A Woman's Look at the Renaissance

Rome Notes Writer Tells of Her Newly Released Book

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ROME, OCT. 20, 2011 (Zenit.org).- ZENIT readers are accustomed to finding here at Rome Notes the musings of our talented art historian Elizabeth Lev. This week is no exception, but today, instead of Lev’s outlook on the goings-on in Rome, we will hear about her first book, just out this week.

«The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici» (Harcourt) tells the story of a woman Lev calls a remarkable female icon of the Renaissance.

Sforza has many lessons for the modern reader, not least of which is finding «the conduit to the triumphant Church in Heaven in the very human Church on earth.» And this, despite the fact that «there came a moment in her life when she did very wicked things.»

ZENIT: As an art history professor, one would have expected a book on Roman art or culture. What inspired you to write the biography of Caterina Sforza?

Lev: I first heard of Caterina while I was doing my graduate studies in Bologna and living in a little town called Imola where she had once ruled. The tales of the local heroine were fascinating, but when I moved to Rome and discovered she had been part of Pope Sixtus IV’s court, knew Rome before and after the great urban transformation wrought by this Pope and was even depicted in the Sistine Chapel, she became like a guide for me to one of the most fascinating periods of Italy’s art and history, the Renaissance. I wanted other people to be able to appreciate Caterina the way I did.

ZENIT: How much research was involved: Are there many first-hand accounts? Did she have letters? A diary? How did you reconstruct the life of a woman who lived 500 years ago?

Lev: Fortunately, Caterina had two things going for her: she was a head of a state and a lightning rod for notoriety. The former assured that many of her letters would be preserved. As daughter of the duke of Milan, and wife to the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, her letters were kept as diplomatic correspondence, while as countess of Forlì and Imola, her letters were kept as state documents. Then, as the grandmother of the first grand duke of Tuscany, they were kept as testimony to the origin of the sovereign house of Medici. 

Second, the attention she attracted through her beauty and her exploits got her written up in Roman scandal sheets, earned her two ersatz biographers, made her the subject of love poetry and turned her into a bee in Machiavelli’s literary bonnet — he mentions her in three of his books!

But beyond reading about her life and her letters, new research allowed me to really delve into her times, the domestic setting in the Renaissance, diet, health, the urban replanning of Milan and Rome while Caterina was in each city. This was an enriching and interesting new aspect I could use to update the other, older accounts of her life.

ZENIT:What was the greatest challenge in writing this book?

Lev: Besides reading the Latin documents in the Vatican Archive and the archaic handwritten Italian letters?! The biggest stumbling block in writing this story was Caterina herself. There came a moment in her life when she did very wicked things. It was easy to see why people thinking about writing about Caterina would step back from her at that point. She gave into anger, despair and vengefulness and committed actions that could not be taken back. I too, was more than a little shocked. But then again, we all make mistakes and we all sin. Granted, most of us not as publicly and horrifically as Caterina, but how do we keep going, once we have truly messed up our slate with God and society? Caterina also became an interesting example under this light, as she battles her way through despair and takes her first steps toward spiritual renewal — under the guidance of the maverick Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola no less!

ZENIT: Did you get a sense of a strong spirituality in Caterina?

Lev: Caterina was a formidable, passionate, decisive woman, who was willing to take up a sword in battle, face down Cesare Borgia or order an execution without flinching. But at the same time, laced between the action and adventure, Caterina had a strong spiritual side. From her youth, she was often in churches praying when she could not act, and when she acted wrongly, she saw her hardships as a form of expiation. So as modern women go for spa weekends to look better on the outside, Caterina went sporadically to live with religious sisters in Florence to renew her soul.

ZENIT: How does Caterina’s piety square with the fact that her most important years fall during the pontificate of Alexander VI Borgia, one of the most notoriously sinful popes?

Lev: The fascinating thing about Caterina is that she saw the Church of the Renaissance closer than any of us will ever see our contemporary Church. She lived in a papal court rife with nepotism; she was imprisoned by the Borgia Pope and abused by his son; she knew where every skeleton was buried, and yet she never lost sight of the mission and the true meaning of the Church. She had known many dissolute priests and yet, many good, faithful and loyal ones as well She knew a corrupt pope and also a zealous reformer, both of whom affected her life greatly. She didn’t see the Church with weary cynicism or puritanical indignation despite having seen the worst of it. Rather, she looked and found the conduit to the triumphant Church in Heaven in the very human Church on earth.

ZENIT: What do hope your readers will learn from this book?

Lev: Of course I am eager to have the story of this extraordinary woman told and another part of the Renaissance world presented through its remarkable female icons — there was more going on than just Michelangelo, Machiavelli and the Medici men! At the same time, I tried very much to show how the faith of a person leavens and rounds out his or her character. The stereotypical view of the Renaissance as a completely secularized society going through spiritual motions is a shallow and incorrect view of the age. I hoped to show that this intellectual and creative era was fueled by its strong sense of constructing the Kingdom of God and that recounting this is not a deterrent to good narrative. My editors at Harcourt were extraordinarily open to this. They never touched my presentation of Caterina’s faith or even my semi-apologetic for Sixtus IV. The most I ever got was a raised eyebrow at the «pretty rosy picture» I gave of Savonarola, and when I explained my reasons, that too remained. I am very grateful to have worked with such a great team that really allowed me to express my interest in the marriage of Church and culture in the Renaissance.

ZENIT: Book is out and published. Now what?

Lev: I am already at work on another book, a spiritual, visual and artistic guide to the Station Churches of Rome coauthored with George Weigel, with original photos by his son Stephen Weigel. I also have another important writing project I hope to get to soon, but in the meantime I have my classes and of course, writing for ZENIT. It was here among the ZENIT readers that I first started writing and the encouragement of their many letters convinced me that I could indeed write a book. My debt to the ZENIT editors for their support and the invaluable lessons they taught me in turning massive amounts of material into a short, readable and even fun form, was critical to writing about the convoluted age of Caterina. My debt of gratitude to ZENIT and its readers is immeasurable!

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On the Net:

The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici: www.amazon.com/Tigress-Forli-Renaissance-Courageous-Noto

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