Caterina Sforza was an ultra-tough, mean-ass tyrannical ruler who dominated faces in the 15th century, refused to back down from any challenge no matter how impossible, never registered fear, and went out of her way to ensure that everyone who crossed her wound up suffering slow, excruciating and horrific deaths by her vengeful hands.
Born in 1462, the illegitmate daughter of the Duke of Milan and his hot mistress (a woman who also happened to be married to royalty, for whatever that's worth), Caterina was raised in a bitchin, beautiful Italian villa surrounded by fawning attendants, lavish luxuries, and dungeons full of jackasses being brutally tortured into submission by her crazy villainous Dad. Young Caterina was engaged to the Pope's nephew when she was just 10 years old, but for those of you who aren't really into the whole pedophilia thing I should probably also note that she didn't actually get hitched until four years after that. Yeah, it turned out that a bunch of douches got their panties in a wad about being manacled to a wall and having their fingernails pulled off with grill tongs, so they got pissed, murdered the hell out of the Duke, and left Caterina with nowhere else to go. So, she moved into the Vatican for a while and became the wife of a wealthy, powerful, and well-connected man known as the "Captain of the Vatican Ship of State". He was like the Pope's consigliere, and this was back in the "good old days" when excommunication actually meant something, and when, if the Holy Father didn't like you, he could just send a couple Sicilian bros to bash in your kneecaps with a baseball bat.
Plus he has the Swiss Guard, who have funny uniforms but are totally badass.
Nowadays they carry MP-5s.
Caterina's new husband, Girolamo Riario (don't ask me to pronounce that), was right in the middle of all the anarchichal corruption, machinations, and underhanded Machiavellian back-stabbing the seemed to be all the rage back in Renaissance Italy, and while observing this crazy shit Caterina learned a thing or two about putting bitches in their place by stuffing a shank in their kidneys when they're least expecting it. She dug it. So much so that eventually, believing that her husband didn't really have the same ruthless tendencies that she so admired in her father, Caterina took it upon herself to be the balls of her new family (in his defense, Girolamo was kind of a heartless bastard, but if he wasn't Bond villain material Caterina really wasn't interested). She made self-serving political alliances, helped her husband raise armies to fight the enemies of the Papacy, managed the estate while he was on campaign, popped out a couple future heirs, and gained a reputation as an iron lady who dominated her people with a steel-toed boot to the crotch at every opportunity. Anyone who didn't fear or respect her was beaten about the face and neck until they either changed their minds or fell into a coma.
In 1484 the Pope died, and both Caterina and her husband knew that meant there was all of a sudden the giant twenty-pound bag of manure was going to hit the HVAC air handler fan. You see, back in these days, new Popes weren't always determined by a vote of Cardinals, but by gladiatorial combat where a couple pissed-off noblemen with swords and halberds murdered each other, and the winner got the right to put his favorite priest in Saint Peter's Basilica. Anyways, Girolamo was off plundering cities and despoiling the countryside of its valuables (like I said, this guy wasn't exactly Mister Rogers wishing everyone a wonderful day in the neighborhood), so Caterina, knowing she was the only hope of maintaining her family's death-grip on the excommunication racket, started hauling ass towards Rome. She was living in a villa about ten miles from the city at this time, but that didn't stop her. Nor did the fact that she was seven months pregnant. As soon as word came of the Pope's death, she just charged out there on horseback, busted into Rome, and locked herself inside the Castle Sant'Angelo – a forbidding fortress that kind of serves as the Papal version of Castle Grayskull. I'm pretty sure her insane, vastly-pregnant death ride tearing ass around Italy is where they got the idea for the (S)forza Motorsport series of automobile racing games, but I can't say that for sure.
The Castle Sant'Angelo. Note the badass statue of Saint Michael at the top.
The Countess Sforza narrowly managed to get the place fortified before her family's enemies came knocking at the gate asking to come inside for chips and salsa and murdering people and installing a puppet Pope on the throne. Caterina told them to get bent, and that if they wanted the Vatican they were going to have to go through her giant pulsating nutsack first. She held the castle for eleven days, enough time for order to be restored in Rome, and she only relented once her husband arrived, was given confirmation that his lands and title would not be taken away, and told her to "take a chill pill". Another friendly Pope was installed, and things continued on as they were, which is a good deal if you're a ruthless dictator who doesn't want to give up her power.
Giacomo was kind of losing his health at this point, so on his sickbed he officially delegated authority as ruler of his County to Caterina. It wasn't long before she once again demonstrated why people shouldn't fuck with her. One time a city rebelled against the Countess, so she rode out by herself, affected the surrender of the garrison simply by yelling horrible insults at the ringleaders for three days straight, appointed a new garrison commander, rode home, and went into labor with her seventh child the day after her return. When the same city rebelled against her a few months later, she went back out, personally oversaw the torture/interrogation/additional-torture of the conspirators, had them publicly executed, and draped their corpses on display outside the gates of the city to serve as a warning to anybody else who thought maybe it wasn't a face-crushingly stupid decision to screw around with Caterina Sforza.
"Among the footsoldiers and the horsemen she was much feared,
because when she had a weapon in her hand she was fierce and cruel."
Over the years Girolamo evidentally pissed a bunch of people off something fierce, because one night after dinner a bunch of angry guests stabbed him to death, threw him out a window, and dragged his naked corpse through the streets of his capital. Caterina barricaded herself in her chambers with her children, but was eventually captured by the same douchebags who killed her husband. These dickheads dragged her out to one of her castles, stuffed a sword in her face, and ordered her to have the garrison commander surrender. She responded by saying she needed three hours to go inside and negotiate with the dude and that it would be all good in the hood. These morons allowed it, so of course she went inside, reneged on her deal, and immediately started organizing the city's defenders to resist. The dumbshit conspirators dragged her screaming children outside the castle, threatening her by saying they would execute the children one by one if she didn't come back down, but she flipped them the bird, hiked up her skirt, grabbed her crotch threateningly, and told them that she didn't care what they did to her kids because she "bears the instrument to make more".
That's pretty stone cold. Not only did this crazy chick basically moon the entire army of conspirators with her junk and leave her own kids to die (they lived BTW - the jailers didn't have the balls to kill them, even after Caterina called their bluff), but her Girls Gone Wild: Ultimate Xtreme Renaissance Championship Hyper Fighting Edition antics pumped up the defenders of the castle and left the dumbass rebel leaders with the morale-crushing realization that they'd basically just let their one piece of leverage walk right into the front door of her castle. How stupid can you be?
The garrison held out for two weeks, before Caterina turned the tables, crushed the conspiracy, defeated her enemies, and rescued her children. When she finally caught the man behind the plot, she tied him up, forced him to watch as she burned down his house, and then dragged him around the town square behind her horse for a while. Once he was covered from head to toe in third-degree road rash burns, she had him publicly dismembered, piece by piece, and reportedly got quite a kick out of watching the horrified look on his face as her executioner tossed the dude's severed body parts into the assembled crowd one by one. Did I mention that you didn't want to cross her?
"My people, I tell you to punish and kill all enemies.
For it I will consider you my good brothers for evermore.
Do not hesitate to act, and fear nothing,
because the deeds will benefit you and your children.
If you fail to act you will regret it in a few days."
Once the conspiracy was appropriately (and disproportionately) dealt with, Caterina assumed power in the name of her 8 year old son, made the local lords swear allegiance to her, and ruled as a tyrant for twelve years. She spent most of her time imprisioning or destroying her enemies, sleeping with any guy she wanted, chilling with Machiavelli, keeping her people out of a bunch of retarded Italian wars, and basically pissing off everyone in Italy. She also got married (and became widowed) twice more - the first guy was assassinated (she brutalized his murderer by roasting the guy alive on a spit and then having his wife and sons thrown down a dried-up well to die of starvation), and the second died of sickness or something far more benign than you'd expect considering this chick's career as a blood-drenched psycho hose beast.
Eventually the Pope turned on her after she refused to let her son be married to his daughter, a woman named Lucrezia Borgia. Now if you know anything about Lucrezia Borgia, you'll know that this was a pretty wise move, but the Pope just didn't seem to get it. He gave her lands over to his son, a total bastard named Cesare Borgia, all the same. Caterina responded by writing the Holy Father a venomous, hate-filled letter, which she doused in poisonous liquid designed to kill the Pope when he read it, but it didn't pan out. Failing in her attempt to murder the head of the Catholic Church, Caterina fortified her cities, raised an army, and vowed never to surrender. Unfortunately that ended up just as well as the Pope poison. She held out in her own fortress for a month, vehemently refusing all attempts at negotiation and diplomacy, but eventually the castle was broken, and she was captured and thrown into a dungeon in Rome where she was imprisoned for 18 months. After she got out of the clink she moved to a villa in Florence and made a couple more failed attempts to grab power, but eventually she got tired of having people strangled to death in their sleep and became a nun instead. It's just easier that way.
"Fortune helps the intrepid and abandons cowards... whatever may come, I am resolved to follow the course until death."
Pages from History
Women Who Lead
Janson, Sharon. The Monstrous Regiment of Women. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Miles, Rosalind and Robin Cross. Hell Hath No Fury. Random House, 2008.
Pasolini, Pier Desidero. Catherine Sforza. Trans. Paul Sylvester. H.S. Stone, 1898.
Ritchie, Anna Cora. Italian Life and Legends. Kessinger, 2006.