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The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici Hardcover – October 18, 2011

4.5 out of 5 stars 133 customer reviews

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Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Elizabeth Lev

Q: Where did you find out about Caterina Sforza?

A: I ran across Caterina’s story while I was living in Imola, working on my graduate degree. Streets and shops were named for her and clearly she was a big deal in this small town. But when I ran into her portrait in the Uffizi gallery in Florence as grandmother of the first Medici duke and then in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling, I began to realize she was a much more than just a local idol. Then, while reading a book on the history of the Medici family I read a little sketch of her life and I was hooked.

Q:What were the challenges involved in writing this book?

A:After 20 years in Italy, I thought my Italian was pretty good, but reading documents in various Italian dialects was definitely challenging. During the four years of research and writing, I got used to the way Renaissance Romans spelled, and learned idiomatic phrases from 15th-century Romagna. It was fun—like standing in a town square 500 years ago listening to all the gossip, stories, and news, and even the occasional weather report!

Q:How do you see Caterina as relating to contemporary women?

A: Caterina amazes me, because she resembles a 21st-century go-getter, multitasking woman, in a world where that was not considered an admirable quality. She ran a business, raised eight children, ruled two towns, fought off assassins, had steamy love affairs, and even had her own cosmetics line! All this in 46 years of life! In our age we love to see people who are passionate about what they do, in her age restraint was the highest virtue. Her ability to think several steps ahead and strategize would have put her at the helm of a Fortune 500 company today, but in her world it was disconcerting to encounter a woman "who thought like a man."

Q: What did you find most interesting about her?

A: When I started researching, I was surprised that there wasn’t more out there on her. I wondered why there weren’t stacks of biographies as there are for other celebrated women. When I got midway through her life, I encountered the problem of her colossal mistakes. Caterina did some very controversial things. Some were clever plays and I think, at the end of the day, wisely done. Others, however, were embarrassing and even cruel. I became fascinated with someone who had so publically and terribly fallen from grace through her own actions and how she recovered from it. One of the most interesting things to me about her was that she would never give up, even when the enemy she had to conquer was herself.

Photos from the Book
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Romantic depiction of Caterina Sforza being taken prisoner after the assassination of her husband, Girolamo Riario, ruler of Imola and Forli. (Dario Gobbi,1914)

Detail from The Purification of the Leper. This fresco was parinted to face the papal throne in the Sistine Chapel. Caterina is pregnant and carrying firewood, while her son Cesare fends off a viper at her feet. (Sandro Botticelli, 1481)

Portrait of Caterina Sforza de’ Medici. Vasari portrays Caterina in a widow’s veil after the death of her third husband, Giovanni de’ Medici. (Giorgio Vasari, 1555)


"A rich account of a dramatic and tragic life: a tale of murder, childhood marriage, revenge, rape, accession to power by a Florentine woman, and a violent downfall. Lev offers a rich, nuanced portrait of a highly controversial beauty and military leader and her violent albeit glittering Italian Renaissance milieu." — Publishers Weekly

"An engrossing biography of one of Renaissance Italy’s most accomplished powerbrokers. The author writes with a light touch and an eye for the pageantry and drama of the time—her subject was known as one of the best-dressed women in Italy—while colorfully recounting weighty affairs of state. An inspiring tale of the courage and fortitude of an enigmatic and indomitable woman."—Kirkus

"Lev continues the recent biographical trend of unearthing extraordinary women from the historical dustpile. The Renaissance is hot right now, and this well-researched biography is a welcome addition to the reexamination of the era." —Booklist

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (October 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151012997
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151012992
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (133 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #621,550 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Laura Probst VINE VOICE on September 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
How is it possible that most of the world has forgotten such a dynamic, complex, amazing woman? A woman who, at seventh months pregnant, took control of the papal fort of Castel Sant'Angelo and held it, with some skillfully smuggled-in soldiers, for eleven days in order to defend her family's rights. A woman who went toe to toe, figuratively speaking, with one of the most brilliant wits of the Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli, and not only won but made Machiavelli look like an incompetent fool. A woman who, when the walls of her beloved castle Ravaldino were finally breached by the artillery of Cesare Borgia's army, took up a sword and waded into that breach and for two hours was the equal of any man, wielding her sword against the enemy as she fought side by side with her men. And when one of those men betrayed her and sold her out to the enemy; when she's captured by Cesare, held prisoner by him for months as he brutally rapes, torments, and terrorizes her; when she's taken back to Rome and thrown into a deep, dank cell in the same Castel Sant'Angelo she'd so bravely commandeered sixteen years earlier, her spirit could not be broken and she still managed to be defiant, even down to planning a daring escape from the inescapable papal fort. The story of Caterina Riario Sforza Medici, larger-than-life, full of colorful characters and daring exploits, should be as well known to any schoolchild as that of Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Catherine the Great of Russia and fully belongs in the pantheon of fabulous warrior women.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I had only a passing knowledge of Caterina and the Sforzas, most from reading about the Medicis and the Borgias, but they were always peripheral figures not going in to too much detail. After having read The Tigress of Forli I can happily say that I will be reading as much as I can of the Sforzas and rank them right up there with the Medici and Borgia as the important families that I want to learn more about.

Lev's style of writing is fluid and succinct, easily conveying the information. I could easily picture her childhood, her marriage at such a young age, moving to Rome, being cast aside when the pope passed away to become a noblewoman of a minor state in Forli. Even after all that Caterina still lived a fascinating life as she maintained her hold on Forli from her enemies from both within and without. What was especially fascinating was Lev's depiction of Caterina's interaction with Cesare Borgia at the Siege of Forli. Two strong willed people going head to head, two important people in Italian history fighting each other for Forli.

In the end we have a great account of such an important figure in history. Women oftentimes are not depicted too well in history because they were always looked down upon or seen as inferior so they typically weren't written about or referenced. Caterina seemed to not fall victim to this simply because she was too involved in everything, from her stand in Rome defying the College of Cardinals to the Siege of Forli. This is someone that you want to read about and Lev does her justice. A recommend.

4.5 stars.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )

Even if you don't devour non-fiction books of history, you will enjoy this one. The author's use of first-hand accounts, art history, and documents from the Renaissance period makes history come alive. Elizabeth Lev's descriptions are vivid. Whether she is depicting characters, landscape, or political machinations, we are skillfully swept back to the Italy of 500 years ago.

Through Caterina, we get a better understanding of the politics of the times. Marriages secured power. Truly, the phrase, `what's love got to do with it', is apropos here. This book focuses on just that. Married off at the tender age of 10, Caterina already understands the burden of defending and building the family name and fortune. He (in this case, `she') who wields power controls the purse strings.

The author's critical eye as an art historian is not limited to the craft and its techniques. Lev's portrayal of each individual, family relationships, and friendships fleshes out her characters. Think of it as tapestries coming to life. If you have visited Italy, this will help you recall its landscapes, art, and aromas.

If only all history books were written as this one.
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Format: Hardcover
What better match-up could one hope for than author/art historian Elizabeth Lev and the venerable Renaissance countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici? Under Lev's artistic eye, the countess herself and the age in which she lived, late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Italy, pulse with life.

Caterina is, without any doubt, one of history's most amazing women. In a time and place where alliance with the ruling party of the moment was a matter not just of prosperity, but of survival, and the pyramid of power held all the stability of an edifice built on quicksand, Caterina thrived. As a woman, her task was much more difficult; time and again she was subjected to the poor decisions of the men in her life. Other times she took the reins in her own hands and rode for the battlements. Literally. Widowed Renaissance women were recycled by their fathers or brothers into further marriage alliances, often marrying several times under these circumstances. Not Caterina-she made one such marriage and then married twice for love, once into a very advantageous joining with the de Medici clan. Born a Sforza, with all the warrior spirit of her father, Caterina was forced to watch in powerless frustration as her children and those given guardianship over them exhibited their spineless Riario tendencies in the face of she who burned to fight.

Elizabeth Lev's portrayal of Caterina is very balanced. It is clear that she greatly admires her subject, but she realizes that there were times in her life when Caterina made some serious errors in judgement and when she let her passionate nature, both for love and vengeance, get the better of her. Due to the author's background, extensive coverage is given to the art, architecture and fashion of the times.
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