A heroine of mine, Isabella d’Este, here as portrayed by Titian
Isabella d’Este (18 May 1474 – 13 February 1539) was Marchesa of Mantua and one of the leading women of the Italian Renaissance as a major cultural and political figure. She was a patron of the arts as well as a leader of fashion, whose innovative style of dressing was copied by women throughout Italy and at the French court. She served as the regent of Mantua during the absence of her husband, Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua and the minority of her son, Federico, Duke of Mantua. In 1500 she met King Louis XII of France on a diplomatic mission to persuade him not to send his troops against Mantua. She was a prolific letter-writer, and maintained a lifelong correspondence with her sister-in-law Elisabetta Gonzaga. Lucrezia Borgia was another sister-in-law; she later became the mistress of Isabella’s husband.
Isabella, being naturally gifted and intellectually precocious in her youth, received an excellent education. As a child she studied Roman history, and rapidly learned to translate Greek and Latin (the former would become her favourite language). Because of her outstanding intellect, she often discussed the classics and the affairs of state with ambassadors. Moreover, she was personally acquainted with the painters, musicians, writers, and scholars, who lived in and around the court. Besides her knowledge of history and languages, she could also recite Virgil and Terence by heart. Isabella was also a talented singer and musician, and was taught to play the lute by Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa. In addition to all these admirable accomplishments, she also was an innovator of new dances, having been instructed in the art by Ambrogio, a Jewish dancing master. After the death of her husband, Isabella ruled Mantua as regent for her son, Federico. She commenced to play an increasingly important role in Italian politics, steadily advancing Mantua’s position. She was instrumental in promoting Mantua to a Duchy, which was obtained by wise diplomatic use of her son’s marriage contracts. She also succeeded in obtaining a cardinalate for her son Ercole. She further displayed a shrewd political acumen in her negotiations with Cesare Borgia, who had dispossessed Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino, the husband of her sister-in-law and good friend Elisabetta Gonzaga in 1502.Throughout her marriage and during her regency, when she was not conducting affairs of state, Isabella preferred to spend her free time engaged in cultural pursuits. She read books, wrote letters, and played the lute. She enjoyed the latter so much that she soon wished to experiment with all the new musical instruments that were being made available. She was an important patron of music, and was instrumental in the development of the frottola. In addition to playing music, she collected art, and sponsored philosophers, poets, and painters, such as Titian, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, and Leonardo da Vinci. Being a leader of fashion, she ordered the finest clothing, including furs as well as the newest distillations of perfume, which she concocted herself and sent as presents. Her style of dressing in simple, boyish caps contrasting with gowns that were richly embroidered with plunging décolletage that revealed the nipples, was imitated throughout Italy and at the French court. As a widow, Isabella at the age of 45 became a “devoted head of state”. Her position as a Marchesa required her serious attention, therefore she was required to study the problems faced by a ruler of a city-state. To improve the well-being of her subjects she studied architecture, agriculture, and industry, and followed the principles that Niccolò Machiavelli had set forth for rulers in his book The Prince. In return, the people of Mantua respected and loved her. Isabella left Mantua for Rome in 1527. She was present during the catastrophic Sack of Rome, when she converted her house into an asylum for about 2000 people fleeing the Imperial soldiers. Isabella’s house was one of the very few which was not attacked, due to the fact that her son was a member of the invading army. When she left, she managed to acquire safe passage for all the refugees who had sought refuge in her home. After Rome became stabilised following the sacking, she left the city, and returned to Mantua. She made it a centre of culture, started a school for girls, and turned her ducal apartments into a museum containing the finest art treasures. This was not enough to satisfy Isabella, already in her mid-60s, so she returned to political life and ruled Solarolo, in Romagna, until her death on 13 February 1539.
During her lifetime and after her death, poets, popes, and statesmen paid tribute to Isabella. Pope Leo X invited her to treat him with “as much friendliness as you would your brother”. The latter’s secretary, Pietro Bembo, described her as “one of the wisest and most fortunate of women”; while the poet Ariosto deemed her the “liberal and magnanimous Isabella”. Author Matteo Bandello wrote that she was “supreme among women”, and the diplomat Niccolò da Correggio entitled her “The First Lady of the world”.