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Isabella d’Este’s Birthday
An event every year that begins at 12:00 am on day 19 of May, repeating indefinitely
(b. 1474, Ferrara, Italy; d.1539, Romagna, Italy)
Isabella d’Este (Gonzaga) was a powerful and well-educated political figure, humanitarian, patron of the arts, and mother of seven. Known as “The First Lady of the Renaissance,” she was related to nearly every ruler in Italy either by birth or marriage.
D’Este was the oldest of six children born into the ruling family in Ferrara, Italy. Her parents believed in schooling their daughters equally to their sons, and she received an education not frequently afforded women. At sixteen, she could speak and translate Greek and Latin and had a variety of musical talents, including singing, dancing, and playing the lute. She could also engage in intellectual debates with ambassadors.
In 1490, d’Este married Francesco Gonzaga, the fourth marquis of Mantua, and thus became the marchioness. When he was captured as a prisoner of war in 1509, d’Este became the acting regent of Mantua. She secured the loyalty of her people and was able to successfully control the military, eventually negotiating the release of the ailing Gonzaga. D’Este was known for a non-confrontational approach to foreign policy. She kept the support of her people by defending Mantua against French attacks in 1527 and offering aid and comfort to refugees. Gonzaga was often jealous of d’Este’s popularity, and due to this conflict, d’Este traveled to Rome to spend time in the court of Pope Leo X, where she met and became a patron of many artists.
In 1519, Gonzaga died and their son Federigo II officially became marquis of Mantua. At age nineteen he was too young to rule, and d’Este acted as regent. Soon after he took power, he was persuaded by popular support to request that his mother return as head of Mantua. With her authority, she positioned Mantua as a duchy, or sovereign territory, which advanced her son’s title to that of duke.
D’Este was a great patron of the arts, supporting painters such as Mantegna, Titian, and da Vinci, all of whom she commissioned to paint her portrait. She transformed Mantua into a cultural center by converting the ducal apartments into a museum. She invited writers, artists, and poets to her home to exchange ideas and corresponded frequently with a variety of prominent figures, letters that now provide us with a rare woman’s point of view on Renaissance Italy. During her time as ruler, d’Este also funded an ongoing school for girls.
In 1529, as the result of an exchange of property during her husband’s life, d’Este became the official ruler of Solarolo, a small region of Romagna that she ruled as a city-state. There, she oversaw an active government until her death in 1539.