Women’s Lives


Understanding how women in the middle ages and renaissance lived is truly what started me on this journey of ‘living history’. On this page I will endeavor to write about the more mundane aspects of their lives, such as education, pastimes, marriage, divorce, childbearing, and widowhood.

Isabella d'Este
Isabella d’Este

Many wonder if it was appropriate for women to play cards or even ride on horseback. We can turn to accounts of the life of Isabella d’Este (1473-1539) for the answer. Daughter of Ercole I d’Este and Eleonora of Aragon, Isabella enjoyed the benefits of a classical education in one of Italy’s most distinguished courts, despite the disruptions occasioned by the War of Venice-Ferrara (1482-84). Among her teachers was Battista Guarini, Guarino da Verona’s son and his successor in the chair of rhetoric at Ferrara. Her later concerns for classical learning and astrology also suggest the influence of the ducal librarian, Pellegrino Prisciano, and other humanists in the ducal circle.

At the time of her marriage at the age of 16 to Francesco Gonzaga {15 February 1490), Isabella was already recognized as an exceptionally astute and cultivated woman, clearly the equal of her husband both intellectually and socially. Francesco’s predilections for military life, combined with Isabella’s manifest skills and interests in diplomacy, meant that they spent little time together.

Stemma di Gonzaga da Mantua
Stemma di Gonzaga da Mantua

In the middle of March 1490, the newly married Duchess Isabella ventured on trips to the nearby towns while her husband was away in Venice, and on the 15th, Isabella wrote to her absent lord: “To-day, after dinner, with Your Highness’s kind permission, the Duchess of Urbino and I are going to supper at Goito, and tomorrow to Cavriana, where the wife of Signor Fracassa (Gasparo San Severino) will meet us, and on Thursday we are going on the lake of Garda, according to Your Highness’s orders, and I have let the Rector of Verona know, so that we may find a barge at Sermione.”

A few days later she wrote from Cavriana to inform her husband of the success of their expedition. “The Duchess of Urbino and I, together with Signor Fracassa’s wife, went on Thursday to dine at Desenzano and to supper at Tusculiano, where we spent the night, and greatly enjoyed the sight of this Riviera. On Friday we returned by boat to Sermione, and rode here on horseback. Wherever we went we were warmly welcomed and treated with the greatest attention, most of all by the captain of the lake, who gave us fish and other things, and by the people of Salo, who sent us a fine present. Tomorrow we go to Goito, and on Tuesday back to Mantua.”


Lake Garda
Lake Garda


So for the first time Isabella saw the lovely shores of Garda and the lemon groves of Salo, and lingered in the classic gardens of Sermione, charmed with the delights of that fair paradise which she was often to visit in years to come. “These Madonnas,” wrote  one of the gentlemen-in-waiting, Stefano Sicco, from Cavriana on the 20th, “have been indefatigable in making excursions by boat and on horseback, and have seen all the gardens on the lake with the greatest delight. The inhabitants have vied with each other in doing them honour, and one Fermo of Caravazo caused his garden to be stripped for the Marchesana and her party and loaded them with lemons and pomegranates.”

Illuminated Card From a Scartino Deck
Illuminated Card From a Scartino Deck

A card game called Scartino, the favorite of the Este family, is one of which we hear much from a brief period around 1500: there are over a dozen references to it between 1492 and 1517. We have no idea how Scartino was played, although it appears to have demanded a special type of pack; for instance, Lodovico il Moro wrote in 1496 to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este complaining that the latter had not sent him the carte de scartino that he had promised, and there are other references to orders for packs of Scartino cards. The game seems to have originated from Ferrara: it was a favourite game both of Beatrice d’Este, wife of Lodovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, and of Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Isabella also loved to use her impresa, or device, embroidered on her robes and painted on the playing cards. The name Scartino is presumably connected with the verb scartare, ‘to discard’, and games are often named after their most characteristic or novel feature. It is therefore a possibility that this was a trick-taking game in which a new practice was introduced, namely that the dealer took some extra cards and discarded a corresponding number. If so, it could be that it was from Scartino that this practice was taken over into Tarocco games, in which it had been previously unknown, and that Scartino, after its short-lived popularity, died out, having made a lasting contribution to card play. This, of course, is the merest guess: Scartino may not have been a trick-taking game at all, but, say, one in which the winner was the player who first contrived to get rid of all his cards after the fashion of a stops game.

We learn from Isabella’s brother-in-law’s letter to the Marquis in 1503 that attending the theatre and playing cards was her regular pastime: “Yesterday I went with this illustrious Madonna and Signor Federico to the school of Messer Franceso, whose scholars recited a fine comedy exceedingly well. It was a very pretty sight, and pleased us all highly. Afterwards we drove as usual to take the air in the town, and returned to the Castello about five o’clock; and Madonna (Isabella) sat down to cards to spend the evening after her usual custom, and played till after eight. Then she rose from the table and told me that she would not come to supper as she felt pains, and went to her room, and we sat down to table, and I supped in the Castello. And before we had finished, the said Madonna gave birth to a little girl, and although we greatly desired a boy, yet we must be content with what is given us.”


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