May 13, 2012
The Tigress of Forli, by Elizabeth Lev
The name Catherine de Medici is one which lives in infamy: Catarina, though never especially powerful during her life, is still synonymous with strong, independent women throughout history. While she was certainly those things, Lev also reveals her to have been exceptionally brutal, not, certainly, for her time, but definitely for a woman. Catarina lived in 15th Century Italy, a period of internecine warfare and replete with some of the most infamous characters of all time: Machiavelli, Lucrezia Borgia (and the rest of her murderous family), the Medici family - these names are instantly recognizable to us now as paragons of cunning political intrigue and dastardly murders. Catarina fit right in. She was married at age 10 to the favorite nephew of the pope, a position which should have (and did occasionally), garner her immense wealth, power, and prestige. Instead, her inept husband was routinely concerned with only himself and short-term benefits, never focused, as Catarina always was, on the perpetuation of the family name. She bore him six children, five of them boys, before he was murdered by enraged retainers and his own populace. Catarina, on her own for the first time in her life, very quickly took command of her three fortresses and soon developed a reputation for no-nonsense cruelty when it came time to take revenge for her husband's death. Two subsequent marriages (both for love, incredibly for that time) produced two more children, and Catarina once again proved her mettle and capacity for bloody vengeance after her second husband's murder and the all-out assault on her holdings several years later. She ended her life in Florence, buried in a simple tomb within the walls of the Muratte convent she particularly loved. Lev's writing is fantastic. I was at first a little dismayed by the narrative focusing more on Catarina's surroundings than herself, but this is probably due to the lack of correspondence she produced due to her young age. As the book goes on, we relive Catarina's emotional, financial, and political ups and downs through prose that is enjoyable and incredibly engaging. The sieges and battles read like fiction, and the book at those times becomes impossible to put down. I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in, well, anything!