Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TIGRESS OF FORLI by Elizabeth Lev ✰✰✰✰


What better match-up could one hope for than author/art historian Elizabeth Lev and the  venerable Renaissance countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici?  Under Lev’s artistic eye, the countess herself and the age in which she lived, late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Italy, pulse with life.


Caterina is, without any doubt, one of history’s most amazing women.  In a time and place where alliance with the ruling party of the moment was a matter not just of prosperity, but of survival, and the pyramid of power held all the stability of an edifice built on quicksand, Caterina thrived.  As a woman, her task was much more difficult; time and again she was subjected to the poor decisions of the men in her life.  Other times she took the reins in her own hands and rode for the battlements.  Literally.  Widowed Renaissance women were recycled by their fathers or brothers into further marriage alliances, often marrying several times under these circumstances.  Not Caterina-she made one such marriage and then married twice for love, once into a very advantageous joining with the de Medici clan.  Born a Sforza, with all the warrior spirit of her father, Caterina was forced to watch in powerless frustration as her children and those given guardianship over them exhibited their spineless Riario tendencies in the face of she who burned to fight.


Elizabeth Lev’s portrayal of Caterina is very balanced.  It is clear that she greatly admires her subject, but she realizes that there were times in her life when Caterina made some serious errors in judgement and when she let her passionate nature, both for love and vengeance, get the better of her.  Due to the author’s background, extensive coverage is given to the art, architecture and fashion of the times.  It is a marvelous eye to have cast on the era-I especially love the descriptions of the extravagant gowns worn by the countess.


Overall, this is a well-written, easily digested biography.  There were a couple of things which kept it from being a five star book, but by a very narrow margin (I would give the book four and a half stars if I could).  First, the cast of players is huge and many of the characters are interrelated by marriage and blood.  A list of characters and some genealogical charts would have been most appreciated, as there were many instances where I lost the thread of things.  As mine was a review copy, this issue might very well be resolved in the final printing.  My copy only had a very basic map of the Italian states, which was not near as useful as these other aids would have been.  Do not let this one element deter you from picking up this page-turner of a narrative history, however.  Caterina was an incredible woman, and Elizabeth Lev is an author I hope to see more from in the future. 

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