- Caterina Sforza and the Art of Appearances: Gender, Art and Culture in Early Modern Italy
The dramatic and controversial life of Caterina Sforza (c. 1463–1509) was first comprehensively analysed by Pier Pasolini in a three-volume study of 1893. Joyce de Vries draws on the hundreds of archival sources, mainly letters, which Pasolini published in one of these volumes, for her own well-written and engaging account of Caterina’s tumultuous biography. The illegitimate daughter of the duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Caterina married Girolamo Riario, favourite nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, in 1477 and became regent of Imola and Forlì when her husband was assassinated in 1488. As a female ruler, who famously dared to defy the threats of Cesare Borgia during his siege of Imola in December 1499, she attracted both praise and blame from her contemporaries. Niccolò Machiavelli featured her in the Discourses as an exemplum of fortitude and virtù who defied the conventional limitations of her sex, while Iacopo Foresti represented her much more ambiguously in his late fifteenth-century anthology of famous women, praising her learning and magnificence but also comparing her to the Assyrian queen Semiramis, whose voracious sexuality made her a doubtful heroine. Caterina’s reputation was also tarnished by her failure to adhere to a chaste widowhood. Indeed, she had children by two lovers and through her relationship with Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici was the grandmother of Cosimo I de’ Medici, grand duke of Florence in the mid-sixteenth century.
De Vries’s main focus in this monograph is not the political and diplomatic exploits of her subject but rather Caterina’s cultural patronage. De Vries demonstrates the ways in which an intelligent and resourceful woman maintained a princely lifestyle and projected herself as a learned [End Page 260] and magnificent patron of the arts, despite limited funds, through a careful attention to pageantry and courtly display, and by encouraging community support for her architectural and other civic projects. Caterina also invested thriftily in artefacts such as medals and coins which reinforced her public image and subtly reflected her changing political identities. The self-conscious and canny manipulation of her image allowed her to project a powerful but still conventional persona that smoothly accommodated her changing roles as a wife, mother, widow, and regent over the course of her life.
Much of the evidence regarding Caterina’s patronage has vanished. Architectural commissions have been irreparably altered since her time, or destroyed. Her always tight budget, and an awareness of the fragility of power, prompted her to invest in commodities such as fine jewellery, silver plate, tapestries, books, and luxurious clothing, which could be liquidated easily in an economic or political emergency, rather than to collect paintings and sculpture by the best masters. Few of these objects have survived the passage of time. De Vries carefully retraces their existence through the documents that mention them, above all the many letters that Caterina wrote and received.
This is an interesting and persuasive book that throws light on the central importance of luxury goods in the construction of nobility and the pursuit of status in early modern Europe. De Vries’s very welcome analysis of Caterina Sforza’s cultural self-fashioning whets our appetite for a new assessment of her unusually autonomous political role in a very troubled period of Italian history.