How the “woman with a man’s soul”, which 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 muse for the creators of that era. But Isabella d’Este, namely, she has been holding this title for many centuries, was neither one nor the other – except that as a work of art, she took her own biography, becoming herself a source of inspiration.
Duke of Ferrara is a girl from a good family
Italy of the 15th century 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 – not without political considerations – Leonora Neapolitan, left behind a brilliant offspring. Each of his offspring played a significant role in the state life of the peninsula, but the eldest girl, Isabella, was destined for a special fate – to become the prima donna of the Renaissance.
Ferrara, located in the Po River Delta, was a prosperous and rich region, because the main trade artery of the peninsula passed through it. But for this reason, the lands of the duchy were under constant threat of seizure – feuds between Italian rulers were commonplace in those days. From early childhood, Isabella recognized the alarm about her home, which she had to hurry to leave in order to wait out a difficult period in a safe place. And therefore, all her life she will strive to ensure peace at all costs – first of all, through the conclusion of family, friendly and business relations with neighbors and enemies. For the same, perhaps, reason, until the end of her days she will strive into the world of pure art, the laws of which were closer to her than mores that have not yet gone so far from the medieval ones.
Isabella herself, according to contemporaries, was distinguished more by her intelligence and curiosity than by her beauty and loveliness. From childhood, she was used to having her own judgment about everything and was sharp on the tongue. Unlike Isabella, her younger sister Beatrice was considered a beauty, too, however, very educated. 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 his independence, he made a bet on the advantageous marriages of his daughters, so Beatrice was married to the Milanese Duke Lodovico Sforza, nicknamed the “Moor”, and sixteen-year-old Isabella married the Marquis Francesco Gonzaga, with whom she was destined to live almost 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 to his wife other, according to rumors, very numerous women. Nevertheless, to rule Mantua, namely Isabella now settled in it, the two of them succeeded in glory. Spending a lot of time in military campaigns, Francesco left the marquise in the hands of his wife, and she only strengthened the position of Mantua, true to its rule at all costs to maintain peace. “A woman with a man’s soul,” contemporaries called Isabella, and the husband in this union became more like a second violin, she enjoyed so much influence and respect.
Isabella d’Este’s main passion was collecting art. She kept in touch with the most famous artists and musicians of her time, often giving them not only orders for new works, but also shelter. Her acquaintance with Andrea Mantegna, recognized by the end of the 15th century as a master, led to the writing of a portrait of the Marquise, which, however, she did not like. This work of Mantegna has not been preserved to our time, probably because Isabella, who found herself in a portrait of an ugly one, simply destroyed him. In general, judging by the fact that one of the most significant models of her time is represented in only a few surviving portraits, she speaks, apparently, of Isabella’s extremely high demands on the final result. Several images of the prima donna have survived to our time: one is the work of Titian, the posthumous is the authorship of P.P. Rubens, as well as a bust of the work of J.K. Romano.
A special relationship connected Isabella with the genius of the Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci. Entering the closest circle of Isabella’s son-in-law, Duke of Sforza of Milan, he was also familiar with the Marquise of Mantua. Isabella invited da Vinci to live in her palace and asked to paint her portrait – however, the great master completed only a sketch in 1499, after which, due to a number of omissions and misunderstandings, he chose to leave Mantua.