Isabella d'Este

Isabella d'Este

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Isabella d'Este was Marchesa of Mantua
Mantua is a city and comune in Lombardy, Italy and capital of the province of the same name. Mantua's historic power and influence under the Gonzaga family, made it one of the main artistic, cultural and notably musical hubs of Northern Italy and the country as a whole...

 and one of the leading women of the Italian
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

 as a major cultural and political figure. She was a patron of the arts as well as a leader of fashion, whose innovative style of dressing was copied by women throughout Italy and at the French court. The poet Ariosto lauded her as the "liberal and magnanimous Isabella", while author Matteo Bandello described her as having been "supreme among women". Diplomat Niccolò da Correggio went even further by hailing her as "The First Lady of the world".

She served as the regent
A regent, from the Latin regens "one who reigns", is a person selected to act as head of state because the ruler is a minor, not present, or debilitated. Currently there are only two ruling Regencies in the world, sovereign Liechtenstein and the Malaysian constitutive state of Terengganu...

 of Mantua during the absence of her husband, Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua
Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua
Francesco II Gonzaga was the ruler of the Italian city of Mantua from 1484 until his death.-Biography:Gonzaga was born in Mantua, the son of Marquess Federico I Gonzaga. He had a career as a condottiero acting as Venice's commander from 1489 to 1498...

 and the minority of her son, Federico, Duke of Mantua. In 1500 she met King Louis XII of France
Louis XII of France
Louis proved to be a popular king. At the end of his reign the crown deficit was no greater than it had been when he succeeded Charles VIII in 1498, despite several expensive military campaigns in Italy. His fiscal reforms of 1504 and 1508 tightened and improved procedures for the collection of taxes...

 in Milan
Milan is the second-largest city in Italy and the capital city of the region of Lombardy and of the province of Milan. The city proper has a population of about 1.3 million, while its urban area, roughly coinciding with its administrative province and the bordering Province of Monza and Brianza ,...

 on a diplomatic mission to persuade him not to send his troops against Mantua.

She was a prolific letter-writer, and maintained a lifelong correspondence with her sister-in-law Elisabetta Gonzaga
Elisabetta Gonzaga
Elisabetta Gonzaga was a noblewoman of the Italian Renaissance, renowned for her cultured and virtuous life. A member of the noble House of Gonzaga, she was a sister of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua and by marriage the Duchess of Urbino...

. Lucrezia Borgia
Lucrezia Borgia
Lucrezia Borgia [luˈkrɛtsia ˈbɔrʤa] was the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, the powerful Renaissance Valencian who later became Pope Alexander VI, and Vannozza dei Cattanei. Her brothers included Cesare Borgia, Giovanni Borgia, and Gioffre Borgia...

 was another sister-in-law; she later became the mistress of Isabella's husband.

Early life

Due to the vast amount of extant correspondence between Isabella and her family and friends, her life is unusually well-documented. She was born on Tuesday 19 May 1474 at nine o'clock in the evening in Ferrara
Ferrara is a city and comune in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, capital city of the Province of Ferrara. It is situated 50 km north-northeast of Bologna, on the Po di Volano, a branch channel of the main stream of the Po River, located 5 km north...

, to Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara and Leonora of Naples
Leonora of Naples
Eleanor of Naples was, by marriage, the first Duchess of Ferrara....

. Leonora was the daughter of Ferdinand I
Ferdinand I of Naples
Ferdinand I , also called Don Ferrante, was the King of Naples from 1458 to 1494. He was the natural son of Alfonso V of Aragon by Giraldona Carlino.-Biography:...

, the Aragonese King of Naples, and Isabella of Taranto
Isabella of Taranto
Isabella of Taranto , born Isabella of Clermont, was a Princess of Taranto in her own right and first Queen consort of Ferdinand I of Naples.-Family:...

. Isabella was received with great joy, although a son had been hoped for.

One year later on 29 June 1475 her sister Beatrice d'Este
Beatrice d'Este
Beatrice d'Este , duchess of Milan, one of the most beautiful and accomplished princesses of the Italian Renaissance, was the daughter of Ercole I d'Este and younger sister of Isabella d'Este and Alfonso d'Este....

 was born, and in 1476 and 1477 two brothers, Alfonso and Ippolito
Ippolito d'Este
Ippolito d'Este was an Italian Roman Catholic cardinal, and Archbishop of Esztergom. He was a member of the House of Este.-Biography:...

 arrived. In 1479 and 1480 two more brothers were born; they were Ferrante and Sigismondo. Of all the children Isabella was considered to have been the favourite.

In 1479, the year of Ferrante's birth, Isabella travelled to Naples with her mother. When her mother returned to Ferrara, Isabella accompanied her, while the other children stayed behind with their grandfather for eight years. It was during the journey with her mother, that Isabella acquired the art of diplomacy and statecraft.


Isabella, being naturally gifted and intellectually precocious in her youth, received an excellent education. As a child she studied Roman history, and rapidly learned to translate Greek and Latin (the former would become her favourite language). Because of her outstanding intellect, she often discussed the classics and the affairs of state with ambassadors. Moreover, she was personally acquainted with the painters, musicians, writers, and scholars, who lived in and around the court. Besides her knowledge of history and languages, she could also recite Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

 and Terence
Publius Terentius Afer , better known in English as Terence, was a playwright of the Roman Republic, of North African descent. His comedies were performed for the first time around 170–160 BC. Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, brought Terence to Rome as a slave, educated him and later on,...

 by heart. Isabella was also a talented singer and musician, and was taught to play the lute
Lute can refer generally to any plucked string instrument with a neck and a deep round back, or more specifically to an instrument from the family of European lutes....

 by Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa
Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa
Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa was an Italian lutenist and singer. He was born in Pavia and worked in Milan, Mantua, Ferrara and many other cities. Testagrossa was a renowned teacher; his pupils included Isabella d'Este...

  In addition to all these admirable accomplishments, she also was an innovator of new dances, having been instructed in the art by Ambrogio, a Jewish dancing master.

She was described as having been physically attractive, albeit slightly plump; however, she also possessed "lively eyes" and was "of lively grace".

In 1480, at the age of six, Isabella was betrothed to Gianfrancesco, the heir to the Marquis of Mantua. Although he was not handsome, Isabella admired him for his strength and bravery; she also regarded him as a gentleman. After their first few encounters, she found that she enjoyed his company and spent the next few years getting to know him and preparing herself to be the Marchesa of Mantua. During their courtship, Isabella treasured the letters, poems, and sonnets he sent her as gifts.


Ten years later on 11 February 1490, at age 16, she married Francesco Gonzaga
Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua
Francesco II Gonzaga was the ruler of the Italian city of Mantua from 1484 until his death.-Biography:Gonzaga was born in Mantua, the son of Marquess Federico I Gonzaga. He had a career as a condottiero acting as Venice's commander from 1489 to 1498...

, who had by then succeeded to the marquisate. Isabella became his wife and Marchesa amid a spectacular outpouring of popular acclamation. Besides Marquis, Francesco was also Captain General of the armies of the Republic of Venice
Republic of Venice
The Republic of Venice or Venetian Republic was a state originating from the city of Venice in Northeastern Italy. It existed for over a millennium, from the late 7th century until 1797. It was formally known as the Most Serene Republic of Venice and is often referred to as La Serenissima, in...

. She brought as her marriage portion, the sum of 3,000 ducats besides valuable jewellery, dishes, and a silver service. Prior to the magnificent banquet which followed the wedding ceremony, Isabella rode through the main streets of Ferrara astride a horse draped in gems and gold.

As the couple had known and admired one another for many years, their mutual attraction deepened into love; marriage to Francesco allegedly caused Isabella to "bloom". At the time of her wedding, Isabella was said to have been pretty, slim, graceful and well-dressed. Her long, fine hair was dyed pale blonde, and her eyes, "brown as fir cones in autumn, scattered laughter".

Francesco, in his capacity of Captain General of the Venetian armies, was often required to go to Venice
Venice is a city in northern Italy which is renowned for the beauty of its setting, its architecture and its artworks. It is the capital of the Veneto region...

 for conferences which left Isabella in Mantua on her own at La Reggia the ancient palace which was the family seat
Family seat
A seat or family seat is the principal residence of a family. The residence usually denotes the social, economic, political, or historic connection of the family within a given area. Some families took their dynasty name from their family seat , or named their family seat after their own dynasty...

 of the Gonzagas. She did not lack company, however, as she passed the time with her mother and sister, Beatrice; and upon meeting Elisabetta Gonzaga, her 18-year-old sister-in-law, the two women became close friends. They enjoyed reading books, playing cards, and travelling about the countryside together. Once they journeyed as far as Lake Garda
Lake Garda
Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy. It is located in Northern Italy, about half-way between Brescia and Verona, and between Venice and Milan. Glaciers formed this alpine region at the end of the last ice age...

 during one of Francesco's absences, and later travelled to Venice. They maintained a steady correspondence until Elisabetta's death in 1526.

Almost four years after her marriage in December 1493, Isabella gave birth to her first child out of an eventual total of eight; it was a daughter, Eleonora, whom they called Leonora for short.


Together Isabella and Francesco had eight children:
  • Eleonora Gonzaga (31 December 1493 – 13 February 1570), married Francesco Maria I della Rovere
    Francesco Maria I della Rovere
    Francesco Maria I della Rovere was an Italian condottiero, who was Duke of Urbino from 1508 until 1538.- Biography :...

    , Duke of Urbino, by whom she had issue.
  • Margherita Gonzaga (13 July 1496 – 22 September 1496).
  • Federico II, Duke of Mantua (17 May 1500 – 28 August 1540), married Margaret Paleologa, by whom he had issue.
  • Livia Gonzaga (1501 – January 1508).
  • Ippolita Gonzaga (13 November 1503 – 16 March 1570), a nun.
  • Ercole Gonzaga
    Ercole Gonzaga
    Ercole Gonzaga was an Italian Cardinal.-Biography:Born in Mantua, he was the son of the Marquess Francesco Gonzaga, and nephew of Cardinal Sigismondo Gonzaga...

     (23 November 1505 – 2 March 1563), Cardinal, Bishop of Mantua.
  • Ferrante Gonzaga
    Ferrante Gonzaga
    Ferrante I Gonzaga was an Italian condottiero, a member of the House of Gonzaga and the founder of the branch of the Gonzaga of Guastalla.-Biography:...

     (28 January 1507 – 15 November 1557), a condottiero; married Isabella di Capua, by whom he had issue.
  • Paola Gonzaga (August 1508 – 1569), a nun.

Lucrezia Borgia

A year after her marriage to Isabella's brother, Alfonso in 1502, the notorious Lucrezia Borgia
Lucrezia Borgia
Lucrezia Borgia [luˈkrɛtsia ˈbɔrʤa] was the illegitimate daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, the powerful Renaissance Valencian who later became Pope Alexander VI, and Vannozza dei Cattanei. Her brothers included Cesare Borgia, Giovanni Borgia, and Gioffre Borgia...

 became the mistress of Francesco. Isabella had given birth to a daughter, Ippolita at about the same time, and she continued to bear him children throughout Francesco and Lucrezia's long, passionate affair, which was more sexual than romantic. Lucrezia had previously made overtures of friendship to Isabella which the latter had coldly and disdainfully ignored. From the time Lucrezia had first arrived in Ferrara as Alfonso's intended bride, Isabella, despite having acted as hostess during the wedding festivities, had regarded Lucrezia as a rival, whom she sought to outdo at every opportunity. Francesco's affair with Lucrezia, whose beauty was renowned, caused Isabella much jealous suffering and emotional pain. Their liaison ended when he contracted syphilis
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum. The primary route of transmission is through sexual contact; however, it may also be transmitted from mother to fetus during pregnancy or at birth, resulting in congenital syphilis...

 as a result of encounters with prostitutes.


Isabella played an important role in Mantua during the city's troubled times. When her husband was captured in 1509 and held hostage in Venice, she took control of Mantua's military forces and held off their invaders until his release in 1512. In the same year 1512, she was the hostess at the Congress of Mantua, which was held to settle questions concerning Florence and Milan. As a ruler, she appeared to have been much more assertive and competent than her husband. When apprised of this fact upon his return, Francesco was furious and humiliated at being upstaged by his wife's superior political ability. This caused their marriage to break down irrevocably. As a result of their marital strike, Isabella began to travel freely and live independently from her husband until his death on 19 March 1519.

After the death of her husband, Isabella ruled Mantua as regent for her son, Federico
Frederick II, Duke of Mantua
Federico II of Gonzaga was the ruler of the Italian city of Mantua from 1519 until his death. He was also Marquis of Montferrat from 1536.-Biography:...

. She commenced to play an increasingly important role in Italian politics, steadily advancing Mantua's position. She was instrumental in promoting Mantua to a Duchy, which was obtained by wise diplomatic use of her son's marriage contracts. She also succeeded in obtaining a cardinal
Cardinal (Catholicism)
A cardinal is a senior ecclesiastical official, usually an ordained bishop, and ecclesiastical prince of the Catholic Church. They are collectively known as the College of Cardinals, which as a body elects a new pope. The duties of the cardinals include attending the meetings of the College and...

ate for her son Ercole
Ercole Gonzaga
Ercole Gonzaga was an Italian Cardinal.-Biography:Born in Mantua, he was the son of the Marquess Francesco Gonzaga, and nephew of Cardinal Sigismondo Gonzaga...

. She further displayed a shrewd political acumen in her negotiations with Cesare Borgia
Cesare Borgia
Cesare Borgia , Duke of Valentinois, was an Italian condottiero, nobleman, politician, and cardinal. He was the son of Pope Alexander VI and his long-term mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei. He was the brother of Lucrezia Borgia; Giovanni Borgia , Duke of Gandia; and Gioffre Borgia , Prince of Squillace...

, who had dispossessed Guidobaldo da Montefeltro
Guidobaldo da Montefeltro
thumb|240px|Portrait of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro by [[Raphael]].Guidobaldo da Montefeltro , also known as Guidobaldo I, was an Italian condottiero and the Duke of Urbino from 1482 to 1508.-Biography:...

, duke of Urbino, the husband of her sister-in-law and good friend Elisabetta Gonzaga
Elisabetta Gonzaga
Elisabetta Gonzaga was a noblewoman of the Italian Renaissance, renowned for her cultured and virtuous life. A member of the noble House of Gonzaga, she was a sister of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua and by marriage the Duchess of Urbino...

 in 1502.

Cultural pursuits and diplomatic missions

Throughout her marriage and during her regency, when she was not conducting affairs of state, Isabella preferred to spend her free time engaged in cultural pursuits. She read books, wrote letters, and played the lute (see Bartolomeo Tromboncino
Bartolomeo Tromboncino
Bartolomeo Tromboncino was an Italian composer of the middle Renaissance. He is mainly famous as a composer of frottola; he is principally infamous for murdering his wife...

). She enjoyed the latter so much that she soon wished to experiment with all the new musical instruments that were being made available. In addition to playing music, she collected art, and sponsored philosophers, poets, and painters, such as Titian
Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1488/1490 – 27 August 1576 better known as Titian was an Italian painter, the most important member of the 16th-century Venetian school. He was born in Pieve di Cadore, near...

, Raphael
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino , better known simply as Raphael, was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for its visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur...

, Giovanni Bellini
Giovanni Bellini
Giovanni Bellini was an Italian Renaissance painter, probably the best known of the Bellini family of Venetian painters. His father was Jacopo Bellini, his brother was Gentile Bellini, and his brother-in-law was Andrea Mantegna. He is considered to have revolutionized Venetian painting, moving it...

, and Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

. She repeatedly requested that Leonardo should paint her but only a drawing was made. She complained in a letter to Leonardo that her husband had given the sketch away and requested another, which she never received. Her requests for a painting of any subject were also ignored.

Being a leader of fashion, she ordered the finest clothing, including furs as well as the newest distillations of perfume, which she concocted herself and sent as presents. Her style of dressing in simple, boyish caps contrasting with gowns that were richly embroidered with plunging décolletage that revealed the nipples, was imitated throughout Italy and at the French court. Anne of Brittany
Anne of Brittany
Anne, Duchess of Brittany , also known as Anna of Brittany , was a Breton ruler, who was to become queen to two successive French kings. She was born in Nantes, Brittany, and was the daughter of Francis II, Duke of Brittany and Margaret of Foix. Her maternal grandparents were Queen Eleanor of...

, Queen consort of Louis XII often copied Isabella, who had a fashion doll made in her likeness.

Isabella had met the French king in Milan in 1500 on a successful diplomatic mission which she had undertaken to protect Mantua from French invasion. Louis had been impressed by her alluring personality and keen intelligence. It was while she was being entertained by Louis, whose troops occupied Milan, that she offered asylum to Milanese refugees including Cecilia Gallerani
Cecilia Gallerani
Cecilia Gallerani , born in Siena, Italy, was the favourite and most celebrated of the many mistresses of Ludovico Sforza, known as Lodovico il Moro, Duke of Milan. She is best known as the subject of Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Lady with an Ermine...

, the refined mistress of her sister Beatrice's husband, Ludovico Sforza
Ludovico Sforza
Ludovico Sforza , was Duke of Milan from 1489 until his death. A member of the Sforza family, he was the fourth son of Francesco Sforza. He was famed as a patron of Leonardo da Vinci and other artists, and presided over the final and most productive stage of the Milanese Renaissance...

, Duke of Milan, who had been forced to leave his duchy in the wake of French occupation. Isabella presented Cecilia to King Louis, describing her as a "lady of rare gifts and charm".

"Devoted head of state"

As a widow, Isabella at the age of 45 became a "devoted head of state". Her position as a Marchesa required her serious attention, therefore she was required to study the problems faced by a ruler of a city-state. To improve the well-being of her subjects she studied architecture, agriculture, and industry, and followed the principles that Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian historian, philosopher, humanist, and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance. He is one of the main founders of modern political science. He was a diplomat, political philosopher, playwright, and a civil servant of the Florentine Republic...

 had set forth for rulers in his book The Prince
The Prince
The Prince is a political treatise by the Italian diplomat, historian and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. From correspondence a version appears to have been distributed in 1513, using a Latin title, De Principatibus . But the printed version was not published until 1532, five years after...

. In return, the people of Mantua respected and loved her.
Isabella left Mantua for Rome in 1527 after having been involved in a conflict with her son. She was present during the catastrophic Sack of Rome
Sack of Rome (1527)
The Sack of Rome on 6 May 1527 was a military event carried out by the mutinous troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in Rome, then part of the Papal States...

, when she converted her house into an asylum for about 2000 people fleeing the Imperial soldiers. Isabella's house was one of the very few which was not attacked, due to the fact that her son was a member of the invading army. When she left, she managed to acquire safe passage for all the refugees who had sought refuge in her home.

Later years and death

After Rome became stabilised following the sacking, she left the city, and returned to Mantua. She made it a centre of culture, started a school for girls, and turned her ducal apartments into a museum containing the finest art treasures. This was not enough to satisfy Isabella, already in her mid-60s, so she returned to political life and ruled Solarolo
Solarolo is a comune in the Province of Ravenna in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, located about 40 km southeast of Bologna and about 30 km west of Ravenna...

, in Romagna
Emilia–Romagna is an administrative region of Northern Italy comprising the two historic regions of Emilia and Romagna. The capital is Bologna; it has an area of and about 4.4 million inhabitants....

 until her death on 13 February 1539.


During her lifetime and after her death, poets, popes, and statesmen paid tribute to Isabella. Pope Leo X
Pope Leo X
Pope Leo X , born Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici, was the Pope from 1513 to his death in 1521. He was the last non-priest to be elected Pope. He is known for granting indulgences for those who donated to reconstruct St. Peter's Basilica and his challenging of Martin Luther's 95 Theses...

 invited her to treat him with "as much friendliness as you would your brother". The latter's secretary Pietro Bembo
Pietro Bembo
Pietro Bembo was an Italian scholar, poet, literary theorist, and cardinal. He was an influential figure in the development of the Italian language, specifically Tuscan, as a literary medium, and his writings assisted in the 16th-century revival of interest in the works of Petrarch...

 described her as "one of the wisest and most fortunate of women; while the poet Ariosto deemed her the "liberal and magnanimous Isabella". Author Matteo Bandello wrote that she was "supreme among women", and the diplomat Niccolò da Correggio entitled her "The First Lady of the world".

Further reading

George, L., The Public Perception of Isabella d'Este, Clio History Journal, 2009.