The Magazine

Iron Ladies

The wonderful, wretched lives of the Italian aristocracy.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By JUDITH MARTIN
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Yet Frieda apparently can’t stand Lucrezia Borgia’s last sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este, who is remembered as a great patron of the arts—the friend of Titian and Leonardo da Vinci, among others—who made her little city (Mantua) one of the great cultural centers of Europe. In the author’s opinion, this amounts to being a “greedy magpie.” That is, the lady was serious about collecting art, though evidently lacking the jolly spirit with which the Borgia troops celebrated a victory over Isabella’s brother-in-law, the duke of Milan, by using a large Leonardo study of him as a target.

Furthermore, the book is sprinkled with catty remarks about Isabella d’Este’s weight, which is unfavorably contrasted with the slimness of Lucrezia Borgia—of whom there survives only one possible life portrait. Several exist of Isabella d’Este, including one by Titian, and only Rubens made her look .  .  . not obese, but Rubenesque. Anyway, different periods of history have different ideas about what constitutes the ideal body. One has only to look at the decidedly fleshy, belly-heavy Venuses painted during the Italian Renaissance to know that Kate Moss would have had a hard time finding a modeling job in those days. 

Also among the “sisterhood” were: Lucrezia di Francesco Tornabuoni, a celebrated poet and strategist and the closest adviser to her son, Lorenzo the Magnificent; Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice Orsini, who came into her own only after her mother-in-law’s death; and Isabella d’Aragona and Beatrice  d’Este (Isabella d’Este’s sister), whose respective husbands both became dukes of Milan, the one toppling the other. (Because the families intermarried, and the given names are repeated, constant turning back to the family trees is required.)

The clear standout, however, is Caterina Sforza, “the Lady of Forlì,” aka the “She-wolf of the Romagna.” We first meet her at the age of 25, successfully defending her palace against the good citizens of Forlì, who had just murdered her brutish dolt of a husband. Among other tactics, she publicly gave them the finger (in Italian, this requires a thumb) and, when they held her son at sword-point, she exposed her pregnant belly to show that she would simply produce another legitimate heir.

This riveting episode is cast as a prologue, the confusing order apparently intended to demonstrate at the start that these heroines were no sleeping beauties. It is done, however, at the sacrifice of suspense in the depiction of a life spent heroically battling vicissitudes. By the time we get to the major scene of Caterina’s life, when, at the age of 21 (and also pregnant), she takes the papal castle of Sant’Angelo, we know she has the nerve and the military acumen to do so. 

Nevertheless, it is satisfying to have these stories, normally scattered on the edges of history, drawn together. Little girls of today should know that feisty, take-charge women were not invented yesterday. And we needn’t do away with romance entirely. Some of these heroines were eventually able to choose second or third husbands to their liking. And Leonie Frieda likes to believe that when her two favorite figures, Caterina Sforza and Cesare Borgia, met in a mighty clash, what happened when he captured her was not rape, as historians generally suppose, but love. 

Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners column, is the author of No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice.