Isabella d’Este – First Lady of the World

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,
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.
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