The Vixen and the Lioness: Caterina Sforza and Machiavelli by Megan Chance

Machiavellian theory is often assumed to purport a rigid distinction between masculinity and femininity resulting from the theoretical understanding of ‘machismo’ and ‘effeminato’. Hannah Pitkin and Jean Bethke Elshtain have assumed that women are therefore excluded from Machiavellian politics.[1] However, if Machiavelli argues that men should be machismo then it implies this behaviour is a choice, rather than being innate. Furthermore, if a man can move along such a spectrum then any person, regardless of their sex, should be able to exhibit masculine and/or feminine norms. Caterina Sforza of Milan illustrated that woman can exhibit ‘machismo’ or ‘princely’ characteristics as her handling of the Orsi assassination of her husband and subsequent military strategy was controlled, just and brave. All these characteristics are attributed to ‘machismo’; Sforza has already demonstrated she was able to assume a princely role following the death of Pope Sixtus IV. The  position of her husband, Girolamo Riario became precarious following the death of Sixtus IV, as he was caught campaigning against rival factions for power within Rome. Prior to this, Riario had been favoured by the Pope and secured power by expanding the Papal States. Sforza commanded her forces to seize Castel Sant’Angelo and resultantly, the Papal States negotiated a deal with Riario which recognised them as Count and Countess of Imola and Forli.[2]

The assassination of Riario, in 1488 exposed her vulnerabilities as a woman, and in turn these ‘vulnerabilities’ facilitated her rise to power. Machiavelli recounts the events after Riario’s assassination:

“Some conspirators from Forli killed their lord Count Girolamo and took his…children hostage, … Madonna Caterina…promised the conspirators that if they were to allow her to entire the fortress, she would turn it over to them, and they could keep her children with them as hostages. With this promise they allowed her to enter the fortress, and once inside, she reproached them from the walls for the death of her husband and threatened them with all kinds of vendettas. To show she was not concerned for her children, she showed them her genitals, declaring that she still has the means to create more of them…”[3]

While there are variations on the events, for our purposes the important factor was the use of her sexuality to undermine her captors to secure safety and power.[4] Sforza’s sex and thus feminine norms confined her to the private realm as a mother, who should put her children first. Yet her actions make the conspirators leverage redundant. She exhibits unwavering bravery and courage in defying her captors and makes a bold political statement – typically a masculine norm. Machiavelli’s metaphor of the fox and the lion will be employed as described in ‘Chapter 18: How Princes Should Keep Faith’ of The Prince. There are various interpretations of the fox and the lion, but for our purposes: the fox was capable of frauddeceptive and intelligent. The lion in contrast will be the ability to use powerful force.

The Fox

Sforza exhibits characteristics of the fox in her manipulation of her captors. Sforza played the role of the wife and mother; she coddled her children. Sforza reiterated her femininity, taunting them with her vulnerability. Returning to Machiavelli’s account; Sforza leveraged her children to enter the Ravaldino and negotiate surrender, however when Sforza did not appear in a timely manner the conspirators threatened her son.[5] This was the moment in which she used her sexuality to undermine her captors. She appeared to be the doting mother, protecting her children and therefore to disregard her children by saying ‘she can make more’ reduces the hostages to useless. The powerful move made by Sforza, whether she raised her skirt or merely made the comments, created violent imagery which not only embodied the fox, but showed the force of the lion.

The Lion

The lion expresses emotion in a way the fox does not, with the lion should embodying virility and community.[6] Sforza illustrated she was capable of being the fox by manoeuvring into the fortress, but the actions which followed were the embodiment of the lion. Sforza reclaimed the vulnerability of her sex, so that power could not be asserted over her. The Venetian ambassador described her as a ‘tigress’ willing to eat her young to gain power;[7] however if a Prince acted similarly, would he be condemned equally? Sforza acted outside of feminine norms, which placed her duty to her children above all, to protect the city and her children. Sforza weaponised expectations of her as a mother to undermine her captors and the threats against her children because if she appeared not to care, she could not be exploited by appealing to her maternal nature.

Yet, power is not the only requirement to be the lion. The lion must also be concerned with community. After two weeks, Sforza was reunited with her children whilst twenty-thousand Milanese camped outside Forli. Sforza’s palace had been looted by the city and defected to papal rule. Sforza would have nothing to lose if she let the Milanese sack the city. The people of Forli had partaken in the looting and did not stand with her and Riario therefore she did not owe them any allegiance or loyalty. Sforza, however, chose to ask the Milanese to leave without violence or a sack of the city. Sforza punished the conspirators with gruesome public executions and desecrations of the bodies yet allowed their wives and children to remain in Forli or return to their paternal home. [8] She did not take vengeance against her subjects and only exacted the violence necessary to provide proof she could act violently if necessary, in doing so she forgave the Forli people and proved herself to be strong and forceful but also merciful and fair.

Machiavelli advised a Prince must be able to behave as the fox and the lion but a Prince must also have virtu – which is typically seen as a masculine characteristic. This model was then applied to Caterina Sforza and her actions following the assassination of her husband; from this it is clear she embodied both animals fully.

Megan Chance is an MLitt Intellectual History Candidate at the University of St. Andrews working on women’s and gendered intellectual history. She has an undergraduate degree in History and Politics from the University of Leicester. She has been offered a space to complete a PhD at the University of St. Andrews to research the contributions of women to the classical republican tradition in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.

[1] Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, Fortune Is A Woman, (Chicago: Chicago University Press. 1999); Arelene W. Saxonhouse, “Niccolo` Machiavelli: Women as Men, Men as Women, and the Ambiguity of Sex” in Feminist Interpretations of Niccolo Machiavelli, ef. Maria J. Falco, (Pennylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), pp. 93-116; Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War, (Chicago: Chicago University Press. 1987),

[2] There are variations on the account included here which is from: Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli: The Life of Caterina Sforza, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing. 2011), p. 145; variations can be found in Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, 1427-1527, (Weienfeld & Nicolson: London. 2012); Tanya Reimer, Amazons and Viragos: Warrior Women Rulers of the European Renaissance, Graduate Research Paper, San Diego, 2011.

[3] Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1997), p. 272

[4] Julia L. Hairston provides an indepth look at the ‘Machiavellian Mother’ and this particular instance. Hairston argues the ‘skirt lifting’ which Machiavelli adds undermines Sforza’s foxiness. More information in: Julia L. Hairston, “Skirting the Issue: Machiavelli’s Caterina Sforza”, Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 3, (2000), pp. 687-712

[5] Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, p. 272

[6] Timothy J. Lukes, ‘Lionizing Machiavelli’, The American Political Science Review, vol. 95, no. 3, (2001), p. 568

[7] Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli: The Life of Caterina Sforza, p. 204

[8] Ibid., p. 215-223