Isabella d’Este

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1474 Isabella d’ Este born at Ferrara to Duke Ercole and Duchess Eleonora. Eleonora is one of the most admired women of her age and is from the royal family of Naples.
1475 Birth of a second daughter to the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara: Beatrice. The two girls only one year apart grow up extremely close and once they are both married their two political lives are closely intertwined.
1476 Birth of the future Duke of Ferrara, Isabella’s younger brother Alfonso and the future husband of Lucrezia Borgia.
1478 Birth of Baldassare Castiglione at the family country estate at Casatico near Mantova. The Castiglione family is related to the ruling family of Mantova, the Gonzagas.
1488 Elisabetta Gonzaga marries the Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo. Elisabetta is the sister of Francesco Gonzaga soon to be the ruler of Mantova. This marriage ties Mantova closely to Urbino. When Isabella marries Francesco Gonzaga, his sister becomes one of her closest friends and for many years the politics of Urbino will be as important at Mantova as is the politics of Ferrara and Mantova itself.
1489 Francesco Gonzaga, ruler of Mantova, is appointed to the prestigious and well-paid position as Captain-General of the Venetian armed forces. This position provides Francesco with important income to finance
his small state of Mantova. But it also provides him with extremely important political power. Francesco is the classic “condottiere,” the man who makes his living as a paid general, and uses his military income to finance his own small state. The political situation of Mantova will be constantly tied to the state of Francesco’s military leadership position. As long as other states consider him to be a brilliant leader who is valuable, just in that degree is his own state of Mantova safe from attack. If his reputation wanes, his state is also in danger. His son Federico will repeat his father’s career exactly.
1490 Isabella d’ Este marries Gian Francesco Gonzaga, the Marchese of Mantova. (The title at this time was “Marchese” or “Marquis” in French. Later the Gonzaga are elevated to ducal status by the Holy Roman Emperor so you will read “Duke” and “Duchess” in many accounts of Mantova, but we should be careful here with our nomenclature so it is correct to refer to the “Marchese” and the “Marchesa” during this period of the fifteenth century. The entire Estensi family accompanied their precious, little, teenage daughter to her official reception in Mantova as the new Marchesa. The Estensi were an extremely close family, and the parents, Ercole and Eleonora, adored both of their daughters. Everyone remarked on both girls from their infancy: they were brilliant, witty, fun, and very beautiful. Isabella was probably the smarter of the two, but Beatrice took Milan by storm when she became the Duchess of Milan. They were both clever diplomats and inspired partners for their husbands.
1491 Isabella journeys to Milan with her mother to attend the wedding of her sister to Ludovico Sforza, called the Duke of Bari at the time of the wedding, but in 1494 Ludovico and Beatrice will become the Duke and Duchess of Milan, the most prestigious of all noble leadership positions in all Italy. This marriage provides the two Este sisters with an unusual power partnership in northern Italy. With their ties at home in their native Ferrara where their father Ercole is seen as the wisest senior leader in Italy along with their marriage partners, they now move to the absolute center of Italian culture and politics. The marriage also begins a long friendship between Beatrice’s husband Ludovico Sforza and Isabella. They really liked each other, and when Ludovico falls on hard times, Isabella tries to help in every way possible.
1494 Invasion of the French armies of King Charles VIII. Ludovico is his primary Italian ally and therefore Beatrice is present for many of the important events in the early phase of the invasion.
1495 Once Charles has marched unmolested all the way to Naples and easily displacing the royal family of Naples ( Isabella’s Neapolitan cousins) Italy organizes a new alliance to drive the French out. Francesco Gonzaga is chosen to serve as Captain of all the Italian forces. The decisive battle between the retreating French and the Italians takes place in the summer of 1495 at Fornovo near Modena. In this battle, Francesco fights bravely and is celebrated for the rest of his life as the “victor” of Fornovo, but the truth is that the Italian forces fight chaotically and fail to cut the French off in what seemed to be a can’t-lose situation. The French armies survive, and are led back to France by their plucky little king to fight another day. Thus in retrospect, Francesco Gonzaga’s brave generalship began to look less and less brilliant. In truth, Francesco was not a brilliant strategist. He was not as smart as he was brave and tough.
1497 In January, the ruling families of three states, Milan, Ferrara, and Mantova are plunged into terrible grief by the totally unexpected death of the young vivacious Duchess of Milan. Beatrice had been Isabella’s dearest friend since they had been children in Ferrara and now life seemed suddenly dull without the fun and funny Beatrice. In Ferrara, her family went into mourning and stopped all public celebrations. Ludovico Sforza was devastated. He had fallen wildly in love with his young bride, twenty-five years his junior, and now Ludovico had a terrible premonition that her death signaled worse calamities to come for Milan. He was right. The Golden Era of the Sforza rule of the 1490’s was soon to come to an end, and in future years people would look back on those years as the Golden Age for Renaissance Milan with Leonardo da Vinci, Bramante, and other great artists working for the Milanese court.
1498 Death of the young King Charles VIII of France. New king of Louis XII who has a very strong claim to Milan through his grandmother.
1499 King Louis XII comes to Italy to press his claim to Milan. Ludovico Sforza is driven out of Milan. Isabella tries to help him but she has to be careful since Louis is expecting Mantova to remain his ally.
1500 Birth of the heir to the rule of Mantova: Federico. Federico is an exact contemporary of the future Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and will become a very close friend to the Emperor in the 1520’s when they are both ruling their states.After a brief return to power in Milan. Ludovico Sforza is again driven from the city and captured by French forces and packed off to a horrible imprisonment in a French dungeon. There is nothing his Italian friends can do to save him; Louis XII is implacable. One moment Ludovico is presiding over the most brilliant court in all Italy with one of the most admired young women at his side; the next moment he is languishing in a dark, damp France dungeon.

If the French are one danger for all the small states in northern Italy, another one is Cesare Borgia who is angling for an alliance with the French king. He has plans to build himself his own state, thus all the older traditional ruling families – the Estensi, the Gonzaga, the Montefeltro of Urbino – are all in danger.

1501 The insatiable appetite of the Borgias for power in Italy strikes the Estensi in Ferrara: Pope Alexander asks for – demands – the hand of Alfonso, Isabella’s brother, for the pope’s daughter Lucrezia Borgia – very recently widowed in a somewhat suspicious incident where the young husband is strangled in his own bed in the Vatican! The ducal family of Ferrara says, “Never!” The ducal line of Ferrara is one of the oldest ruling houses in Italy. Marriage to this scandalous family seems an insulting idea. The pope perseveres. The King of France tells the Estensi to make the best deal they can. Ferrara gives in; Lucrezia comes to Ferrara as the future Duchess of Ferrara and the sister-in-law of Isabella who is there to welcome her.
1502 In June, Cesare Borgia seizes Urbino from the Duke and Duchess. Duke Guidobaldo has to run for his life. He and his Duchess go to Mantova. The pope and Cesare thunder at the Gonzaga for allowing Guidobaldo and Elisabetta to stay there.
1503 Pope Alexander died, and the whole Borgia structure collapsed overnight. Guidobaldo and Elisabetta were welcomed back into Urbino with tearful celebrations in the streets of the tiny principality. Now began the Golden Age of Urbino, the one Castiglione writes about in The Courtier, 1503-1508.November. Election of Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere).
For the next ten years the life of the Gonzaga family will be entwined with the fortunes of the Pope Julius. One of his chief goals was to extend papal power in the north. This brought papal armies into the Po valley menacing both Ferrara and Mantova.
1506 Isabella d’ Este makes her only visit to Florence to worship at the miraculous painting of the Madonna at Santissima Annunziata.
1508 Death of Guidobaldo, Duke of Urbino.  He is succeeded by his nephew, Francescomaria della Rovere, who is also the nephew of Pope Julius. The Duchess Elisabetta remains in Urbino to help with governing the state. Soon Francescomaria will marry another Gonzaga: Eleonora Gonzaga, daughter of Isabella.
1509 Francesco Gonzaga is captured by Venetian forces and carried off to a Venetian prison. Venice is mad at its former captain thinking that he has labored against the interests of Venice. Now Isabella becomes the ruler of Mantova and must use all her influence to try to get her husband out of prison. She turns to Pope Julius and other influential friends.
1510 Isabella finally succeeds in getting her husband freed from his Venetian jail. But at a huge cost. In exchange for exerting his influence on behalf of Francesco, Pope Julius asks for a hostage to guarantee that Mantova will not intervene against papal interests in the north. The hostage who the Pope demands is Isabella’s beloved son and the heir to the dukedom, Federico. Isabella at first refuses, but when all else fails she gives in and in the summer of 1510, ten-year-old Federico goes off to the Vatican as a hostage to his parents’ good behavior. For the next three years he will live every day in the company of Pope Julius. Federico is a very charming and engaging boy and soon the Pope is mad about him and wants him with him all the time. The picture of the old pontiff walking hand in hand with his ten-year-old friend along the halls of the Vatican is one of the enduring images of these times. It is important to note that these three years during which little Federico Gonzaga was in the Vatican, provided him with the best school for statecraft that any child might have enjoyed. Once he assumed power as the ruler of Mantova, the Vatican years with the pope were revealed as very useful to this young Duke of Mantova.
1511 Pope Julius is waging war in northern Italy endangering the hold of the Estensi on Ferrara. In January, papal forces take Mirandola, near Ferrara. Isabella in Mantova can do little to help her relatives in Ferrara since the pope has control of her son. The arrival of French allies saves Ferrara and forces the pope to withdraw to Rome.
1512 Battle of Ravenna.French forces numbering more than 30,000 men face an Italian army of comparable numbers in the bloodiest battle fought on Italian soil in the early modern period. Although the French win, the cost is so great that King Louis abandons his Italian campaign and begins a complete withdrawal.Congress of Mantova. In August, all the victorious allies gather together to plan the future of Italy. They meet in Mantova, a recognition of the continuing importance of the Gonzaga in European affairs. This is Isabella’s great moment. She is the star of the Congress, juggling all the ambassadors, entertaining and charming everyone. At the congress it is decided that the Medici should be given back Florence and an international army heads south to impose the will of the congress on Florence.

Sack of Prato. Spanish troops on their way to Florence stop at nearby Prato and run amuck raping and killing. Citizens who escape run to Florence and tell of the horror and the Florentine government capitulates. The democracy is finished and one of its Secretaries, Niccolo Machiavelli, will soon be in prison.

1513 Election of a new pope: Giovanni de’ Medici becomes Pope Leo X.
1515 Old King Louis XII of France drops dead while making love to his new young bride, Mary Tudor, Henry’s sister. New king is Francis I. Within months he is leading French troops into Italy.Mantova sends the future duke Federico to King Francis to act as ambassador. Francis adores Federico and they become lifelong friends.
1516 In a lightning strike, papal troops marching on Urbino under Pope Leo’s orders, seizes Urbino and drives Duke Francescomaria della Rovere and his Gonzaga Duchess out of power. The exiles from Urbino repeat the same story of thirteen years before and come to Mantova. This is exactly what Isabella and Castiglione had been doing everything they could to prevent. But the Medici were not to be dissuaded.
1516-1519 During these three years, the ruler of Mantova, Francesco Gonzaga, is slowly dying of syphilis. At times he is violent and insane. The accounts of the dying Marchese sitting by the fire with his dogs is a heartbreaking scene. These are sad, difficult years for Isabella. But she sticks it out, stays loyal, and holds the state together.
1519 Francesco Gonzaga dies after a thirty-year reign. He is succeeded by his nineteen-year-old son Federico. It is important to note that Federico is the contemporary of both the King of France and the Emperor and both establish close friendships with Federico. Emperor Charles V and Federico assume power in exactly the same year and at the same age of nineteen. Charles will transform the Marchese Federico into Duke Federico.
1521 Death of Pope Leo X.
1523 Elect another Medici as pope:Pope Clement VII.
1525 Isabella in Rome. Isabella comes to Rome both for diplomatic purposes and to escape the scene in Mantova. Since the assumption of power, Federico has become enmeshed in a scandalous affair with a married woman. Isabella disapproves and when she is unable to dissuade her son from what she sees as a disreputable and corrupt lifestyle, she packs up and leaves Mantova. She will remain in Rome for several years and will be there when the sack occurs in 1527.
1527 Sack of Rome. Isabella is trapped in the Palazzo Colonna. Her son Ferrante is outside Rome, a general with the attacking forces, and makes his way to her palace to try to save her. Massive bribes are paid to various armies and eventually Ferrante gets his mother to the Tiber and into a boat on her way home.
1530 Emperor Charles V comes to Mantova, honoring the Gonzaga with this visit and showing his affection for Federico Gonzaga. Isabella presides over this august gathering.In this last decade of her life, Isabella withdraws more and more from an active role as Federico takes control of the state. They fight and make up but it is not an easy mother-son relationship. Isabella is used to being the center of attention and she yields the spotlight very reluctantly.
1539 Isabella d Este Gonzaga dies at age 65. She has become the most famous and the most honored woman of the whole of the Italian Renaissance. For almost fifty years she has been at the center of almost every single important event in Italian affairs.
1540 Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantova, dies at age 40.