Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Isabella D'Este, the Grand Lady of Renaissance

EBJ- Series: Legendary Women in History
painting by Titian
Born in Ferrara (1474), and the eldest of six children, Isabella was raised in a household where culture, politics and the arts were ever-present.  Her parents’ favourite, Isabella was extremely intelligent and a delightful conversationalist.

She was such an avid learner of politics that by the age of sixteen she was already debating with ambassadors and politicians.  Sixteen was also the age she married her betrothed, Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua and General of the Venetian army (she actually knew–and was promised to him since the age of six!).  With a flair for fashion, an eye for great art work, a passion for music and literature, a love of history and languages, and a knack for politics- this blonde beauty also had charisma to boot.

Not only could Isabella influence fashion and set trends, renowned artists such as Titian, Raphael, and the great Leonardo- all regularly spent time earning her patronage. As for politics, Isabella’s keen sense of governing and tactful understanding of her people earned her great respect as commander and ruler as well.
In fact, Isabella always governed in place of her husband while he was away- and while he was imprisoned in Venice under captivity of King Charles VIII of France, she was regent for three years.  She would later go on to rule as regent for her own son (the heir) after the death of Francesco.  And, ultimately, Isabella would become sole ruler of Solarolo for ten years, up until her death in 1529. 

As for the arts, Isabella had a passion for all that was beauty and knowledge.  Fluent in both Greek and Latin, and a lover of Roman history, Isabella kept her mind filled with culture.  She also played several musical instruments and delighted particularly in playing the lute.  Surrounding herself with great artists, her affinity and exquisite taste led her to the opening of her own ducal salons as private museums containing her private art collection.  Isabella furthered her mission by expanding and making art and culture accessible by opening a school for girls.  Having been taught no differently than her own brothers, Isabella understood the importance and benefit that educating girls can have on society.  In her own private time, Isabella also loved to write.  History has preserved a significant number of letters of correspondence shared with her well-beloved sister-in-law, Elisabetta Gonzaga.

What about her love life? As mentioned previously, Isabella and Francesco knew eachother from when they were little.  Theirs began as a love that seemed to forever flourish (they did go on to having eight children together!).  But alas their story was not all paradise-like.  Francesco was to spoil all that by begetting himself the mistress of mistresses…the ultimate Lucrezia Borgia herself! 

Lucrezia was married to Isabella’s younger brother- and no sooner did she come into the family that the affair commenced.  A rival to Isabella (but in no way culturally comparable- or beloved by all), Lucrezia put a huge damper in what was once a blissful marriage.  But in the end Isabella would be the one to come out triumphant, if one is to revisit the history:  Lucrezia lived a horrid life and Francesco is believed to have died of syphilis.  

Isabella instead went down in history as a patron of Renaissance, arts and literature.  To quote Niccolo da Correggio, Isabella rightfully earned the title of  ‘First Lady of the World’.
Note: in the above painting, Titian painted Isabella as she looked in her 60's, but because she did not like herself as such, she demanded he repaint her as she looked when she was in her 20's! Spunky as well as smart;

From History and Women

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Those Scandalous Etruscan Women

Those Scandalous Etruscan Women


Barbara Lambert


The Whirling Girl

If there were a prize for getting unfairly bad-mouthed in ancient history, Etruscan women would likely win hands down. The Greeks and later Romans said terrible things about them: lascivious, lewd, sybaritic, totally out of control. Imagine! Etruscan women “attended banquets” where they “sat under the same blankets as their husbands!” – a behavior that had them compared to hetairai (basically courtesans or prostitutes: the only women allowed at Greek parties). Even Aristotle tut-tutted.
Not only did Etruscan wives scandalously go out in public -- and entertain lavishly, wear glorious jewellery, indulge a clothing sense that is recorded in frescos, statuary, and the bronze mirrors etched with sometimes rather racy scenes that give us fascinating detail of how fashion changed down the centuries – but they also learned to read and write. (We know the danger of that!) They were rumored to raise their own children, too. Presumably passing along the dire literary habit. 

Before the rise of Rome as a super power, the Etruscans ruled almost the whole of Italy. Their ships dominated the surrounding seas. Fearsome enough, as news of them spread abroad, without the added queasiness of hearing how Etruscan society accorded women influence and power.

Hard to say where this all started. With Tanaquil? Who used her soothsaying powers to persuade her Etruscan husband, Lucius Tarquin, that he could become the first Etruscan king of Rome?

Or maybe the bad rap began with Tullia, her successor, who arranged a series of murders to keep the dynasty in the family -- finally convincing her husband that her own father should be murdered, then publicly driving her chariot over his body to make sure. This ruthless streak was passed along to the third of the Tarquin kings, Tarquin the Proud, whose son finally brought down the dynasty with the infamous “rape of Lucretia”. After that, the Etruscan Tarquins were driven from Rome, and a Republic was established.

Granted, the Tarquins turned out to be an overbearing lot (though responsible for any number of remarkable advancements in the Rome). But surely it’s unfair for the whole of Etruscan womanhood to be tainted by their extremes.

One of the reasons that the Etruscans, in general, gained a reputation for libertine excesses is that none of their literature survives. Their enemies got the last word in, literally. At least, until archaeology came along to tell a different story.

We know, now, that women in Etruria were accorded dignity and respect, right across the spectrum of family and public and religious life. And speaking of those children, whom so scandalously they “raised”, there are many statues, carvings and ex-votos, large and small, showing images of women not just raising, but breast-feeding their children – images so like Medieval and Renaissance depictions of “Madonna and Child” that it’s hard not to wonder at their influence on the great masterpieces of later Italian religious art.

So yes, they loved to party – but even in lavish “elite” tombs, their favorite things to take along to the after life included loom weights, spindle-whorls, and much further evidence of dedication to the home based industries that made such a major contribution to their society’s commercial wealth.

Still, they were scandalous, these Etruscan women. They rode horses (shockingly, “astride”, as recent analysis of a female skeleton has affirmed); some even had their own chariots (discovered buried with them in their graves); and unlike Roman women who had no names of their own (but were known just as their fathers’ daughters or their husbands’ wives) Etruscan women passed on both name and rank to their children, along with distinct legal rights. Not only did they own their names, but they had a distinct  sense of ownership of their bodies – as excavation of Etruscan “healing sanctuaries” has revealed, where miniature bronze or terracotta reproductions of the most intimate female body parts have been discovered, along with other votive offerings.

No wonder they were tut-tutted at. What a threat they truly must have seemed, to other “decently ordered” cultures of the ancient world. Across society at large, their like was not seen again till modern times. 

And even now – ah, even now!

But that is another story.

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From History and Women