Isabella d'Este

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Isabella d'Este


Patron of the arts


Female Connoisseur. Isabella d'Este, a notable patron of the arts and collector of antiquities, established the first known studiolo (study) created for a woman. The daughter of Ercole d'Este and Eleonora of Aragon, she came from an eminent family of patrons and collectors of art. Giovanni Battista Guarino and Mario Equicola served her as tutors; the latter taught her Latin and became her secretary in 1508. She was an accomplished player on the lute and viol, abilities considered desirable for court ladies. Isabella's marriage to Francesco il Gonzaga, Marchese of Mantua, took place when she was sixteen years old. She bore him seven children, including an heir (Federico II) and a son (Ercole) who became a cardinal. Isabella established her own apartments in the ducal palace, commissioning works for it from notable Italian painters and sculptors. Her studiolo and grotta (treasure chamber) contained a library, marble statuary, paintings, coins, bronzes, and antique gems. As a woman she was exceptional in her ardent competition for antiquities within the public arena. Her apartments and collections were visited frequently during her lifetime and were mentioned often in sixteenth-century guidebooks. Using court practices of patronage, Isabella devised multiple strategies to establish a distinct social personality. This maneuvering allowed her to negotiate the boundaries of gender and social process. One such example may be found in the domain of fashion.

Fashionable Attire. Nicolosa Sanuti, a Bolognese aristocrat, disputed the imposition of sumptuary laws establishing dress codes for women in 1453. She argued for the positive values that clothing provided by their differential mark of status and value. Using their creative skills women were able to establish a social personality distinct from the collective identity assigned to wives. Within a patrilineal culture, customs such as the trousseau were means to establish natal or marital ties through the imprese (familial symbols) women wore on their public garments. Fashion could be a form of social negotiation setting women apart. D'Este's inventive fashion style was well known. Letters exchanged with her sister, Beatrice d'Este, convey an astute awareness of how clothing facilitated a court lady's self-fashioning. Her agents were instructed to search abroad for the finest quality cloth and to relate new fashion innovations they saw. Francis I requested that she send to Paris a doll clothed in her latest fashions for his court ladies to see. According to Giangiorgio Trissino's Ritratti (Portraits) of 1524, the gorgeous attire of such ladies was a mark of liberality by which their riches were shared. Physical beauty, in keeping with Platonic ideals, was an outward manifestation of virtue.

Self-Portraits. Isabella's portraits, like those of other court ladies, documented her social persona and made the absent present. She rewarded poets and writers with a gold medal depicting her portrait. An inscription on the 1498 medal stated, “for those who do her service.” A gemstudded copy was kept on display, together with an antique cameo, in her grotta. Among her most notable portraits was a profile of her with book in hand, drawn by Leonardo da Vinci during his 1499 visit to Mantua. Her pleasure with it is evident from the fact that she had it copied several times—evidently to circulate among court circles. After 1516 she no longer sat for her portrait. Isabella was sixty when she commissioned Titian to paint her portrait in 1534, so he had to base it on earlier paintings. By this time she had moved to new quarters in the ducal palace, where she had a walled garden and a newly constructed studiolo and grotta on the ground floor.

Courtly Roles. Even though she was aristocratic, d’ Este operated within the conventions and expectations of female rulers. Court ladies were to exemplify piety, learning, virginity or chastity, and fidelity to husband and family. These rules of decorum could result in potential conflict with the public exercise and display of wealth and power. Ladies of the court had their own income and entourage, enabling them to construct and support monasteries, nunneries, and chapels as well as to commission altarpieces, manuscripts, and tapestries. Isabella supported the canonization of local saints and promoted churches and monastic institutions. Desiring to be remembered for her chastity and marital fidelity, she commissioned paintings with themes of females who preserve their reputation and virginity. Although hampered by limited financial resources, she augmented them by purchasing works secondhand rather than commissioning them. In addition, she began to control her own contemporary and posthumous reputation through her patronage of writers, such as Baldassare Castiglione, as well as musicians and artists. In the 1490s she commissioned her court artist, Andrea Mantegna, to design a monument dedicated to the classical Roman poet Virgil. Unfortunately, the work did not proceed beyond the preliminary stages, but the commission would have made a public statement about her humanist interests.

Art Collections. Isabella wanted Mantegna to paint several works for her studiolo as well. The poet Paride da Ceresera and the Venetian humanist Pietro Bembo devised the invenzione (programs) for these classical allegories. The artists she chose were not always pleased with the limitations imposed by such detailed programs, but it was not uncommon within her family's Ferrarese patronage traditions. Mantegna produced the Parnassus (1497) and Pallas Expelling the Vices (circa 1499-1502) before his death. A record of the correspondence and commission for The Battle of Love and Chastity (1505) by Pietro Perugino still survives. Isabella's own collection of classical antiquities accorded well with the classical themes of the studiolo paintings. Cesare Borgia gave her an antique statue of Venus and a Cupid by Michelangelo executed in an antique style. An antique Greek statue of Cupid (circa 330 B.C.E.), attributed to the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles, was purchased from Pope Julius II and displayed with them. She commissioned from the noted sculptor Antico (Pier Jacopo Alari Benacost, circa 1460-1528) copies of antique statues such as the Apollo Belvedere (fifth century B.C.E.) by the noted sculptor Antico. The extent and quality of her collection was exceptional for a court lady. An inventory made in 1542 listed 1,620 items, including coins, gems, medals, and vases, as well as more than two hundred books. Her studiolo and its contents attest not only to her abilities to shape the qualities of virtue and magnificence required of a court lady, but also her commitment to self-fashioning her image and reputation.


Alison Cole, Virtue and Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts (New York: Abrams, 1995).

Diane Own Hughes, “Regulating Women's Fashion,” in A History of Women in the West, volume 2, Silences of the Middle Ages, edited by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 136-158.

Evelyn Welch, Art and Society in Italy, 1350-1500 (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

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Isabella d'Este

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Isabella d'Este