A sketch of Isabella d’Este in her mid-20s, by Leonardo da Vinci (c.1499). Louvre Museum (Wikimedia Commons).

Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) was the Marchesa of Mantua and a key cultural figure of the Italian Renaissance. She is known as a trendsetter and patron of the arts, popularizing fashions and art styles, but was also a political figure and ruled Mantua as regent for her husband and son in the early 16th century.

Isabella was born to a ruling family in Ferrara, Italy, the oldest of six children. Her parents believed in giving all their children an equal education, so Isabella and her sister Beatrice were taught the same subjects as their younger brothers. She could read and translate Latin and Greek, discuss philosophy, sing, dance, and play the lute. When ambassadors visited her family’s court, young Isabella loved to discuss politics and literature with them: as well as having outstanding intelligence, she was a born diplomat.

When she was six, Isabella was betrothed to Francesco Gonzaga, who would later become the Marquis of Mantua. Although he was eight years older than her and she didn’t think he was particularly handsome, they liked each other and exchanged letters, gifts, and poems over the next few years. She married him in 1490, when she was fifteen. Although Francesco was frequently out of town to oversee the Venetian army, they eventually had eight children. While her husband was away for work, Isabella was left in charge of Mantua, and she dealt with its administration herself.

Like many women of her period who were not officially allowed to hold power, Isabella was a master of “soft power.” She wielded her influence to shape the world around her through diplomacy and by giving support to artists, writers, and thinkers. She commissioned work from many important figures of the Renaissance, giving them a chance to further their careers. She was a patron of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and dozens of other painters, as well as sculptors, architects, composers and writers. Although few portraits of her survive today, it is said that no other person of her time was painted as often as Isabella d’Este. Her taste in fashion was copied throughout Italy and at the French court; she popularized plunging necklines and wearing caps. She left behind thousands of letters that give us a glimpse into the Renaissance art world.

However, she did get her chance to rule. When Francesco was captured in war in 1509, Isabella stepped in to rule Mantua while she tried to get him freed, successfully holding off an invasion by the French. She was said to be much more confident as a ruler than her husband was, and hosted peace talks between warring city-states. When Francesco was released three years later, he was embarrassed and angry at how his wife had eclipsed him as a ruler, and their marriage broke down. Isabella began to travel further away from Mantua. When Francesco died, she returned to rule as regent for her young son, Federico. Mantua began to gain power and influence as she used her diplomatic skills, and the people of Mantua loved and trusted her.

In later life, Isabella opened a school for girls and converted part of the palace at Mantua into a museum to showcase her favorite artists’ work. In her mid-60s, she returned to ruling, this time in her own name: she was the sole ruler of the city of Solarolo until she died ten years later.

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