In 1488, after her husband was assassinated by the Orsi family, and she herself taken hostage along with her children, Caterina Sforza managed to escape her captors through trickery and took command of the fortress of Ravaldino, where her loyalists had gathered. Seeking to draw her out, the Orsis dragged out Caterina’s young sons and threatened to kill them if she did not surrender. The popular version of the story goes that Caterina stood boldly on the ramparts, raised her skirts, pointed to her genitals and shouted back, "Do it then, you fools! I am already pregnant with another child by Count Riario and I have the means to make more!"
It’s a story that many people believe to this day. Hell, two of the four biographies of Italian Renaissance women I’ve read have incorrectly claimed it as fact, even though you only have to look at the evidence to see that it’s totally false.
Let me explain you a thing.
Of the surviving accounts of the siege at Ravaldino, only two of them — those of Andrea Bernardi and Leone Cobelli — were written by people who were actually there. Neither of those eyewitnesses so much as mention Caterina raising her skirts or making such a retort. Both Bernardi and Cobelli mention the threats made against Caterina’s sons, and both concur that, despite the boys’ screams, Caterina remained inside the castle.
And, look, I know the image of Caterina standing on the ramparts and daring her enemies to do their worst is a totally badass one to our 21st century eyes. There’s something very powerful in the idea of these men aiming a blow at what they imagine to be her greatest weakness — her maternal side, her children — only for her to claim it as a strength, a procreative power her enemies can neither control nor take from her. No matter how many sons they can kill, she can make more. It’s ruthless, yet somehow admirable.
But that’s not how the people of Caterina’s time saw it. To them, such behaviour was monstrous, particularly in a woman, and it earned her widespread condemnation. She was, as the Venetian ambassador put it, a “tigress” willing to eat her young to gain power. Indeed, this was a story designed to make her look bad, and not surprisingly it was particularly favoured by those who had reason to dislike her — people like Machiavelli, who was quite possibly still smarting over the professional embarrassment he’d suffered at Caterina’s hand.
Quite simply, it didn’t happen. But what she did do was brilliant nonetheless.
“The reason why we won’t face up to our problems with the environment is that we are the problem. It’s not the corporations out there, it’s not the governments—it’s us. We’re the ones telling the corporations to make more stuff, and make it as cheap and as disposable as possible. We’re not citizens anymore. We’re consumers. That’s what we’re called. It’s just like being an alcoholic and being in denial that you’re an alcoholic. We’re in denial that each and every one of us is the problem. And until we face up to that, nothing’s going to happen. So, there’s a movement for simplifying your life: purchase less stuff, own a few things that are very high quality that last a long time, and that are multifunctional.”—Patagonia’s Founder Yvon Chouinard (via crookedindifference)