Isabella's Mother: Aspects of the Art Patronage of Eleonora d'Aragona, Duchess of Ferrara

By Manca, Joseph | Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview
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Isabella's Mother: Aspects of the Art Patronage of Eleonora d'Aragona, Duchess of Ferrara


Manca, Joseph, Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art


Eleonora d'Aragona has a special place in the history of patronage in the Renaissance period because of the notable amount, quality, and innovative subject matter of the works she sponsored. She came to Ferrara from Naples in 1473 at the time of her marriage to the Ferrarese ruler, Duke Ercole I d'Este, and became an important sponsor of art and architecture in the city of the Este family until her death in 1493. Most other wives of courtly rulers in the fifteenth century were less active in their art patronage. Eleonora was notable for the scale and diversity of the artworks produced specifically for her during her reign, works that included significant building projects in the city of Ferrara, fine illuminated manuscripts, mural paintings, and pictures on panel. (1)

In more ways than one, she was a precursor of her daughter, Isabella d'Este, many of whose own efforts as a patroness in Mantua essentially continued the practices set out by Eleonora, who was a strong role model for Isabella (Fig. 1). (2) The painters of Ferrara carried out a vast decorative project for Eleonora, painting murals in a suite of her private rooms and loggias in the Castle in Ferrara; the complexity and the large scale of these decorations must have made a great impression on young Isabella. Eleonora's own personal inventory records a great number of artworks, and she commissioned paintings from Andrea Mantegna and Ercole de' Roberti, two artists who also later worked for Isabella. (3)

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

This essay concentrates on three painting projects linked to Eleonora: first, the frontispiece to Antonio Cornazzano's Del modo di regere e di regnare, showing a portrait of the duchess by the court painter Cosme Tura; second, some important mural pictures representing her triumphal procession and nuptial celebrations of 1473; and, finally, the pictures of famous women painted for her by the Ferrarese court painter Ercole de' Roberti. Along the way, and at the conclusion, some comments will be offered about Eleonora's position in the history of patronage of the Renaissance period.

A small but incisive portrait of Eleonora forms the frontispiece to the Del modo di regere e di regnare of Antonio Cornazzano (Fig. 2). The text of the book itself, which comprised advice on how to conduct oneself as a ruler, was written for Eleonora before 1484 (the year of Cornazzano's death), and sometime after the birth in 1476 of her son, prince Alfonso, who is referred to by Cornazzano as "el Alfonso caro." (4) A more specific dating can be gleaned from references in the book to Eleonora's taking up the helm of power in 1478-1479 when Ercole I was absent from Ferrara. (5) The text itself is a rather straightforward discussion of rulership and the qualities needed for it, such as wisdom and strength. That Cornazzano's book is written for the duchess is noteworthy, however, since it is a book on ruling made for a woman. For its part, the portrait that graces the frontispiece offers a likeness of Eleonora that captures her role as a ruler as well as recording her features. Tura's portrait is striking in the fineness of the features, a rendering that contradicts the contemporary descriptions of the sitter as unattractive ("grassa e grosa, lo volto largo, lo colo curto"), and this likeness undoubtedly corrects whatever perceived shortcomings of appearance she had. (6) The improvement of her appearance was expected, but the effectiveness of the image as indicating the rulership capabilities of a female sitter is noteworthy. Eleonora has a cool, penetrating, forward stare that is lordly instead of demure. She is pensive rather than represented in the usual more blank expression typical for so many Quattrocento portraits, especially those of female sitters. Her facial expression conveys her possession of the necessary virtues to rule, and one can see in the distant and determined gaze of the duchess an embodiment of a ruler's necessary qualities, which Cornazzano says include chiefly justice, wisdom, prudence, and strength.

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