her father as an homage to the first Sforza duke of Milan, the idea had been revived by Ludovico the Moor and placed in the hands of the brilliant Leonardo. Meant to embody pride in the Sforza name, it would never reach completion.

After many long years, Caterina was reunited with her birth mother, Lucrezia Landriani, and her still-unmarried sisters, Stella and Bianca. Her beloved sister Chiara, recipient of several letters during Caterina's journey to Rome, had since married and left Milan. She also met with her eleven-year-old brother, Duke Gian Galeazzo, and her uncle Ludovico. Certainly Caterina made the most of these encounters, securing their support should death befall Girolamo and clarifying the policies toward neighboring states.

This idyllic time was interrupted by news of Girolamo's sudden life-threatening illness. Caterina departed for Imola immediately and by May 31 she was at Girolamo's side. Locals were touched by the solicitousness of the count's wife, who brought doctors in from Bologna, Ferrara, and Milan, but Caterina's concerns were more practical than sentimental. Ottaviano was only eight and many eyes were gazing hungrily at Imola and Forlì. Situated on an open plain, Imola was difficult to defend, and its fortress, although recently restored, still had many vulnerabilities. As Bona of Savoy had once done, Caterina anxiously prepared for an uncertain future while she sat by her husband's bedside, willing him to live although the doctors had despaired.

Girolamo slowly recovered, but he had lost the upper hand forever. Caterina saw that his lack of physical vigor and weak moral character made him unfit to rule. She installed her mother and sisters in her home in Imola and prepared to take the reins of her life and her realm.

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