Biography of Isabella d'Este, Patron of the Renaissance

Isabella d'Este by Titian

Titian/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Isabella d'Este (May 19, 1474–February 13, 1539) was a patron of Renaissance learning, arts, and literature. She was actively involved in political intrigues among the nobles of Europe. Isabella left behind a voluminous correspondence of more than 2,000 letters, which provide much insight into the world of the Italian Renaissance.

Fast Facts: Isabella d'Este

  • Known For: Patron of the Italian Renaissance
  • Born: May 19, 1474 in Ferrara, Italy
  • Parents: Ercole I d'Este and Eleanor of Naples
  • Died: February 13, 1539 in Mantua, Italy
  • Spouse: Francesco Gonzaga (m. 1490-1519)
  • Children: 8

Early Life

Isabella d'Este was born into the noble Ferrara family of Ferra, Italy on May 19, 1474. She may have been named for her relative, Queen Isabella of Spain. She was the eldest in her large family, and, according to contemporary accounts, was her parents' favorite. Their second child was also a girl, Beatrice. Brothers Alfonso—the family heir—and Ferrante followed, and then two more brothers, Ippolitto and Sigismondo.

Education

Isabella's parents educated their daughters and sons equally. Isabella and her sister Beatrice both studied Latin and Greek, Roman history, music, astrology, and dancing. Isabella was accomplished enough in politics to debate with ambassadors when she was only 16.

When Isabella was six, she became betrothed to the future fourth Marquis of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga, whom she met the following year. They were married on February 15, 1490. Gonzaga 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 her marriage, even sending home for her Latin books. Her sister Beatrice married the Duke of Milan, and the sisters visited each other often.

Isabella 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 and also by Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna, Rubens, and others.

Patronage

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

Isabella collected many pieces of artwork over her lifetime, some for an art-filled private studio, essentially creating an art museum. She specified the content of some of these by commissioning particular works.

Motherhood

Isabella's first daughter Leonora Violante Maria was born in 1493 or 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 for less than two months, was born in 1496.

Having a male heir was important to Italian families in order 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, he later 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 became a cardinal and was nearly selected in 1559 to serve as Pope. Ferrante was born in 1507; he became a soldier and married into the di Capua family.

Arrival of Lucrezia Borgia

In 1502, Lucrezia Borgia, the sister of Cesare Borgia, arrived in 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. She found herself negotiating with Lucrezia's brother Cesare Borgia, who had overthrown the Duke of Urbino, the 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 survived. As might be expected, Isabella's initial welcome to Lucrezia turned to a coolness between them.​

Husband's Capture

In 1509, Isabella's husband Francesco was captured by the forces of King Charles VIII of France and was 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 episode, the relationship between Francesco and Isabella deteriorated. He had already begun to be publicly unfaithful before his capture and returned quite ill. The affair with Lucrezia Borgia ended when he realized he had syphilis. Isabella moved to Rome, where she was quite popular among the cultural elite.

Widowhood

In 1519, after Francesco died, Isabella's eldest son Federico became the marquis. Isabella served as his regent until he came of age, and after that, her son took advantage of her popularity, keeping her in a prominent role in the governing of the city.

In 1527, Isabella 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. Isabella's son Ferrante was among the Imperial troops.

Isabella soon returned to Mantua, where she led the city's recovery from illness and famine that killed almost one-third of the 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. 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 a special interest in Renée's daughter Anna d'Este.

Isabella traveled quite a bit after her husband's death. She was in 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 negotiated a marriage for him to Margherita Paleologa, an heiress. They had a son in 1533.

Death

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

Legacy

Isabella is best remembered for her support of numerous now-famous artists, including Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Raphael. Artist Judy Chicago—whose work explores the role of women in history—included Isabella d'Este in her famous piece "The Dinner Party."

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