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by John Sloan

Isabella d'Este Gonzaga was indeed a remarkable woman in her own right and she was also through her family and in-laws at the center of cultural and political life in early 16th century Italy. She is mentioned in most major books on the Renaissance, such as The Renaissance and the Reformation, by Henry Lucas, Harper and Row, But the most extensive biographical discussion I have is Maria Bellonci's chapter on Beatrice and Isabella d'Este in Renaissance Profiles ed. by J. H. Plumb, Harper Torchbooks. J. H. Plunb has also given us an excellent overview of the general situation of women in the Renaissance in his book, The Italian Renaissance, Harper Torchbook.

Some family background:

The d'Este family was of the Guelph party and their origins are obscure in the very early middle ages. It was possibly of Lombard origin and decended from the princes who governed Tuscany in Carolingian times. (That is around 800 AD). The lordship of the town of Este was first acquired by Alberto Azzo II, (died c. 1097) who also bore the title of Marquis of Italy. He married Kunitza, the sister of the Welf of Guelph III, duke of Carinthia. Welf died without issue and was succeeded by Welf IV, the son of Kunitza, He married a daughter of Otto II, duke of Bavaria, who had obtained the duchy in 1070. In this way the d'Este family became connected even as far north as the royal houses of Brunswick and Hanover and from there to England. The Italian lands were inherited by Folco I.(1060-1135). The family played a very important part throughout medieval and Renaissance periods. They were leaders of the Guelph party against the Ghibellines. This meant also of the papal party against the Imperial party.

Folco's son, Obizzo I, was first to bear the title of Marquis of Este. He fought against the Emperor Frederick I and was elested posesta of Padua in 1178. Obizzo's grandson, Azzo VI, (1170-1212) was also head of the Guelph party and was made the first lord of Ferrara by the people themselves. To keep the city he had to wage civil war with the Torelli family and their clients. For the next two hundred years the family was almost constantly at war against the German (Holy Roman) Emperors.

One of the next men of note in the family was Nicolo III, signor of Ferrara from 1402, who died in 1441. He also controlled Modena, Parma and Reggio and was captain general of the papal armies. The family held Ferrara in fief from the Pope, and they provided many strong military champions for the papal armies. Niccolo made Ferrara a strategic key point more powerful than its small size would indicate. Several of Niccolo's illegitimate as well as legitimate sons followed him in succession, Ercole being the first of the legitimate ones. Ercole d'Este, nicknamed "North Wind" and "The Diamond" for his icy personality, who came to the throne in 1471 and died in 1505, married Leonora of Aragon in 1473. She was the daughter of King Ferrante of Naples, thus connecting the d'Este's with a most powerful ruler indeed.

Ercole was at war with Venice over the salt monopoly, but managed to bring peace to the city during the final years of his reign. He began to make the city into an artistic and cultural center.

Isabella d'Este

Leonora d'Este was a great, queenly personality herself and brought even more good sense to an already unusually astute family. Their daughter, Isabella, was born in May 1474 and was welcomed by all with great pomp and joy. (A future son could wait.) But when Beatrice was born in June of 1475 the disappointment was profound. Only when Alfonso was born in 1476 and Ferrante in Sept of 1477 was jubilation returned to the city and its ruling house.

Leonora was in Naples attending the second wedding of her father when Ferrante was born and had taken the girls with her. Leonora was soon recalled to Ferrara, taking Isabella with her, but leaving Beatrice and Ferrante with their grandfather for eight years. One of Beatrice's cousins in Naples was Isabella of Aragon, the future wife of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, and her great rival at Milan. Meanwhile Isabella reigned as the favorite child in Ferrara.

Maria Bellonci gives a full description of her. The most outstanding of many outstanding attributes was her prodigious intellect. She discussed the classics and affairs of the day with ambassadors. She rapidly learned to translate Greek and Latin, could recite Virgil and Terrence from memory, was an expert with lute and singing, and an innovator with new dances. In 1480 Isabella was engaged (family politics naturally) to Francesco Gonzaga, heir to the Marquis of Mantua. (More on him later.) Shortly afterwards the great Lodovico Sforza (Il Moro) sent emissaries asking for her hand, but it was too late. Il Moro was technically regent of Milan in behalf of his nephew, but actually he ruled half of Italy. Il Moro had to settle for the younger Beatrice (25 years his junior) but he did not like it. Meanwhile their brother, Alfonse d'Este was engaged to Anna Sforza, the Duke of Milan's sister (Il Moro's niece). So Isabella was destined for a relatively happy marriage with a then 15 year old hero, and Beatrice was doomed to endure much pain at the more grandiose Milanese court. Beatrice, during her short reign, was noted for bringing Correggio, Castiglione, Bramante, and Leonardo da Vinci to Milan. The splendor the castle of Milan and the Certosa of Pavia and much more are due largely to her good taste.

In 1490, after a ten year engagement, Isabella at age 16 married the 25 year old, now-reigning Marquis of Mantua amid a spectacular outpouring of popular acclamation. Her new 18 year old sister-in-law was the equally incomparable Elisabetta Gonzaga, wife of Guidobaldo Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. (See our article on the Dukes.) His father, Federigo, had been educated at the Mantua court, one of the centers of learning of Italy. Thus were three of the great centers of Renaissance culture and learning united by family connections. Isabella d'Este Gonzaga became fast friends with Elisabetta Gonzaga Montefeltro. It was at Elizabetta's court that Castiglione wrote his famous "Courtier" depicting the epitome of high Renaissance culture. At 16 Isabella was already well versed in politics and ready to play her important role in Italian affairs. Her husband was one of the more ugly men but a heroic soldier and perfect gentleman.

The house of Gonzaga likewise went well back into the middle ages. Gian Francesco I was Signor of Mantua, when he died in 1407. His son of the same name became the first marquis before his death in 1444. He received the title from the Emperor Sigismund for excellent services rendered as a great general. The title passed to his grandson, Federigo I, another famous general, married to Margaret of Bavaria. At Federigo's death in 1484 Francesco I became Marquis.

Meanwhile, Beatrice had to wait in Ferrara for the reluctant Lodovico Il Moro, who was enamored with his current mistress, until Ercole d"Este applied some pressure. The wedding of Beatrice in January 1491 was even more sumptuous and extravagant than that of her sister, but it was held in the gorgeous palace in Pavia, rather than Milan. Leonardo da Vinci and Bramante were among the artists set to record the event. The following morning Il Moro departed for Milan, leaving Beatrice with the magnificent library. When the bride was finally brought to Milan, accompanied by her mother and Isabella, the celebrations were suitably spectacular and she responded with a much remarked display of feminine charm designed to win over her new husband. Back in Mantua Isabella watched and learned even more of power politics as her older brother-in-law (Il Moro) connived for power against his own nephew, the unfortunate Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza. And her sister, Beatrice, became the rival of her cousin, Isabella of Aragon, Gian Galeazzo's wife and hence the ruling Duchess. In 1493 Beatrice solidified her ascendency by bearing Il Moro a son, Ercole.
Then came the thunderclap that rocked all Italy. The French King, Charles VIII, crossed the Alps with an army equipped with artillery. As Machiavelli noted, he merely marked the places he wanted with chalk.
In 1494 Gian Galeazzo died of tuberculosis, enabling Il Moro to seize the throne and obtain the title from Emperor Maximilian. Thus did Beatrice supplant Isabella of Aragon as ruling Duchess of Milan, as Isabella d'Este watched and gained in wisdom. Il Moro had welcomed Charles VIII to Italy, thinking the campaign would help him, but he was soon to learn otherwise. While Charles easily took Naples, most of Italy united against him. Isabella d"Este's husband, the Marquis Francesco Gonzaga, was captain general of the united forces. Charles beat a hasty retreat up the peninsula and was met by Francesco at Fornovo di Taro. The Italian detachments were disunited and performed poorly, while the French new army was effective, thus enabling Charles to escape.

In 1497 Beatrice died in childbirth and the French deposed Il Moro in favor of their own king (who had a claim as duke as well). Even when Il More languished the rest of his life (until 1500) in Loches castle, Isabella continued to correspond with him. Isabella had not much time for sorrow, with the French closing in now on Mantua and their ally, Cesare Borgia, marching north through the Romagna. She had to endure even more disgust when her brother, Alfonso, (whose wife Anna had died) was married to the notorious Lucrezia Borgia who thereby became Duchess of Ferrara. At this point the notorious Cesare invaded Urbino and forced Guidobaldo Montefeltro and his wife, Elizabetta, to flee to Mantua, where they were ably defended by Isabella. When the Borgia pope died and Cesare was sent packing to Spain, the Montefeltro's regained Urbino.

Through all this Isabella acquired the skills of a true Machiavelli, although the Florentine secretary had yet to write his books. She maintained good government in Mantua through securing the loyalty of her people, as Machiavelli counseled. Then, in 1509, her warrior husband, Francesco, commander of the army of the League of Cambrai and Standard Bearer of the Church, was captured in his sleep and taken hostage to Venice. As regent, Isabella took command of the city's military forces and successfully held off the enemy hosts. She ordered the fortress commanders to refuse any enemy entry, even should her husband be brought to the gates and threatened with death. She was a lot tougher than her noted husband. Unfortunately, for domestic relations, she ruled only TOO well. When her weak husband returned after the peace treaty in 1512, he was none too happy at having been shown up. With her husband ignoring her, Isabella decided on travel. She went to Rome, to the court of Pope Leo X, where she lived like a queen and was the center of public attention.

In 1519 her husband died from a long illness. Her 19 year old son, Federigo II, became Marquis, but Isabella again was the real power as regent. Another son, Ercole, was a cardinal and one of her daughters, Leonora, was wife of Francesco Maria, the new Duke of Urbino. Ercole was a major leader of the Council of Trent, very nearly a pope, and eventually also a regent of the duchy of Mantua. And the third son, Ferrante, became a fine general and Viceroy of Milan. Again, Isabella saw the political storm brewing between Emperor Charles V and French King Francis I, with Florence, Rome and the smaller cities of Italy pawns to be sacrificed at either's whim. Federigo was amusing himself with his mistress, the famous La Boschetta and gradually supplanting his mother. Federigo also was captain general of the papal armies. In 1530 he was made Duke of Mantua by Charles V.
Isabella's brother, Alphonso I d'Este, (1486-1534) was one of the great military captains of his age. He early on recognized the importance of artillery and created an artillery park for Mantua far above that of contemporaries, so that he was in constant demand to supply artillery to larger armies. He also was appointed captain general of the papal armies (by Pope Julius II in 1508). After Venice and the pope became allies, Alphonso sided with the French and brought his excellent artillery to Ravenna in 1512 where it was instrumental in the famous victory.

In 1525 Isabella traveled again to Rome to the court of another Medici, the new Pope, Clement VII. Thus she was caught in the city when, thanks to the malfeasance of her son, Federigo, and son-in-law, Francesco, the commanders of the papal army, who failed to block the mountain passes, the terrible landsknechts of Charles V arrived to sack the sacred city on May 6, 1527. Once again she defended her fortified position (in the Colonna villa) and gave aid and comfort to refugees.
After the German storm had dissipated, Isabella returned to Mantua, where the tremendous popular support for his mother forced Federigo to abide by her counsel. She finally married him off to Margherita, heiress of Monferrato, a brilliant coup. Outliving both Elizabeth and Beatrice, in her 60's Isabella made Mantua a cultural center and her ducal apartments a museum of the finest Italian art. Isabella was patroness of many of the great artists of the Renaissance including Raphael, Andrea Mantegna and Giulio Romano. She was greatly influenced as was her sister-in- law by Baldassare Castiglione. She was called a rare Phoenix by contemporaries. But artistic patronage did not suffice. Although the government of Mantua was in the hands of her son, she took particular pleasure from another source. She was the personal ruler of a tiny part of the Romagna, Solarolo by name. This she continued to govern with all the trappings of state. Her secretaries and officials filed their official reports and waited on her orders right up to her death in 1539.

Florence gets most of the attention in general histories of the Renaissance, as well it should, being so much larger. But between them, the trio, Ferrara, Mantua and Urbino, certainly deserve a distinguished place. And over the three, the presence and influence of Isabella d'Este certainly played a significant role. Eugene Muntz wrote, "she was undoubtedly among all the princesses of the 15th and 16th centuries the one who most strikingly and perfectly personified the aspirations of the Renaissance". The house of d'Este was one of the greatest powers of Italy for over two centuries, and Isabella was present at the apogee. She made her court the most splendid in Europe, not only in ceremony and luxury but also in artistic and scholarly achievement.
History is made by individuals and this was one of the great ones who create a whole setting around themselves.

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