Isabella d'Este Facts
Occupation: Marchioness (Marchessa) of Mantua, ruler, art collector and patron; actively involved in political intrigues among the interlocked nobles of Europe; successful collector of antiquities; also supported convents and monasteries, founded a girls' school in Mantua
Known for: role as patron of Renaissance learning, arts and literature;
Also known as: Isabel; First Lady of the Renaissance and First Lady of the World
Isabella d'Este Biography
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.
Isabella d'Este was born into the Ferraro 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.
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 was also close to Elisabetta Gonzaga, her sister-in-law, and wife 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.
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.
Isabella d'Este collected many art works 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.
Her first daughter, Leonora, was born in 1493 (sometimes given as 1494). She was named for Isabella's mother, who had died recently. A second daughter, who lived less than two months, was born in 1495.
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.
Isabella had been given a gold cradle as a gift at her daughter's birth. Isabella may have been an unusually powerful woman for her time, but she put aside the cradle until she finally had a son, Federico, in 1500, a Ferrara heir. Another son was born in 1505, Ercole, who would become a bishop, cardinal, and come close to winning the Papacy.