Biographies & Memoirs


ON DECEMBER 26, 1499, Caterina awoke in Paradise. Although her beloved Giovanni was no longer by her side and her chambers were devoid of the happy chatter of her children, she still relished her comfortable inner sanctum next to the keep. From her window, Caterina could see the sun glowing along the tip of the Apennines. Cesare Borgia had begun the siege of Forlì a week earlier. The town had capitulated even before Cesare had arrived, leaving only Ravaldino to resist the invaders. So far Caterina had held her own well. She had stopped Cesare's soldiers from looting and pillaging on Christmas Day by distracting them with the threat of a Venetian attack, and her own actions as a warrior were limited to a few well-aimed cannon shots at the palaces of Forlì's foulest traitors.

It was Saint Stephen's Day, the twenty-third anniversary of her father's murder in Milan. As she heard Mass with her commanders, Caterina may have thought of her father, Duke Galeazzo Maria. Never in written, spoken, or recorded word did she show any rancor toward the man who had married her off at age ten to the pope's dissolute nephew; indeed, in her thirty-six years, she had never known among her husbands, lovers, or adversaries anyone who equaled her father's strength of will and love of life. At every confrontation, Caterina always cited her father's "fearlessness" or "strategic brilliance," and she had spent her whole life trying to emulate those qualities, never more so than in her bold defense of her lands. How different she had been at fourteen—so naively excited to be going to Rome despite the hasty departure after her father's death. A lifetime later, Caterina had borne eight children, buried three husbands, and fought off endless plots and intrigues. Most of all, with the help of Savonarola's instruction, she had found spiritual peace. Should she die that day, Caterina was confident that she would find her way to Paradise, while if Cesare Borgia were to be killed, he would have Hell to pay.

Trumpets broke Caterina's reveries and summoned her to the battlefield. She strapped on her cuirass, one of the very few made for a woman in that age. It was as expertly crafted as her luxurious gowns had been in her youth; the steel was shaped to her curves and reinforced to prevent crushing or compressing her breasts. It was also streamlined so that she could wear it underneath her clothes. Tiny plates fit perfectly together to allow for a wide range of movement. The delicate floral pattern lightly incised on the front was the only concession to ornament, and on the upper left plate Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Caterina's patron saint, was etched into the steel.

She raced up the narrow spiral steps that led from her rooms to the lookout point over the bastions, her long skirts rustling. Her men-at-arms were gawking as they peered over the moat. No cannon fire, no projectiles, no billowing acrid smoke greeted her, only the crisp, cold winter wind. Looking down over the low wall, she could clearly see Cesare Borgia, duke of Valentinois, astride his white horse. He was poised at the edge of the moat and surrounded by a small coterie of liveried guards. Cesare had thrown a silver and black cloak over his suit of armor, and instead of a helmet, he sported a black velvet beret adorned with a long white feather. It was hard to tell from his apparel whether he had come to fight or to court. The duke slid easily from his horse and with a polished gesture swept his hat from his head, extending it at arm's length as he made a deep bow toward the lady on the ramparts. Caterina, well versed in courtly manners, returned the greeting with a regal nod.

Hat in hand, Cesare addressed the countess in the most complimentary terms, praising both her education and her wisdom. He observed that states come and they go, assuring her that if she would cede the fortress to him, his father, Pope Alexander VI, would happily give her another. As crafty as he was bold, and aware of Caterina's soft spot for handsome young men, Cesare was flirting.

Without replying, Caterina stood on the rampart, listening. Encouraged, the duke pressed his suit. He offered her land, compensation, and even a home in Rome if that was what she preferred. The promises of the pope and his son would be guaranteed by illustrious witnesses, including one of French royal blood. Cesare's seductive words, however, were laced with unmistakable warnings. Even if the countess remained indifferent to the prospect of horrible bloodshed among her people, certainly she would balk at the idea of all of Italy laughing at her, ridiculing her for the futile and wasteful defense of her tiny dominion.

Caterina's face still gave no indication of her thoughts. She stood erect until Cesare's last pleas were carried off by the wind. She let silence fill the void of his empty promises, and then she spoke.

While gracefully acknowledging Cesare's fulsome compliments, she noted that Cesare had overlooked her greatest quality. She was the daughter of a man who knew no fear, and like her father, she would follow her chosen course to the end. She curtly reminded her antagonist that unlike him, she bore an honorable name. Never would she disgrace her forefathers and the glorious house of Sforza by conceding victory to a lesser house without a fight. Moreover, she added, "all of Italy knows the worth of the Borgia word. The bad faith of the father has removed any credit from the son." It was of no matter whom they brought as witnesses. If "the principal was false," she said, "so would be its satellites."1 Then she issued a few warnings of her own. The indefatigable countess boasted that the walls of her fortress were holding strong and that word had gone out to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, husband to her sister Bianca Maria. Reinforcements would arrive at any moment. Having done some military recognizance of her own, Caterina knew Cesare was still waiting for his heavy artillery to arrive, and his troops were restless, awaiting their pay. Finally, she stated that her refusal to accept his ignoble offers, unworthy of her Sforza heritage, would garner only respect throughout the whole world. Even if she should die on this battlefield, her name would live on forever. As her last words rang though the chilly morning air, Caterina saluted the duke, turned on her heel, and disappeared into the keep.

A baffled, angry Cesare rode back to his quarters. This insufferable woman had bested him in front of both armies. Her calm self-assurance remained unmoved by his charm, promises, or threats. The soldiers had heard her call the pope a liar. He would have to show them that this woman could not insult him so blatantly nor dismiss him so easily.

A few hours later, Cesare rode back to the fortress and the trumpeter again gave the signal for a parley. Caterina had used the time to develop a scheme of her own. If the pope's insolent son thought that he was such a magnet for women, let that be his downfall. For this encounter, Caterina put aside the mien of the tough warrior and became the elegant countess who had also broken her share of hearts. Instead of appearing at the ramparts, Caterina ordered the drawbridge to be lowered and walked out to the midpoint.

Cesare dismounted and strode toward the drawbridge, stopping at the edge of the moat. Caterina approached him, coming to the edge of the bridge. The onlookers saw the duke earnestly try to persuade the countess to cede the castle. Caterina looked up at the tall soldier and into his eyes, as if trying to read the sincerity of his offer. A few moments later, her shoulders drooped and her brow furrowed as if reconsidering her position. Cesare, pressing his advantage, reached for her arm. A gesture from Caterina indicated that they should enter the castle to discuss terms, and she walked back toward the fortress. Cesare made to follow suit, but as he stepped onto the drawbridge, it started to rise. Cesare leapt back just in time to escape capture. Enraged, embarrassed, and no doubt frightened by his narrow escape, the pope's son erupted in a flood of obscenities.2 He walked to the edge of the moat and roared so that everyone in his camp could hear that a reward of a thousand ducats awaited anyone who captured Caterina dead. Caterina, now back on the ramparts, retorted that she would give five thousand ducats for the corpse of the Borgia captain. Caterina enjoyed standing on the ramparts and taunting an enemy. She had outwitted the College of Cardinals on the bastions of the Castel Sant'Angelo and bested Giralamo Riario's assassins from this very wall a decade earlier. In such verbal jousts, Cesare never stood a chance.

Diarists, ambassadors, and the simply curious flocked to Forlì to witness the most ruthless man in Italy thwarted by this fearless woman. Sadly, Leone Cobelli was not among the onlookers, as he lay dying at the time of the siege. After a lifetime of following Caterina's adventures, Cobelli would not recount her most noble hour; his last written words cursed the French: "those barbarians and people without law." Andrea Bernardi was now the sole local chronicler for the troubled city, but this barber-scribe had found a friend in Cesare, who took an avid interest in how this showdown would be recorded. Flattered by praise and honors, Bernardi allowed the Borgia prince to read and edit his manuscript, leaving future readers to wonder what Cesare may have added or omitted. The other witnesses produced a fast-paced crossfire of letters resembling the fiery exchange of artillery between the two camps, some favoring Caterina, others backing Cesare. Every head of state had eyes and ears at Forlì the siege of the tiny town potentially held massive ramifications for the other polities.

Time would be a deciding factor for both camps. The political tides were shifting once again, possibly in Caterina's favor. Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, whom Louis XII had left in charge of Milan, had already earned the disapproval of the Milanesi, and Duke Ludovico began to seem preferable to the tyrant. Ludovico had wasted no time while in Germany; there he had recruited an army and soon would be ready to march on Milan. The moment Ludovico began his siege of the city, the king of France would seek to defend it and therefore recall his soldiers employed in Cesare's Romagna campaign. The Borgia commander would be left alone. Adept at intrigue, Duke Ludovico had even devised a strategy to keep Venice at bay. Through various agents at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ludovico had succeeded in stirring up the old Turkish enmity toward Venice. The Turks exploited Venice's distraction with Italian politics to seize several territories in the Adriatic. The ease of their capture emboldened the Ottoman army to venture onto Italian soil and attack Venetian holdings in Friuli. Like the tentative rays of sunshine peeking through the overcast January morning, hope stirred in the hearts of the defenders of Forlì. Well-informed of unfolding events by spies and agents, Caterina understood that she needed to keep her defenses strong and her spirits up.

Many military experts observing the siege of Forlì thought that Caterina's fortress was strong enough to withstand the wait until the French called back their troops. Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro (and the discarded husband of Lucrezia Borgia), wrote encouragingly to the marquis of Mantua, predicting that with her men and her provisions, Caterina could hold out against Cesare for at least four months.

Ravaldino was built along a trapezoidal plan, with long curtain walls anchored by squat towers. The keep stood at the northern short end of the fort, a forty-five-foot square tower with thick walls and rounded corners. The space within the walls had always been used for military exercises and reviews, and during peaceful periods the countess had even beautified it with a garden; now the citadel operated like a well-run factory. Stations for making cannonballs, repairing swords, and delivering medical treatment were lined up in a neat row. A deep moat surrounded the whole structure, with access to it only through drawbridges and tunnels. Opposite the keep and along the western wall, Caterina had constructed rivellini, heavily built triangular defensive structures detached from the main curtain walls. These miniature forts, pointing like spearheads at the enemy, presented formidable obstacles to soldiers rushing to surmount the walls. Each narrow opening of a rivellino held three cannons, allowing the defenders a wide range of fire.

Until Caterina's time, castles like Ravaldino were considered impregnable. But warfare had changed. Old-fashioned battering rams and fire from low heavy cannons would have glanced off the slanted bastions at the base of the castle, but the new firearms could direct shots at the straight walls above. The moat had kept archers out of range, but the latest projectiles crossed it easily. If the walls gave, Forlì's four months would be reduced to four hours. Taking stock of her situation, Caterina knew Cesare had arrived with almost twelve thousand men. Flemish, German, and Swiss mercenaries comprised the bulk of his infantry, but King Louis had given him two thousand well-trained veteran troops and he commanded two thousand experienced Spanish soldiers as well, who were the backbone of Cesare's army. They seemed inexhaustible compared to the thousand faithful soldiers inside the walls of Ravaldino. Cesare also possessed copious artillery. Seventeen smaller movable guns—"iron mouths" as they were called—were pointed at Caterina's walls. Five big cannons, unwieldy but powerful, were pounding at her fortifications. Cesare also had eleven lithe falconet guns, the latest in artillery. Only about three feet long, they peppered the defenders with two- to three-pound iron balls. The fanciest weapon in Cesare's armory was one he had brought from Rome: the Tiverina, named after the Tiber River. Nine feet in length, it could fire projectiles the size of a soccer ball instead of the usual three- to four-inch shot. Caterina knew her fortress was strong, but these advanced firearms rendered her walls vulnerable.

Likewise, Cesare had problems to contend with. Like Caterina, he demanded discipline from his troops, but it was much harder to control twelve thousand soldiers from numerous countries who were working for a paycheck. The French soldiers from the king's standing army were needed to keep them in line. And not all was well with the Forlivesi who had capitulated to him. Already they were beginning to rue their decision. Forced to billet his soldiers, they soon found themselves turned out of their homes. Artisans could only watch as their shops were taken over by the army's blacksmiths or used as stables; any Forlivesi who hesitated to comply received a savage beating. Looting, rape, and other forms of brutality were common. Even Saint Mercuriale fell victim. Having discovered that the makeshift shrine to the saint rested above the monument to the French soldiers killed by Guido di Montefeltro in 1282, the French contingent among Cesare's troops knocked the statue of the saint into the mud and hacked it to pieces, declaring that the patron saint of Forlì "did not deserve to be above the bones of our dead." The townspeople gathered the pieces and brought them into the church, as they had done with the broken bodies of those murdered and left in the square. To quell any spirit of resistance in Forlì, the Borgia commander made every man, woman, and child, even priests and Jews, wear the white cross of the penitent. Cesare then decreed that anyone carrying weapons would be immediately hanged and any attack against his soldiers would receive an exemplary punishment.

Frustrated by Caterina's resistance, and alarmed by the French soldiers' admiration for her, he had raised the bounty on her head to ten thousand ducats, but still no one was willing to betray her. Cesare then searched for ways to get into the castle. On December 27, he ordered his troops to dig a tunnel under the moat to the castle, a futile exercise that actually benefited the Forlivesi. The energy the soldiers expended digging into the frozen earth meant less time for them to torment the townspeople. Cesare then ordered the falconets to be planted all around the keep, planning to throw all his firepower at Caterina's stronghold and blast her out.

On December 28, Cesare started hammering Ravaldino in earnest. With the morning light reflecting off the muzzles of the falconets, they resembled silver streams feeding into the moat. The bombardment took out one of the defense towers and left Caterina's beloved Paradise a ruin, but she was undaunted. The keep remained intact; she moved in there. Her return fire caused Cesare even greater damage. Borgia's French artillery expert, Costantino da Bologna, was killed. A loud lament went up from the enemy camp, and the French exclaimed that the king would have happily given ten thousand ducats to bring that valuable man back to life again. Caterina had also selected her artillery chief with care. Bartolomeo Bolognesi's cannons responded shot for shot to Cesare attacks, and he remained ever-vigilant to respond to any careless exposure on the part of the enemy. He "never fails to salute any who pass by," wrote an observer to the duke of Milan, recounting that Duke Cesare had grown so exasperated that he was offering a thousand ducats for Bolognesi's corpse and two thousand for him alive.

News of the extraordinary defense on the part of one courageous woman spread like wildfire through Italy. The diarist Antonio Grumello from Pavia wrote at the time, "There has never been seen a woman with so much spirit."3 "She has shown herself a female of great governance," wrote one commentator from her old enemy Venice. "Certainly this woman could be called a Virago."4 Virago, derived from vir, the Latin word for "man," denoted a woman who possessed qualities that the Renaissance associated with men: strength, standing, and importance. Caterina was one of the few women of her age to be referred to that way. Public opinion, at least, seemed to be in Caterina's favor. Ottaviano was trying to find reinforcements for his mother, and the Florentines secretly promised to send soldiers; the hardest part would be getting them into the fortress. It took a clever ruse to do so.

On one freezing January morning, a group of men came chanting though Cesare's camp. Wearing traveling cloaks and carrying the traditional staff of the pilgrim, they begged safe transit through Forlì on their journey to Rome for the Holy Year. Promising to pray for those who let them pass, the band made its way toward Ravaldino. Suddenly the drawbridge was lowered and they all rushed inside: forty extra men to defend the fortress.

No one knew who sent them; most speculated Florence, although others thought it might have been Ludovico the Moor. But the fact was that it could have been Cardinal Riario from Savona, or Giovanni Bentivoglio from Bologna, for now sympathies were starting to turn toward Caterina.

Cesare knew he was running out of time, he was still waiting for money to pay his troops, and although he knew the funds were forthcoming, he also had been apprised that Giovanni Sforza had almost managed to intercept and seize his precious cash. Cesare's outraged father sputtered tirades against Caterina and the house of Sforza, "the seed of the serpent Satan!"5 The Borgia's list of enemies was growing and the more time he spent stalled by a woman, the more he would seem weak in the eyes of his adversaries. He could break a lance or straighten a horseshoe in his bare hands. He could kill a bull in a ring, but he couldn't defeat this woman.

He decided to concentrate all his energies on what his experts had discovered to be the weakest section of wall: the southern stretch facing the mountains. For two days he moved his guns to the other side of the fort, digging trenches and building protective ramparts for the gunmen. Most of his soldiers were in the city, celebrating Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings who came to see the infant Jesus. Instead of giving gifts, as was traditional in Europe, the soldiers were looting and pillaging and bringing prostitutes to their banqueting table. The local chronicler Bernardi was horrified by their obscene pranks and how they "blessed the table in their own way,"6 finding it particularly abhorrent that they ate standing up. When the festivities ended, Cesare began the siege again. Day and night he pummeled the southern wall of Ravaldino with cannonballs. The blows began to take effect, ripping holes in the long straight curtain wall. Caterina and her men never showed signs of worry, and as night fell they raced to repair the breaks with sandbags or stones, so that the next morning found the wall whole again. Caterina slyly undermined the morale of Cesare's men; at night as the French soldiers were huddled in frozen ditches with their cannons, they could hear pipes and drums playing inside the fort. While those in the fortress repaired the walls and tended the wounded, Caterina kept up the illusion that they were simply having a merry dance. From time to time, the defenders of Ravaldino would scrawl a gibe onto one of the cannonballs: "Hey, slow down, you'll hit our toilets!"

But as pieces of the Ravaldino wall fell, they began to pile up in the moat, slowly creating a pathway. Cesare, seeing his opportunity, ordered every peasant in Forlì to bring a bundle of logs for his soldiers to build into rafts, and he requisitioned two long flat riverboats from Ravenna. On January 12, three weeks after Cesare had made his entry into Forlì, the Borgia commander threw everything he had at the now fragile castle wall. The extra pay had arrived and he distributed the money liberally, offering incentives for harder work. The efforts paid off, and Cesare's artillery ripped a large breach into Caterina's wall. Fallen debris hindered the defenders' attempts to repair the damage, as did well-aimed shots from the falconets. Cesare's men made the log rafts and anchored them to the rubble in the half-filled moat. The enemy now had a bridge into Caterina's fort. At noon Cesare went to lunch with his commanding officers and boasted, "Today is Sunday; by Tuesday Lady Caterina will be in my hands."7 The officers protested that he should not cry victory too soon. Undoubtedly the countess would repair to the keep and they would have to besiege the stronghold. A confident Cesare offered a three-hundred-ducat wager on the outcome.

While Cesare was taking bets, Caterina was repositioning her guns. Using the fallen pieces of stone as cover, she aligned all her weapons to fire on the opening in the wall. A French assault through that crevice would be a suicide run. Cesare, having finished his meal, strode back to the moat and issued the order to take the citadel. The soldiers crossed the makeshift bridge in maniples of sixteen, climbing through the breach and pouring into the citadel.

Not one shot greeted them. Caterina's guns remained silent, and none of the defenders met Cesare's soldiers head-on. The desertion of Caterina's camp had begun; the soldiers at the breach had seen a window of freedom and had taken it. A Swiss mercenary named Cupizer climbed unimpeded to the top of the Porta Cotogni and plucked Caterina's standard, the Riario rose and the Sforza viper, from the top. The fortress was taken, and only one question remained: would the last band of defenders put their weapons down quietly or would they fight to the death?

Caterina never hesitated. She strode out of the keep to meet her attackers, followed by Alessandro Sforza, her older brother; Scipione Riario, her stepson; and her few remaining loyal men. She fought in the front ranks, refusing to yield when her officers tried to call for a retreat. The Venetian mercenary Sanuto was already amazed by her spirit, but when he saw that she knew how to handle a sword and "wounded many men,"8 he was astounded. For two hours she fought side by side with her men through the endless onslaught of Cesare's soldiers. By late afternoon, the defenders were exhausted yet the stream of Cesare's mercenaries seemed endless. Caterina ordered her men to gather ammunition, wood, straw—anything flammable—and make a broad wall of fire. The curtain of smoke slowed the invaders, offering the defenders a moment of respite as the French labored to extinguish the flames. No sooner had the French beaten down the bonfire than Caterina and her soldiers came running toward them to continue the fight. Eyes watering from the smoke and arms aching from the heavy sword, Caterina was the equal of any man on the battlefield. One by one, her weary comrades at arms, aware that they had lost, hoped to escape with their lives by raising the white flag of surrender. But drawing strength from desperation, as the marquis of Mantua wrote, Caterina persisted, with the walls of her Paradise to her back, even as her companions laid down their arms. She had no intention of leaving the battlefield alive. Her captains, her castellan, and her brother were all taken prisoner, but Caterina backed her way into the keep. As she sealed the entry gate, she was already barking orders to the soldiers to prepare for a siege.

Cesare, however, had one last trick up his sleeve. He rode up to the keep, his white horse darkened by soot and grime amid the carnage. The Borgia herald sounded his trumpet and Caterina was called to speak to Cesare for the third and last time. Cesare, feigning solicitous concern, begged Caterina to stop this pointless waste of lives. Caterina replied that if he respected life as much as he claimed, he would show mercy to her townspeople and to her soldiers who had surrendered to him. Before she could utter another word, a heavy hand fell on her shoulder, and she heard a voice in French say, "Madame, you are a prisoner of my lord, the constable of Dijon." Caterina had been betrayed from within the walls of her own castle.

How could it happen that she was surprised within her own stronghold? Many contemporaries pondered the reasons for the sudden fall of the castle. The surprise turn of events implied treachery. Andrea Bernardi, while writing his chronicle under the watchful eye of Cesare Borgia, hinted that the fortress "was taken by things seen and unseen." Cesare himself was the first to admit in a letter to his father that he "never would have taken the castle if all her men had the countess's spirit." Gian Giacomo Trivulzio in Milan, astonished by Caterina's capture, claimed to the ambassador of the duke of Ferrara that "there must have been great cowardice in that castle to be lost so pathetically." As far as he could tell the fortress should have been able to hold out for fifteen more days.

Machiavelli, an open admirer of Cesare Borgia, analyzed the fall of Forlì closely in his book On the Art of War. "The fortress was divided in three parts and each part was separated by trenches and water from the others with bridges linking the structures together. Once the duke with his artillery had demolished one of the areas of the fortress and opened a hole in the wall; once Giovanni da Casale who was in charge of guarding it, didn't defend that opening, but retreated to some other part, the duke's troops entered without any conflict through that spot and took everything in a moment."9 But the Florentine pundit maintained that the true weakness was Caterina, who "had more faith in her fortresses than in conquering the love of her people."10

Giovanni da Casale's name soon became synonymous with traitor. The Florentine historian Guicciardini, writing a few years later, condemned Casale's men as being of "the same infamy and misery of Giovanni da Casale, their captain."11 Giovanni had been named as Caterina's latest lover by the Venetian mercenary Sanuto. But in the year after Giovanni de' Medici's death, speculation linked Caterina with every man who came near her. Achille and Polidoro Tiberti, the brothers from Cesena, had each been rumored as paramours despite the fact that they both worked actively against the countess at the behest of Cesare Borgia. Ottaviano Manfredi, the on-again, off-again claimant to Faenza, had also been romantically tied to her, although he had led an attack on Forlì for Venice. Even poor Francesco Fortunati, the priest from Cascina, had been accused of breaking his vows with the beautiful countess. Like an account from tabloid journalism, Giovanni da Casale's supposed betrayal was rendered all the more poignant because he was presumed to be Caterina's lover. His reputation in tatters—a serious problem for a soldier for hire—Casale attempted to refute the accusations, laying the blame on Caterina's brother Alessandro for his cowardice as well as the rivalries and insubordination among his fellow officers. How a French soldier gained access to the sealed keep remains a mystery, but as one modern writer put it, "The castellan was a traitor, a coward, or a fool."12 Machiavelli best summed up that cold evening of January 12: "The poor defenses of the fortress and the little wisdom of those defending it shamed the great undertaking of the countess."13

Contemporaries noticed that Cesare, although eager to claim his prize, took his time entering the keep, waiting for it to be completely subdued. Once inside, he encountered the first of many problems that Caterina would cause for him. The French soldier, a certain Bernard, who had captured the countess, demanded his reward. Cesare ordered that the soldier be paid two thousand ducats. Outraged, Bernard reminded Cesare that he had publicly promised ten thousand ducats for the countess. Cesare's protests were silenced as the soldier pulled out his dagger and held it to Caterina's throat. If Cesare denied him his full prize, threatened Bernard, then all he would get of Caterina was her head. Then the captain of the French forces, Yves D'Allegre, raced to the defense of his officer, Bernard, and soon the keep resounded with shouts in French, Spanish, and Italian. Over the weeks of watching Caterina, D'Allegre had been smitten by her beauty, bravery, and ingenuity. The ancient French sense of chivalry stirred in the soldier, who balked at Caterina's being consigned directly to Cesare. Under French law, no woman could be taken as a prisoner of war; in D'Allegre's hands, she would be in the custody of the king of France. The Borgia family recognized no such niceties. In their clutches, Caterina would meet a brutal end. The negotiations between Bernard, who wanted money, D'Allegre, who desired honor, and Cesare, who ached for revenge, resulted in D'Allegre's successfully declaring Caterina to be under the protection of Louis XII; therefore she could not be tortured, imprisoned, or killed. As a professional soldier, he thought he had secured Caterina's safety. But Cesare had fought too hard for this particular prize to give it up so lightly. He insisted that the countess be entrusted to the Borgias for "safekeeping." Although technically under the jurisdiction of the French and therefore inviolate, she was thereby consigned to Cesare, who, unbeknownst to the French, did not live by a reliable code of ethics.

Well past midnight, Caterina was led out of the keep into the carnage surrounding her citadel. Seven hundred lay dead, defenders and assailants alike. Caterina stepped over rubble and bodies. Scattered fragments of the sumptuous bronze monument she had made in honor of Giacomo Feo lay on the ground; the urn had been smashed and the prized bronze, the best metal for artillery, had been carted away to be melted and made into more weapons. Cesare's soldiers were disappointed with the paltry contents of the treasury; convinced that the defenders had swallowed gold ducats or jewels for safekeeping, they slit the bodies open to search the entrails. The acrid smell of gunpowder stung Caterina's eyes and burned in her nose and throat, mercifully covering the stench of death. Caterina had ordered all the ammunition in the fortress burned, to ensure that the fall of her castle would not provision Cesare's attack on his next target. Caterina didn't wince at the horror but commented that the fate of the dead didn't upset her as much as that of the survivors.14 Death in combat was infinitely more honorable than survival through surrender. The French soldiers sorted their prisoners; those who were Italian were allowed to live, but the foreign mercenaries were put to death. Caterina's brother, her secretary, and a priest who had remained to the bitter end to administer the sacraments to Caterina and her men were all apprehended. A large number of women—ladies in waiting and maidservants—who had remained in the fort, loyal to their mistress, were now in the hands of the troops. Several prisoners were killed, including the unfortunate priest who had stayed by Caterina's side and a young courtier who had gallantly defended the countess. Cesare put ransoms on the noblemen, which were soon paid, but there would be no freedom for Caterina. She was led from the fortress, her home for twelve years, into an uncertain future. As the chronicler Bernardi put it, "Paradise was now governed by devils."15

A heavy escort accompanied Caterina to the palace of Luffo Numai, the changeable Forlivese nobleman who had welcomed Cesare into his home. The Borgia captain was happily ensconced in the comfortable house. With his dinner warm on the table and the Sangiovese wine ready to wash away the day's bloodshed, Cesare savored the moment when Caterina's children would be brought to him in chains. With all the heirs present, his victory would be complete. His envoys, however, returned empty-handed. Caterina informed her captor that she had sent her children to Florence before the siege and, as they were all Florentine citizens through her marriage to Giovanni de' Medici, he would be unable to demand their release into his custody. Cesare may have captured her fortress and even her person, but his claim on the cities of Imola and Forlì would remain tenuous as long as the rightful lord was still alive. Once again Cesare had been outwitted; his pretensions to nobility, grace, and chivalry were now smothered by rage. Cesare had never been able to make Caterina fear him, and her taunts had shown the world that she didn't respect him. Borgia would regain his honor by taking hers.

For all the pain, misery, and humiliation that Cesare's rape inflicted on her, he could not get the better of Caterina. Although the next morning he boasted to his men, "She defended her fortresses better than her virtue," few laughed, while the rest of Italy mourned her plight. The duke of Milan received a letter about the fall of Forlì, informing him that "it's believed that he has treated her badly." In the halls of the Vatican, courtiers recounted that when he discovered that the children were safe, the pope's son vented his rage on Caterina, "taking her and subjecting her to cruel torments." Trivulzio, the governor of Milan, crudely stated that "certainly Madame won't lack for sex" during her detention, while Bernardi lamented "the injustices to the body of our poor, unfortunate countess."

Cesare even tried to create the illusion that the countess did not spurn his attentions. He dressed her in a black velvet gown with elegant trim to replace the tattered, bloody clothes she had been arrested in. Cesare himself always wore all black, one of the first in Italy to reject the older fashion of bright fabrics in favor of the dark tones that set off his pale skin and golden hair. Together, the two made a striking pair. He kept Caterina prisoner both day and night in his rooms in the Numai palace, never letting her out of his sight, sharing meals and allowing visitors to see her unshackled and ostensibly unharmed in the bedroom. Corporal violence on a noblewoman was frowned upon in both France and Italy, and by trading on Caterina's reputation as sexually voracious, Borgia tried to pass them off as honeymooners, rather than rapist and victim. A few fell for the dupe, claiming that Cesare seemed quite enamored; others who had caught a glimpse of the countess imprisoned in Cesare's room said that although she spoke very little and often looked as if she had been crying, she still held her head high. For all his attempts to undermine her virtue, Caterina remained more admired than Cesare. Another formidable woman, Isabella d'Este, marquise of Mantua, renowned for her intelligence and determination, admiringly remarked in reference to Caterina, "If the French criticize the cowardliness of our men, at least they should praise the daring and valor of the Italian women."16 Her words echoed the sentiments of men and women in the streets and piazzas, who coined the saying "When the French deal with Italian men they find women, but when they meet women they find men."

Even the Republic of Venice offered encomium. "Although this woman is an enemy of the Venetian state, she truly deserves infinite praise and immortal memory among the famous and worthy Roman captains."17 The French soldiers who had lost many men at her hands were able to demonstrate a respect for Caterina that Cesare could not. The troops who had fought at Forlì named their best falconet gun La Madame de Fourly in her honor, while Jehan de Auton, the French biographer of Louis XII, wrote this of the countess: "Under her feminine body she had a masculine courage; she had no fear of danger; no matter how close it approached, she never backed down."18

On January 21, nine days after the fall of Ravaldino, Cesare set off to begin the siege of Pesaro, the territory of Giovanni Sforza, Caterina's cousin and his former brother-in-law. Cesare took Caterina with him, relishing the thought that she would witness the fall of another family stronghold. They were traveling by night along the Via Emilia when the horses abruptly stopped. Yves D'Allegre was blocking the path with three hundred infantrymen. The Frenchman's honor was wounded at the idea of Caterina's being held as a prisoner of war when she was rightfully under the protection of King Louis XII. Perhaps fearing that Cesare would kill her en route, D'Allegre claimed custody of the countess with the intention of bringing her to France. The soldiers stood at the ready, their hands on their weapons. Cesare handed over his prisoner and raced off to Cesena. Captain D'Allegre bundled up his precious charge and sent her back to Forlì, to the house of the Paolucci family. As Caterina got into bed alone for the first time since her capture, she dreamed that she might soon be free.

But like the Greek warrior Achilles, Cesare did not take losing his prize lightly. The next morning he returned to Forlì to discuss Caterina's fate by the light of day. Bernard, the soldier who had seized Caterina, D'Allegre, and a few other French captains objected to Caterina's confinement in defiance of French law. Cesare countered by asserting his rights as the supreme commander of the victorious army. The Frenchmen readily responded that they were not fighting for Cesare but for King Louis. Furthermore, they added, without their aid Cesare never would have succeeded in taking the fortress. As voices were raised and soldiers called to arms, the people of Forlì gathered in the piazza to witness another great Sforza spectacle. The French soldiers were lined up with their lances on one side, with Cesare and his men facing them. And then money talked. Cesare offered Bernard and the French soldiers the full reward for Caterina. Ten thousand ducats was a small fortune and the French backed down at once. Only D'Allegre was unmoved by Cesare's largesse and tried to do his best for Caterina by declaring her a French subject, but he could do little against his compliant men. She would be returned to Cesare "in deposit," with the pope as guarantor of her safety. As Machiavelli bluntly put it, "She was sold to the Duke Valentino." The brief window of freedom slammed shut and Caterina was again at Cesare's mercy.

The following morning, Cesare and his soldiers packed up once again to depart. Borgia rounded up his men, and still reeking from the evening's excesses, attended Mass in the cathedral. Luffo Numai led the city elders to the main piazza, where they swore an oath of loyalty to Cesare and the pope. The city was subdued and Ravaldino was repaired, the mended breach in the fortress wall marked with the Borgia symbol, a bull.

Riding between Cesare and D'Allegre, with six hundred cavalry in her wake, Caterina began her long journey toward Rome, where she would be a "guest" of the pope. The people of Forlì lined the streets for one last glimpse of their countess. Her long years of rule ended, Caterina rode bloodied but unbowed. The tragic figure of the proud and beautiful countess inspired epic poems and popular songs, such as the nobleman Marsilio Compagnon's "Lament of Caterina Sforza."19 These mournful verses were sung in soldiers' camps throughout Italy long after the fall of Forlì.

Ah you frightened Italians,
I will stand with my armor.
I'd rather lose in battle
and die with honor.

Before I'd be sent to wander
with my children through the world
and sink shamefully into oblivion,
I'd sooner be tortured and killed.

Listen to this brokenhearted plea.
I am Caterina of Forlì.

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