Isabella d'Este (1474-1539)

Daughter of Ercole I d'Este and Eleonora of Aragon she 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.

She brought energy, intelligence and judgment to her patronage of literature, music and the visual arts, as to her pursuit of statecraft. Her wealth and taste, and her imperious manner, enabled her to compete - not always successfully - for the services of some of the most eminent artists of the age. Leonardo, Francia and Titian, among others, painted portraits of her. Her contracts and her instructions to artists reveal a discriminating and somewhat arbitrary purchaser who clearly knew her own mind. In 1503 she went so far as to send Perugino a sketch for an allegory she wanted from him. Her artistic patronage reveals the guidance of humanist advisers, arising from her literary interests. Paride da Ceresara helped her formulate the 'inventions' for decorating her study; men of letters such as Bembo and Mario Equicola contributed other decorative schemes. Her circle included Battista Spagnoli, Castiglione and Bandello, and a coterie of other, less well known Mantuan humanists. One of these, Floriano Dolfo, sought to regale her with a series of pornographic letters. Ariosto, Bernardo da Bibbiena and G. G. Trissino numbered her among their benefactors.

She saw nothing inconsistent about combining a devout Christianity with her classical and even pagan interests. She supported convents and monasteries, and took a keen interest in recruiting singers for the ducal chapel. Some of these, however, may have doubled in service as performers of the secular songs (frottole) composed at Mantua by Cara and Tromboncino. Any more than it stood in the way of her festive life at Mantua, her piety did not interfere with her anti-papal policy, designed to prevent threats to the autonomy of Mantua and Ferrara. When in 1519 her dull and unfaithful husband died, Isabella continued to function as a trusted adviser to her eldest son, Federico II, and succeeded in helping her second, Ercole, to obtain a cardinalate. The years before her death were divided between Rome and Mantua.