Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 13, 2014
Joyce de Vries Caterina Sforza and the Art of Appearances: Gender, Art and Culture in Early Modern Italy Women and Gender in the Early Modern World.. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010. 322 pp.; 82 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754667513)

Analyses of Madeleine Albright’s brooches, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, and Callista Gingrich’s “helmet hair” in the American press underscore the role style can play in commentaries on personality and, more consequentially, in the world of political machinations. In this study of Caterina Sforza’s patronage, Joyce de Vries carefully examines how style was used for similar purposes during an earlier period. On a portrait medal (figs. 1–5), for example, Caterina’s hair is shown bound behind her head, and its decorative ribbons indicate her beauty and conformity to fashion. The hairstyle, with a few locks curling around the face, recalls that of Livia, the influential wife of Augustus, a classical reference that would not have been lost on the medal’s educated audience. This classical allusion is further emphasized by the drapery Caterina wears instead of a contemporary dress (34).

That Caterina’s style should echo that of Livia was intentional, for Caterina too was an influential wife. She was married to Girolamo Riario, papal vicar of two towns of ancient foundation in the Romagna: Imola (founded as Forum Cornelii) and Forlì (ancient Forum Livii). To reinforce the continuity between antiquity and their own rule, Caterina and Girolamo named their two oldest sons Ottaviano and Cesare.

De Vries demonstrates that style was only one of the devices Caterina employed to negotiate the challenges confronting her as a woman in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italy. The details of her biography are well known. The illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, she was raised in the Milanese court and at age ten was betrothed to Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, marrying him at fourteen. When Sixtus died, her husband’s status was threatened, and Caterina—seven months pregnant—took command of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, a bold move that allowed Girolamo to maintain his titles and property. Girolamo and Caterina had seven children before he was assassinated; Caterina executed the conspirators and established herself as regent. While serving as regent after her husband’s death, she had a son with one of his courtiers, Giacomo Feo, but it is not clear if they were ever married. In 1495, after those surrounding Caterina became convinced that Giacomo was manipulating her, they assassinated him. She then became the mistress or wife (the historical record is not clear) of Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who died of gout in 1498. When Forlì was attacked by the forces of Cesare Borgia in 1499, Caterina—who had written, “If I have to perish, even if I am a woman, I want to perish like a man”—took command, and she and her troops withstood the siege for several days. Eyewitnesses reported that she made an obscene gesture to the attackers, apparently to emphasize her “sexual and reproductive power” (40). Later Machiavelli would transform this story—and Caterina’s reputation—by stating that she had “flashed” her genitals at the enemy. Cesare imprisoned her for more than a year; after she was released, she moved to Florence, where she was supported by the income from the Medici properties inherited by her son with Giovanni di Pierfrancesco. This son is best known today by his nickname, “Giovanni delle Bande Nere.” His son with Maria Salviati—Caterina’s grandson Cosimo—would become Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. While Caterina’s later fame can in part be traced to her role in establishing the Medici Grand Ducal line, she was notorious in her own lifetime, as is demonstrated by Jacopo Foresti’s inclusion of her biography in his Lives of Famous Women of 1497.

From an early age, then, Caterina was in the public eye and she knew it. Although she must always have been assisted by advisors, the evidence compiled by de Vries suggests that Caterina was a brilliant strategist who understood the importance of a carefully crafted persona as she confronted the forces working against her as a woman, a widow, a regent, and a mother. De Vries proves that Caterina’s powers of invention were indeed impressive.

De Vries points out that her work is based in part on the idea that “individuals invent themselves within their own cultural context, not outside of it,” an approach common in biographical studies that requires examining an individual within her or his life’s broadest historical setting (3). De Vries’s conclusion is that “Caterina Sforza was a great—astute, intelligent, and pragmatic—patron” because she “harnessed the power of images and objects, rituals and ceremonies, and spirituality and intellect to create a formidable persona that served her needs and those of others after her death” (7). Because Caterina was a widowed regent and thus “the primary representative of her family’s court,” de Vries argues that “her patronage surpasses that of Isabella [d’Este]” (6).

De Vries emphasizes the unity of Caterina’s public persona, noting how each element buttressed others in creating an appropriate public identity, and arguing “that nobles read these components of display culture as works of both art and political practice” (3). De Vries’s study makes clear that an examination of all the objects, rituals, and other cultural manifestations commissioned and used by an individual as she or he strove to create a public persona can be more revealing than the traditional art-historical emphasis on an individual’s patronage of “high art.” In the process, de Vries casts her net widely, and the highly varied evidence she brings forward demonstrates once again the amount of fascinating information available to the diligent and creative scholar examining the Italian Renaissance. There are dangers inherent in trusting these materials—the motivations of those recording information must always be questioned—but de Vries is well aware of the possibility of over-interpretation and on several occasions points out which sources need to be questioned, and why.

Caterina’s patronage is especially interesting because it elucidates the relationship between center and periphery. The immigration of ideas and innovations from Florence, Rome, and Venice to the smaller courts is essential to allow a fuller understanding of the period. Caterina’s activities in establishing identities for herself and her children are also helpful because they document how patronage could function within restricted financial resources.

De Vries puts a new emphasis on the importance of the viewer in Renaissance ritual: “the viewers were in fact active participants in a ritual process that delineated hierarchical relationships of mutual respect and instituted legal authority” (15). De Vries’s examples include the staged processions by which Girolamo and Caterina assumed control in Imola and Forlì; by noting the participatory nature of such public rituals, de Vries transforms an understanding of how such rituals function. Patronage is here redefined to encompass an investigation of how rituals could be crafted to encourage particular responses from anticipated viewers.

De Vries’s book contains a number of interesting details about life during the Renaissance: the ritual of touching hands (24, 26), the pawning or selling of works to raise money (156–57, 164), the loaning of works for special occasions (159), and re-gifting (159), among others. Despite the abundance of archival information, I found myself wanting to know even more about Caterina’s fifty-day wedding journey from Milan to Rome via Pavia, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio, Modena, Bologna, and Imola in April and May of 1477; that she was accompanied by six thousand men on horseback for her triumphal entry into Rome challenges one’s visual, historical, and practical imagination. The role that personal religious experience played in the lives of Renaissance individuals is often difficult to capture and comprehend; after reading at length about Caterina’s frequently boisterous life, it was something of a surprise to discover that in her later years she frequently retreated to a cell she had built and maintained at Le Murate in Florence.

The title of de Vries’s book is slightly misleading, for studying Caterina’s patronage requires that the author must also address the patronage of Girolamo Riario in Rome, Imola, and Forlì in some detail. The inclusion of such material is relevant, of course, because Caterina continued some projects with which he had been involved before he was assassinated. In the end, Caterina proves to be a much more interesting and important subject than any of the men with whom she had relationships: Girolamo Riario, Giacomo Feo, or Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.

This volume is the sixth in Ashgate’s series “Women and Gender in the Early Modern World.” The presentation includes an extensive bibliography and adequate illustrations, although one always wishes for more images and at least some in color, especially when the items are little known. Especially appreciated are the illustrations of items—an inkwell, a girdle, an ewer and basin, a perfume burner—that were perhaps similar to those listed in Caterina’s inventories.

De Vries ends with a welcome discussion of the “fortuna critica” of Caterina, whose life and reputation allow for many different interpretations. During the Italian nationalism movement of the nineteenth century, for example, Caterina’s boldness was exalted as an example of the “long-standing strength of the Italian character” (252). Interest in Caterina’s life continues unabated; the most recent new book in English is The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici, by Rome-based art historian Elizabeth Lev (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). Like de Vries’s book, Lev’s study is well documented and complete with notes, bibliography, and index. It seems unlikely that this is the last we will hear of this remarkable woman.

David G. Wilkins
Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh, and Senior Faculty, Duquesne University in Rome