Prologue: Christmas Cannons
As the Great Jubilee Year of 1500 approached, a mood of unusual festivity prevailed in Europe. At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, amid great pomp and solemnity, Pope Alexander VI Borgia had thrown open the Holy Door he had specially installed in Saint Peter’s Basilica to mark the occasion. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Danube River, kings, clergy, and peasants were all celebrating the birth of Christ the Savior. Bells rang out in each town and feasts were laid on every table. In the ancient jubilee tradition of forgiveness of debts, thousands of pilgrims commenced the trek to Rome seeking a plenary indulgence, a chance to wipe clean the slate of the soul and begin again.
But on Christmas morning, 1499, the tiny Italian village of Forlì awoke not to the merry peal of church bells, but to pounding artillery and cursing soldiers. A force of fifteen thousand, composed of Italian, Swiss, and French soldiers, had gathered at the base of the fortress of Ravaldino, overlooking the town of Forlì, and were hammering away at its defensive walls. The bulk of the troops were on loan from the king of France, Louis XII. Commanding those seasoned troops was Cesare Borgia, the most feared warrior in Italy. Cesare’s personal bravery and cruelty were as widely known as his powerful connections—he was duke of Valentinois in southern France and the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI. Even as the pope was offering salvation to everyone in Christendom, his second-born son was bent on eradicating the ruler of Forlì. If any of his soldiers found this situation ironic or morally troubling, they doubtless kept their perplexity to themselves, for the Borgia commander was known to treat disloyal friends as ruthlessly as he did his enemies.
The soldiers knew that their mission had been approved by the pope himself, who had deposed all the rulers in the northern Italian region of Romagna by decreeing them guilty of tyranny as well as derelict in paying their tributes to Rome. The delinquent states were given to Cesare, who lost no time in collecting his new possessions. Many of the towns had capitulated without a fight, some even hailing Cesare as their liberator. But there had been resistance in Imola, about twelve miles from Forlì, where the fortress keeper, Dionigio Naldi, had held out for almost a month, claiming the town for its rightful lord, Ottaviano Riario. Few stood by him and he was defeated on December 11. After eight days of celebrating that victory, Cesare’s army arrived at Forlì. In this tiny town, hardly more than a village, they expected a few perfunctory hours of negotiations before they ousted the present ruler and took control.
At first, all seemed to go according to plan for Cesare. The inhabitants opened the gates, welcoming the troops into the city. Several noblemen even offered hospitality to the captains of the various regiments. Above the town, however, loomed the seemingly impenetrable fortress of Ravaldino, reminding the army that Forlì would never be theirs while the defenders occupied the fort. No easy capitulation was forthcoming from behind those high stone walls. A week after their confident entry, the huge force representing the combined power of the papacy and the king of France was still arrayed at the foot of the fortress, held at bay by a paltry band of nine hundred.
Day and night, the ruler of Forlì patrolled the fortress ramparts, eyes alert for weak spots or changes in the invading enemy’s formation. The defending soldiers leapt at every order, unquestioningly loyal to a commander every bit as determined as Cesare. No wonder he was offering an extravagant reward to whoever could capture or kill the indefatigable general, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici, the countess of Forlì. Five thousand ducats was a tempting sum. To many, no doubt, it was an amount worth murdering for. Yet no soldiers at Forlì had taken the bait, driven as they were not only by loyalty to their commander but by an ingrained sense of chivalry.
In the preceding days, the attacking soldiers had caught occasional glimpses of Caterina on the ramparts of her fortress. At five feet, four inches, she was noticeably shorter than the men fighting by her side, though she stood at a respectable height for Italian women of her day. Her figure, beneath a steel cuirass engraved with the image of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, was remarkably slim, despite the fact that she had borne six children. When her long, light brown hair occasionally escaped its restraints and flowed around her face and neck, she looked even younger than her thirty-eight years. As she walked with sure, determined steps around her fortress, her enemies strained to see the woman who had challenged the College of Cardinals, single-handedly put down a revolt after the murder of her husband, seduced and married the handsomest member of the Medici clan, and was now locking horns with the formidable Cesare Borgia.
The bleakness of Caterina’s Christmas morning was relieved only by the knowledge that her children were safely ensconced with their Medici relatives in Florence. She knew that while she defended their birthright, their day would begin with worship in that city’s beautiful churches; perhaps their anxious spirits would be lifted for a while by the glorious music of the choirs. Later they would feast in grand halls by blazing fires, while their mother shared a frugal meal in the guardhouse with the cadre of faithful followers who remained in Ravaldino.
There, Christmas morning had begun with the traditional Mass at dawn. After leaving the chill of the stone fortress chapel, the countess set about ensuring double rations for her men, listening to their personal stories, writing letters of commendation for bravery, and otherwise alleviating the dismal mood. For a time, silence in the enemy camp suggested that those soldiers too might be observing this holiest of days, but soon a barrage of cannon fire shattered the calm.
Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI, had made great plans for the Jubilee Year. The construction of new buildings and the offering of special prayers were intended to draw the whole Christian world to Rome to make a fresh start. Caterina had been planning to go to Rome as well, for she too had reasons to seek forgiveness. For five years she had waited, with much on her conscience, knowing that the jubilee offered a singular opportunity to erase terrible spiritual scars. Now the pope’s own son had become the greatest obstacle in Caterina’s path. She could give up her lands and her children’s inheritance, allow Cesare to become the prince of Romagna, and move in with her Medici relatives. That would secure her life and her freedom. Or she could defend town and title, risking death or imprisonment. Although many other rulers of Romagna had ceded their towns and taken the paltry papal compensation for their noble titles and their lands, Caterina had no intention of stepping aside quietly so that Cesare’s father could award him her state as a twenty-fifth-birthday gift. He would have to win it from her the same way her family had won their lands—with blood and steel.
Now the usurping army was quartered in her town, looting her palace and the homes of her followers. The townspeople who had given up the town to the invaders, preferring to place their fate at the mercy of the Borgias rather than join the seemingly hopeless cause of the Riarios, had received little clemency. The soldiers sacked their homes and raided the convents, looking for young women of Forlì to provide them with “entertainment.” On Chri...