Isabella d’Este was born in 1474 in the city of Ferrara, the eldest child of Duke Ercole d’Este and his wife, the Duchess Eleonora d’Aragona. She grew up in the sophisticated and opulent world of Italy’s elite, studying with top-notch humanist intellectuals and rubbing elbows with figures of renown: painters, poets, and princes who were making the history of what would later be called the Italian Renaissance. In 1490, Isabella married Marchese Francesco Gonzaga (1466-1519) of Mantua and became that city state’s consort co-regent. As marchesa of Mantua, she herself would make history.
For the Gonzaga and Este dynasties, Isabella’s first duty was to produce male heirs. Success in this endeavor took some time, given that Francesco Gonzaga was often away as a hired officer in the armies of more powerful Italian states, but eventually their marriage resulted in five children who survived into adulthood: Eleonora (1493-1550), Federico (1500-1540), Ippolita (1501-1570), Ercole/Luigi (1505-1565), Ferrante (1507-1565), and Livia Osanna (1508-1569). Each of them had a role to play in the Italian society of the time. Eleonora became the Duchess of Urbino when she married Francesco Maria della Rovere; Federico succeeded his father as marchese of Mantua and was later made the first duke of Mantua; Ippolita and Livia Osanna both joined monastic communities; Ercole became a cardinal of the Catholic Church and presided over the third session of the Council of Trent; and Ferrante served with distinction as an officer in the imperial army of Charles V.
Her second duty was to act as co-regent of the Mantuan state. This she did with great skill. During her husband’s absences she supervised matters as diverse as criminal justice, diplomacy, land and agricultural management, public health, espionage, and domestic economy. She also reported continuously to Francesco by letter, thus documenting in considerable detail her activities as his proxy political leader. When Francesco was in residence, Isabella often traveled as the diplomatic representative of their court, negotiating delicate deals for Gonzaga benefit and representing Mantuan interests at the courts of Rome, Milan, Venice, Naples and elsewhere.
Isabella d’Este has with good reason been seen by many as a female counterpart to the “Renaissance men” for whom Italy is celebrated: men like Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Niccolò Machiavelli, who are famous for having excelled in numerous spheres. Indeed, in addition to governing, she was an accomplished musician who played a number of keyboard and stringed instruments. She planned gardens and raised animals. She operated a perfume and cosmetic pharmacy that produced soaps and scents for herself and her friends, and she excelled in fashion design, creating for herself a signature style that other women in Europe were eager to imitate. She was keenly interested in politics, government, and social life and had evident gifts for all three, but it is chiefly for her activities as a patron and a collector that history remembers Isabella d’Este.
As her letters document, Isabella spent decades building a distinguished collection of artworks, books, and antiquities, devoting careful attention to its every detail. While her role as a female patron was not unique, what made her truly extraordinary and garnered for her a lasting place in the history of art were the scope, richness, and coherence of her acquisitions, and her meticulous design of a special place in which to display them, her camerini, or studiolo and grotta. These are regarded as one of the most spectacular instances of self-fashioning in the Italian Renaissance, the outward expression of one, remarkable individual’s artistic, cultural, and philosophical values. A year after her death in 1539, an inventory of the books, antiquities, artworks, instruments, furnishings and other valuables owned by Isabella and her son Federico was drawn up. This list of over seven thousand items has been edited and published in a modern edition by Dr. Daniela Ferrara (Mantua: Silvana Editoriale, 2003). A significant portion of Isabella’s collections now resides in major world museums and libraries.