Adored and feared in equal measure by her Renaissance contemporaries, Caterina Sforza (1462/3-1509) is most remembered today for her political and military activity: her fierce occupation of Castel Sant’Angelo in 1484; her tenacious regency of Imola and Forlì after the assassination of her first husband, in 1488. Machiavelli marveled at Caterina, painting her as a Renaissance virago; while her determined efforts to retain control of her state earned her the moniker “The Tigress of Forli.”
Yet there was another, equally important side to Caterina. Like many Renaissance noblemen and women, Caterina was deeply interested in experimental knowledge. Caterina’s collection of alchemical, medicinal and cosmetic secrets are compiled in a manuscript known as Experimenti, or Experiments. The Experimenti demonstrates Caterina’s interest in new scientific technologies as a tool for shaping and maintaining political power (by producing alchemical gold, counterfeit coins, and even poisons and their antidotes), as well as the personal and familiar component of her involvement with science (sending and reciprocating recipes as gifts, tending to health and hygiene, managing her household).
Caterina’s scientific interests reverberated in her descendants, placing her the origins of a well-documented Medici fascination for scientific investigation that gave rise to spaces such as the Fonderia in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio and the Casino di San Marco.
Passed down to her son, who would become the great condottiere Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (1498-1526) – father of Cosimo I de’ Medici - Caterina’s Experimenti survives in a sixteenth-century transcription made for Giovanni by Lucantonio Cuppano. The manuscript, on which Caterina’s biographer Pier Desiderio Pasolini based his 1894 edition, is housed in a private collection.
Recipe for Removing Freckles from the Face
Take two fresh hen’s eggs and break them and place in the strongest vinegar you can find and leave them there nine days and nine nights, then crush them and place them in a vessel with an alembic and distill over slow heat and once they are distilled save your water and when you want to use it make sure you have the juice of watermelon made by crushing them and take the juice and mix all these substances together and use only a small amount at a time when you wish to use it and wash yourself with it as necessary and they will disappear
Acqua da levare via le lentigine del viso
Piglia ova de gallina freschi et rompi et metti in aceto più forte poi havere et lassali star nove giorni et nove notte poi pistali et mettili in una bozza con il suo lanbicco a destillar con lento foco et suave et come sonno destillati salva la tua acqua et come la voli adoperare fa che habbi del succo de cucumari siano fatti et pistali et cava el succo et acompagnia tutti questi licori inseme una poco alla volta solum quanto tu voli adoperare et con quetsi lavati dove te bisogna andarano via.
(Pasolini, Caterina Sforza [Rome: Loescher, 1983], v. 3, 638)
Take twenty fresh lemons and dice them finely and place in white wine and leave there for eight days. Then take the albumen of twenty fresh eggs and mix together with the wine and lemons. Then take breadcrumbs and grate finely. Knead everything together with two ounces of mace and after you have made a distilled water in an alembic, add three grains of moss and use it and it is excellent.
Acqua a far bella
Piglia limoni freschi n. xx et tagliali minuti et ponilo in vino bianco et lassali stare per otto giorni. Poi tolli la chiara de xx ova freschi et mescola inseme con lo vino et limoni. Poi tolli mollica de pane et grattala menuta et in pasta ogne cosa inseme con doi once de mace et poi che è fatta la acqua per lanbicco mettili drento grani tre de musco et adopera et è eccellente.
(Pasolini, Caterina Sforza [Rome: Loescher, 1983], v. 3, 649-650)
Many of the recipes contained in the Experimenti – especially those describing alchemical techniques – are partially encoded to signal their particular importance or value. The key to the code is provided on the title page and proves generally accurate when applied to the encrypted passages.