The Public Perception of Isabella d’Este

Lauren George, Dickson College 2009

'Isabella d'Este' by Leonardo Da Vinci
Isabella d’Este (1474 – 1539) was an influential female figure in the Renaissance. Her prominence in a time of male superiority reveals the importance of her achievements. As Marchesa of Mantua, d’Este was also a member of the elite nobility. She utilised her exceptional people skills and masses of written correspondence to further her own interests as well as the interests of Mantua. Isabella d’Este added to her eminent status through her material wealth. She was considered particularly fashionable and was one of the only female patrons of the arts during her time. As such an important woman in a period when women’s roles were very limited, d’Este was able to make a significant impression on the public. Isabella d’Este’s dignified position within society meant she was revered by her people and is still remembered for her achievements today.

Isabella d’Este was an esteemed member of the Italian nobility. As Marchesa of Mantua from 1490, she held a major title in Italian society. Considered “…intelligent and forthright”[1] due to an extensive education as a young woman, d’Este was more than suitable as a ruling consort to a military hero. She “was often ‘left to hold the reigns of the state’ while her husband was away for military affairs”.[2] This became a harsh reality for d’Este, when her husband Francesco Gonzaga was captured by the Venetians in 1508 and kept in the tower of the Ducal Palace.[3] The biographer Julia Cartwright explained how d’Este...

…administered public affairs, made preparations for the defence of the realm, and exerted all her powers of diplomacy to obtain her husband’s release.[4]

This demonstrates how d’Este “excelled in skills of government and communication”[5] without the assistance of her husband as Marquis. However, d’Este was also able to assert her authority before Francesco was captured. She was able to intervene and assist one of her subjects who had property unlawfully seized from her in an area under Mantua’s authority.[6] D’Este wrote to the Vicar to retrieve it for her subject. This act displays why she was admired as a leader, as she disregarded class barriers to assist her subject and assert her power. These achievements in the shadow of her husband made d’Este an influential female figure of her time.

Isabella d’Este is most often remembered for her role in the arts. D’Este used her income of 8000 – 9000 ducats per year plus allowance[7] to support both the art movement and her affluent image. D’Este was able to flaunt her wealth despite facing financial difficulties, “because of her husband’s military needs or her avid collecting”.[8] Isabella d’Este is said to have been “an extraordinarily discerning collector of antiquities and other precious goods”[9] , and is known to have “bought hundreds of books, instruments, statues and paintings”[10] to decorate her now famous private rooms. Isabella was also considered to be extremely fashionable, with her cousin’s daughter Princess Bona Sforza referring to her as “the fount and origin of all the beautiful fashions in Italy”.[11] As a result of this wealth and her inherited fervour for the arts, d’Este was known as “one of the Renaissance’s most passionate patrons of the arts”[12] , commissioning many renowned artists including Da Coreggio, Da Pavia, Raphael, Da Vinci, Perugino and Titian. As well as furthering the arts movement, d’Este’s display of wealth meant she was admired by the public and royalty alike.

Isabella d’Este was also well respected because of her charismatic people skills and connections with prominent figures. Isabella’s father was the Duke of Ferrara[13] and Hale claims she was “related by birth or marriage to almost every ruler in Italy”.[14] D’Este furthered these connections by utilising exceptional people skills.[15] She spent a lot of time meeting nobility and forging connections, and “was able to get her way using her charm and connections to influence even the most powerful men”.[16]

D’Este was even said to have sent gifts to the French and German Courts as well as to the Queen of France[17] to further her causes. As such, there are over twelve thousand letters of correspondence from d’Este[18] to such important individuals as the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian and Louis XII.[19] D’Este also held connections with the Vatican because her son Federico was sent to Rome at the request of the Pope as a ten year old.[20] Consequently, when Isabella d’Este visited Rome in 1514 she

...received the most cordial welcome from Pope Leo and all the members of the Sacred College.[21]

As a result of her people skills and family relations, Isabella held connections with many of the powerful figures of Renaissance Europe.

Isabella d’Este played a prominent role in society throughout her lifetime. Despite the challenge of being a female member of the nobility during the Renaissance, d’Este was still able to establish such a status for herself that she is still remembered to this day. She married into the position of Marchesa of Mantua, and was able to assert her authority from her place in Francesco’s shadow. D’Este utilised letters and social networking to benefit the Gonzaga court and to further her countless relations within Italy and abroad. Isabella also exhibited her vast wealth through arts and fashion to gain the admiration of her followers and the aristocracy alike, and as a result was an influential patron to many famous Renaissance artists. With the advantage of a broad education Isabella d’Este was able to leave her mark on a male-orientated world and cement herself a dignified place in history.


Cartwright, Julia 1924, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539: A Study of the Renaissance – Vol. II, John Murray, London.
Couchman, Jane & Crabb, Ann eds. 2005, Women’s letters across Europe, 1400-1700: Form and Persuasion, Ashgate Publishing.
Duncan, Katherine, 2007, Isabella d’Este: Woman in Charge, (viewed 14.05.09).
Hale, John R. 1969, Renaissance, Time Life Books.
Isabella d’Este: First Lady of the Renaissance, (viewed 14.05.09).
Kitchen, Stacie 2008, The effects of Isabella d’Este on Perugino’s artwork, (viewed 04.05.09).
San Juan, Rose M. 1991, The Court Lady's Dilemma: Isabella d'Este and Art Collecting in the Renaissance, Oxford University Press, Oxford.


  1. ^ Hale 1969, p. 55
  2. ^ Duncan 2007
  3. ^ Cartwright 1924, p. 32
  4. ^ Cartwright, 1924, p.34
  5. ^ Couchman et al., 2005, p. 126
  6. ^ Couchman et al., 2005, p. 138
  7. ^ Duncan 2007
  8. ^ Duncan 2007
  9. ^ Couchman et al, 2005, p. 123
  10. ^ Duncan 2007
  11. ^ Cartwright 1924, p. 114
  12. ^ Hale 1969, p. 55
  13. ^ Isabella d’Este: First Lady of the Renaissance
  14. ^ Hale 1969, p. 87
  15. ^ Couchman et al., 2005
  16. ^ Duncan 2007
  17. ^ Cartwright 1924 p. 38-9
  18. ^ Kitchen 2008
  19. ^ Cartwright 1924
  20. ^ Cartwright 1924, p. 44
  21. ^ Cartwright 1924, p. 111