Looking to meet a fascinating woman? Elizabeth Lev, an American art historian who lives in Rome, is ready to make an introduction. She’s a Renaissance countess named Caterina, and Lev’s intimate portrait of her, The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici, is as riveting as any novel. But Sforza is no fictional creation. Rather, she is a woman of culture and politics who left one Signor Machiavelli none too happy and whose likeness can be found in the Sistine Chapel. Lev talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about her dear friend, whom she’d love for you to get to know. (She’ll explain, and leave you wanting more.)
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You clearly love Caterina Sforza. What’s the attraction?
ELIZABETH LEV: She was a strong, creative woman in a world where those traits were seen only as the attributes of men. She was a doer, not a spectator, in the thrilling age of the Renaissance. But mostly she was a woman who could overcome fear, both of her enemies and of her own weaknesses. Oh, and that she was a successful single mother is kind of cool too.
LOPEZ: Why was the Sforza name so important to her?
LEV: Sforza means “strength” in Italian: It was the name given to her great-grandfather Muzio Attendolo, who fought his way up from serf to military commander. I think the family kept the name to remind every generation that courage and fortitude were their most prized virtues. Certainly Caterina had more than her share of these qualities.
LOPEZ: How did Caterina wind up in the Sistine Chapel — permanently?
LEV: One of the prized “chicche” (Italian for morsels) that made me the most proud as an art historian was identifying Caterina in the Sistine Chapel. When the “dream team” of Florentine painting — Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and Perugino — arrived in Rome to paint the walls of Pope Sixtus’s new chapel, every courtier in Rome showed up hoping to make a cameo appearance in the project of the decade. Caterina, as a member of the papal family, was among the first to be depicted. In the book, I argue that rather than putting her in the panel of Moses and the Daughters of Jethro (where most art historians place her), Botticelli portrayed her as the pregnant woman carrying logs in the panel that faces the papal throne, The Temptation in the Desert, with a child at her feet. The small viper playing around their ankles is the symbol of the Sforza family, and Caterina certainly never let pregnancy slow her down!
LOPEZ: She could have been the model for the Mona Lisa? You don’t rule it out entirely!
LEV: In 2002, an article by German art historian Magdalena Soest proposed Caterina as the model for the Mona Lisa, which is unlikely for a multitude of reasons, not least of which being that Caterina couldn’t afford to commission a portrait by Leonardo at the time. However, I thought it was interesting that people found it easy to believe that this enigmatic portrait could be of a woman like Caterina, who was hard to fathom, especially by the men of her age.