I love Tiger. I am her doting grandfather. I freely admit I am besotted by the little mite, my daughter’s daughter. Her spirit, her brave-heartedness and her charm combine to ensure she is just simply adored by this old man. Of course Tiger is not her given name – and I have written before of the reasons our Tessa has been given that sobriquet – the appellation most now know her by. But this piece is not about her. It concerns another Tiger, one I delved back into the historical ether to discover more about. What I found was a remarkable woman – remarkable even when measured against the mores of any time, let alone the turbulent period she lived through. To meet her we need to travel back to when the Borgias were casting their spell over the Italian peninsula.
And, essentially, that’s where I first encountered this tigress, on the eponymous television series. It starred an actor I never tire of watching, Jeremy Irons. It ran for three series, but needed another to fully tell its tale. But a fourth instalment was not meant to be. In the telling we meet Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia – Irons’ role), his son Cesare (François Arnaud) and daughter, the notorious Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) – she comes off better in the show than she does in history. As well it features such notables of the time as Savonarola and Machiavelli. We also meet the amazing Caterina Sforza.
Born into wealthy Milanese nobility, but illegitimately so, in 1463, Caterina was nonetheless a welcome member of the Sforza family court through her childhood. She was educated, as was usual for the times, as per the boys of noble lineage. In other words, she had the classics, but was also taught the art of warfare and the skills required to govern. She also displayed her customary brave-heartedness from the get go. By her tenth year she was already wedded – although the marriage could not be consummated until she attained the age of consent, fourteen. Hubby number one – she had three – was reportedly the bastard son of Pope Sixtus IV. None of this celibacy nonsense in the Church of Rome back then that goes on today. Then they lustily got their rocks off with impunity and everybody was presumably happy – how much better off we’d be if that was the case in modern times. But I digress.
Marriage, of course, back then, was arranged amongst the upper classes for political or monetary gain. Soon after her vows became legal, Caterina did what was expected of her and she started producing offspring. The new mother and husband (Giralomo Riario) moved to the Eternal City and they soon found themselves at the centre of courtly proceedings and intrigue. Giralomo gave Caterina a stiff talking to and told her to keep her nose out of the men’s business, but she couldn’t help herself – still in her teens she became heartily embroiled.
All contemporary accounts remark on her allure as an extroverted and socially adventurous young woman. All were in thrall of her grace and beauty. Observe her portrait – was she not a Botticellian beauty? In fact, the artist used her likeness in a number of his works.
What first struck me, watching ‘The Borgias’, was the fact that this Renaissance femme fatale was played by an actress I am very partial to – Gina McKee – lately also seen on our small screens in ‘Secret State’. That started me wondering about the feisty, downright ballsy woman she portrayed. Was she historically accurate? From what I discovered, certainly the show’s writers played around with the facts somewhat, but history tells us she was every bit as courageous as the small screen saga would indicate. She could fight like a man, wore armour and would only take a backward step when she had absolutely no wriggle room. She was the amazing Amazon woman of her era.
Girolomo died prematurely, resulting in Caterina finding herself, through a combination of events too byzantine to go into here, in charge of the city state of Forli. It was small fry compared to powerful Venice, Milan, Florence and the Papal lands, but its location was strategic, so she became quite a central player in the charged world of Italian politics. The states squabbled, alliances were made and unmade, France invaded several times and Ms Sforza was up to her neck in it all. She personally took charge of the training of her army and it was during a spat with the Orsis family, who figured they had some claim to Forli, that her moment of infamy arose. Through another Machiavellian series of happenings, the Orsis lot had managed to take her children as hostage – the television series twists the story here somewhat. The youngsters were lined up in front of her battlements and were threatened with death if she did not surrender. When their supposed demise was imminent, Caterina hitched up her skirts, stood high afore all, pointed to her exposed genitalia and declared to the besieging forces –
‘Ho con me lo stampo per farne degli altri.’ – (‘I have the mold to make more.’)
Her enemy’s callous plot came immediately unstuck. She had successfully called their bluff and in the end she had the last laugh. Her kiddies duly survived, but Caterina’s vengeance on the Orsis clan was quite severe. She felt it was a strong enough message to put off any future threat to her dominion – but not so. In 1495 the thirty-two year old lost her beloved second husband (Giacoma Feo – a nasty piece of work by all accounts) in another attempt by her detractors to usurp her position. When it failed she pulled out all stops – slaughtering all whom she suspected – torturing them before execution – and that went for their wives and children as well. Torture them – exterminate them.
Life had given her a cruel streak and as a result she was never loved by the general populace – but she was totally respected.
By the end of the Fifteenth Century she had earnt the enmity of the Venetians, as well as the Borgias in their Papal palace. It was the ability of her self trained militia to defeat the former on the battlefield that she became known, throughout the length and breadth of the land, as ‘Il Tigre‘ – ‘The Tiger’ It couldn’t last though. Her little patch was invaded by Cesare Borgia and eventually she had to lower her ramparts to him – in more ways than one if the television take is to be believed. She was captured, but her bravery in standing up to her foes (by this time the French were also in the mix) was admired by all. As a result she didn’t suffer the ultimate price, but was allowed to retreat into a form of banishment with her children. She stayed under the radar for a while in Florence until, such was the labyrinthine nature of the times, the climate became suitable for a return to Forli. Unfortunately for our heroine the populace declared they would rise up in revolt if this occurred. They’d had more than enough of Il Tigre, so her plans were shelved. She saw out the remainder of her days quietly. In 1509 ‘The Tiger of Forli’ succumbed to pneumonia.
As for the representation of this Renaissance tale in ‘The Borgias’ itself? Well, it wasn’t a bad way to pass some time, for one is soon wrapped up in the Italianate intrigue presented. Season One lost me in places, but the remaining two were more accessible. Probably the damage had been done in the opening round and the story of the family, synonymous with putting power before anything else, didn’t have a final chapter. It would have been interesting to see how it all panned out, although it’s all revealed in Wikipedia. But through it I discovered a woman for the ages with a hell of a story – one who truly deserved the title worn by my own granddaughter – Tiger
Caterina in Art02= https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWgONBQrA8c