First Lady of The Renaissance
The Castle Estense in Ferrara, Italy.

Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) the Marchioness of Mantua, was the wife of the Captain of the Papal Army and First Lady of the Renaissance.  The eldest child in a family of art patrons, Isabella grew up in the Castle Estense in Ferrara.  

Betrothed at the age of six to create a political and military alliance between the Houses of Gonzaga and d’Este.  Isabella was trained as a leader, strategist, and patron.  Groomed to become the matriarch of a powerful dynasty. 

When Isabella arrives in Mantua for her wedding to the Marquess.  Andrea Mantegna is painting his famous series, The Triumph of Caesar.  Today housed by the British Crown in the viewing galleries of Hampton Court.  Isabella and Mantegna soon devise the composition Parnassus for her Studiolo in 1497.  The fresco is today, housed in the Louvre, in Paris.


In 1493 Isabella hires Urbino’s Giovanni Santi, the father of Raphael Santi.  He moved to Mantua and painted for the Marchioness.  Creating portraits of the Gonzaga family.  Before returning to Urbino with the winter.


In 1496, Isabella instructions Mantegna to paint a tribute to her husband.  Francesco II Gonzaga, as the captain of the Papal Army, had driven the French army from the Italian peninsula.  This victory is celebrated in the fresco Our Lady of Victory, or Madonna della Vittoria.  Today housed in the Louvre. 


Not long after, Leonardo da Vinci sought the attention of the young Marchioness.  In 1496 Leonardo designed the production of a play in Pavia.  Dedicating the performance to Isabella.  Two years later, Isabella sought his service for her portrait.  Leonardo completed a portrait of the Marchioness, La Joconde.  Today found at the Louvre in Paris.


In 1498, Isabella hires the sculptor Gian Cristoforo Romano, to create a medal bearing her image.  Given as a reward to favored guests of her castle.  Two years later he sculpted her countenance.  Creating the sublime terracotta bust of the 25-year-old Marchioness.  During World War II, Nazi hid the bust in a salt mine.   The Monument Men recovered the piece, in May of 1945.  Today the bust is on display at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

In 1501, Isabella thanks, Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, known as Antico, for the sculpture he created for her.  The ancient subject of a boy with a thorn, Spinario.   Cast in bronze and gilded.  Today housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  

In 1502, Isabella is found commissioning Giovanni Bellini, the Venetian painter, for a piece in her Studiolo.  She receives the first of two paintings from Bellini in 1504.  The following year, Bellini created a Presepio, or Nativity scene for Isabella. This painting may be attributed to Giorgione in 1505, found at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. or it may be lost to time.


In 1502 Isabella again works with Mantegna.  Conceiving of the composition, Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue.  The dynamic fresco that once graced Isabella’s Studiolo.  Today is found at the Louvre.


This same year, Isabella commissioned the master painter in Florence, Perugino, the teacher of Raphael.  Producing extensive correspondence.  Describing her envisioned composition of the painting.  Perugino painted the scene, Combat of Love and Chastity.  Today found at the Louvre.


In 1506, Isabella works with the artist from Ferrara, Lorenzo Costa.  Creating the painting Isabella d’Este in the Kingdom of Love.  Set in the lakes district of Lombardy.  Portraying the theme of coronation.  Today found at the Louvre.


She visits Florence, in 1506.  Where she hires Lorenzo di Credi to paint a composition of Magdalene.  Isabella also examines the cartoons created by Leonardo and Michelangelo for the Great Hall.  The cartoon by Leonardo, Battle of Anghiari, was reproduced by Rubens a hundred years later. 


Rubens was employed by the Duke of Mantua, where he painted Self-portrait with Circle of Friends from Mantua.  Portraying himself with a young Galileo and the King of Spain.  Rubens also made a copy of a lost portrait of Isabella by Titian from 1529.  Rubens study of Titian’s portrait of Isabella is housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.


In 1510, Isabella hired a portrait painter to capture the image of her oldest son, Federico.  In route, for a mandatory stay with the Pope in Rome, stopped in Urbino for a week.  Staying with his aunt, the Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga.  The Duchess is captured in a portrait by Raphael.  Seen at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. 


The portrait of Federico as a little boy was created in a few days, to satisfy the urgency of the Pope’s request.  His portrait painted by Francesco Francia or Raphael.  Today is located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. 


Isabella continues working with Lorenzo Costa in Mantua.  Creating the composition The Reign of Comus.  Featuring the ancient Greek god of festivities, completed in 1511.  Today found at the Louvre.


In June of 1515, Raphael expresses an interest in painting a composition for Isabella’s Studiolo.  Raphael begins her painting, while she is visiting Rome the following year.  Raphael works with Isabella until his young passing, on Good Friday in the year 1520.


Isabella was also the patron of poets.  As the patron of the magnificent Ludovico Ariosto, she is mentioned a number of times in his famous epic poem Orlando Furioso.  First published in 1516.  Ariosto agrees with Leonardo referring to Isabella as “jocund.”


“A statue no less jocund, no less bright,

Succeeds, and on the writing is impressed;

Lo! Hercules’ daughter, Isabella hight

In whom Ferrara deems city blest,

Much more because she first shall see the light

Within its circuit, than for all the rest

Which kind and favouring Fortune in the flow

Of rolling years, shall on that town bestow.” 

Orlando Furioso, Canto XLII.


Isabella’s husband passes away in 1519.  She works with Giovan Francesco Penni to design a Funerary Monument of Francesco Gonzaga.   Built in the Gonzaga royal mausoleum at Mantua.  Later destroyed in the devastation of war.  The design is housed at the Louvre.


This same year her daughter Ippolita became a Dominican nun.  Isabella appears as a mourning widow and her daughter in the habit of a nun, venerating the Mantuan Saint Osanna.  In the painting called Veneration of the Blessed Osanna Andreasi by Francesco Bonsignori.  This composition remained in Mantua and can be viewed at the Ducal Palace, Isabella’s former residence.


The passing of Leonardo in 1519 and Raphael in 1520, Isabella looks to the master Titian.  Creating The Entombment of Christ, with her husband’s passing.  Today housed at the Louvre.


Isabella’s oldest son, Federico, becomes Mantua’s new ruler.  He continues the family history of patronage.  Building the architectural masterpiece Palazzo Te.  Designed by Giulio Romano, Raphael’s pupil and heir.  Filled with dramatic imagery of ancient gods and legends.  The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was entertained at the Palazzo in 1530, when he elevated Federico’s title to Duke.


In 1522, Antico completes a series of busts for Isabella.  Featuring the ancient characters Cleopatra, Bacchus, Ariadne, Alexander and Antonius Pius.  Housed respectively at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


In 1524, Nicola da Urbino the maiolica master created a series of painted table settings for Isabella.  Bearing her crest and depicting elaborate scenes on vibrant pottery.  Today these settings can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.


In 1528 Correggio begins a pair of paintings for Isabella.  The two contrasting compositions Allegory of Virtue and Allegory of Vice were made for her Studiolo.  Emphasize the consequence of either path.  Today they both are housed at the Louvre.


In 1530, Isabella commissioned Dosso Dossi.  The artist had been working with her younger brother Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara.  Dossi created the composition, Allegory of Fortune, for Isabella.  Found at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.


In 1534, Isabella returns to Titian at the age of sixty for a final portrait.  He paints the aging ruler, in an unnaturally youthful manner.  Adding confusion to the perception of how Isabella looked during her youth.  This portrait by Titian, Isabella in Black is housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.


Titian had already finished a portrait of her son Duke of Mantua Federico II Gonzaga.  A few years later, he would undertake a portrait of her daughter, the Duchess of Urbino, Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere.  Today her children’s portraits are located at the Prado Museum in Madrid and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, respectively.


In addition to the paintings that originated in the mind of Isabella.  She was an avid collector of art and antiquities.  The most famous piece in her collection is arguably the Gonzaga Cameo.  It is named after Isabella d’Este-Gonzaga.  First recorded in Isabella’s collection of antiques.  An exquisite ancient cameo from the 3rd century BC, historically it has been considered a portrayal of Alexander and Olympias.  Other acquirers through history, have been the Vatican, Napoleon & Josephine and Czar Alexander I.  Today housed at the Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg.

Isabella also enjoyed a statue by Michelangelo in her collection.  The cupid recovered from the siege of Urbino, was a gift to Isabella from Casare Borgia.  This statue has been lost in time.  Additionally, the drawing Leonardo created of a young lady, La Scapigliata.  Originally, found in the royal collection of Mantua.  Today is housed at the National Gallery in Parma.


The life of Isabella came to a close with the ending of the high Renaissance.  She had outlived her inspirations Leonardo, Raphael, Mantegna, Ariosto, and Correggio.  Survived much of her family, including her husband, her sister Duchess Beatrice, her brother Duke Alfonso, her brother Cardinal Ippolito and two of her daughters Margherita and Livia.  She had suffered the Sack of Rome in 1527.  

In 1539, after nearly 50-years of patronage to the arts, Isabella passed away in Mantua.  She was buried in the Gonzaga’s royal mausoleum.  The mausoleum destroyed, her remains have been lost to the turmoil of war.  However, her inspired compositions crafted by masters, survive in the world’s greatest museums.  Her name synonymous with the re-birth and the flourishing of the renaissance. 

Ariadne and Bacchus, Antico, 1522

yppolitus and Phaedra, Nicola da Urbino, 1524.
Allegory of Virtue,                          Allegory of Vice
Correggio, 1528-30.                      
Correggio, 1528-30.

 Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua, Titian, 1534-36.

 La Scapigliata, Leonardo 
da Vinci, 1508.     

The Triumphs of Caesar; the Picture-Bearers,Mantegna, 1484-92.               
       Francesco II Gonzaga Marquess of Mantua, Mantegna, 1490.

         , Mantegna, 1496-97.    
                        Madonna della Vittoria, Mantegna, 1495-96.

                   Portrait of Isabella d'Este,               La Joconde,            
               Leonardo da Vinci, 1499-1500.       Leonardo da VInci,        
             Medal of Isabella d'Este, Gian Cristoforo Romano, 1498.  
            Bust of Isabella d'EsteGian Cristoforo Romano, 1500. 

Spinario, Antico, 1501. 
Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue,
 Mantegna, 1500-1502. 
Combat of Love and Chastity, Perugino, 1503.

The Battle of Anghiari, (after Leonardo in 1503), 
Peter Paul Rubens, 1603.


      Portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga,         Federico II Gonzaga,             
              Raphael, 1502-3.                     Francia (or Raphael), 1510.     
(Duchess of Urbino, Isabella's Sister-in-Law)        (Future Duke of Mantua, Isabella's Son)

The Reign of Comus, Lorenzo Costa, 1511.

"Orlando Furioso," Ludovico Ariosto, 1516.        
Funerary Monument of Francesco II Gonzaga, Penni, 1519.         

Study of Isabella d'Este,          Veneration of the Blessed
Francesco Bonsignori, 1519.      Osanna Andreasi, Francesco 
                                                           Bonsignori, 1519.

The Entombment of Christ, Titian, 1520. 
                                               Cleopatra, Antico, 1522.

Allegory of Fortune, Dosso Dossi, 1530.

Gonzaga Cameo, Greek, 3rd Century B.C.