This Renaissance warrior woman defied powerful popes to defend her lands

Bold, brave, and brilliant, Caterina Sforza seized castles, forged alliances, and took revenge on her enemies for the sake of power.

Portrait of Caterina Sforza
photograph by DEA/ALBUM

Toward the end of 1499, a woman stood atop the walls of the Rocca di Ravaldino in Forlì, some 185 miles north of Rome. The troops of the Borgias, a powerful rival family, were holding her children hostage and threatening to kill them if she did not yield the fortress and her lands to them. But she refused, raised her skirts, and cried: “Kill them if you will, I have the means to make many more! You will never make me surrender."

The tale may be apocryphal but, given what is known about the extraordinary Caterina Sforza, it has a ring of truth. One of the most exceptional figures of the Italian Renaissance, Sforza rubbed shoulders with the artistic and cultural geniuses of her era. She defied convention, studied alchemy, and welcomed confrontation with the Borgias and other powerful families. (Read more about the most famous Borgia, Lucrezia.)

Caterina was born in 1463 in Milan, an illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who, later in her childhood, would become Duke of Milan. Despite her illegitimacy, she was brought up at the center of her father’s household, where she received an education imbued with the humanist spirit of the age. Like other girls in this remarkable family, she studied military tactics and weaponry alongside boys. (Read about humanism in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel art.)

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