Este, Beatrice d' and Isabella d'

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Este, Beatrice d' and Isabella d'

Este, Beatrice d' (1475–1497). Duchess of Milan who became famous for her patronage of artists during the Italian Renaissance. Name variations: Bianca or Beatrice Sforza; Beatriz; Bice; Duchess of Bari. Pronunciation: bee-uh-TREES DEHS-tuh. Born on June 29, 1475, in Ferrara, Italy; died in childbirth on January 2, 1497, in Milan, Italy; daughter of Ercole I d'Este (1431–1505), 2nd duke of Ferrara and Modena, and Leonora of Aragon (1450–1493); sister of Alfonso I (1476–1534), 3rd duke of Ferrara, who married Lucrezia Borgia ; married Louis also known as Ludovico or Lodovico il Moro Sforza (1451–1508), duke of Milan (r. 1479–1500), on January 17, 1491; daughter-in-law of Bianca Maria Visconti (1423–1470); children: Ercole, duke of Milan (b. 1493, called Maximilian); Francesco Maria (b. 1495), duke of Milan (r. 1521–1535).

Moved to Naples (1477); betrothed (1480); returned to Ferrara (1485); established court at Milan (1491); became duchess of Milan (1494); began artistic patronage (1495).

Este, Isabella d' (1474–1539). Marchioness of Mantua and important leader of the Italian Renaissance as patron of the arts, as well as a politician who worked to advance her family's power and prestige. Name variations: Isabel, Isabeau; Isabella Gonzaga; Marchioness or Marchesa of Mantua. Pronunciation: eez-uh-BELL-uh DEHS-tuh. Born on May 18, 1474, in Ferrara, Italy; died on February 13, 1539, in Mantua, Italy; daughter of Ercole I d'Este (1431–1505), 2nd duke of Ferrara and Modena, and Leonora of Aragon (1450–1493); sister of Alfonso I (1476–1534), 3rd duke of Ferrara, who married Lucrezia Borgia ; married Francesco also known as Gianfrancesco Gonzaga (1466–1519), 4th marquis of Mantua (r. 1484–1519), February 11, 1490; children: Eleonora Gonzaga (1493–1543); Margherita (1496–1496); Frederigo also known as Federico (1500–1540), 5th marquis of Mantua (r. 1519–1540); Ippolita Gonzaga (1503–1570, became a nun); Ercole (1505–1563, a cardinal); Ferrante (1507–1557, prince of Guastalla); Paola Gonzaga (1508–1569, became a nun). Francesco Gonzaga also had two illegitimate daughters.

Betrothed (1480); established court at Mantua (1490); began artistic patronage (1495); commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to sketch portrait (1499); arranged for husband's release from prison (1509).

Isabella d'Este and her younger sister Beatrice were two of the most famous women of the Renaissance period in Europe (about 1450–1550). Despite their fame, until 1976 only one obscure full-length biography had been written on each in the 400 years since their deaths. Each woman was a politically active, wealthy noblewoman who contributed immensely to the Italian Renaissance by her patronage of many of its greatest artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Beatrice and Isabella were the first and second children born to the powerful duke and duchess of Ferrara. Ferrara was only a small state in northern Italy, but it had been raised to prominence by the shrewd political leadership of the Este family, including their father, Ercole I of Ferrara. Duke Ercole was well-loved by his subjects, for he kept Ferrara safe from invasion during the turbulent late-15th century, when Italian politics was a massive tangle of civil wars between city-states. Their mother, Leonora of Aragon , was the daughter of King Ferrante of Naples; thus, Isabella and Beatrice had both noble and royal family heritages.

In the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, power, titles, and property were usually passed down through the male line of a family. Most families attributed little importance to the birth of a daughter, whose marriage could make a political alliance but who traditionally could not inherit her parents' estates. Consequently, it is not surprising that neither Isabella nor Beatrice received much of a welcome into the world at birth. As Julia Cartwright wrote, a chronicler recorded in 1475 that "a daughter was born this day to Duke Ercole, and received the name of Beatrice, being the child of Madonna Leonora, his wife. And there were no rejoicings, because everyone wished for a boy." This cold, factual report can be contrasted to the celebrations held the following year, when shops were closed, banquets held, and concerts given in honor of her brother.

Two years after Beatrice's birth, Duchess Leonora took her two daughters to visit their grandfather, Ferrante of Naples. Several months later, she returned to Ferrara but left Beatrice behind, for Ferrante had grown attached to the small child and refused to allow her to leave. Beatrice remained in Naples under her grandfather's watchful eye for the next eight years, while Isabella was raised in Ferrara. Thus, the two girls spent most of their childhood apart, although this did not seem to diminish their affection for one another in later years. Then in May 1480, Ercole and Leonora announced that betrothal agreements had been made for both girls—Isabella was to marry Francesco Gonzaga, son of the Marquis Federico of Mantua, while Beatrice's betrothed was the powerful regent of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. These alliances represented the union of Italy's most powerful and prominent families.

Beatrice returned to her father's court in 1485 at age ten, where she and Isabella continued their schooling together. Both received a classical education, which, though uncommon for daughters in the Middle Ages, was becoming more popular during the early years of the Italian Renaissance. They studied French and Latin language and literature, the ancient Greek authors in translation, as well as some of the sciences, mathematics, and geometry. Unlike male students, Isabella and Beatrice were also taught those accomplishments considered necessary for noblewomen: dancing, embroidery, playing an instrument, and singing. Both were described as intelligent, quick learners by their tutors. In addition, the princesses learned from their parents about the importance and beauty of the arts—music, painting, architecture, and sculpture—and of the tangled alliances and enmities between the various Italian states.

When Isabella reached her 16th year, she married her betrothed Francesco Gonzaga, who had succeeded as marquis of Mantua on his father's death in 1484 and was now about 24 years old. The young princess was described at the time of her wedding as being of moderate height, with pale skin, fine blonde hair, and black eyes. The elaborate wedding was held at Ferrara on February 11, 1490. Preparations for the ceremony and its accompanying celebrations had begun more than a year before and employed hundreds of artists and artisans to create every object and piece of furniture to be used during the event. The time and money invested in the details of the wedding reveal the significance of the ritual for all the people of both city-states, since a wedding between two nobles was not just a personal commitment but a political alliance made by two families and sealed with both a dowry and a dower (gifts of money and land exchanged by the two families).

Thus, the ceremonies involved in the actual wedding were political events involving many speeches, banquets in honor of various family members, and a grand display of wealth. As an example of the ostentatious show, Isabella rode through Ferrara after the ceremony in a new chariot draped with a cloth of pure gold, and her hundreds of guests ate off crystal and gold plates at her wedding feast. The day after the wedding, Isabella and Francesco sailed up the Po River to Mantua, Isabella's new home. There she was met by the people of Mantua, who welcomed her warmly, and the new marchioness attended even more banquets and pageants in her honor.

Isabella had met her husband only once before their wedding but had been corresponding with him ever since their betrothal was announced. Despite the eight years between them, they seemed to be quite happy together and grew very affectionate with one another. Isabella's devotion to her new husband spread to his family as well. She became especially fond of Francesco's sister, Elisabetta Montefeltro , who later became duchess of Urbino. They remained intimate friends for the rest of their lives, often corresponding after Elisabetta left Mantua for Urbino. In one letter, Isabella tells her friend that "there is no one I love like you, excepting my only sister." In addition, Isabella shared her love of music and singing with many in Mantua, and quickly became the well-loved center of the Mantuan court.

In the November after her wedding, Isabella returned to Ferrara to participate in the preparations for Beatrice's upcoming wedding. The sisters had become very close during their teen years, and Isabella wrote that she could not bear to be left out of such an important occasion in Beatrice's life. She traveled with her mother and Beatrice to Pavia for the ceremonies and only after several months returned to Mantua. The wedding of Ludovico Sforza and Beatrice d'Este, held in January 1491, was as elaborate and costly as that of Isabella, and the festivities lasted for about a week. The bride, at age 16, was described by court ambassadors as tall, with olive skin, black hair, and dark eyes.

The man Beatrice married had already led a long, adventurous life in the 40 years before his marriage. He was a politically savvy member of one of Italy's most prominent houses, whose intrigues and military exploits led him to be banished for several years. In 1479, Ludovico, always known as "Il Moro," returned to Milan and was named duke of Bari by the king of Naples. Later that year, he led a successful invasion of Milan which resulted in his being named regent of Milan for his nephew, Gian Galeazzo. He retained the regency for 15 years, acting as duke in all but name.

Both Beatrice, now duchess of Bari, and Isabella became the trusted companions and political associates of their husbands. Since ruling a state in the 15th century entailed almost constant travel for the regent of Milan and the marquis of Mantua, their wives played important roles in administering the government in their absences. Unlike Beatrice, Isabella took to her political duties eagerly; she had a keen ability to master the endless diplomacies and intrigues which made up Italian politics and seemed to enjoy the responsibilities and burdens of rule. She had a strong concern for the public good and spent much of her time corresponding with Ludovico Sforza, her father, and her husband, consulting with them on how to meet the needs of the people of Mantua.

Yet her duties to the state did not occupy all of the marchioness' time. Isabella spent hours consulting with the many jewelry designers, artisans, wardrobe designers, tailors, and furriers whom she employed. She had a great love of, and appreciation for, jewels and luxurious dresses and was continuously involved in the design and execution of new pieces of jewelry and gowns for her collections.

Beatrice, on the other hand, did not share Isabella's political bent. She took on the responsibilities of a duchess—from managing her household to taking care of state matters—but did not derive the pleasure from it that her sister did. She quickly filled her more serious obligations and then occupied herself with what were called "the joys of living," i.e., dancing, singing, hunting, having poems and stories read to her, bringing those people to court who were reputed to have the best artistic and musical talents. She did, however, share with Isabella her love of fine clothing and expensive gems and spent a considerable amount each month on new gowns and other luxuries.

It seems part of Beatrice's motivation to look her best was spurred on by her jealousy of the princess Isabella of Naples , bride of Gian Galeazzo, the young duke of Milan. It was no secret that the wife of the regent and the wife of the duke were engaged in a serious rivalry for dominance at the Milanese court; it was unclear which lady should have precedence and which should pay homage to the other, since Ludovico ruled Milan in fact, whereas Duke Gian Galeazzo ruled in name. It created a palpable tension at court which was felt by all courtiers who, trained in the intricacies of protocol and paying homage based on fine differences of rank, could not be sure which "Lady" to treat with the greater obeisance. Both Beatrice and Isabella of Naples tried to outdo one another by showing the most wealth in terms of costume and adornment.

Beatrice and her sister Isabella corresponded regularly, each writing at least once a week. In 1492, their much-beloved mother Leonora died, and the bereaved sisters wrote to one another long letters of consolation and sympathy. Later that year, Isabella gave birth to her first child, a daughter, whom she named Eleonora (Gonzaga) in honor of her departed mother. The next year witnessed the birth of Beatrice's son, baptized Ercole after their father. In 1494, Beatrice triumphed in her rivalry with Isabella of Naples, for the young Duke Gian Galeazzo died suddenly and Ludovico Sforza was proclaimed his successor, forcing Isabella of Naples to retire to her dower estates.

The year 1495 proved to be important for the two princesses of Ferrara. In January, Isabella traveled to Milan to be present for the birth of Beatrice's second child, Francesco. The sisters spent much of their time consulting with the various artists who surrounded the Milanese court, for Beatrice had developed a keen interest in the patronage of up-and-coming painters, sculptors, and poets, who were rewarded handsomely if their work pleased the young duchess. This generous patronage made the beneficent duchess one of Europe's most admired women. But Isabella's visit was cut short by news that France had invaded and conquered Naples; an international league including Milan and Mantua was formed to fight against the French, and Francesco Gonzaga was named captain of the new armies. Isabella was forced to return home in March to govern Mantua in Francesco's place; although they could not have known, she and Beatrice had parted for the last time.

Isabella spent almost the next year and a half involved heavily in the day-to-day administration of a wartime state and sold many of the precious jewels and other ornaments to raise money for her husband to pay his soldiers. In July 1496, she gave birth to another daughter, Margherita, who lived for only a few months. More tragedy struck when the marchioness received word that Francesco was gravely ill with a fever; Isabella immediately ordered an entourage to accompany her to her husband, who lay ill at Ancona, and brought him home to Mantua, where he eventually recovered.

A few months later, news came to Mantua which caused deep mourning throughout the city. It was announced that Beatrice, duchess of Milan, had died on January 2, 1497, at age 21, having given birth that evening to a still-born son. The duchess' courtiers told how the young woman had seemed to be in a profound depression for the preceding months, although she would not explain the cause of her sadness, and spent much of her time in prayer. Her husband Ludovico reacted with shock and sorrow, refusing for several days to see anyone except his secretary, to whom he dictated letters bearing the news of Beatrice's death to her family. To Francesco Gonzaga, he wrote of his suffering:

This cruel and premature end has filled me with bitter and indescribable anguish, so much so that I would rather have died myself than lose the dearest and most precious thing that I had in this world…. And I beg you not to send anyone to condole with me, as that would only renew my sorrow. I would not write to Madonna Marchesana [Isabella], and leave you to break the news to her as you think best, knowing well how inexpressible her sorrow will be.

Indeed, Isabella was inconsolable when Francesco conveyed Ludovico's message. She wrote to her father of her grief on January 5: "When I think what a loving, honored, and only sister I have lost, I am so much oppressed with the burden of this sudden loss that I know not how I can ever find comfort."

Isabella of Naples (1470–1524)

Duchess of Milan. Name variations: Isabella of Aragon; Isabella Sforza; Isabella di Bari; duchesa di Bari. Born on October 2, 1470; died in Naples in 1524; daughter of Alphonso II (b. 1448), king of Naples, and Ippolita (1446–1484); married Giangaleazzo or Gian Galeazzo Sforza (1469–1494), 6th duke of Milan (r. 1476–1479); sister-in-law of Caterina Sforza (c. 1462–1509); children: Francesco (d. 1511); Bona Sforza (1493–1557, who married Sigismund, king of Poland).

The war against France had spread until many of Italy's city-states were also warring against one another, and in this chaotic climate, Isabella could scarcely afford the luxury of a long mourning period. She soon had to turn her attention back to matters of state, for in June 1497 Francesco was dismissed from his post as army captain because of internal conflicts with other leaders of the anti-French league. Her brother-in-law Ludovico saw his downfall soon after, when a treaty between Venice and France led to his deposition as duke of Milan; he fled the state, and Beatrice's children were sent into exile.

Isabella cared deeply about Ludovico's wellbeing, but her overriding concern was for her own safety and for peace in Milan; thus, she began the difficult task of negotiating with the French in the interests of Milan. In 1499, she learned that Ludovico had been taken captive by the French. The man whose fortunes had risen so steadily in his early years and had spent his middle years as one of Italy's most powerful men died a prisoner in Touraine, France, in 1508. Beatrice's son Ercole was restored to his father's duchy in 1512, and one chronicler writes that during Ercole's reign, Ludovico's body was removed to Milan and buried next to Beatrice.

Isabella continued to give birth to children at regular intervals, seven in total. In 1500, her first son Federico was born, to the joy of Francesco and the Milanese, who had longed for an heir to the marquis. Ippolita Gonzaga (born 1503), Ercole (1505), who would become a cardinal, Ferrante (1507), and Paola Gonzaga (1508) were her last four children.

In her treatment of children, Isabella was a typical mother for her time. She paid the most attention to her eldest son Federico, writing to Francesco almost daily about the child's growth and progress with tutors; in contrast, she virtually ignored her daughters, scarcely mentioning them in any of her correspondence. She closely supervised the education of all her children, however, making sure each was well-taught in the classics as she had been; she also planned for their marriages with an eye toward political and financial gain. But she did not reveal in her letters true affection or maternal love for any of them. This was not uncommon in the 15th century, when the value of children was sometimes equated with their potential to increase their family's wealth and prestige.

In the years following Beatrice's death, Isabella became famed across Europe for her patronage of the Renaissance's greatest artists. She commissioned hundreds of portraits and other paintings, giving the finished works as gifts or keeping them in one of her many studios and galleries. At the end of 1499, the famous master Leonardo da Vinci made a long visit to the court of Mantua. It was during this time that he executed a portrait of Isabella in red chalk; it is one of the few existing pictures of the marchioness and now hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Isabella paid enormous sums of money for the works she ordered, and she was very difficult to satisfy. For instance, she penned more than 50 letters to Perugino, the artist from whom she had commissioned a single picture, criticizing the work and requesting improvement before she paid for it. She would return books to their printers, demanding more careful revision, and send back musical instruments to their makers if their tones were not sweet enough.

Yet, as Julia Cartwright noted in Isabella D'Este: "If Isabella was a fastidious and sometimes severe critic, she was also a generous and kindly patron, prompt to recognize true merit and stimulate creative effort, and ever ready to befriend struggling artists." Castiglione, Niccolo da Correggio, Bembo, Bellini, Michelangelo, and Titian, indeed many of the most well-known names of the Italian Renaissance, counted Isabella as one of their most generous and supportive patrons and sponsors. In return for her financial rewards and the publicity she gave them, all these artists paid tribute to the marchioness in their paintings, in their poems extolling her virtues, in their verses written for her, and in their songs in Italian and Latin and French dedicated to her.

Meanwhile, the war against the French continued off and on. Francesco obtained a new commission to lead troops against the enemies of Mantua and spent the better part of ten years away from home, returning only briefly every few months. In July 1509, Isabella learned that Francesco had been taken captive by the Venetians and was being held in Venice. She immediately set to work trying to effect his release, sending envoys asking for help to the pope, the French king, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, and others. A year later, the marquis was freed, but only after Isabella pawned much of her jewelry for ransom and persuaded the pope to assist her by pressuring the Venetians on her behalf.

Isabella continued acting as the chief administrator of Mantua when Francesco again returned to war. In 1519, more tragedy struck. In January, her friend the Emperor Maximilian passed away, as well as her longtime personal secretary. While she was recovering from her grief, the Marquis Francesco fell ill while staying at Mantua. He died on March 29 with Isabella, his children, and his sisters at his bedside. Isabella's son Federico was proclaimed the new marquis and looked to his mother for her guidance and the value of her experience.

Despite the fact that a mourning Isabella officially ceased to hold the title of marchioness with Francesco's death, she continued to act in her former capacity for some time. She spent the next few years actively involved in the administration of her son's reign but gradually began to tire of the constant demands such a position made on her. She began to free herself from the constraints of ruling and indulged more and more in her favorite activities. This included nearly constant traveling across Italy, visiting her relatives and the many friends whom she had made in her youth and early adult life. Of course, she remained somewhat politically active, including successfully pressuring the pope to put her son Ercole on the college of cardinals. But in these later years of widowhood, Isabella turned her attention to playing the role of artistic patron and serious art collector, a role she had been forced to neglect during the last few years of Francesco's life. She created one of the finest libraries in Europe, filled her palaces with Greek and Roman antiques, and turned back to the intellectual pursuits of learning which she had not engaged in since her youth.

In late 1538, Isabella's health began to fail. She was 64 years old, an advanced age for that period. She made out her last will, providing for the future security of her children and grandchildren as well as for the ladies-in-waiting and other servants who had been in her service for many years. She made one last trip to Venice in September, to visit her son Ercole, and returned to Mantua in November. Her children were summoned to their mother's bedside in early February when it became clear her health would not improve. She said goodbye to her grieving children and grandchildren, and died peacefully on February 13, 1539. She was buried beside her husband in the Church of San Francesco in Mantua.


Cartwright, Julia. Beatrice D'Este, Duchess of Milan: A Study of the Renaissance. London: J.M. Dent, 1899.

——. Isabella D'Este: Marchioness of Mantua (1474–1539): A Study of the Renaissance in Two Volumes. London: J.M. Dent, 1903.

suggested reading:

King, Margaret. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Marek, George R. The Bed and the Throne: The life of Isabella D'Este. NY: Harper, 1976.

Laura York , freelance writer in medieval history and women's history, Riverside, California

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Este, Beatrice d' and Isabella d'

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