La prima donna del mondo—so the poet Niccolò da Correggio called Isabella d’Este.4 The novelist Bandello considered her “supreme among women”;5 and Ariosto did not know which to praise most highly in “the liberal and magnanimous Isabella”—her gracious beauty, her modesty, her wisdom, or her fostering of letters and arts. She possessed most of the accomplishments and charms that made the educated woman of the Renaissance one of the masterpieces of history. She had a wide and varied culture without being an “intellectual” or ceasing to be an attractive woman. She was not extraordinarily beautiful; what men admired in her was her vitality, her high spirits, the keenness of her appreciation, the perfection of her taste. She could ride all day and then dance all night, and remain every moment a queen. She could rule Mantua with a tact and good sense alien to her husband; and in the debility of his later years she held his little state together despite his blunders, his wanderings, and his syphilis. She corresponded on equal terms with the most eminent personalities of her time. Popes and dukes sought her friendship, and rulers came to her court. She subpoenaed nearly every artist to work for her, she inspired poets to sing of her; Bembo, Ariosto, and Bernardo Tasso dedicated works to her, though they knew that her purse was small. She collected books and art with the judgment of a scholar and the discrimination of a connoisseur. Wherever she went she remained the cultural focus and sartorial exemplar of Italy.
She was one of the Estensi—the brilliant family that gave dukes to Ferrara, cardinals to the Church, and a duchess to Milan. Isabella, born in 1474, was a year older than her sister Beatrice. Their father was Ercole I of Ferrara, their mother was Eleonora of Aragon, daughter of King Ferrante I of Naples; they were well equipped with lineage. While Beatrice was sent to Naples to learn vivacity at the court of her grandfather, Isabella was brought up amid the scholars, poets, dramatists, musicians, and artists that were making Ferrara for a time the most brilliant of Italian capitals. At six she was an intellectual prodigy who made diplomats gape; “though I had heard much of her singular intelligence,” wrote Beltramino Cusatro to Marquis Federigo of Mantua in 1480, “I could never have imagined such a thing to be possible.”6 Federigo thought she would be a good catch for his son Francesco, and so proposed to her father. Ercole, needing the support of Mantua against Venice, agreed, and Isabella, aged six, found herself engaged to a boy of fourteen. She remained for ten years more at Ferrara, learning how to sew and sing, to write Italian poetry and Latin prose, to play the clavichord and the lute, and to dance with a sprightly grace that seemed to attest invisible wings. Her complexion was clear and fair, her black eyes sparkled, her hair was a mesh of gold. So, at sixteen, she left the haunts of her happy childhood, and became, proudly and seriously, the Marchioness of Mantua.
Gianfrancesco was swarthy, bushy-haired, fond of hunting, impetuous in war and love. In those early years he attended zealously to government, and faithfully maintained Mantegna and several scholars at his court. He fought with more courage than wisdom at Fornovo, and chivalrously or prudently sent to Charles VIII most of the spoils that he had captured in the tent of the fleeing King. He used the soldier’s privilege of promiscuity, and began his infidelities with the first confinement of his wife. Seven years after his marriage he allowed his mistress Teodora to appear in almost regal raiment at a tournament in Brescia, where he rode in the lists. Isabella may have been partly to blame: she became a bit plump, and went on long visits to Ferrara, Urbino, and Milan; but doubtless the Marquis was not inclined to monogamy in any case. Isabella bore with his adventures patiently, took no public notice of them, remained a good wife, gave her husband excellent advice in politics, and supported his interests by her diplomacy and her charm. But in 1506 she wrote to him—then leading papal troops—a few words warm with the hurt she felt: “No interpreter is needed to make me aware that Your Excellency has loved me little for some time past. Since this, however, is a disagreeable subject, I will… say no more.”7 Her devotion to art, letters, and friendship was in part an attempt to forget the bitter emptiness of her married life.
There is nothing more pleasant in all the rich diversity of the Renaissance than the tender relations that bound together Isabella, Beatrice, and Isabella’s sister-in-law Elisabetta Gonzaga; and few passages finer in Renaissance literature than the affectionate letters they exchanged. Elisabetta was grave and weak, and often ill; Isabella was merry, witty, brilliant, more interested in literature and art than either Elisabetta or Beatrice; but these differences of character were made complementary by good sense. Elisabetta loved to come to Mantua, and Isabella worried more about her sister-in-law’s health than about her own, and took every measure to make her well. Yet there was a selfishness in Isabella quite absent from Elizabeth. Isabella could ask Caesar Borgia to give her Michelangelo’s Cupid, which Borgia had stolen after seizing Elisabetta’s Urbino. After the fall of Lodovico il Moro, the brother-in-law who had lavished every courtesy upon her, she went to Milan and danced at a ball given by Lodovico’s conqueror, Louis XII; perhaps, however, it was her feminine way of saving Mantua from the resentment aroused in Louis by the injudicious candor of her husband. Her diplomacy accepted the interstate amorality of that time and ours. Otherwise she was a good woman, and there was hardly a man in Italy that would not have been glad to serve her. Bembo wrote to her that he “desired to serve her and please her as if she were pope.”8
She spoke Latin better than any other woman of her time, but she never mastered the language. When Aldus Manutius began to print his choice editions of the classics she was among his most enthusiastic customers. She employed scholars to translate Plutarch and Philostratus, and a learned Jew to translate the Psalms from the Hebrew so that she might assure herself of their original magnificence. She collected Christian classics too, and read the Fathers with courage. Probably she treasured books more as a collector than as a reader or a student; she respected Plato, but really preferred the chivalric romances that entertained even the Ariostos of her generation and the Tassos of the next. She loved finery and jewelry more than books and art; even in her later years the women of Italy and France looked to her as the glass of fashion and the queen of taste. It was part of her diplomacy to move ambassadors and cardinals with the combined allure of her person, her dress, her manners, and her mind; they thought they were admiring her erudition or her wisdom when they were relishing her beauty, her costume, or her grace. She was hardly profound, except perhaps in statesmanship. Like practically all her contemporaries she listened to astrologers, and timed her enterprises by the concurrence of the stars. She amused herself with dwarfs, maintained them as part of her entourage, and had six rooms and a chapel built to their measure for them in the Castello. One of these favorites was so short (said a wit) that if it had rained an inch more he would have been drowned. She was fond, too, of dogs and cats, chose them with the finesse of a fancier, and buried them with solemn funerals in which the surviving pets joined with the ladies and gentlemen of the court.
The Castello—or Reggia, or Palazzo Ducale—over which she reigned was a medley of buildings of various dates and authorship, but all in that style of outer fortress and inner palace which raised similar structures in Ferrara, Pavia, and Milan. Some components, like the Palazzo del Capitano, went back to the Buonacolsi rulers in the thirteenth century; the harmonious Castello San Giorgio was a creation of the fourteenth; the Camera degli Sposi was the work of Lodovico Gonzaga and Mantegna in the fifteenth; many rooms were rebuilt in the seventeenth and eighteenth; some, like the sumptuous Sala degli Specchi, or Hall of Mirrors, were redecorated during the rule of Napoleon. All were elegantly fitted out; and the vast congeries of residential chambers, reception halls, and administrative offices looked out on courts, or gardens, or Virgil’s meandering Mincio, or the lakes that bordered Mantua. In this labyrinth Isabella occupied different quarters at different times. In her later years she loved best a little apartment of four rooms(camerini), known as il Studiolo or il Paradiso; here, and in another room called il Grotto, she gathered her books, her objets d’art, and her musical instruments—themselves finished works of art.
Next to her care for the preservation of Mantua’s independence and prosperity, and sometimes above her friendships, the ruling passion of her life was the collection of manuscripts, statues, paintings, majolica, antique marbles, and little products of the goldsmith’s art. She used her friends, and employed special agents, in cities from Milan to Rhodes, to bargain and buy for her, and to be on the alert for “finds.” She haggled because the treasury of her modest state was too narrow for her ideas. Her collection was small, but every item in it stood high in its class. She had statuary by Michelangelo, paintings by Mantegna, Perugino, Francia; not content, she importuned Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Bellini for a picture, but they held her off as one who paid more in praise than in cash, and doubtless, too, because she specified too immutably what each picture should represent and contain. In some cases, as when she paid 115 ducats ($2875) for Jan van Eyck’s Passage of the Red Sea, she borrowed heavily to satisfy her eagerness for a masterpiece. She was not generous to Mantegna, but when that ogre of a genius died she persuaded her husband to lure Lorenzo Costa to Mantua with a handsome salary. Costa decorated Gianfrancesco Gonzaga’s favorite retreat, the palace of St. Sebastian, made portraits of the family, and painted a mediocre Madonna for the church of Sant’ Andrea.
In 1524 Giulio Pippi, called Romano, the greatest of Raphael’s pupils, settled at Mantua, and astonished the court with his skill as architect and painter. Almost the entire Ducal Palace was redecorated according to his designs, and by the brushes of himself and his pupils—Francesco Primaticcio, Niccolò dell’ Abbate, and Michelangelo Anselmi. Federigo, Isabella’s son, was ruler now; and since he, like Romano, had acquired at Rome a taste for pagan subjects and decorative nudes, he had the walls and ceilings of several rooms in the Castello painted with inviting pictures of Aurora, Apollo, the Judgment of Paris, the Rape of Helen, and other phases of classic myth. In 1525, on the outskirts of the town, Giulio began to build his most famous work, the Palazzo del Te.* A vast rectangle of one-storied structures, in a simple design of stone blocks and Renaissance windows, surrounds what was once a pleasant garden but is now a neglected waste in the impoverished aftermath of war. The interior is a succession of surprises: rooms tastefully adorned with pilasters, carved cornices, painted spandrels, and coffered vaults; walls, ceilings, and lunettes picturing the story of the Titans and the Olympians, Cupid and Psyche, Venus and Adonis and Mars, Zeus and Olympia, all in a revel of splendid nudes, in the amorous and reckless taste of the later Renaissance. To crown these masterpieces of sexual license and gigantic strife, Primaticcio carved in stucco a grand processional relief of Roman soldiers in the manner of Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar, and almost with the chiseled excellence of Pheidias. When Primaticcio and dell’ Abbate were summoned to Fontainebleau by Francis I they brought to the royal palaces of France this style of decoration—with rosy nudes—which Giulio Romano had brought to Mantua from his work with Raphael in Rome. From the citadel of Christianity pagan art radiated to the Christian world.
The last years of Isabella mingled sweet and bitter in her cup. She helped her invalid husband to govern Mantua. Her diplomacy saved it from falling prey to Caesar Borgia, then to Louis XII, then to Francis I, then to Charles V; one after another she humored, flattered, charmed, when Gianfrancesco or Federigo seemed on the edge of political disaster. Federigo, who succeeded his father in 1519, was an able general and ruler, but he allowed his mistress to displace his mother as ruler of the Mantuan court. Perhaps retreating from this indignity, Isabella went to Rome (1525) to seek a red hat for her son Ercole. Clement VII was noncommittal, but the cardinals welcomed her, made her suite in the Colonna Palace a salon, and kept her there so long that she found herself imprisoned in the palace during the sack of Rome (1527). She escaped with her usual adroitness, won the coveted cardinalate for Ercole, and returned to Mantua in triumph.
In 1529, attractive at fifty-five, she went to the Congress of Bologna, courted Emperor and Pope, helped the lords of Urbino and Ferrara to keep their principalities from being absorbed into the Papal States, and persuaded Charles V to make Federigo a duke. In that same year Titian came to Mantua and painted a famous portrait of her; the fate of this picture is uncertain, but the copy made of it by Rubens shows a woman still in the vigor and love of life. Bembo, visiting her eight years later, was amazed by her vivacity, the alertness of her mind, the scope of her interests. He called her “the wisest and most fortunate of women,”9 but her wisdom fell short of accepting old age cheerfully. She died in 1539, aged sixty-four, and was buried with preceding rulers of Mantua in the Capella dei Signori in the church of San Francesco. Her son ordered a handsome tomb to be raised to her memory, and joined her in death a year later. When the French pillaged Mantua in 1797 the tombs of the Mantuan princes and princesses were shattered, and the ashes they contained were mingled in the indiscriminate dust.