Isabella d'Este, First Lady of the Renaissance

Renaissance Arts Patron

Isabella d'Este by Titian
Isabella d'Este by Titian.

Titian/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Isabella d'Esta, Marchioness (Marchessa) of Mantua, was a patron of Renaissance learning, arts, and literature. She was an art collector and patron, and a successful collector of antiquities. She was actively involved in political intrigues among the interlocked nobles of Europe. She supported convents and monasteries and founded a girls' school in Mantua. She lived from May 18, 1474 to February 13, 1539.

How did she come to be at the center of key Renaissance history, and become known as the First Lady of the Renaissance and First Lady of the World?

Isabella d'Este's life is known in some detail because of voluminous correspondence by her and others in her circle. The correspondence provides insight not only into the art world of the Renaissance but into the unique role this woman played. More than two thousand of her letters survive.

Early Life

Isabella d'Este was born into the Ferrara family, rulers of Ferra, Italy. She may have been named for her relative, Queen Isabella of Spain. She was the eldest in her large family, and by accounts of the time, her parents' favorite. The second child was also a girl, Beatrice. Brothers Alfonso — the family heir — and Ferrante followed, then two more brothers, Ippolitto and Sigismondo.


Her parents educated their daughters and sons equally. Isabella and her sister Beatrice both studied Latin and Greek, Roman history, singing, playing instruments (especially the lute), astrology, and dancing. Their father provided some of the leading teachers of the day for his daughters and sons. Isabella was accomplished enough in understanding politics to debate with ambassadors when she was sixteen.

When Isabella d'Este was six, she was betrothed to the future fourth Marquis of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga (1466 - 1519), and met him the next year. They were married on February 15, 1490. He was a military hero, more interested in sports and horses than in arts and literature, though he was a generous patron of the arts. Isabella continued her studying after marriage, even sending home for her Latin books. Her sister, Beatrice, married the Duke of Milan, and the sisters visited each other often.

Isabella d'Este became close to Elisabetta Gonzaga, her husband's sister who married of Guidobaldo de Montefeltre, Duke of Urbino.

Isabella d'Este was described as a beauty, with dark eyes and golden hair. She was famous for her fashion sense — her style was copied by noble women throughout Europe. Her portrait was painted twice by Titian — when she was 60 he risked his reputation by painting from an image of her when she was 25 — and also by Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna, Rubens, and others.

Supporting the Arts

Isabella, and less actively her husband, supported many of the Renaissance's painters, writers, poets, and musicians. Artists with whom Isabella d'Este is associated include Perugino, Battista Spagnoli, Raphael, Andrea Mantegna, Castiglione, and Bandello. Also part of the court circle were writers including Ariosto and Baldassare Castiglione, architect Giulio Romano, and musicians Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marchetto Cara. She exchanged letters with Leonardo da Vinci over a six-year period, after his visit to Mantua in 1499.

As a patron of the arts, she promoted majolica of Urbino with myths, fables, stories, and landscapes depicted on the pieces. Many of the dinner service pieces she commissioned are today in art museums. Her home was decorated with fountains, sculpture, and paintings by major Renaissance artists, and she hosted poets often. 

Isabella d'Este collected many artworks and antiquities over her lifetime, some for an art-filled private studio, essentially creating an art museum. She specified the content of some of these, in commissioning works. She exchanged letters with Leonardo da Vinci over a six-year period, after his visit to Mantua in 1499.


Her first daughter, Leonora (Eleanora) Violante Maria, was born in 1493 (sometimes given as 1494). She was named for Isabella's mother, who had died not long before the birth. Leonora later married Francesco Maria della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino. A second daughter, who lived less than two months, was born in 1496.

Having a male heir was important to Renaissance Italian families, to pass titles and lands within the family. Isabella had been given a gold cradle as a gift at her daughter's birth. Contemporaries cited her "strength" in putting aside the cradle until she finally had a son, Federico, in 1500, a Ferrara heir who became the first Duke of Mantua. A daughter Livia was born in 1501; she died in 1508. Ippolita, another daughter, arrived in 1503; she would live into her late 60s as a nun. Another son was born in 1505, Ercole, who would become a bishop, cardinal, and come close to winning the Papacy in 1559. Ferrante was born in 1507; he became a soldier and married into the di Capua family.

Family Misfortunes

In 1495, Isabella's sister, Beatrice, with whom she was quite close, died suddenly, along with Beatrice's infant. Then Isabella's husband, who had headed a coalition of military forces against the French, was dismissed under a cloud of suspicion.

Lucrezia Borgia in the Family

In 1502, Lucrezia Borgia, sister of Cesare Borgia, arrived at Ferrara, to marry Isabella's brother, Alfonso, the Ferrara heir. Despite Lucrezia's reputation — her first two marriages did not end well for those husbands — it appears that Isabella welcomed her warmly at first, and others followed her lead.

But dealing with the Borgia family brought other challenges to Isabella's life. Isabella found herself negotiating with Lucrezia's brother Cesare Borgia who had overthrown the Duke of Urbino, husband of her sister-in-law and friend, Elisabetta Gonzaga.

As early as 1503, Isabella's new sister-in-law Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella's husband Francesco had begun an affair; passionate letters between the two survive. As might be expected, Isabella's initial welcome to Lucrezia turned to a coolness between them.​

Francesco's Changes

In 1509, Isabella's husband, Francesco, was captured by the forces of King Charles VIII of France and held in Venice as a prisoner. In his absence, Isabella served as regent, defending the city as commander of the city's forces. She negotiated a peace treaty that provided for her husband's safe return in 1512.

After this, the relationship between Francesco and Isabella deteriorated. He had already begun to be publicly unfaithful before his capture, and he returned quite ill. The affair with Lucrezia Borgia ended when he realized he had syphilis. He frequented prostitutes, and Isabella moved to Rome, where she was also quite popular and a center of arts and culture.


In 1519, when Francesco died (probably of syphilis), their eldest son Federico became the marquis. Isabella served as his regent until he became of age, and after that, her son took advantage of her popularity, keeping her in a prominent role in governing the city.

In 1527, again in Rome, Isabella d'Este bought a cardinalate for her son Ercole, paying 40,000 ducats to Pope Clement VII who needed money to face attacks by Bourbon forces. When the enemy attacked Rome, Isabella led the defense of her fortified property, and she and many who had taken refuge with her were spared when Rome was laid waste. Isabella's son Ferrante was among the Imperial troops.

Soon, Isabella returned to Mantua, where she led her city's recovery from illness and famine, which had killed almost one-third of the city's population.

The following year, Isabella went to Ferrara to welcome the new bride of Duke Ercole of Ferrara (son of Isabella's brother Alfonso and Lucrezia Borgia). He married Renée of France, daughter of Anne of Brittany and Louis XII, and sister of Claude, who married Francis I. Ercole and Renée had been married in Paris on June 28. Renée was herself a well-educated woman, a first cousin of Marguerite of Navarre. Renée and Isabella maintained a friendship, with Isabella taking special interest in Renée's daughter, Anna d'Este, even traveling to visit Renée after Alfonso's death when Renée was taken ill.

Isabella traveled quite a bit after her husband's death. Isabella was at Bologna in 1530 when Emperor Charles V was crowned by the Pope. She was able to convince the Emperor to raise her son's status to that of Duke of Mantua. She was also able to negotiate a marriage for him to Margherita Paleologa, an heiress; their son was born in 1533.

Isabella's relationship to her daughter, Leonora, was not as close as her relationship to her sons, Leonora having married at a very young age. As Isabella aged, she became closer to the daughter, who gave birth to one of her sons at Mantua; another son married a young girl of a family Isabella was close to.

Isabella d'Este became ruler in her own right of a small city-state, Solarolo in 1529. She actively governed that territory until she died in 1539.

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party featured Isabella d'Este as one of the place settings.

Background, Family

  • Mother: Eleonora of Aragon, also known as Leonora of Naples, daughter of Ferdinand I of Naples and Isabel de Claremont
  • Father: Ercole I d'Este, Marquis of Ferrara
  • Siblings:
    • Isabella, born 1474
    • Beatrice d'Este, June 29, 1475 - January 2, 1497
    • Alfonso, born 1476, married Lucrezia Borgia as his second wife
    • Ferrante, born 1477
    • Ippolitto, born 1479
    • Sigismondo, born 1480

Marriage, Children

  • husband: Marquis Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua (1466-1519) (married February 15, 1490; military leader and marquis)
  • children:
    • Leonora Violante Maria (December 31, 1493/1494 - 1570), married Francesco della Rovere, Duke of Urbino
    • daughter (1496-1496)
    • Federico (1500-1540), became first Duke of Mantua
    • Livia (1501-1508)
    • Ippolita (1503-1570), nun
    • Ercole (1505-1563), bishop then cardinal; once considered a likely candidate for Pope in 1559 though he was not selected
    • Ferrante (1507-1557), soldier for emperor Charles V, commander of Imperial army in Italy in 1537, served as Viceroy of Sicily 1535-1546 and governor of Milan 1546-1554; married Isabella di Capua in 1534; in modern-day legend, he is supposedly one of the Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion
    • Livia (1508-?), nun
    • Pietro (?)

Books About Isabella d'Este