Caterina Sforza’s Experimenti

Lorenzo di Credi, Caterina Sforza

Lorenzo di Credi, Portrait of a Woman traditionally identified as Caterina Sforza, Forli Pinacoteca.

All the recipes we discuss on this site have been taken from the Experimenti, a book almost certainly largely compiled by Caterina Sforza towards the end of the fifteenth century. The book includes recipes for household cleansers, medical remedies, alchemical experiments and even poisons, amongst other things.

Caterina Sforza
Caterina Sforza, the illegitimate daughter of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan and Lucrezia Landriani, has been a figure of fascination in historical and gender terms due to her prominent political and military roles. Born in early 1463, she was raised in the Milanese Court, and was married to Giralomo Riario in 1473. With him she had six children and gained rights to Imola and Forli through favour of the Pope Sixtus IV. With the turnover of Papacy in 1484, the family fell out of favour, which eventually resulting in Giralomo’s murder and the imprisonment of Caterina and children by the citizens of Forli.

Caterina managed to win back the city with the help of Lodovico il Moro’s troops from Milan and continued to rule the city-state as a proxy for her young son. She continued to rule through a number military and political ventures and the premature death of two more partners before eventually enduring conquer, imprisonment and rape by Cesare Borgia’s forces in 1501. Even this she survived, but her political activities became much more subdued, and remained so until her death in 1509. Beginning with Machiavelli’s 1512 The Discourses, which includes an exciting incident with Caterina’s genitals atop a battlement, historians have created a strong mythos surrounding Caterina’s life, focusing on her romanticized role as ‘virago’, ‘lioness’ and ‘warrior woman’.

Lost among the romanticised military conquests is a thorough account the project that occupied several years of her life—the manuscript of her alchemical and medical experiments and recipes titled Gli Experimenti de la S.r Caterina da Furlj Matre de lo S.r Giouanni de Medici, or Gli Experimenti. The text is an early example of what would later become the popular medical genre of ‘Books of Secrets’, but is so early that it does not appear in most modern writing on such books. Furthermore, Gli Experimenti is unusual because it was written by a woman in an otherwise male dominated genre, and unique in that we know a great deal about the life of its author.

Gli Experimenti

Caterina Sforza wrote Gli Experimenti in the years preceding 1500, during which she lived in Imola and Forlì . The original was a manuscript, written with one recipe on each page, and is now lost. However the text was posthumously transcribed in 1525 by Lucantonio Cuppano, a follower of Giovane Dalle Bande Nere, Caterina’s son by Giovanni de’Medici ‘il Popolano’ . 102 reprints are known to have been made, and in 1894 Pier Desiderio Pasolini reprinted the text as part of his biography on Sforza, after the palaeographic analysis done in 1888 by Dr. Romolo Brigiuti of the Archivo di Stato in Rome. Several more recent Italian editions have been published; an abridged version in 1942 by Paola Picca, and two further editions in 1971 and 2009.

Gli Experimenti contains a total of 454 recipes, roughly 66 of which are cosmetic related, 358 medicinal, and 38 alchemical.  The book seems to have been somewhat of an ongoing project throughout the latter half of Caterina’s life, compiled gradually with the help of various points of reference.  We can also assume it was a relatively dedicated pursuit for her, as she continued to work on it even during the period when Cesare Borgia was an imminent threat. Contents of the work itself contain a wide variety of recipes, often grouped into concerns over general health, beauty and governing.  The first two are relatively self explanatory, the third generally refers to recipes to do with adding weight to money, making things look like gold, and poisoning people.  The arrangement of Gli Experimenti itself is relatively haphazard, although a great number of the cosmetic recipes are grouped by topic or body part.  Among them are numerous recipes generically intended ‘to make beautiful’; for skin, to make it white and clear, remove spots, blemishes and wrinkles; for hair growth, removal and dying; and for healthy good smelling teeth and gums.

© Jacqueline Spicer, University of Edinburgh