Friday, April 1, 2011

Book Review: The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev

Publisher:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Imprint:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pub Date:10/20/2011

Wife, mother, leader, warrior. Caterina Riario Sforza was one of the most prominent women in Renaissance Italy--and one of the most vilified. In this glittering biography, Elizabeth Lev reexamines her extraordinary life and accomplishments.

Raised in the court of Milan and wed at age ten to the pope's corrupt nephew, Caterina was ensnared in Italy's political intrigues early in life. After turbulent years in Rome's papal court, she moved to the Romagnol province of Forli. Following her husband's assassination, she ruled Italy's crossroads with iron will, martial strength, political savvy--and an icon's fashion sense. In finally losing her lands to the Borgia family, she put up a resistance that inspired all of Europe and set the stage for her progeny--including Cosimo de Medici--to follow her example to greatness.

A rich evocation of Renaissance life, The Tigress of Forli reveals Caterina Riario Sforza as a brilliant and fearless ruler, and a tragic but unbowed figure. (Image and synopsis from the publisher from
My Review:

The Tigress of Forli is an historical account of a courageous woman, Caterina Sforza, which is her maiden name. She was married three times to a Riario, Feo, and Medici. She had 8 children, held her fortress under a siege for many days, and spent a significant amount of time imprisoned in a dungeon. Yet, have you ever heard of her? She was a woman known throughout Europe for her spirit and fearlessness. This account of Caterina appears very well-researched and all-encompassing, it spans from Caterina's young childhood to her death and includes a lot of the history of her family and Italian politics of the day.

In the late 1400s and early 1500s, Italy was a divided country with constantly warring city-states. Assinations and political corruption were rampant. Depending on the who was the Pope at any given moment, your family could be blessed with good fortune or thrown in a dungeon and forgotten about.

Caterina was schooled as a child that family matters more than the individual and one must do anything to keep the family in good standing (even complacently accepting a marriage at the age of 10 to a much older man) and that military skills are extremely valuable. Surviving three husbands, Caterina proved herself to be an able warrior and protector of her children, since she had to fight to keep her lands so that her children would receive it as an inheritance. Elizabeth Lev's portrayal of Caterina shows her as a caring mother with the spirit of a hundred men in battle. It was inspiring to read about Caterina's life and actions.

I liked that Caterina's struggles were always placed well within the Italian politics of the day. If someone was attacking her, the reader understood why (mostly because they wanted her land). The reader also got glimpses of what else besides military actions were going in Italy and the world. For example, there is a brief mention of Columbus setting sail from Spain in 1492... and we all know where he is heading! Artists were also frequently mentioned and placed within the narrative, such as Botticelli and Michaelangelo.

However, while there were many good parts of the book, I found the beginning a little hard to get into. First, while Caterina is a child, she doesn't control her life, she only watches it around her without making decisions. This makes it hard to connect to the girl until she begins to be an individual for herself. In addition, most of my history comes from historical fiction, where the author takes some creative license to imagine the person is thinking and feeling and spins an historical narrative around the character. The Tigress of Forli, however, is non-fiction and relies only on documented facts. Therefore, the reader is never inside of Caterina's head with an all-access pass to her thoughts and decisions. This makes the book read more like a textbook than a novel.

I think The Tigress of Forli is a great book for anyone interested in strong women in history, Italian politics, European history, or well-written non-fiction books.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I received this book free of charge as an eGalley from the publisher via I was not compensated for this review in any way and the review is my own opinion.

1 comment:

  1. I'm totally into historical fiction, and even though this is non-fiction, I think it would be interesting to read about such a strong, but little-heralded woman. Thanks for the review!