Gonzaga, Eleonora (1493–1543)

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Gonzaga, Eleonora (1493–1543)

Duchess of Urbino. Name variations: Leonora Gonzaga; Eleanora Gonzaga della Rovere; Eleonora della Rovere. Born in December 1493 in Mantua, Italy; died in 1543 in Gubbio, Italy; daughter of Isabella d'Este (1474–1539) and Francesco also known as Gian Francesco Gonzaga (1466–1519), 4th marquis of Mantua (r. 1484–1519); niece of Elisabetta Montefeltro ; married Francesco Maria della Rovere (a nephew of Pope Julius II), duke of Urbino (r. 1508–1538), in March 1509; children: Federico (b. 1511); Guidobaldo (b. 1514), duke of Urbino; Ippolita (c. 1516); Guilia; Elisabetta; Guilio (b. 1535), later Cardinal of San Pietro.

The Italian noblewoman Eleonora Gonzaga was the first child of Marquess Francesco Gonzaga of Mantua and Isabella d'Este of the ruling house of Ferrara. As was common in a large aristocratic household, Eleonora had little contact with either of her parents during her childhood but spent her time with her many siblings, nurses, and tutors. She received an education typical of Renaissance girls of nobility—reading and writing, some Latin, music, and needlework. These were thought necessary to make her into a suitable wife for the noble with whom her parents contracted a marriage agreement. In Eleonora's case, her parents arranged in 1505 an alliance with the papacy under Pope Julius II, which included the marriage of their eldest daughter to the pope's nephew, along with an impressive dowry of 30,000 ducats. The betrothed was Francesco Maria della Rovere, the young heir to the duchy of Urbino. The wedding was finally celebrated at the Vatican four years later, in March 1509, when Eleonora was just 15 and her new husband 16. By this time, Francesco had succeeded his uncle Guidobaldo as duke of Urbino.

The new duchess left her parents' palaces of Mantua for Urbino, where the dowager duchess, Elisabetta Montefeltro , still reigned over the court in practice, if not in name. Often such a situation led to rivalry and jealousies between a widowed noblewoman and her younger replacement. But happily for Eleonora, the older woman became a mother figure to her. The two duchesses formed a close and loving bond, much closer than Eleonora's relationship with her own mother would ever be. Most sources agree that Isabella d'Este was distant and rather cold towards Eleonora, communicating with her rarely, although the reason for this is not clear.

Duchess Eleonora had six children with Francesco between 1514 and 1535, three daughters and three sons. Her husband, who was a captain in the papal armies and held other military positions as well, was absent from Urbino much of the time, and thus Eleonora and Elisabetta administered the duchy for many of the years of Francesco's reign. Eleonora suffered most of her married years from ill health, which doctors attributed to epilepsy, gonorrhea (which Francesco suffered from), and from depression linked to her illness. Her poor health is also linked to her numerous miscarriages and stillborn births.

In 1515, the fortunes of Urbino's ruling family changed suddenly. Francesco was nominally allied with the new pope, Leo X, but when Leo ordered Francesco to lead an army in the pope's invasion of France, Francesco unwisely refused. He also dismissed the army organized and paid for by the pope. Leo summoned him to Rome to answer for his refusal, but Francesco fled to the protection of his wife's family in Mantua instead. He was accompanied in his flight by Eleonora, their son Guidobaldo, and the dowager duchess Elisabetta. In response, Pope Leo, who had wanted to get the prosperous duchy of Urbino for his nephew anyway, used Francesco's flight as a pretext for sending an army to take over the duchy. He excommunicated Francesco and stripped him of his titles. Eleonora appealed to her parents to intercede with Leo, but their efforts were in vain. Eleonora and Francesco became rulers in exile; while Eleonora and her son remained in Mantua, Francesco sought to win back his duchy by force. Only in 1521 was he successful, but not through his own efforts. In that year Leo died and the new pope, Hadrian VI, had no argument with Francesco and so restored his rights to Urbino. In the spring of 1523, the duke and duchess returned to their elegant palace. By the agreement restoring the duchy, however, the couple had to leave their son Guidobaldo in Mantua as a sort of guarantee of Francesco's loyalty to the papacy.

Francesco did not stay in Urbino for long. Ever the soldier, he continued to lead armies on one campaign after another, returning to Urbino infrequently. Eleonora (as always, with Elisabetta) returned to her previous obligations of administration, and also undertook the massive rebuilding of Urbino and surrounding towns needed after the destructive wars recently fought there. She also supervised the building of the palatial Villa Imperiale in Pesaro. A Latin inscription on the palace dedicates it to Francesco from Eleonora "as a mark of her love for him." She and Francesco also were liberal patrons of major artists, including Titian, and encouraged the founding of Urbino's majolica industry (decorative enameled pottery). They also continued Elisabetta's patronage of Baldassare Castiglione, author of the influential Book of the Courtier (1528), which includes descriptions of the beautiful, intelligent, and gracious duchess, and the elegance and learning celebrated in the court of Urbino under Francesco and Eleonora.

Eleonora was widowed in 1538 when Francesco died suddenly while on campaign, possibly from poison. Her only surviving son Guidobaldo inherited the duchy. La Bella, a portrait of her by Titian painted about this time, shows a regal but pale and sickly middle-aged woman. Indeed, her health began to fail rapidly after Francesco's death. The dowager duchess died at age 49 in 1543.


Dennistoun, James. Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino, 1440–1630. Vol. I. NY: John Lane, 1909.

Olsen, Harald. Urbino. Copenhagen: Forlag, 1971.

Simon, Kate. A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua. NY: Harper and Row, 1988.

Laura York , Riverside, California

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