Isabella d’Este. La donna del mondo prima.

Isabella d'Este. Titian. Renaissance portrait. Renaissance fashion. 15th century costume
Portrait of Isabella d’Este with the famous Capigliari headdress.
Fragment (left and right cut).
Isabella d’Este

Isabella d’Este (b. 1474, Ferrara, Italy; d.1539 Romagna, Italy), known as “The First Lady of the Renaissance.”

Isabella d’Este. Portrait with a balzo, the famous Capigliari headdress.

Portrait of Isabella d’Este in her sixties, by Titian. Originally, Titian painted between 1534 and 1536 a more aged Isabella, but she was so displeased with it that she made him repaint it so that she appeared forty years younger. The picture based on a sketch after a preparatory drawing that probably Lorenzo Costa had made after an oral description of her half-sister – without model session.

Isabella d’Este was one of the most important people in the culture and politics of the Italian Renaissance. Among contemporaries she was regarded as “La donna del mondo prima”, “Macchiavelli in gonella”. Isabella d’Este was the daughter of Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and Leonora of Naples, the daughter of King Ferdinand I of Naples. Antonio Tebaldeo was her tutor.

Isabella d'Este, Peter Paul Rubens, Renaissance, portrait, Italy, fashion,15th century, costume,
Portrait of Isabella d’Este 1600/1601, by Peter Paul Rubens.

The created perfumes or perfume bracelets by Isabella were estimated presents under the Renaissance princesses and queens. In greater degree she was in vogue even beyond Italy as a role model.

Lucrezia Borgia was informed about the newest creations of Isabella, the French King Louis XII. and Francis I called Isabella their wives each a fashionable model, but that was hard to beat.

As a role model Isabella d’Este was also considered as a creator of special head costumes. Her “Capigliari”, a headdress in the shape of a ribs pumpkin, consisted from hair, precious fabrics and jewels, as shown in the portrait by Titian, was copied for years throughout Italy.

Portrait, Isabella d'Este, Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre, Renaissance
Portrait of Isabella d’Este (1499), drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. Louvre Museum.

She is also considered a plausible candidate in the question of whom Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting represents, the Mona Lisa (1502-06). The model for the Mona Lisa is usually Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a merchant in Florence. According to Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo portrayed this woman. But it is open, whether the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo is identical with the Mona Lisa.

The similarity with Leonardo’s profile drawing of 1499 in the Louvre (a preliminary study for a portrait painting) and Isabella’s letters 1501-06 with the request for the realisation of the promised portrait speak in favour of Isabella d’Este as a model of the Mona Lisa. Other arguments are the mountains in the background, which are more reminiscent of the landscape on Lake Garda north of Mantua than of Tuscany, and the armrest typical of a ruler’s portrait in the Renaissance.

Isabella d’Este in modern art: Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Isabella d’Este place setting), 1974–79.


The most illustrious ladies of the Italian renaissance by Marian Andrews.

As we approach the history of this peerless lady “la prima donna del mondo,” we are almost overwhelmed with the amount of information which has been collected with regard to her. In the libraries of Mantua and Milan, of Rome, of Florence, of Turin, &c., a long train of scholars and learned men have devoted years to the study of documents and correspondence connected with her, and have died ere the task was completed.

Of her own letters more than two thousand had been preserved, and her whole splendid career, from 1474 to 1539, is spread out before us in a flood of dazzling light.

We see her in the most intimate privacy of her family from childhood to age; we trace her relations towards every distinguished person of her time, crowned head, or artist, or man of letters-learning what they said, and what she said and thought-we follow in each step of her frequent travels, so keenly enjoyed; and we are even admitted to her toilet, and informed on what occasion she wore her crimson satin with gold and silver embroidery, her violet velvet with gold acorns, or her priceless mantle made of eighty of the finest sables.

Surrounded from her childhood by all that was beautiful, she was early distinguished by her cultured taste in music and art, her proficiency in classical studies, and her marvelous charm. It was her singular good fortune that, brought up in the very heart of the Renaissance, the small and passing incidents of her every-day life, are to us memorials of a classic age when the gods of Parnassus walked with men. Her march through life is a triumphal progress. Ever the “cynosure of neighboring eyes” for her beauty and talent, poets write endless sonnets in her praise, adulation surrounds her on every side, until from her equal height she would advise the greatest masters in their own craft: witness some forty or fifty letters to a Bellini or a Perugino, with minute descriptions as to how they were to paint the picture for her.

Such magnificent audacity takes away one’s breath! Isabella has all that she desires, she has but to hear of the discovery of an antique, of a work of art, a priceless gem, a rare MS., an Aldine edition, a silver lute, a choice inlaid organ-any new and beautiful thing-but she straightway requests that it be sent to her, or if that be not possible, that another still more precious be procured for her. She would be outdone by no one, and nothing short of perfection would content her. Her supremacy was not alone artistic and intellectual. This lady of Mantua was the mirror of fashion for every Court in Europe. Stately princesses contest for early news of her gorgeous costumes, and humbly plead for the design of a sleeve, or the pattern of a new rosette.

We seem to read her very soul in those letters of hers; always so beautifully expressed, with infinite tact and delicacy. She ever knew how to say the right thing; whether to deprecate the wrath of a pope, or hostile king, who distrusted her husband’s policy; whether to condole with a friend on the loss of a wife or a kingdom; to arrange a diplomatic marriage, or lend her pet dwarf to lighten the tedium of a sick bed; to plead for a cardinal’s hat for her son, or beg for a Persian kitten.

The Marchesa d’Este was beyond praise in most of the relations of life; a pious and high-minded woman, and yet it was not safe to rely upon her too far. Dearly as she loved her friends and kindred, yet when they were utterly and hopelessly forsaken by fortune, she turned away from them with a sigh, to welcome their enemies with a smile. A true daughter of the light-hearted Renaissance, when their splendid palaces were looted, she was always ready to enrich herself with their spoils; but when they came as suppliants to her gates, she would receive them with princely generosity if her own safety were secured.

In the striking words of her last and most comprehensive biographer: “Like others of her age she knew no regrets and felt no remorse, but lived wholly in the present, throwing herself with all the might of her strong vitality into the business or enjoyment of the hour, forgetful of the past and careless of the future.”

Having thus introduced Isabella d’Este with this slight sketch and appreciation of her character, we turn to a short account of the events which are chiefly remarkable in her life.

She was born in the palace of Ferrara on May 18, 1474. Her father, Duke Ercole, was the descendant of that illustrious house of Este which had reigned for more than two hundred years over the fertile plains of Ferrara. Her mother was Leonora, the daughter of King Ferrante of Naples, and the name Isabel, by which her first daughter was baptized, may have been in honor of her kinswoman the great Queen of Spain.

There does not seem to have been great rejoicing on the birth of a daughter, and there was still less when a little sister was born the next year; but when the hoped-for heir to the duchy arrived in due time, there was no lack of enthusiasm and delight in the city. Those were troublous times, and, a few days after the christening of young Alfonso, the duchess and her infant children barely escaped with their lives from a conspiracy of the duke’s nephew.

In the following year Isabella took her first journey as far as Naples, where her little sister Beatrice was left behind with the grandfather for the next eight years. Meantime the young princesses, even at that early age, had attracted attention and interest at the neighboring courts, and, after much negotiation, a public announcement was made on the Piazza, in the heart of old Ferrara, that Madonna Isabella was betrothed to Francesco, son of the Marquis of Mantua, and Madonna Beatrice to the Regent of Milan, Lodovico Sforza.

This was early in 1480, when the elder girl was only six years old, and the following spring, on the Feast of st. George, the patron saint of Ferrara, she made the acquaintance of her future bridegroom, a bright, handsome boy of fourteen. There seem to have been great festivities on the occasion, and immense crowds assembled to see the famous race for the pallium, which was won by the horses of the Mantuan guests, who appear to have greatly enjoyed their visit.

Her marriage and future life being thus provided for, the small Isabella had time to go back to her lessons. Born in an atmosphere of cultivation and learning, she seems to have been the delight of her teachers, who were amazed at her “marvelous facility.” Latin was her most serious study, and for this she had the most learned tutors, and was reported in later years to speak the language with ease and elegance. Besides her classical studies, she read all the poetry and literature within her reach in various modern languages; she was a good musician, and learnt to play the clavichord and accompany her singing on the lute, and even found time to become proficient in design and embroidery.

The finest works of art and the most beautiful treasures were always in sight, and in the Este Palace she met all the most distinguished men and women of the day. We are told that she grew up a beautiful girl, with regular features, sparkling dark eyes, a brilliant complexion, and thick waves of golden hair. She was not very tall, but she bore herself with stately dignity.

Francesco, who was now Marquis of Mantua since his father’s death, pressed on his wedding, which was at last fixed for the month of February 1490, when the bride would be almost sixteen. Nothing can exceed the exquisite taste and beauty of the presents prepared for her to take to her new home, on which artists, goldsmiths, and many of the most skilled craftsmen were engaged for more than a year. The wedding must have been a gorgeous spectacle, and is described by the chroniclers with ardent enthusiasm; also the stately journey to Mantua in a gilded bucentaur, with attendant galleys, which sailed up the Po, and the grand entry into the city, garlanded with flowers and hung with banners, with ambassadors from every state in Italy riding in her train.

But that which must have given most pleasure to the girl-bride was to meet at the foot of the great staircase of the Castello, her husband’s sister, Elisabetta, who had recently married the Duke of Milan, and who then, and through life, was her dearest friend.

“There is no one I love like you, except my sister Beatrice, ” she once wrote to her, and this affection never changed, in sorrow or joy. It must have been a great comfort to Isabella that she was able to keep her sister-in-law with her for the first few months in her new home, where all was so strange to her. Her husband was very much devoted to her, but they cannot have had much in common. He had always shown more taste for outdoor sports than for intellectual pursuits; he was noted for his horses and dogs; yet, if he had not much taste for books, he could be a generous patron to artists and men of letters. He was very proud of Andrea Mantegna, who lived at his Court, and had just finished his series of triumphs for the walls of the Castello.

In the letters of this period we find how much Isabella was missed in her old home. One courtier writes: “Even the tricks and jests of the dwarfs and clowns fail to make us laugh.”

She wrote to ask her tutor to send her old Latin books that she might occupy herself with her studies and she sent presents to her old friends, while her weekly letters to her mother showed devoted affection. Ferrara was at no very great distance, and she was able to pay occasional visits, especially during that first year, when preparations were being made for her sister’s wedding. This took place with much magnificence in the Castello of Pavia; but it was in January, and the journey thither in the depth of a severe winter had been a terrible experience for the Duchess Leonora, her two daughters, and their suite.

When the young duchess was well settled at Milan, we read of frequent visits between the sisters; but it was rather a serious matter of expense for Isabella, who needed fine new dresses and jewels for herself and her suite, to do justice to the magnificent reception which she received at Milan. Her ideas of jewels were of the most princely magnificence. We hear of a constant succession of orders for rubies, emeralds, diamond rosettes, engraved amethysts, rosaries of black amber, and gold-enameled roses, corals and turquoises, and gems unnumbered. If a goldsmith keeps the imperious lady waiting unduly, he will probably find himself in the dungeon of the Castello. What became of her dressmakers we do not hear, but they must have been overwhelmed with the costly variety of Oriental silks and velvets, the priceless brocades and fine linen with which they had to carry out her designs.

But this outward splendor only satisfied one side of her nature. The young marchioness had an insatiable appetite for literature, and she seems to have read all the mediaeval romances of her day, in French and Spanish as well as Italian. But this did not interfere with her taste for the classical authors, her study of the Christian Fathers, and her keen love for poetry. With all this she had time to hear sermons and to keep up her friendship with the saintly Dominican nun, the Beata Osanna. In a picture by Bonsignori, she is represented, with three of her ladies, kneeling at the feet of the holy woman.

Isabella also devoted much attention to the delightful occupation of decorating her rooms in the grim old Lombard Castello, which was more fortress than palace. Nothing was too costly, too rare and exquisite to satisfy her taste, and her own special chamber, overlooking the lake, with its inlaid woodwork and painted ceiling, its walls covered with priceless paintings, its treasures of rare books and musical instruments, silver and niello work, delicate glass from Murano … must have made this studio an ideal gem of the Renaissance. One little picture of Mantegna’s which hung here is thus described: “The dying of Our Lady, the Apostles standing about with white candles lighted in their hands; and in the landscape where the town of Mantua is painted is the water-lake, where a bridge is over the said water towards the town. In a little ebony wooden frame.”

In the year 1494, when all the world was ringing with the discoveries of Columbus, Isabella paid a visit of state to Venice, where she was royally entertained; but soon after her return she had the great sorrow of losing her mother, the Duchess Leonora, to whom she was passionately attached. It was an eventful year, as on the last day of December was born her eldest child, a girl who was called Leonora Violante Maria. “In her the name and blessed memory of my mother shall live again,” she wrote to her aunt, the Queen of Hungary.

At this time she had the comforting society of her dear friend, Elisabetta Gonzaga, the Duchess of Urbina, whom she was always so delighted to meet, “that they might tell each other all that had happened since they parted.” Soon after this the young mother went on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to Loreto, which a recent French writer, R. de Maulde la Clavière, has thus poetically described: “The sweet, tender Isabella d’Este set out thus to transport her soul across the plains of Umbria, towards the calm and glorious homes of peace and art, Loreto and Assisi. It was early spring, when the days were clear and sunny; every morning after mass the little caravan resumed its march with its picturesque escort, piously, tranquilly, ideally. During the Easter festival it made a halt with the Duke and Duchess of Urbina in the delightful palace of Gubbio, smiling down from amongst its gardens and fountains.
“The woman who has been able to live these hours of pure enthusiasm is conscious of accomplishing a large part of her dream. She is within sight of reconciling two opposite forces, the forces of Nature and the forces of the human heart …”

Isabella had inherited from her father an absorbing love for travel and for art, and she had ample opportunity of gratifying both these tastes. She went to Ferrara, to Milan, where her brother-in-law Lodovico il Moro had recently become Duke, and everywhere was the centre of princely entertainments. Her little daughter was left meantime in the care of an accomplished governess, Violante de’ Preti.

In the year 1495 her husband was appointed captain of the armies of the League which had been formed against the French king, who had already conquered Naples. Francesco was covered with honor by his success at the battle of Fornova, and as a memorial of this event he was painted by Mantegna, kneeling in his armour before the Virgin, in the famous “Madonna della Vittoria,” which was carried away from its forsaken shrine and now hangs in the Louvre. Peace had been made, but was not of long duration, and the next year we see the curious spectacle of the two sisters-in-law, Isabella, and Chiara Duchess of Montpensier, together amongst their books and music at Mantua; while their husbands fought in opposing camps, and good news to one would be disaster to the other. Such was the tangle of political interests and alliances in those days.

In this brief space, it is impossible to follow the varied course of that terrible war which ravaged Italy for so many years, and brought ruin and exile to so many friends of the house of Este. But through all the desperate perils and ever-present anxiety, Isabella so wisely ruled in Mantua, so delicately threaded her way through the bewildering maze of intrigues, and always hastened so judiciously to welcome and flatter the winner of the hour, that she kept her husband’s dominion intact. Sorrow she could not keep away, and many losses befell her at this time.

Her sister Beatrice, the splendid young Duchess of Milan, died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, and her infant son was buried with her. She was taken from the evil to come, poor young princess, for not three years later, all the glories of her estate were at an end; the duchy was taken from her husband, whose fate was a French dungeon, and her young children were exiles. The same year Isabella had to mourn the loss of her young cousin, the gallant Ferrante of Naples, and she had the bitter disappointment of seeing her husband disgraced and dismissed from his post of Captain General, on a suspicion of treason.

Through all her troubles she never lost her eager interest in art, and the collection of beautiful things. She had friends in every city who kept her informed of every event of interest, such as the bringing out of notable books or fine editions, the works issued from great studios, excavations, sales of collections. Her treasures overflowed from her “studiolo,” and she arranged or rebuilt an exquisite suite of rooms, the world-renowned Studio of the Grotta. As de Maulde tells us: “She cherished in undisturbed harmony the Sleeping Cupid of Michelangelo and a choice collection of antique statues; she covered her walls with the works of Mantegna, Costa, and Correggio; Leonardo da Vinci and Titian were her portrait painters; she herself painted her soul in two words: ‘Neither by hope nor by fear.’ As an ideal for life and an emblem for her house, she commissioned of the great idealist master, Perugino, a Combat between Love and Chastity, and wished to arrange its composition to the minutest details …. ”

Not until 1500, ten years after her marriage, was her first son born, to her great joy and pride, and henceforth the little Federico is the centre of all her hopes and affections. With her usual diplomacy she chose the all-powerful Caesar Borgia as one of his sponsors, and she seems to have remained in high favor with him. Within two years after, she was selected to receive his sister, Lucrezia Borgia, when she came as a bride to Ferrara. It must be owned that this marriage of her brother Alfonso was extremely distasteful to her, but she made no sign, and acted her part to perfection. On this occasion her misgivings were not realized, for after her stormy past the Pope’s daughter seems to have won respect and affection in her new position. She never forgot the gracious courtesy of her sister-in-law, and always looked up to her with admiration, as her letters bear witness.

Untouched by a breath of scandal herself, Isabella seems to have had large claims upon her tolerance. Amongst the refugees whom she received with hospitality after the fall of Milan, were the two mistresses of Duke Lodovico, Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli (The painting “La belle ferronnière” by Leonardo da Vinci is believed either Lucrezia Crivelli or Beatrice d’Este). Her own husband was by no means faultless, and seems to have shocked even the lax feeling of that age, by appearing at a tournament at Brescia with a certain Teodora, in splendid attire, when his relations with her were a matter of notoriety, There were troubles, too, in after years, with some of her maids-of-honor, but she always behaved with wise and kindly discretion.

About this time we hear of a delightful visit to Venice, when Isabella and her friend the Duchess of Urbino travelled incognito, with only two ladies, in order to avoid the inevitable entertainments, and to enjoy themselves in their own way. With what longing they must have looked back upon that happy time, for only a few months later, the treacherous Caesar Borgia seized Urbino, drove the duke and his wife into exile, and, with characteristic promptness, carried off the art treasures of that magnificent palace, to the value of close upon half a million.

The Marchesa of Mantua receives her friends, is deeply distressed at their misfortunes, but writes at once to secure an antique Venus and a Cupid, which she has long desired, from the spoils. One person’s calamity is the opportunity of another.

The death of the Pope soon after, put an end to the Borgia power, and it is a satisfaction to know that Guidobaldo and his wife returned in triumph to Urbino – but Isabella kept the Venus.

In the year 1505 a second son was born to her, Ercole, the future Cardinal; and her daughter Leonora was betrothed to Francesco, the nephew and heir of the Duke of Urbino. Her letters of this period are all very full of the wonderful sayings and doings of her son Federico, but she scarcely mentions his sisters. As we are specially interested in the women of the Renaissance, it may be interesting to mention that on the birth of Leonora her mother received a splendid cradle, but she never used it for her girls, and only the baby boy was considered worthy of it.

When Federico was seven years old, she took him with her to Milan, there to meet as a matter of policy King Louis XII. of France, in the ducal palace where her sister had once reigned, and Lodovico, who was then a prisoner at Loches. A few years later a great misfortune awaited her. Her husband, who had taken an active part in the renewed wars, was made prisoner by the Venetians, with all the costly furnishing of his camp, his horses, and his fine suits of armor. It is curious to read how, in her despair, Isabella consulted priests, lawyers, and astrologers. The answer which she received with regard to the conjunction of the star of Jove and the dragon’s head is extremely curious, as she is told to say her prayers at that exact moment.

But for thirteen long weary months poor Francesco was kept in the dreary prison at Venice, and when he was at length released, his precious son had to be sent as a hostage to Rome. Meantime his wife had governed Mantua with great ability, and used every effort by diplomacy and immense bribes to obtain the release of the Marquis. In order to gratify the Pope she hastened the marriage of her daughter, who was warmly welomed to Urbino, after the usual floods and narrow escapes on the journey; for all these grand weddings seem to have taken place in the winter.

After this, we hear a great deal in the letters about the boy Federico’s life in Rome, where he appears to have become a great favorite with the masterful old Pope Julius II., that indomitable fighter whose life was one long battle. During three years this precocious child was the spoilt darling of the brilliant society which filled the halls of the Vatican, and much as his mother wrote about his studies, they seem to have been quite secondary to his amusements. Nothing was too costly or too sumptuous for him, and Isabella pawned her jewels to supply the needed outlay. He would ride by the Pope’s side on State occasions, in a magnificent suit of white satin, brocaded with gold embroidered letters, wearing a sword and cuirass, with a velvet cap and sweeping feathers fastened by a diamond clasp. We can fancy him bowing with courtly grace to acknowledge the cheers of the populace.

On the death of his patron, the boy returned home to Mantua, and did not see the splendid festivities of the Coronation of the new Medici Pope, Leo X. Many changes occurred after this. Alfonso of Ferrara made his peace with Rome, and the young son of Beatrice d’Este, Maximilian Sforza, ruled at Milan in the palace of his father, to the great content of Isabella. But his triumph was of short duration, for in 1515 he was compelled to abdicate finally in favor of Francis I.

She had much anxiety at this time about the health of her husband, who never recovered from his captivity at Venice, and who seems to have been querulous and irritable, always ready to find fault with those around him. A Venetian ambassador, who paid him a visit, gives a very curious account of finding the invalid sitting in a splendid chamber, with a great fire burning on the hearth, surrounded by his pets. A number of hawks and falcons in leash were about the room, immense greyhounds lying at his feet, with his favorite dwarf in gold brocade, while the walls were hung with portraits of his horses and dogs. Nothing gave him so much pleasure as the loan of a new jester, or contriving some rough practical joke. But when death came not long after, he made a devout end, and by his special wish he was buried in the habit of a Franciscan, and laid to rest in the church of San Francesco. Letters of condolence came from all parts of the world, one of the most interesting being from Lucrezia Borgia, who herself only survived the Marquis of Mantua two months.

His son Federico, who succeeded him, was just nineteen, and he must have made a handsome picture as, clothed in white, he rode out of the Castello to receive the scepter at the gate of the cathedral.

The next year, Federico was appointed Captain General of the Church, a great honor, which gladdened the heart of his mother, although the condition attached to it by Pope Leo X. was that the exiled family from Urbina should leave Mantua, for again the tide of war had turned against the Gonzaga family, and Elisabetta, with her son Duke Francesco Maria and his wife, Isabella’s daughter, had taken refuge in her palace. But before the end of that year, 1521, the Pope himself died, and all was changed. The exiles returned with great joy to Urbina, where their people welcomed them with the old enthusiasm.

Meantime Isabella had her time fully occupied with affairs of State, where her counsel was needed more than ever, and in the ever-delightful task of arranging and decorating her suite of splendid new apartments in the Corte Vecchio, which was called her “Paradiso.” She took the same keen interest in collecting more antiques, statues, and bas-reliefs, and in the minutest details of planishing and adornment. But all this did not exhaust her marvelous energy, and her thoughts were much occupied with the future of her second son, Ercole, for whom she had chosen the Church as a profession, and who at fifteen was already a bishop. But her ambition went far beyond this; and the first step in his upward career would be an excellent education, so she decided to send him to Bologna, which had famous scholars, and where the university was in high repute. He had inherited his mother’s love of learning and did well at Bologna, where he remained until the death of the great master, Messer Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525), when he continued his studies at Mantua.

As years went on, Isabella does not seem to have lost any of her keen interest and delight in travel. In 1523 she paid another visit to Venice with her brother Alfonso, and her great friend and constant correspondent, Castiglione. As of old, she was never weary of visiting churches and picture galleries, meeting Titian and other artists and men of letters, not to mention making friends with the new Doge, whom she saw enthroned. Two years later she decided to go to Rome, that by her personal influence she might at length obtain the much-desired Cardinal’s hat for her son Ercole. This was in February, and on the way she heard the news of that great victory of Pavia, where Francis I. was defeated and taken prisoner. At Rome she found Pope Clement VI I. in terror of the Emperor, and only too glad to make close friends with the Court of Mantua. He even presented to Federico, Raphael’s portrait of Leo X., and showed the greatest kindness to the Marchesa, who had established herself in the Colonna Palace on the Quirinal. As usual, she at once became the centre of a delightful literary coterie, she visited everything, and must have been perfectly happy in being at the very fountain-head of all discovery of antiques.

It was while Isabella was in Rome, that she heard of the death of her dearest friend, Elisabetta, Duchess of Urbina (1471–1526), whose loss was one of the greatest sorrows of her life.

Meanwhile, important events were happening in Italy, where, after the Treaty of Madrid, war broke out again with more violence than ever. But Isabella still remained in the splendid palace with its sunny gardens, following out all her wonted pursuits; and she had been more than two years in Rome when suddenly the blow fell. Duke Charles of Bourbon with the Imperialist troops, encamped under the very walls one Sunday in May 1527; an attack was made, the leader was killed, but his wild and savage army stormed the walls, and the hapless city was given up to pillage and destruction during three awful days.

The Pope and most of the cardinals fled to the Castel St. Angelo, and escaped only with their lives, for all the priceless treasures of the Vatican were ruthlessly sacked and carted away. Isabella d’Este herself was safe, for she had kinsmen and friends in the invading army, and amongst them her son Ferrante. The crowd of distinguished people who found a refuge under her roof were compelled to pay a heavy ransom; Gregorovius gives the number as 1200 ladies and 1000 citizens. But she must have had a fearful time during that week in the Palazzo Colonna, before she was able to escape with a strong guard to the galleys, which took her safely to Ostia.

Leaving desolation and ruin behind her, the indomitable lady had yet one satisfaction, she bore away with her the Cardinal’s hat for her son Ercole, which the Pope, in his desperate need for money, had sold to her for 40,000 ducats, when Bourbon was already under the walls of Rome.

The Marchesa found her beloved Mantua ravaged by famine and plague, which spread all over northern Italy. Again she pledged her jewels, and did all in her power to help the poor people, of whom we are told that nearly one-third fell victims to the pestilence.

But she still found means to add to her treasure, although one galley laden with spoils was taken by pirates.

“For all these little vexations, those were glorious days!” exclaims de Maulde. “What a lucky windfall the sack of Rome was to collectors!”

That was the true Renaissance spirit, and a while later we find Titian on a visit to Mantua, admiring the treasures of Isabella, and painting her famous portrait, in which she wears that wonderful turban-shaped cap which had been her favorite head-dress for twenty years.

We next meet this indispensable lady at Ferrara, where once again it falls to her lot to receive and welcome a distinguished bride. It was a quarter of a century since the days of Lucrezia Borgia, and now the coming princess is Renée of France, daughter of Louis XII., and sister-in-law of King Francis I. Truly a great marriage for the son of the Duke of Ferrara.

As usual there were splendid festivities, but the time was unfortunate, for Ferrara, too, had been ravaged by the plague, and the unlucky city was once more on the point of war. But the next year, when the victorious Emperor arranged to meet the Pope and to be crowned at Bologna with the iron crown of Lombardy, Isabella d’Este had so many interests at stake that, aware of her own personal influence, she felt it her duty to be present at this great meeting, and went thither in great state and splendor. She was justified by the event, for she was entirely successful, both in mediation for her brother and her nephew of Milan, and also in obtaining for her son great favour with the Emperor, and the coveted title of Duke of Mantua.

Those three resplendent years which the young Federico spent at the Papal Court seem to have weakened his moral fibre, for he had entered into relations, unsanctioned by the Church, with one Isabella Boschetti (1502-1560), although he had been twice unwillingly betrothed. But now an opportunity presented itself for a splendid marriage with Margherita Paleologa (1510-1566), the heiress of Monferrato, and through his mother’s successful diplomacy, all difficulties were overcome. With a stately escort of a thousand men, the Duke of Mantua rode to Casale, the ancient capital of Monferrato, and the wedding was celebrated with the usual pomp and magnificence. A few years later the bride came into her rich dowry, which was added to the duchy of Mantua, a princely inheritance for her little son born in 1533.

Was ever woman so favored by fortune as Madonna Isabella? Every project of hers was crowned by success; she had but to form a wish and straightway it was gratified. To the last she kept up her enthusiasm for all beautiful things, for travel, for art, for poetry. She spent much time in her exquisite villa at Porto, and was never weary of adding to the choice flowers and shrubs of the terraced gardens. Surrounded by her friends, with frequent visits from her children and her grandchildren, she lived gaily and happily to the end. She died on February 13, 1539.

Source: The most illustrious ladies of the Italian renaissance by Marian Andrews. New York, C. Scribner’s sons 1904.


  • 1472. Birth of Bianca Maria Sforza, at Milan.
  • 1474. Birth of Isabella d’Este, at Ferrara.
  • 1475. Birth of Beatrice d’Este, at Ferrara.
  • 1476. Murder of Galeazzo Maria, Duke of Milan.
  • 1480. Lodovico Sforza (il Mora) usurped the government of Milan in the name of his nephew, Gian Galeazzo.
  • 1482. Pope Sixtus IV. made a league with Venice to despoil the House of Este. War carried on. The Pope withdrew, but Venice continued, until, by the Treaty of Bagnolo, she acquired much Este property.
  • 1484. Death of Sixtus IV.
  • 1485. Lodovico Sforza, for Milan, makes alliance with Florence and Naples against the Pope.
  • 1490. Marriage of Isabella d’Este with Francesco, Marchese of Mantua.
  • 1491. Marriage of Beatrice d’Este with Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Bari.
  • 1492. Pope Alexander VI. (Roderigo Borgia).
  • 1493. Lodovico Sforza, at war with Naples and Florence, invites the King of France, Charles VIII., to invade Italy.
  • 1493. Marriage of Bianca Sforza with the Emperor Maximilian. 1494. Charles VIII. crosses the Alps. Lodovico Sforza joins him at Pavia. Florence, Rome and Naples submit to the French. Death of Gian Galeazzo, young Duke of Naples. His uncle, Lodovico, is crowned Duke of Milan.
  • 1495. Alarmed at the success of Charles VIII., Lodovico forms a league against him, with Venice, Naples, the Emperor Maximilian, &c. Francesco Marchese of Mantua is Captain of the League. The French win the battle of Fornova. They are driven from Italy.
  • 1497. Death of Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Milan.
  • 1498. Louis XII. of France, successor to Charles VIII., lays claim to Naples, Sicily and Milan.
  • 1499. The French cross the Alps, conquer Milan. Lodovico returns and has a temporary success.
  • 1500. Lodovico, a fugitive, takes refuge at the Court of his niece, the Empress Bianca, at Innspruck. He makes a fresh attack on the French, is defeated and taken prisoner to France.
  • 1503. Pope Julius II. Birth of Federico, son of Isabella d’Este.
  • 1508. Death of Lodovico Sforza in the prison of Loches.
  • 1509. Francesco, husband of Isabella d’Este, made prisoner by the Venetians and kept captive for thirteen months.
  • 1510. Death of Bianca Maria Sforza, wife of Emperor Maximilian.
  • 1511. Maximilian Sforza, son of Beatrice d’Este, becomes Duke of Milan.
  • 1513. Pope Leo X., first Medici Pope.
  • 1515. The French again take Milan, and the young Duke Maximilian is expelled.
  • 1519. Death of Francesco, Marchese of Mantua. Federico succeeds him.
  • 1521. The Pope and Emperor Charles V. combine against the French and drive them from Milan. Francesco Sforza, brother of Maximilian, proclaimed Duke of Milan.
  • 1524. The French, after many defeats in Lombardy, are utterly routed at Pavia, where Francis I. is taken prisoner.
  • 1527. Rome is sacked by the Imperialists and Pope Clement VII. prisoner in Castello St. Angelo. Ten months of horror.
  • 1528. Marriage of Duke Ercole of Ferrara with Renee of France.
  • 1529. General peace in Italy.
  • 1530. Emperor Charles V. crowned by the Pope at Bologna. Isabella d’Este amongst the guests at Bologna.
  • 1534. Marriage of Francesco, Duke of Milan, to Christina of Denmark. Death of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, and of Pope Clement VII.
  • 1535. Death of Francesco. Duke of Milan (son of Beatrice d’Este).
  • 1537. Death of Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua.
  • 1575. Death of Renée, Duchess of Ferrara.


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