As the “woman with a man’s soul” that Rubens himself painted, became the first lady of the Renaissance
The first lady of the Renaissance – such an honorary title could receive a great artist or a muse for the creators of that era. But Isabella d’Este, namely, she has been bearing this title for many centuries, was neither one nor the other – except that she took her own biography as a work of art, becoming herself a source of inspiration.
The daughter of a duke from Ferrara – a girl from a good family
XV century Italy was a territory divided into separate states with many ruling families. One of them was the d’Este dynasty of Ferrara. The Duke Ercole, a traveler and art lover, having married Leonora of Naples, not without political considerations, left behind a brilliant posterity. Each of his offspring played a prominent role in the state life of the peninsula, but the eldest girl, Isabella, had a special fate – to become a prima donna of the Renaissance.
Ferrara, located in the Po River delta, was a prosperous and rich region, because the main commercial artery of the peninsula passed through it. But for this reason, the lands of the duchy were under constant threat of seizure – feuds between the Italian rulers were usual at that time. From early childhood, Isabella learned the alarm about her home, which she hastily had to leave to wait out a difficult period in a safe place. Therefore, she will strive to ensure peace at all costs, primarily through the establishment of kinship, friendship and business ties with her neighbors and foes. For the same reason, perhaps, for the rest of her days, she will strive for the world of pure art, the laws of which were closer to her than the mores that have not gone so far from the medieval ones.
Isabella herself, according to contemporaries, differed more in intelligence and inquisitiveness than in beauty and prettiness. From childhood she was used to having her own judgment about everything and was keen on the language. Unlike Isabella, her younger sister Beatrice was considered a beauty, also, by the way, highly educated. The parents provided the girls and their brothers with the best education and upbringing they could afford, and the wealthy duke Ercole could afford a lot.
To strengthen the position of the duchy and protect its independence, he relied on the advantageous marriages of his daughters, so that Beatrice was married to the Duke of Milan Lodovico Sforza nicknamed “Moor”, and the 16-year-old Isabella married Marquis Francesco Gonzaga, with whom she was destined to live thirty years.
The marriage of Isabella d’Este cannot be called happy in the usual sense of the word – she did not love her husband, and he preferred the wife of others, according to rumors, very numerous women. Nevertheless, the rule of Mantua, namely, Isabella now settled in her, they together managed to glory. Spending a lot of time in military campaigns, Francesco left the Marquis in charge of his wife, and she only strengthened the position of Mantua, faithful to its rule at all costs to maintain peace. “A woman with a man’s soul” – contemporaries called Isabella, and her husband in this union became more like a second violin, so much influence and respect she enjoyed.
The main passion of Isabella d’Este was the collection of objects of art. She maintained contact with the most renowned artists and musicians of her time, often giving them not only orders for new works, but also shelter. Her acquaintance with Andrea Mantegna, recognized as a master by the end of the 15th century, led to the writing of the portrait of the marquise, which, however, she did not like. Until this time, this work of Mantegna has not survived, probably because Isabella, who found herself in an ugly portrait, simply destroyed it. In general, judging by the fact that one of the most significant models of his time is represented only in the few surviving portraits, it seems to indicate that Isabella is extremely demanding towards the final result. Several images of a prima donna have reached our time: one of Titian’s works, a posthumous one by P.P. Rubens, as well as a bust of the work of J. K. Romano.
Isabella had a special relationship with the genius of the Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci. Entering the closest circle of Isabella’s son-in-law, the Duke of Sforza of Milan, he was also acquainted with the Marquis of Mantua. Isabella invited da Vinci to live in her palace and asked to write her portrait – however, the great master made only a sketch in 1499, after which, due to a number of omissions and misunderstandings, he preferred to leave Mantua.