Isabella d'Este, Giovanni Cristoforo Romano, 1500.

Isabella d'Este was the Marchioness of Mantua, Italy from 1490-1519.  Recognized as the “First Lady of the Renaissance.”  Isabella is famous for her patronage of the arts, literature and music, during the high Renaissance. 


Born in 1474 at the Este Castle in Ferrara, she was a brilliant child that astonished instructors.  At the age of six, a marriage was arranged by her royal family.  Creating a military alliance with Mantua.  The Marquees of Mantua, held the powerful position, Captain of the Papal Army.  In 1490 at the age of 15, Isabella d’Este married Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquees of Mantua.


In 1491, Isabella’s younger sister, Beatrice, married the Regent of Milan.  The regent, Ludovico Sforza, was the acting ruler of Milan and patron of Leonardo da Vinci.  Isabella was introduced to Leonardo through her sister at the court of Milan.  Where Leonardo worked as an engineer, artist and teacher to a small group of apprentices. 


While working for Ludovico, Leonardo created the Gran Cavallo (Sforza Monument), The Last Supper and Lady with Ermine, a portrait of Ludovico’s mistress, Cecilia Gallerani.  Invented weapons and fortifications for the city.  In addition to designing decorations for the Sforza Castle, festivals in Milan and theatrical performances. 


In 1498, Isabella decided to seek the best portrait painter to capture her image.  Judging portraits by Bellini and Leonardo.  Isabella requesting the loan of Lady with Ermine, from Cecilia Gallerani.  Cecilia sent the painting to Mantua.  Where Isabella determined Leonardo to be the winner of her contest. Unable to release himself from the demands of Ludovico.  Leonardo remained in Milan until French forces invaded in 1499.


After the invasion, several Milanese took refuge in Isabella’s nearby castle of Mantua.  The natural aquatic fortification of the city and the military position of the Marquees of Mantua, lead many to find shelter within the walls of the Castello di San Giorgio.  Including Cecilia Gallerani, Leonardo da Vinci, Luca Pacioli and Duchess Isabella d’Aragona. 


During his stay in Mantua, Leonardo began the portrait of Isabella.  Finishing two masterful sketches of the 25-year-old Marchioness.  Leaving one for Isabella.  Leonardo took the second, as he traveled on the Venice.  The musician Lorenzo Pavia wrote Isabella in March of 1500, “Leonardo Vinci is in Venice, and has shown me a portrait of Your Highness, which is exactly like you, and is so well done that it is not possible for it to be better.”


In April of 1501, Leonardo contacted Isabella through Frater Petrus de Novellara.  “If he can, as he hopes, end his engagement with the King of France without displeasing him by the end of the month at the latest, he would rather serve Your Excellency than any other person in the world.”  Concluding, “He will do your portrait immediately.”  Later that month, Isabella received news from Leonardo, through her father’s envoy in Florence, Manfredo de Manfredi.  “All he could say for the moment was that I might send you word that he has begun what Your Highness desired.”  


In 1504, Isabella writes Leonardo thanking him in a letter.  “We shall remain so deeply obliged to you that our sole desire will be to do what you wish, and from this time for the we are ready to do your service and pleasure.”  Correspondence between Isabella and Leonardo begin with his departure from Milan, and continue until his return in 1506. 

In April of 1507, Isabella was invited to Milan for the festival of the French King Louis XII.  Where a tournament was given in her honor.  Leonardo was present at the King’s request, to create triumphal arches and arrange court pageants.  Isabella and Leonardo, once again, assembled at the court in Milan.  Provided the opportunity for Isabella to see her portrait, Leonardo brought with him.  After this visit, there are no further inquiries about her portrait.  It is hard to image the elation Isabella must have felt.  When Leonardo revealed the unimaginable beauty he created, reflecting her image.   

Isabella spent the rest of her life supporting and fostering geniuses of the high Renaissance.  However, none would compare to the brilliance exhibited by the Great Leonardo.  Capable of immortalizing subject and artist, in the world’s most celebrated painting.