Isabella d’Este, marchesa of Mantua (died 13 February 1539)
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.
n 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.”