Review: The Tigress of Forlì

The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev

Out in the real world (i.e., libraries and bookstores), I’m a very picky reader. There are ways to appeal directly to my lizard brain—have an impossibly gorgeous cover!—but for the most part, I tend not to pick up books up without a recommendation from a fellow bibliophile. All of this, of course, goes out the window when I’m window-shopping on NetGalley, as I click “Request!” willy-nilly based on whether a premise sounds cool or not and end up with a pile of digital galleys to read. On one level, it’s a fantastic problem to have; on another, I end up with reads like this—neither really good or really bad. Hmm.

The Tigress of Forlì is the story of the Italian Renaissance noblewoman Caterina Sforza, Lady of Imola and Countess of Forlì. Born the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Sforza, the young and athletic Caterina is married off to the ambitious but inept Girolamo Riario—the first of her three husbands. But it’s after Girolamo’s assassiation that Caterina’s indomitable spirit begins to show, defending her city, her rights, and her children with her wits, her courage, and the occasional leap into battle herself, actions that would earn her the title of “The Tigress of Forlì”.

The Tigress of Forlì opens with an introduction of how Elizabeth Lev encountered this historical personage for the first time—by seeing her breastplate, commissioned for the female form rather than taken from a man’s suit of armor, in a museum in Italy. Amusingly, Lev melodramatically wonders why Caterina seems to be missing from popular culture; her recent depictions in Assassin’s Creed, Trinity Blood, and The Borgias prove Lev wrong, but I get her point. I mean, I had no idea who Caterina was until I picked this up, and I absolutely love reading about amazing women in history. Caterina manages to fight in battles, stand up to the major players in Italian politics (including the Pope!), protect her people, and stage theatrical stunts to further her own cause—and she does half of that pregnant. (Surviving having six children in the Renaissance ought to be an accomplishment on the level of sending Niccolò Machiavelli home with his tail between his legs, which she also did.) I’m very glad to have read this and been introduced to Caterina, but there’s just something missing here.

Obviously, Caterina is an interesting woman, but The Tigress of Forlì can be dry. The first half serves mostly to put Caterina in context; like most biographies, it starts at her birth, placing a special emphasis on her father, so that we better understand Caterina when she makes several claims about being her father’s daughter. (This is a common theme for women trying to get the upper hand in limiting patriarchal societies—claiming that their strength is derived from a masculine force, which makes it acceptable for a woman to transgress gendered roles, so long as everyone understands that power is ultimately masculine. Elizabeth I did much the same thing in her speech to the troops at Tilbury.) But since Caterina only really became proactive after Girolamo’s murder, it can make you feel as though Lev is ignoring her subject in favor of the menfolk. Once Caterina gets going, it improves, but I really wish Lev had included more of Caterina’s own words, quoted from her correspondence. I suppose it’s the nonfiction equivalent of lacking dialogue; I wanted to hear more from Caterina herself rather than Lev, who efficiently gets through Caterina’s story at a decent clip.

But there are some parts of Caterina’s story that Lev glosses over. After Giralamo Riario, her first husband, was murdered, Caterina took up with Giacomo Feo, whom she secretly married. Their relationship was so passionate as to cloud her judgement; when Feo was murdered, Caterina’s vengeance was particularly bloody. Naturally, we spend a lot of time on that relationship, but when it comes to her third marriage (and second secret marriage) with Giovanni de’ Medici il Popolano, we don’t hear much beyond Caterina’s happiness in a mature relationship with someone who is finally her equal. Lev also glosses over Caterina’s rape at the hands of Cesare Borgia—a more understandable omission, although it took me a few paragraphs to realize what had actually happened.

Ultimately, it was alright. There’s nothing glaringly wrong with it; it could be more thorough and include more of Caterina’s own words, but it’s alright. It’s just that most of my interest in continuing to read this book was to find out what happened to Caterina, rather than Lev’s writing. Still, I’m glad it exists and I’m glad to have read it.

Bottom line: A mildly interesting book about a very interesting woman, Elizabeth Lev’s The Tigress of Forlì can be dry and could use more of Caterina Sforza’s own words. If you’re interested in the woman, perhaps—if not, not worth going out of your way. A positive eh.

I read this digital galley for free on NetGalley.

The Tigress of Forlìwill be released on the 18th—tomorrow!

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