Montefeltro, Elisabetta (1471–1526)

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Montefeltro, Elisabetta (1471–1526)

Duchess of Urbino. Name variations: Elisabetta Gonzaga; Elisabeth or Elizabeth Gonzaga. Born in 1471; died in 1526; daughter of Frederigo also known as Federico Gonzaga (1441–1484), 3rd marquis of Mantua (r. 1478–1484), and Margaret of Bavaria (1445–1479); sister of Francesco Gonzaga, Maddalena Sforza (1472–1490), and Chiara Gonzaga (1465–1505); sister-in-law of Isabella d'Este (1474–1539); married Guidobaldo Montefeltro (1472–1508), duke of Urbino.

Born into a noble Italian family in 1471, Elisabetta Montefeltro is best known from the descriptions of her in the famous Renaissance treatise on the aristocracy, The Book of the Courtier. She was the younger sister of Marchese Francesco Gonzaga, ruler of Mantua. Elisabetta received the classical education highly valued in aristocratic women by Renaissance Italian families; this included study of languages, music, and classical literature. She showed considerable interest in the arts as well as in humanist scholarship, traits which would be further revealed in her years as duchess of Urbino.

At age 17, Elisabetta married Guidobaldo Montefeltro, the 16-year-old duke of Urbino. The marriage was arranged between Elisabetta's brother and Guidobaldo as a means of cementing a political alliance between the duchies of Urbino and Mantua. After the wedding, Elisabetta and her entourage moved to take up their new places at the artistic and intellectual court of Urbino. Urbino was, in the 16th century, a flourishing central Italian city, though not of the prominence of Florence or Venice. It nonetheless produced two important figures of Renaissance history, the painter Raphael and the court writer Baldassare Castiglione, and its duke, though still a young man, was respected as an intelligent and generous ruler.

But Elisabetta and Guidobaldo were not destined for a peaceful life, or for a particularly happy marriage. During the time they were married, Urbino was subject to repeated attacks by neighboring states set on conquering the duchy, creating a situation of almost constant warfare. Duke Guidobaldo was also the leader of the pope's armies, and so spent much of his time away on military campaigns fighting alternately for himself and for the papacy. Although the couple got along with each other and shared similar intellectual interests, Guidobaldo's physical infirmities—he suffered from gout, arthritis, and other illnesses—and his impotence prevented a normal marital relationship. As a result, Elisabetta had no children, leaving the question of who would succeed Guidobaldo another matter of deep concern for the already unstable duchy.

Yet the court Elisabetta led at Urbino was widely known for its magnificence, and for the talent of the artists and scholars it attracted and patronized. These included Unico Aretino and Pietro Bembo, both of whom became famous for their poetry, much of which was dedicated to Elisabetta. Castiglione would immortalize Duchess Elisabetta in his most famous work, The Book of the Courtier, first published in 1528. Castiglione lived at Elisabetta's court for many years and grew to know the duchess and her courtiers well. He drew on his experiences there in composing The Book of the Courtier, which is written as a guidebook of behavior for those seeking a place in an aristocratic household. Using Urbino as its model, it describes a court life where behavior is strictly regulated and ritualized, and where concepts of honor and social hierarchy are the most important considerations of daily life. Castiglione describes leisurely days filled with philosophical, abstract conversations or hunting and falconry by the duchess, her ladies, and the gentlemen scholars and artists living at court.

But The Courtier is also a memoir, written after the ducal couple had died, and Castiglione dedicated his work to the memory of Elisabetta, whom he describes in superlatives as wise, generous, gracious, and beautiful. Elisabetta also contributed to the visual arts as a patron of numerous Renaissance painters, including Raphael Sanzio, who was a native of Urbino. Among his preserved works is a portrait of the duchess, now at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, which shows a rather plain, dark-haired, middle-aged woman against a broad, desolate landscape. The duchess maintained a close relationship with another famous patron of the arts, her sister-in-law Isabella d'Este , marchioness of Mantua. Elisabetta often traveled to Mantua on long visits. She seems to have found at Mantua the close personal relationships which she lacked at Urbino; her brother Francesco, her sisters, Maddalena Sforza and Chiara Gonzaga , and her sister-in-law Isabella all showed her great affection, which brought her back to the Mantuan court as often as she could manage. When she was at home in Urbino, Elisabetta maintained a constant correspondence with all her family in Mantua, especially Isabella.

Elisabetta was widowed in 1508 at the sudden death of her 36-year-old husband. Although she thus lost her title as duchess and in theory lost her place at court, Elisabetta remained at the center of Urbino's intellectual and social life for the rest of her days. Her husband's successor, his nephew Francesco Maria della Rovere, was himself married, but his wife (Elisabetta's niece Eleonora Gonzaga [1493–1543]) never achieved the same acclaim that the former duchess enjoyed. The dowager Duchess Elisabetta was greatly mourned by the people of Urbino on her death at age 55 in 1526.

sources:

Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. by George Bull. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1976.

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

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

Laura York , Riverside, California