Biographies & Memoirs


THE CEREMONIAL PROCESSION arranged for Caterina's arrival displayed Rome's most glorious finery, but the tapestries and garlands along the streets had hidden dirty, unpaved alleys and the façades of rickety buildings. The incense burned in her honor had disguised the smell of rotting animal corpses and the other fetid odors of a city lacking a sewer system. As Caterina's new life there began, she soon discovered that the unclean roads were merely the most visible sign of decay in Rome. The papal court, the citizens, and even her own home were rife with corruption.

The Romans were a different breed from the diligent, serious Milanesi. Caterina found herself in a much more claustrophobic environment. Fifteenth-century Rome was also a far cry from the city that had been lauded in antiquity as the caput mundi, the "head of the world." The Florentine humanist Leonardo Bruni had once contemptuously referred to its latter-day denizens as Romans "of whom nothing remains but empty boasting."1 The sixty thousand inhabitants didn't produce costly silks or exquisitely worked armor, nor did they harvest huge surpluses of crops to sell to other regions. Like parasites, they lived off the traffic of pilgrims and the presence of the papal court. They were reputed to be envious and rumormongering, with a violent temper too. Courtiers whispered and intrigued. Cardinals and princes vied to put on the most luxurious parties and the most grandiose public pageants, while the populace, watching these extravagances from their ramshackle abodes, harbored resentment that could escalate into riots at any moment.

Caterina's first Roman home was a palace situated in the heart of the city, near the Campo dei Fiori, its main market. Since Pope Sixtus had recently moved the other major market from the Capitoline Hill to the Piazza Navona a few short blocks away, the young countess found herself in the busiest part of town. Artisans rubbed elbows with the highest prelates; exotic wares sat side by side with spelt flour and onions.

Every time she left her house, Caterina experienced firsthand the tensions and contradictions of Rome. As she and her retinue strolled through the markets, she witnessed some of the immense changes wrought by her visionary patron, the pope. The bustling Via Mercatoria, which stretched from the banking section of town by the river through the Campo dei Fiori market to the Piazza Venezia, flourished with commercial activity. The pope had widened the road and cleared it of overhanging balconies, transforming it into a well-lit, clean path where Roman shops could display their wares to advantage.

Sixtus's restoration of the road did not spring purely from aesthetic taste or a desire to help local merchants. He had acted in response to friendly advice from King Ferdinand of Naples, who had commented that Sixtus would "never be the Lord of Rome as long as women dropping stones from overhead can crush your best soldiers or make them turn tail and run."2 Falling rocks were not the only hazard related to these architectural protuberances. A passerby had to be alert to the possibility that almost anything might be tossed out of Roman windows—from dead cats to the contents of chamber pots.

Although Caterina was used to seeing her father armed and wearing a cuirass when he traveled, she would have been taken aback by the sight of several small armies marching about in the city streets, each in the pay of a noble family. Caterina and her husband were always escorted by armed guards who resembled thugs and were nothing like the elegant Swiss Guard of the modern papacy. Carrying swords and daggers, and quick to draw them, they shoved a path clear for the noble couple as they passed through town. All the important families in Rome employed them, mostly out of necessity. For example, the death of a pope, whether sudden or expected, would unleash anarchy: mobs attacked the houses of the wealthy, and crime infested the streets. Hence, during this period, referred to as sede vacante—"the vacant throne"—private armies were essential protection for home and property. Order would be restored with the election of a new pontiff, after a few final throes of violence. As soon as the name of the new successor to Saint Peter was announced from the Vatican loggia, Romans would rush to the man's family palace and loot it. Once crowned, the new pope would make a foray into the city, taking the processional route from the Basilica of Saint Peter to the Basilica of Saint John Lateran and back again. To the rest of the world this symbolized the pope's possession of his cathedral and his regal rule of Rome, but for the inhabitants of the Eternal City it was a ritual gauntlet to be braved by the newly elected pontiff. He rode on the Via Papalis, which twisted and turned through the heart of the city, passing by anti-papal strongholds and the homes of families that had ruled Rome for centuries despite the presence of the papacy. The road skirted the foot of the Capitoline Hill, the great Roman stronghold of the republican age, where certain of Rome's citizens expressed their hostility to papal rule. During Sixtus IV's possession ceremony, stones were thrown at his carriage as he traveled past its slopes.3

Caterina certainly recognized that the presence of so many private armies meant that her new family did not control its city as firmly as her father had ruled Milan. Yet rather than stay locked indoors, she spent most of her time outside her home, getting to know the members of her new family: the Riarios, the Basso della Roveres, and particularly her husband's cousin, Giuliano della Rovere, the striking cardinal of the Church of Saint Peter in Vincoli.

An endless round of parties began in the afternoon and lasted well into the night. These four-course feasts often boasted forty different dishes. Like a theatrical production, each course was heralded by a master of ceremonies, who changed his clothes and jewels to match the theme of the course. These Renaissance galas entertained the noblest families, greatest thinkers, richest bankers, and loveliest women. Caterina, the crown princess of this luxurious realm, played her part to the full. Roman diarists waxed eloquent about her fair tresses, rare in raven-haired Rome, and gushed over her dresses, which, unlike the high-necked Roman style, displayed daring décolletage. Her intelligence, manners, and sense of fashion were so widely admired that a later chronicler, Fabio Oliva, wrote that "in popular opinion she was the most beautiful and gracious woman of her time." Like many young girls, Caterina delighted in exquisite dresses and sumptuous parties. Much of her day was absorbed by her toilette; out late, she rose late and began the slow process of dressing. Using powders and cosmetic paints, Caterina transformed her teenage features. During her first forays into public life, Caterina found that her stepmother, having once been her mentor in social graces, now acted as her greatest source of fashionable accessories. Bona frequently sent gifts of ribbons, jeweled belts, and beaded hairnets, allowing Caterina to flaunt the latest northern styles. More than these items, however, Caterina appreciated the affection that permeated Bona's letters. In a note dated November 9, 1477, Bona tells Caterina that "hearing you are well fills us with joy as it is with every mother toward a beloved daughter as you are to me,"4 while in another she describes the only consolation "of being deprived of your sweet conversation ... is the thought of your happy circumstances."5

In her return letters to her stepmother, Caterina revealed that her delight in riding and hunting had not diminished. When Bona sent Caterina and Girolamo a fine pair of hunting dogs in January 1478, Caterina was particularly effusive in her thanks. Departing from the stiff formal epistolary tone that characterized her obligatory courtly letters home, Caterina wrote that the dogs were "very dear to me and even more so to my husband ... he was delighted to see them and played with the dogs for hours." Still enamored of the chase, Caterina's happiest moments occurred during equestrian adventures outside the city limits. A few blocks away from her house, Sixtus had built a new bridge, the first since antiquity to span the Tiber. The Ponte Sisto, as it was called, cut traveling time to the Vatican for prelates and pilgrims alike, but for Caterina it was the route to the lush gardens and forests of the Janiculum Hill, where she could breathe freely, away from the stuffy halls and crowded streets of the city. On these days she could leave behind the pounds of silk and brocade and the weighty jewels that even for a fashion maven could sometimes be burdensome. In a light woolen gown, with her hair loosely tied, she would set off on horseback with her dogs to race up and down the hills of Rome. Exploring the thick forests of Lazio was a refreshing change from picking her way through the labyrinth of alleys in the city center, and the fierce boar was a more straightforward foe than the scheming flatterers at court.

Caterina's correspondence home, however, was not all shopping lists and personal news. As soon as she settled into her new home, the young countess went to work. Stacks of letters requesting promotions for courtiers, merciful treatment for an arrested retainer, or parishes for clerics kept her busy for hours every day. The sister of a duke and now the niece of a pope, Caterina was a powerful intercessor, and both her old family and her new one called upon her to exercise this role. In her first two years in Rome, Caterina wrote dozens of personal and official dispatches, and although her tone remained invariably cheery, her life was not without cares and concerns.

The pontiff was eagerly awaiting news of a Riario heir. Given that Caterina would eventually bear her husband six children, the twenty-six-month wait for their first child suggests that Girolamo was more occupied with his plots and schemes than with his lovely and charming bride. Only a few short months after Caterina's arrival in Rome, Girolamo began to consort with two men who shared an implacable hatred of the Medici family of Florence. Thus began the plot that would notoriously go down in history as the Pazzi conspiracy.

Relations between Florence and the papacy had begun auspiciously, but by the time Caterina arrived in Rome, Lorenzo de' Medici, leader of the Medici clan, had earned the displeasure of the pope and his family. Following the election of Sixtus IV, the Medicis had held the lucrative position of papal bankers, and Lorenzo was angling for a cardinal's hat for his brother Giuliano, still a teenager. The relationship soured at the time of Girolamo's betrothal to Caterina, when the sale of Imola, the principal part of the Sforza bargain, almost fell through as a result of Lorenzo de' Medici's refusal to underwrite a loan for the pope. The infuriated pontiff turned to the other great banking family, the Pazzis, who promptly produced three quarters of the price. Both the pope and Girolamo realized that Lorenzo would be an obstacle to Girolamo's plan to form a state in Romagna, a region bordering on Tuscany. To thwart this expansion, Lorenzo further stoked the papal ire by providing armies to towns resisting Girolamo's mercenaries in that region.

From Caterina's first days in the Riario household, Francesco de' Pazzi had been a familiar face in the master's apartments. The head of the Roman branch of the Pazzi bank, "Franceschino," as he was called, and his aristocratic family held a long-standing grudge against the Medicis. Envious of this upstart family, with no ancient nobility lending importance to their name, the Pazzis competed with the Medicis at every turn. By 1478, the Pazzis had convinced themselves, not without grounds, that Lorenzo was using his authority to block their endeavors. Franceschino was certain that if only the Medici brothers could be eliminated, Florence would turn to the Pazzi family for leadership. To that end, he had allied himself with an even more arriviste family, the Riarios, probably assuming that his new ally's power would disappear as soon as Girolamo's papal patron was deceased; therefore Riario would not be a serious menace for long.

The third and most unsavory member of this conspiratorial trio was Archbishop Francesco Salviati. He also loathed the Medicis, and Salviati offered himself as a willing participant in any scheme that would undermine their rule. Pope Sixtus had appointed Salviati as archbishop of Pisa, home to a flourishing new university, despite numerous protests from the Florentines. At Pisa, the corrupt prelate would be able to foster anti-Medici support among impressionable students. The crafty Florentines, however, accepted the inevitable appointment but then invented enough obstacles to prevent the new archbishop from taking possession of his diocese for three years. Salviati spent that time in Rome, nursing his resentment, indulging his vices, and poisoning the papal court against the Medicis. Through his efforts, Giuliano's hopes for becoming a cardinal were definitively shelved.

By early 1478, the plot was organized. The Pazzis would see to the assassination of the Medici brothers, and Girolamo would muster an army in Imola to put down any insurrection against the rule of the Pazzis. The plan now needed one final approval: that of the Pazzi family members in Florence. The go-ahead was slow in coming, for Jacopo de' Pazzi, head of the clan, was decidedly against the scheme. His son Guglielmo had married Lorenzo's sister Bianca and he thus had hopes of defeating the Medici family from within.

The conspirators faced yet another stumbling block: their quarry. It was one thing to talk of killing Lorenzo and his brother, another to do so. Although Lorenzo was given to intellectual rather than physically robust pastimes, everyone in Florence remembered that he had single-handedly fought off an ambush and that his swift reflexes rendered him deadly with a sword. It would take a true professional to do away with him.

The very man was already in Girolamo's retinue. Giovanni Battista da Montesecco, whom Pope Sixtus had assigned to protect the count, was invaluable for both his fighting skills and his good judgment. But when the trio approached Montesecco with their plot, the honorable soldier demurred, unwilling to believe that the pope would sanction such a drastic solution to his political woes. To persuade Montesecco, Girolamo escorted him to the papal chambers. Though it was conducted behind locked doors and closed windows, the ensuing conversation has nonetheless reached modern ears through an account left by Montesecco himself.

While Sixtus IV confirmed that he "much desired a change in the government of Florence," deploring Lorenzo as a "villain who had treated us badly," the pope also adamantly stated that he did not want anyone killed. A realist, Montesecco pointed out that to overthrow the Medici government without bloodshed would be very difficult, if not impossible. Girolamo, never one for subtlety, interjected that they weren't deliberately planning to murder anyone, but should the unthinkable happen, he was certain that "His Holiness would pardon whatever [Montesecco] did." This crude response drove the pope into a rage. Bellowing at Girolamo, Sixtus called his nephew "a beast" and forcefully reiterated his point: "I do not want the death of anyone, just a change in government."6

When Girolamo spoke to Montesecco alone a few minutes later, he interpreted the pope's equivocating statements as a tacit acceptance of the plan, and Montesecco reluctantly joined the conspiracy.

Caterina had barely arrived in Rome and was still getting to know the man she had married. While she was undoubtedly aware of furtive conversations between her husband and Franceschino, the last thing she would have imagined was that they were scheming to assassinate the man who had made such a great impression on her when she was a seven-year-old guest at the Medici court. Nonetheless, the worried scowls of her husband's bodyguard and the discomfiting unctuous manner of Archbishop Salviati cast a shadow over her first months as a bride.

The papal "consent" at last convinced Jacopo de' Pazzi, and by March the plan was fully formulated. The only problem left was how to ambush the two brothers together and unprotected. The conspirators' eyes fell upon sixteen-year-old Cardinal Raffaello Riario, Girolamo's nephew, who was to attend the University of Pisa under the tutelage of Salviati. The adolescent had been elevated to the highest rank in the papal court in December just as the plot was taking shape. If the Pazzis were to invite Raffaello to Florence, the Medicis would not fail to entertain such a distinguished visitor.

As planned, the young cardinal arrived in Florence, and everything looked promising for the fulfillment of the plot. Then, unexpectedly, Giuliano de' Medici suffered an attack of sciatica and was bedridden, so the plan had to be postponed.

Cardinal Riario wittingly or unwittingly provided the occasion for the next attempt. The young prelate was fascinated by Roman antiquities and knew that a famous collection of cameos and coins from the imperial age, formerly belonging to Pope Paul II Barbo, had been sold to Lorenzo the Magnificent upon that pope's death in 1471. Lorenzo proudly informed the eager young man that his city palace in Florence contained not only the celebrated collection but also recently excavated ancient statues, including a particularly fine marble Venus whose "smile was enchanting." Enthralled, Raffaello pleaded with Lorenzo to allow him to see it, and they finally agreed that the young cardinal would come to Florence on April 26, 1478, and visit the Medici treasures before they all attended Mass together. It was settled. The murder would take place in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, renowned as the largest church in the world and crowned by the glory of Florence, the gigantic dome designed by Brunelleschi. This imposing structure, visible for miles, was the very symbol of Florence.

When Montesecco received word of the date and venue for the assassination, he stubbornly refused to participate in a murder taking place inside a church. The desperate conspirators reassigned Montesecco to the city gates, where he would guarantee the entry of Girolamo's army, and they recruited two priests, angry with the Medicis, as assassins in his stead. The plotters hoped that what these men lacked in skill and experience would be made up in greed and vindictiveness.

That Sunday morning, the dignitaries made their way the few blocks from the Medici palace to the Duomo. Although Giuliano was still feeling unwell and felt inclined to remain at home, Franceschino and his cousin took him by either arm and, feigning good-humored laughter, practically dragged him to the cathedral. As Salviati and Jacopo de' Pazzi waited for the word to seize the town hall, Girolamo was marching his army from Imola to Florence. Everyone was in place. As if a murder in a house of worship wasn't blasphemous enough, the signal for the assassins was the elevation of the host, the most solemn moment of the Mass. As the heads of the assembly bowed in reverence, Franceschino delivered a fatal blow to the top of Giuliano's head and continued to stab him, even after he fell to the ground. Nineteen blows mutilated the body of the handsome and charming Medici scion. The two priests assigned to murder Lorenzo were not so efficient. Antonio Maffei managed only a glancing blow to the neck as Lorenzo leapt through the choir and across the high altar to safety.

The grossest miscalculation on the part of the conspirators was to underestimate the Florentines' acceptance of Medici rule. As with the death of Caterina's father, Galeazzo Maria, no citizens rallied to the cries of "People and Liberty!" Instead, they instigated a widespread manhunt to track down anyone involved with the conspiracy. The archbishop and the killers were apprehended and executed almost immediately. The Florentines hung the corpses above public squares, as examples of the fate of traitors. Sandro Botticelli, then just starting his career, painted the dangling bodies as a grisly reminder for posterity. Montesecco and Jacopo de' Pazzi attempted to flee but were captured a few miles outside Florence. Montesecco was tortured and confessed—his words on the eve of his execution give the most complete account of the conspiracy from the inside and thoroughly implicated Girolamo and, by association, the pope.

Cardinal Raffaello Riario was seized moments after the assassination. The Medicis behaved as if the boy cardinal had been an unknowing pawn, yet they kept him as a "guest," or hostage, to forestall any reprisals in Rome against Florentine citizens in the wake of the execution of the archbishop of Pisa. Cardinal Raffaello was detained almost six weeks and witnessed the bloody vengeance of the Florentines. According to contemporary accounts, when the cardinal finally returned to Rome, he appeared ashen and exhausted.

Innocent or not, Raffaello was well compensated for his troubles. Three days after the cardinal's release from Florence, Caterina wrote a letter to Bona of Savoy at the instigation of the pope and Count Girolamo. In her missive, she requested that the generous income from the Abbey of Chiaravalle near Milan be turned over to Cardinal Riario.

Some historians have envisioned fifteen-year-old Caterina at her husband's side, encouraging him in his role in the scandalous conspiracy, but it seems highly unlikely that the teenage girl was privy to the machinations of her husband and his co-conspirators. Moreover, Caterina always held Lorenzo in high esteem, and when he died in 1492, she grieved the loss of such a great man, whose memory she cherished. Over the course of Caterina's life, her ties to Florence would grow much stronger than her connection to Milan and Rome.

Girolamo's clumsy and impious plot had publicly humiliated her and their family. After Montesecco's confession, Girolamo's role in the most disgraceful event of his time became public knowledge. The pope was infuriated, and the people of Rome viewed Count Riario with a mixture of repulsion and ridicule. At sixteen Caterina found herself bound to an inept murderer and the butt of Roman humor. She never complained, not even to her beloved Bona, but something had changed for Caterina. This would be the last time she passively stood by to watch events that so deeply affected her life.

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