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

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SantaTatiana said…
Thank you very much for this beautiful post! We were in Ferrara this fall and I'm eager to know as much as possible about fabulous d'Este family.