There’s a famous story about Caterina, the Countess of Sforza, told by Machiavelli in Chapter III of The Discourses. He tells a thinner, less explicit version in Chapter VII of The Florentine Histories. It’s known to historians of the period and place as the “skirt-raising incident.” The story would be repeated by other, later writers such as Francesco Serdonati in his 1596 book, Vite de cinque donne illustri italiene, in a biography by Fabio Oliva and again by Traiano Boccalini in 1612.*
Here’s what Machiavelli wrote of the incident in The Discourses:
Some conspirators of Forli killed the Count Girolamo, their lord, and took his wife and children, who were of tender age, prisoners. Believing, however, that they could not be secure if they did not obtain possession of the castle, which the castellan refused to surrender, the Lady Catharine, as the Countess was called, promised to the conspirators to procure its surrender if they would allow her to enter it, leaving them her children as hostages. Upon this pledge the conspirators consented to let her enter the castle; but no sooner was she within than she reproached them for the murder of the Count, and threatened them with every kind of vengeance. And to prove to them that she cared not for her children, she pointed to her sexual parts, calling out to them that she had wherewith to have more children. Thus the conspirators discovered their error too late, and suffered the penalty of their imprudence in perpetual exile.
It’s part of a longer story about Caterina and the Sforza family and their relationship with the town of Forli that is woven through The Discourses (and mentioned albeit without detail or this incident in The Prince.) Machiavelli appears to have been the first writer to change what was likely a gesture of defiance into a skirt raising, bringing sexual politics into the event.
Machiavelli’s original source was possibly at letter from Giovanni Corbizzi, one of Lorenzo de Medici’s correspondents, written in spring, 1488, at the same time the events were happening. Other contemporary records have similar reports of Caterina’s defiance and challenge, although none have the skirt raising until after Machiavelli.
But we know from several sources of the era that the bare bones of the story – Caterina’s feckless husband was assassinated by residents of Forli, she, her children and other family members were captured, and she convinced them to let her into the family castle to “negotiate” surrender with its loyal defenders, but once inside shouted her defiance from the ramparts and swore vengeance.
In an account from 1498, Leone Cobelli says she made “four figs” at them – the fig being a hand gesture equivalent to the “bird” or upraised middle finger of today. That might be considered obscene, but it is a far cry from raising your skirts to show your genitalia. Did Machiavelli invent the event or simply embroider it, taking his cue from historical sources?
And what about the contemporary records that say Caterina claimed from the ramparts that she was pregnant – carrying the heir who would rain vengeance upon the conspirators if they harmed her children? Or her claims she had her eldest child safely in the hands of a loyal ally who would carry out her revenge? Or that once in the castle, she had the bombards turned towards the town and threatened to level it if they harmed the children? Machiavelli doesn’t mention these, although other sources do, some of which were written during the events.
In The Florentine Histories, Machiavelli doesn’t mention the upraised skirts, just her defiance, saying, suggestively, she had the “means” to make more children:
The conspirators trusted her, and permitted her to enter; but as soon as she was within, she threatened them with death and every kind of torture in revenge for the murder of her husband; and upon their menacing her with the death of her children, she said she had the means of getting more.
Which is a bit disingenuous, since her husband was dead and any future children would not have been heirs to his property. But it’s obvious from the context that her “means” are sexual.
Did she really raise her skirts and show off her vulva? Or is it merely apocryphal? And did Machiavelli plagiarise the incident from either Herodotus or Plutarch – both authors whom he read.
In Book 2 Chapter 30 of The Histories, Herodotus tells us of a group of Egyptian soldiers – deserters – who used a similar gesture of exposing their genitals to express their defiance:
 From this city you make a journey by water equal in distance to that by which you came from Elephantine to the capital city of Ethiopia, and you come to the land of the Deserters. These Deserters are called Asmakh, which translates, in Greek, as “those who stand on the left hand of the king”.
 These once revolted and joined themselves to the Ethiopians, two hundred and forty thousand Egyptians of fighting age. The reason was as follows. In the reign of Psammetichus, there were watchposts at Elephantine facing Ethiopia, at Daphnae of Pelusium facing Arabia and Assyria, and at Marea facing Libya.
 And still in my time the Persians hold these posts as they were held in the days of Psammetichus; there are Persian guards at Elephantine and at Daphnae. Now the Egyptians had been on guard for three years, and no one came to relieve them; so, organizing and making common cause, they revolted from Psammetichus and went to Ethiopia.
 Psammetichus heard of it and pursued them; and when he overtook them, he asked them in a long speech not to desert their children and wives and the gods of their fathers. Then one of them, the story goes, pointed to his genitals and said that wherever that was, they would have wives and children.
 So they came to Ethiopia, and gave themselves up to the king of the country; who, to make them a gift in return, told them to dispossess certain Ethiopians with whom he was feuding, and occupy their land. These Ethiopians then learned Egyptian customs and have become milder-mannered by intermixture with the Egyptians.
(English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920)
I came across this recently (I am currently reading Tom Holland’s excellent translation of Herodotus) and wondered if it was the source. Then I read Hairston’s essay (see below) and realized it might be from Plutarch instead.
Plutarch twice tells a story about skirt-raising in his Moralia, a collection of 78 essays. Editions of the work had been around since at least 1302 CE so it’s reasonable to assume an edition was available to him. But while we know Machiavelli read Herodotus (and used the latter’s stories about Cyrus in his own work), and he read Plutarch’s Lives, no one is sure if he read the Moralia.
In none of these stories are the situations the same. In Herodotus, the actors are men. In Plutarch, the women confront their own men who were behaving cowardly – running away from battle. In neither are they confronting enemies. In Machiavelli’s God, Viroli says the women redeem the men by this exposure, restoring their bravery. That doesn’t happen with Caterina.
There are great differences between men and women making such a gesture, especially in a patriarchal society. As a woman’s gesture, it’s known by the Greek term, anasyrma, as Wikipedia notes: “..lifting the skirt or kilt. It is used in connection with certain religious rituals, eroticism, and lewd jokes… effectively “the exposing of the genitals”. This is a form of exhibitionism found in religion or artwork, rather than a display for arousal, and it always refers to the act of a woman exposing herself. ” There is a broad cultural history of the practice that seems to have no political or geographic boundaries.
Anasyrma might be considered the sexual and political opposite of Donald Trump’s “grabbing them by the pussy” comments about dominating women. In most examples it shows women taking control of events, of asserting their authority through sexuality, which the men present acquiesce to. And these actions were not generally well received by men. Later historians like Boccalini would use terms like “shameful parts” when retelling the story of Caterina.
Caterina is mentioned frequently in his writing and it is clear to me that he respected her prowess and abilities. But why would Machiavelli alter the events from a hand gesture to skirt lifting? Perhaps to shock his readers. Perhaps as a misogynistic attempt to make her appear crude and obscene, to reduce her power. Or perhaps to give her more power, to base her defiance in a history of similar political actions by women.
That has been the topic of endless debate among scholars and lay readers for decades now. Some scholars argue that in doing so, Machiavelli made her seem stronger, more fierce. Make her more masculine, more virile. Others that she appeared as a “heartless gorgon,” a virago. After all, what mother but a monster would so easily abandon her children (not to mention her mother and half-sisters, all in the hands of the conspirators)? And there are religious overtones, too: Caterina is also referred to as the Madonna of Forli and maternal instincts are associated with piety and devotion, especially in the deeply Catholic Renaissance Italy.
Keep in mind that, during his employment as a diplomat for the city of Florence, Machiavelli had face-to-face dealings with Caterina, and depending on your assessment of those negotiations, he came out successful or at least not a complete failure. Was he personally affected – maybe embarrassed or upset – by the outcome? Or delighted? I tend to think he admired Caterina.
Caterina’s actions – and her threats – saved the family from the conspirators who had threatened to kill them if she failed to return. Instead, they became afraid for her vengeance (and rightly so). So perhaps her actions were a calculated risk that worked.
It’s an argument about sentiment versus power, of the then-accepted view of fixed feminine and masculine roles. If she acted in a ‘feminine’ manner – that is, submissive – Caterina would have lost her castle, her fortune and possibly her life. By acting in an aggressive “masculine” way, she saves everything. The male conspirators were unable to manipulate Caterina’s feminine side, and she turned the tables on them by taking on that role herself.
For Machiavelli, Caterina did what was best for the continuation of the state – always a theme in his writing. And it makes a strong point about conspiracies which fail when they don’t take into account every possibility or opponent (possible vindicators).
If to underscore his point, he chose to embellish the story, to turn a fig or a comment into anasyrma, so be it. It makes good political theatre and the story would not have been nearly so memorable without it. It certainly wasn’t the only time he mythologized a historical person to suit his narrative.
* My source for these references and much of the insight come from Skirting the Issue: Machiavelli’s Caterina Sforza, an excellent essay by Julia L. Hairston published in the Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000) and available online on JSTOR.