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Prologue: Christmas Cannons
As the Great Jubilee Year of 1500 approached, a mood of unusual festivity prevailed in Europe. At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, amid great pomp and solemnity, Pope Alexander VI Borgia had thrown open the Holy Door he had specially installed in Saint Peter’s Basilica to mark the occasion. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Danube River, kings, clergy, and peasants were all celebrating the birth of Christ the Savior. Bells rang out in each town and feasts were laid on every table. In the ancient jubilee tradition of forgiveness of debts, thousands of pilgrims commenced the trek to Rome seeking a plenary indulgence, a chance to wipe clean the slate of the soul and begin again.
But on Christmas morning, 1499, the tiny Italian village of Forlì awoke not to the merry peal of church bells, but to pounding artillery and cursing soldiers. A force of fifteen thousand, composed of Italian, Swiss, and French soldiers, had gathered at the base of the fortress of Ravaldino, overlooking the town of Forlì, and were hammering away at its defensive walls. The bulk of the troops were on loan from the king of France, Louis XII. Commanding those seasoned troops was Cesare Borgia, the most feared warrior in Italy. Cesare’s personal bravery and cruelty were as widely known as his powerful connections—he was duke of Valentinois in southern France and the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI. Even as the pope was offering salvation to everyone in Christendom, his second-born son was bent on eradicating the ruler of Forlì. If any of his soldiers found this situation ironic or morally troubling, they doubtless kept their perplexity to themselves, for the Borgia commander was known to treat disloyal friends as ruthlessly as he did his enemies.
The soldiers knew that their mission had been approved by the pope himself, who had deposed all the rulers in the northern Italian region of Romagna by decreeing them guilty of tyranny as well as derelict in paying their tributes to Rome. The delinquent states were given to Cesare, who lost no time in collecting his new possessions. Many of the towns had capitulated without a fight, some even hailing Cesare as their liberator. But there had been resistance in Imola, about twelve miles from Forlì, where the fortress keeper, Dionigio Naldi, had held out for almost a month, claiming the town for its rightful lord, Ottaviano Riario. Few stood by him and he was defeated on December 11. After eight days of celebrating that victory, Cesare’s army arrived at Forlì. In this tiny town, hardly more than a village, they expected a few perfunctory hours of negotiations before they ousted the present ruler and took control.
At first, all seemed to go according to plan for Cesare. The inhabitants opened the gates, welcoming the troops into the city. Several noblemen even offered hospitality to the captains of the various regiments. Above the town, however, loomed the seemingly impenetrable fortress of Ravaldino, reminding the army that Forlì would never be theirs while the defenders occupied the fort. No easy capitulation was forthcoming from behind those high stone walls. A week after their confident entry, the huge force representing the combined power of the papacy and the king of France was still arrayed at the foot of the fortress, held at bay by a paltry band of nine hundred.
Day and night, the ruler of Forlì patrolled the fortress ramparts, eyes alert for weak spots or changes in the invading enemy’s formation. The defending soldiers leapt at every order, unquestioningly loyal to a commander every bit as determined as Cesare. No wonder he was offering an extravagant reward to whoever could capture or kill the indefatigable general, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici, the countess of Forlì. Five thousand ducats was a tempting sum. To many, no doubt, it was an amount worth murdering for. Yet no soldiers at Forlì had taken the bait, driven as they were not only by loyalty to their commander but by an ingrained sense of chivalry.
In the preceding days, the attacking soldiers had caught occasional glimpses of Caterina on the ramparts of her fortress. At five feet, four inches, she was noticeably shorter than the men fighting by her side, though she stood at a respectable height for Italian women of her day. Her figure, beneath a steel cuirass engraved with the image of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, was remarkably slim, despite the fact that she had borne six children. When her long, light brown hair occasionally escaped its restraints and flowed around her face and neck, she looked even younger than her thirty-eight years. As she walked with sure, determined steps around her fortress, her enemies strained to see the woman who had challenged the College of Cardinals, single-handedly put down a revolt after the murder of her husband, seduced and married the handsomest member of the Medici clan, and was now locking horns with the formidable Cesare Borgia.
The bleakness of Caterina’s Christmas morning was relieved only by the knowledge that her children were safely ensconced with their Medici relatives in Florence. She knew that while she defended their birthright, their day would begin with worship in that city’s beautiful churches; perhaps their anxious spirits would be lifted for a while by the glorious music of the choirs. Later they would feast in grand halls by blazing fires, while their mother shared a frugal meal in the guardhouse with the cadre of faithful followers who remained in Ravaldino.
There, Christmas morning had begun with the traditional Mass at dawn. After leaving the chill of the stone fortress chapel, the countess set about ensuring double rations for her men, listening to their personal stories, writing letters of commendation for bravery, and otherwise alleviating the dismal mood. For a time, silence in the enemy camp suggested that those soldiers too might be observing this holiest of days, but soon a barrage of cannon fire shattered the calm.
Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI, had made great plans for the Jubilee Year. The construction of new buildings and the offering of special prayers were intended to draw the whole Christian world to Rome to make a fresh start. Caterina had been planning to go to Rome as well, for she too had reasons to seek forgiveness. For five years she had waited, with much on her conscience, knowing that the jubilee offered a singular opportunity to erase terrible spiritual scars. Now the pope’s own son had become the greatest obstacle in Caterina’s path. She could give up her lands and her children’s inheritance, allow Cesare to become the prince of Romagna, and move in with her Medici relatives. That would secure her life and her freedom. Or she could defend town and title, risking death or imprisonment. Although many other rulers of Romagna had ceded their towns and taken the paltry papal compensation for their noble titles and their lands, Caterina had no intention of stepping aside quietly so that Cesare’s father could award him her state as a twenty-fifth-birthday gift. He would have to win it from her the same way her family had won their lands—with blood and steel.
Now the usurping army was quartered in her town, looting her palace and the homes of her followers. The townspeople who had given up the town to the invaders, preferring to place their fate at the mercy of the Borgias rather than join the seemingly hopeless cause of the Riarios, had received little clemency. The soldiers sacked their homes and raided the convents, looking for young women of Forlì to provide them with “entertainment.” On Christmas Day, the occupiers were drinking wine stolen from the cellars of the Forlivesi and wearing the warm wool clothing belonging to their “hosts,” while even the elderly and sick were left to shiver in the winter cold. Caterina, who knew from experience that the weakest were always the first victims of war, had begged her people to stand with her. Now she stood helplessly above the town, watching its devastation.
Caterina’s mind revolted at the thought of Cesare and his entourage devouring her people’s food and celebrating the capture of her lands. No stranger to the daring bluff, she formed a plan. Perhaps she could not rid Forlì of Cesare for Christmas, but she could render his holiday as unpleasant as hers. She ordered her men to find the flag of the powerful Republic of Venice and to raise the Venetian lion high above the ramparts of Ravaldino. Venice was the wild card in the politics of Renaissance Italy. A fierce defender of its lands, with an extensive fleet and skilled sailors at its disposal, the Most Serene Republic had many known political bedfellows. What worried every state on the peninsula was the unknown number of its secret allies. Had Caterina put her state under the protection of Venice? Was the Venetian army already marching toward Forlì?
Caterina didn’t have to wait long to see her plan bear fruit: the mere sight of the golden lion of Venice galvanized the enemy. From the ramparts Caterina could see the soldiers on watch running to the palace where Cesare and his cousin were lodged. Cesare, upon seeing the scarlet and gold standard, called an emergency council to evaluate the possibility of a hitherto unknown alliance between Venice and Forlì, which could extend the Venetian sphere of influence farther inland from the Adriatic and closer to the border of the Florentine Republic. Cesare knew that Caterina had previously sought assistance from Florence and been refused. Had she avenged the rebuff by offering Venice a gateway into Tuscan lands?
Riders left the city at a gallop to seek confirmation of the disturbing news, while scouts were placed on vigil to look for approaching troops. Festivities were interrupted as soldiers reorganized the camp for a potential attack from outside Forlì. There was no more time to raid homes and abduct women as the men nervously prepared for battle.
Caterina knew it would take just a few short hours to verify that no Venetian army was en route to Forlì, but she returned to her room in the keep, content in the knowledge that she had secured a little Christmas peace for the people of Forlì. Once again she had acted with ingenuity and boldness, qualities that made her an object of fascination throughout Italy. Admirers saw her as an inspired warrior along the lines of Joan of Arc, whereas malicious tongues compared her to the lascivious manipulator Cleopatra; all the people, whatever their opinion of her, wondered where such an extraordinary woman had come from. The outrageous gambles, astute strategies, and iron determination of Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici had drawn Europe’s attention to the siege of Forlì.