Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

ISABELLA D'ESTE
(1474-1539)

Italy
Patron of Arts and Letters and Political Activist

Isabella d'Este distinguished herself during the Italian Renaissance as an avid patron of the arts and as a consummate politician. Variously referred to as the "First Lady of the Renaissance" and as a "Machiavelli in skirts," Isabella d'Este endeavored to live life on her own terms, cultivating the recognition and admiration of artists and writers, statesmen and Popes. While historians disagree as to which of Isabella's interests deserve the most recognition--her cultural patronage or her political intrigues--they agree that she pursued both activities with remarkable vigor.

Despite being the eldest child of Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara ( 1431-1505), and his wife, Leonora of Aragon ( 1455-1493), Isabella d'Este's future did not include, as it would have if she had been a first-born son, ruling the independent Italian city-state of Ferrara. Instead, Duke Ercole arranged a politically advantageous marriage for his daughter with Francesco Gonzaga ( 1466-1519), the son of and heir to the ruling dynasty in Mantua. Because of its strategic location, an alliance between Ferrara and Mantua could help protect Ferrara against the Venetians' desire to expand their territory into the mainland. The marital alliance would also help Ferrara maintain its sovereign status, by strengthening its ties to the neighboring state of Mantua. Duke Ercole formally announced the engagement of Isabella and Francesco in May 1480. Ten years later, at the age of sixteen, Isabella d'Este became Marchesa of Gonzaga.

Upon arriving in Mantua, Isabella forged her most enduring friendship with Francesco's sister, Elisabetta Gonzaga Montefeltro, Duchess of Urbino ( 1471-1526). Elisabetta suggested by her own example how a lady at her social level should conduct herself. After visiting Elisabetta's court at Urbino, a renowned cultural center, Isabella strove to entice intellectuals and artists to participate in Mantua's courtly activities. Isabella then embarked upon a lifelong

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