Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, February 13, 2015

Isabella d'Este, "la prima donna del mondo"

Isabella d'Este, marchesa of Mantua (died 13 February 1539)

Let Your Highness, I beg of you, keep a tranquil mind and attend wholly to military affairs, for I intend to govern the state with the help of these magnificent gentlemen and officials in such a manner that you will suffer no wrong, and all that is possible will be done for the good of your subjects. And if anyone should write or tell you of disorders of which you have not heard from me, you may be certain that it is a lie, because, since I not only give audience to officials but allow all your subjects to speak to me whenever they choose, no disturbance can arise without my knowledge.
--Isabella d'Este, marchioness of Mantua, to her husband,
Francesco Gonzaga, 30 June 1495
Isabella d'Este was widely praised by her contemporaries--for the poet Niccolò da Corréggio, she was, quite simply, "the first lady of the world" (la prima donna del mondo).

Isabella d'Este was the daughter of Eleanor of Naples and Ercole d'Este, duke of Ferrara.* Today, she may be best known for Karen Essex's historical novel, Leonardo's Swans, or for her dealings with Leonardo da Vinci--details of which appear in many Leonardo biographies. Although her life provides ample material for fiction, and although she was one of the most acquisitive collectors of art and artists, Isabella is also an impressive politician, diplomat, and ruler.

Titian's portrait of Isabella d'Este,
c. 1534-36
(painted when Isabella was in her 60s--
Titian offered a flattering, idealized image)
In 1480 Isabella, not yet six years old, was betrothed to Francesco Gonzaga, son and heir of the marquis of Mantua, strategically located between the rival cities of Milan and Venice. She was married to Gonzaga in 1490, and just a year later, Isabella found herself entrusted with the government of Mantua during her husband's absence.

Among the responsibilities she assumed was maintaining good relationships with both of her powerful neighbors. She also faced the usual task of producing an heir; by the end of 1492, in addition to her administration of Mantua, she had given birth to a child--unfortunately, rather than the desired son, the baby was a girl. 

Isabella was called upon again in Mantua when her husband, as captain-general of the Venetian army, joined the combined forces of Spain, England, and the Holy Roman Empire determined to drive the invading French out of Naples. According to her biographer Julia Cartwright, "she took up the reigns of government . . . and administered affairs with a prudence and sagacity which excited the wonders of grey-haired councillors." 

After Charles VIII retreated from Naples, Francesco returned briefly to Mantua, but by January of 1496 he was once more in command of the Venetian army, leaving Isabella again in control.

To improve her understanding of affairs of state, she added architecture, agriculture, and industry to her on-going humanist studies. During her husband's absence she also gave birth to her second child, another daughter, in July; again, she was disappointed, more disappointed than her husband, who assured her that "if ever a father had reason to be satisfied with his daughters, it was he." 

Despite his eight years of service to Venice, Francesco Gonzaga was dismissed from his position as captain-general in 1497, ostensibly for his French sympathies. In an effort to regain his position, he offered to surrender his wife and children to Venice as hostages, but his offer was rejected.

Aside from the insult to her husband, Isabella suffered another loss as well, with the death of her young sister Beatrice, the wife of Milan's Ludovico Sforza. Isabella set about reconciling her husband and her brother-in-law, and when Charles VIII died in 1498 and Louis XII announced his intention of pursuing his claim to the duchy of Milan, their reconciliation seemed inevitable.

Under this threat, Ludovico Sforza renewed his alliance with the Holy Roman Empire, and Francesco Gonzaga was offered military command of their combined forces, a post he ultimately accepted despite his hope to regain his position of captain-general of Venice, which had allied itself with the French. In 1499 the French invaded, and Lodovico Sforza was forced out of Milan. Francesco Gonzaga immediately offered his services to Louis XII, though Isabella persisted in her allegiance to her sister's husband and offered refuge to Milanese fleeing the French. But after Ludovico's capture by the French in 1500 at the battle of Novara, she turned her attention to cultivating the victors. 

Within a month of Ludovico's defeat, Isabella gave birth to a son, Federico, and his birth gave the marchioness and her husband an opportunity to make a conciliatory gesture to the French. Accordingly, Isabella solicited Cesare Borgia  to act as one of her son's godfathers.

As Cesare continued his conquests in Italy, Isabella grudgingly welcomed his sister Lucrezia as her brother's bride and, once more governing Mantua on her husband's behalf, negotiated with Cesare over the betrothal of her son Federico to Cesare's daughter. Through a continuing series of detailed letters, she also kept her husband advised about political matters.  

The situation in Italy shifted radically after the death of Pope Alexander VI in August of 1503, and his son Cesare Borgia lost his Italian conquests almost as quickly as he had gained them. Isabella, meanwhile, remained in Mantua, still acting as regent for Francesco, who fought first for Julius II, leading the papal army against Bologna, and then for Louis XII, helping conduct the siege of Genoa. Isabella herself was invited to France in 1507 by Louis and Anne of Brittany; despite her renowned love of travel, it was a trip she could not take.

As Cartwright notes, Isabella's continued presence in Mantua was "urgently required" during Francesco's absences. Her role became even more critical when the pope and the French king combined forces in 1508 to attack Venice. Francesco was part of the defeat of Venice at the battle of Cannæ on 14 May, but on 9 August he was taken prisoner. Louis XII and Maximilian demanded her son, Federico, be sent to them as a hostage, in exchange for her husband's freedom. 

Isabella objected strongly, calling the demand "a cruel and almost inhuman thing for any one who knows the meaning of a mother's love," but despite his mother's "deliberate and unchanging" opposition, Federico became a hostage for his father's good behavior after all. Julius II eventually negotiated Francesco Gonzaga's release on 10 July 1510 on the condition that Federico be sent Rome where he would be the hostage of the pope instead of the Republic of Venice. Isabella's son became a papal favorite, accompanying Julius II everywhere; "O Madonna!" one of Isabella's correspondents wrote from Rome, "you have indeed a rare son, and I think you will find more comfort in him than in anything else in the world."

Leonardo da Vinci's chalk drawing
of Isabella d'Este, c. 1519
(an oil portrait was never completed)
His imprisonment had taken a toll on Francesco Gonzaga's health, and he was forced to give up his military career, retiring to Mantua where, as Cartwright indicates, "he depended more and more on his wife" who had an increasingly large part "in the management of public affairs." Isabella's Latin teacher, Mario Equicola, wrote to her brother that "everything is referred to Madonna, and not a leaf is allowed to stir without her knowledge and consent."

Beyond Mantua, Isabella attempted to effect the reconciliation of her brother, the duke of Ferrara, to Julius II. When that effort failed and the threat of war loomed again, a "congress" met in Mantua in 1512, where Isabella "displayed her usual tact and ability in the conduct of negotiations"; she knew, "above all, how to govern others without ever allowing her influence to appear." 

While her husband remained in Mantua over the course of the next few years, Isabella travelled widely throughout Italy, visiting Milan, Rome, and Naples. She was back in Mantua by the end of 1518, however, as Francesco grew increasingly ill. On the morning of 29 March 1519, he drew up a will naming Federico as his successor, with Isabella to act as his "guardian and advisor" until the young man reached the age of twenty-two; he died late the same day.

When Pope Leo X considered making the twenty-year-old Federico his captain-general in 1520, he hesitated, wondering how Mantua could be governed in the young man's absence. The answer, of course, was Isabella, who was once more to guide Mantua after her son took up his new position. But once Federico returned to Mantua and took up the administration of his state "in his own right," he "rarely referred things to her or asked her advice."

No longer needed in Mantua, Isabella decided to travel; she was in Rome, for instance, when it was sacked by imperial troops in 1527. She had fortified the Palazza Colonna, where she was in residence, offering shelter and protection to ambassadors from Mantua, Ferrara, Urbino, and Venice. It was, one biographer notes, "almost the only building in all of Rome to escape serious damage in the terrible sack." In 1528 she was in Ferrara for the marriage of her nephew Ercole to Renée of France, Louis XII's daughter, and in 1529 she travelled to Bologna for the meeting between Pope Clement and the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

She was there for more than the spectacle of the emperor's coronation, however: she intended "to promote the interests of the Gonzaga family," "to help her brother Alfonso in his effort to keep Ferrara an Este duchy," and to "use her influence to have her nephew Francesco Sforza confirmed in his Milan duchy." Her efforts were successful, and the new emperor traveled to Mantua immediately following the events in Bologna; there, on 8 April, he changed the status of Mantua, creating a new duchy, and Isabella d'Este's son became the first duke of Mantua. 

With this success, mother and son were reunited, and when Federico travelled to Montferrat in 1531, where his marriage to Margherita di Montferrat was celebrated, Isabella "once more administered the State in her son's absence." This was the last occasion she took "any active part in public affairs," her biographer Julia Cartwright notes. Isabella continued to travel, as her health permitted, with one last visit to Ferrara in 1538, her birthplace, before her death on 13 February 1539. 

There is an excellent account of Isabella d'Este in Leonie Frieda's The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power, and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, 1427-1527. But for a detailed, full-length biography, I recommend Julia Cartwright's two-volume Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539: A Study of the Renaissance, first published in 1903. You can read the book through Google Books: for volume 1, click here; for volume 2, click here. You can also purchase print-on-demand copies via Amazon. 

For an analysis of Isabella d'Este's political role, see Sarah D. P. Cockram's recent Isabella d'Este and Francesco Gonzaga: Power Sharing at the Italian Renaissance Court.

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).