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Isabella d'Este painted by Titian.
Isabella d'Este (18 May 147413 February 1539) was marchesa of Mantuamarker and one of the leading women of the Italianmarker Renaissance and a major cultural and political figure.


Born in Ferraramarker, she was the first daughter of Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferraramarker, and Leonora of Naples, daughter of Ferdinand I of Naples, the Aragonese King of Naples, and Isabella of Taranto.

Early life

Isabella was born in May 1474 to the Duke Ercole and Duchess Leonora of Ferrara. She was received with great joy. A son was hoped for but could wait. One year later in June 1475 her sister Beatrice d'Este was born. Then in 1476 and 1477 two brothers were born. The first was Alfonso and second Ippolitto. In 1479 and 1480 two more brothers were born.They were Ferrante and Sigismondo. Of all the children Isabella reigned as the favorite.

In 1479 when Ferrante was born, Isabella traveled to Naples with her mother. When her mother returned to Ferrara, Isabella went with her, while the other children stayed with their grandfather for eight years. As Isabella traveled with her mother she learned politics. When it came time to study, Isabella mastered the required subjects quickly.

Isabella was quite intelligent and became masterful in many languages. Isabella's favorite language was Greek. She was also a talented musician. She was said to be an amazing lute player and played it in her spare time.


As Isabella grew, she received a royal schooling. As a child she studied Roman history, and rapidly learned to translate Greek and Latin. Because of her stunning intellect, she often discussed the classics and the affairs of the day with ambassadors. Moreover, she knew 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 Terrence by heart, was an expert with lute, singing, and an innovator of new dances.

In 1480, at age six, Isabella was betrothed to Francesco Gonzaga, the heir to the Marquis of Mantua. Although he was not handsome, Isabella liked him for his strength and bravery; she also thought that he was a gentleman. After their first few encounters, she found she liked him and spent the next few years getting to know him and preparing herself to be the Marchesa of Mantua. During their courtship, Isabella treasured the letters, poems, and sonnets he sent her as gifts.


Ten years later, at age 16, she married the 25 year old, now reigning Francesco Gonzaga and became his wife and Marchesa amid a spectacular outpouring of popular acclamation. Besides the Marquis Francesco was also Captain General of the republic of Venice armies. Because of his many duties, a couple of days after their honeymoon he left her to perform her responsibilities on her own.

Isabella was not abandoned: she spent time with her mother and sister, and once she met Elisabetta Gonzaga her 18-year-old sister-in-law the two became fast and warm friends.

Influence on people

To entertain herself she read and played the lute, which she learned as a child and soon wanted to try all the new instruments that were being made available. In addition to music she collected art, and backed painters, like Titian, Raphael and Da Vinci. Forms of art such as clothing were also important, she bought the finest clothing, including furs and new brands of perfume. However, her role as a Marchesa meant more than just pleasing herself and others, so she decided to learn the problems faced by a ruler of a city-state. To improve the well being of her people she studied architecture, agriculture, and industry and followed the principles that Machiavelli set forth for rulers.


After three years of waiting, a daughter was born to Isabella in 1493. The baby was named Leonora in memory of her mother who had recently died. Three years later another girl was born, but died within two months. In 1500 she bore a son, named Federico, and the Gonzaga dynasty was assured continuity.

She then gave birth to two daughters, Livia (1501-1508) and Ippolita (1503-1570), soon followed by two sons, Ercole in 1505 and Ferrante in 1507. In 1508 she had another daughter, named Livia in memory of the child's older sister died in that same year, and later another boy, Pietro.

Federico succeeded to his father in 1519 ( though initially under Isabella's regency because of his young age ), and later obtained the title of Duke.Adhering to the usual paths for noble women, Leonora went on to marry the condottiero and Duke of Urbino Francesco della Rovere, while Livia and Ippolita became nuns.Ercole became an influential Cardinal in the Papal court, while Ferrante devoted his life to arms and battle and eventually served as Governor of the Duchy of Milan (1546-1554).


During the time of her children's birth her husband, now Captain General of the united forces, was battling with the French king Charles VIII to keep him from taking territory in Italy. In 1509 he was captured in his sleep and taken to Venice. Made regent by the state Isabella took command of the city's armies and successfully held off the enemy hosts. In 1512 a peace treaty was signed and her husband was released.

Her life after that however would be changed forever. Her husband was weak and ill after he was released, and became jealous of her power. Consequently he started ignoring her, and found fault with everything she did. Noticing her husbands' change of attitude toward her she decided to travel to Rome. Once in Rome she went to the court of Pope Leo X, where she lived like a queen and was the center of public attention.

Years later Isabella returned to Mantua for a short period of time. In 1525 she returned to Rome and was quoted as saying, "all my heart is in Rome." Then once again on May 6, 1527 she defended her fortified position from German mercenary attacks led by the forces of Charles V, and gave aid and comfort to refugees.


After conflicts died down she left Rome, and in her 60's returned to Mantua and made it a cultural center, started a school for girls and created her ducal apartments into a museum of the finest art. Nevertheless this was not enough for Isabella so she continued her life long quest and ruled a tiny part of Romagna, Solarolo until her death in 1539.


She was well-educated in her youth in Ferraramarker, as her voluminous correspondence reveals. The Este sisters were exposed to many of the new Renaissance ideas: later Isabella became a passionate, even greedy collector of Roman sculpture and commissioned modern sculptures in the antique style. It is also common knowledge, at least among collectors of coins and numismatists, that she was an avid collector of ancient coins.

After her marriage to Francesco Gonzaga, she lived in Mantuamarker. They were Ariosto's patrons while he was writing Orlando Furioso and both she and her husband were greatly influenced by Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Courtier ( Il Cortigiano ) a model for aristocratic decorum for two hundred years, and it was at his suggestion that Giulio Romano was summoned to Mantua to enlarge the Castello and other buildings.

Under her auspices the court of Mantua became one of the most cultured in Europe.

Among the other important artists, writers, thinkers, and musicians being drawn to it were Raphael, Andrea Mantegna, and the composers Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marchetto Cara.

Her court sculptor was Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, who re-interpreted works of antiquity in small finely-finished and often partly gilded bronzes that earned him the nickname "L'Antico".

She was painted twice by Titian, while a portrait drawing by Leonardo da Vinci is at the Louvremarker.

A keen musician, she considered stringed instruments, such as the lute, superior to winds, which were associated with vice and strife; she also considered poetry incomplete until it was set to music, and sought the most skilled composers of the day to complete the task.

Later life

Isabella played an important role in Mantua during their time of need. When her husband was captured in 1509 and held hostage in Venice, she took control of Mantua's military forces and held off their invaders until his return in 1512. While ruling, she seemed to be much tougher than her husband. Therefore, upon his return he realized that he'd been shown up and grew angry at her, allowing her to travel and live glamourously until his death of disease in 1519.

After the death of her husband, Isabella ruled Mantua as regent for her son, Federico. She began to play an important role in Italian politics, steadily advancing Mantua's position. She played a role in advancing Mantua to a Duchy, which was obtained by wise political use of her son's marriage contracts, and also obtaining a cardinal for her son Ercole. She also showed great diplomatic and political skill 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 (1502).

Further Reading

George, L., The Public Perception of Isabella d'Este, Clio History Journal, 2009.

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