Isabella d’Este, “la prima donna del mondo”
By Sharon L. Jensen (original article here)
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 Eleanora of Aragon 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 Leonard 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,
(painted when Isabella was in her 60s–
Titian offered a flattering, idealized image)
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.