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Isabella D’Este: First Lady of the Renaissance & Her Influence

First lady of the renaissance Isabella d'Este

Isabella d'Este Portrait by Leonardo da Vinci & Anonymous painting of Isabella after Leonardo's sketch | Source: Louvre & Wikimedia Commons

When you wade through the renaissance history, you will note that it quickly affirms the absolute superiority and remarkability of male creativity in the art field. For instance, if you glance through the book, The Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Architects by Giovanni Baglione, you will find that he mentioned one of the finest female artists, Irene di Spilimbergo, who was such an efficient painter that she imitated Titian’s style skillfully in her artworks, but we hardly remember her. Further, Baglione tells us about the little-known artist of the sixteenth century, crucial for landscape painting, Fabrizio Parmigiano, and his wife, Ippolita, who always worked for him and was an excellent painter. In his own words, he said,

“she too painted landscapes so well that one could not tell which were by Fabrizio and which by his consort.”

You must know that in many fresco commissions of Fabrizio, Ippolita painted alongside, but none of the documentation reveals her name. Similarly, one shocking instance of history tells us that the documentation further indicates that women rarely frequented fresco paintings during this time. In some way, one can conclude that women painters worked for their fathers or husbands in this period. However, few painters were either portraitists or still-life painters. When we read this much, a question often arises asking what contribution women exactly made to paintings in practical or theoretical terms. Does the only intellectually beneficial community belong to men during this period? It is clear from the past that the activities of artists like Girogione, Michelangelo, and Raphael were eventually related. But what about women? Does the Renaissance period have at least one lady having an artistic influence? That’s what the article is about to introduce you to Isabella d’Este popularly called the first lady of the renaissance.

Despite all the above reasons, almost all contemporary biographers discussed the importance of female influence on the creativity of marvellous artists like Michelangelo and Vittoria. And one such impact, which is emblematic in the entire history, is Isabella d’Este.

She was actively involved in acquisition of ancient works and developments related to the iconography of images for large figurative projects. Artists like Mantegna and Perugino painted her portraits, which she asked for. There is one point you should note; of course, these artists were successful in creating iconographically complex and challenging compositions, but it was only Isabella who was a sturdy influence on many artists and was a fine art collector. You must note that throughout the Renaissance period, female patrons exerted an influence on the intellectual developments behind the mastery of art by renowned artists. Now you might think, how? Allow me to explain the concept in proper instances.

From the Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, one will note that there is an elaborative discussion on the feminine and hints towards the inspirations taken from it in the sixteenth century for the art. Moreover, Castiglione also noted,

“all things that men can understand, women can likewise understand.”

From the female images of the paintings by Girogione and Titian, one can see that these were the vehicle of iconographically evolved meanings. Hence, you can conclude that, indeed the sixteenth century, iconography was a figurative science and a crucial part of Renaissance art developments and above all, they were grandeur by feminine.

Coming back to Isabella, she was renowned and still much studied by historiographers. It is not because of an isolated case but of getting a better view of art history through her letters. At the end of the fifteenth century, when she was twenty years old, she was a lady of supreme prominence in the world of painters and sculptors, as she advised, promoted and became an intellect of the Renaissance art period.

Further when we discuss Isabella d’Este art, let me explain how portraiture played an immense role in the intellectual strategy during this region. For instance, if Leonardo did not commission for Mona Lisa during his entire life, we would not have been able to see his approach to portraiture, and the world would have been left behind with the synthesis of the portrait typology. Now, you must note that only the woman of intellect could influence the pictorial universe and certain painters’ choices. Mona Lisa is the right example to convey this message. In crispier terms, it is like a subject which participates in the creative process, judging, suggesting, and even encouraging the conceptual foundation of the portrait. Now, you might have got the idea of how Isabella’s art collection of her portraits with certain painters gave us a new sight of the renaissance, which we could not have seen in her absence.

Francesco Roella of Rimmi often quoted her as highly influential in artistic circles and described her as doctissima (extremely learned). A comment like this was extremely crucial as it determines the wisdom and ability to advise artists of the young Isabella. Furthermore, the depiction of Parnassus with Apollo, the Muses and Artists by Raphael is the crispiest painting, which developed within the intellectual circle of Isabella d’Este. Let us take a look at some of the famous Isabella d’Este portrait as we continue our study of her importance as an art patron.

The first lady of the renaissance was flattered by one of the portraits by Leonardo for her brother-in-law in Milan. And she hoped that he would paint her as well. So, as Leonardo spent a short period in Mantua, his preparatory drawings apparently pleased her. She loved herself in the portrait but wanted da Vinci to complete the painting, which he never did. Though incomplete, it was one of the fine sketches by da Vinci of Isabella. Isabella’s extraordinary long sleeve dress demonstrated her fashion sense of the time. It also reflects her keen interest in it, which we know from her letters. Similarly, Titian painted one portrait of her, which is as famous as da Vinci’s sketch.

Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci | Source: Louvre
Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Titian / Tiziano Vecellio | Source: Kunst Historisches Museum Wein

One surviving Isabella d’Este portrait was the bronze medal by sculptor and medallist Gian Cristoforo Romano, which idealised her profile on the front and the zodiac symbol on the reverse. The front face showcases her wearing a substantial necklace framed by a low neck and her hair tied back in braids. Whereas, on the back, a sign of the zodiac is accompanied by a Latin inscription: BENEMERENTIUM ERGO, meaning for those who are well deserving. In addition to the gold medal, Isabella had diamonds set in it by Gian Cristoforo. She displayed this one next to an ancient cameo in her grotta.

Isabella d’Este’s Portrait medal by Giancristoforo Romano | Source: National Gallery of Art
Isabella d’Este Portrait Medal by Gian Cristoforo Romano | Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Isabella d’Este Portrait medal by Gian Cristoforo Romano | Source: Mutual Art

In addition to all these portraits, her antique art collections were immensely crucial for us. An inventory noted that more than 1,500 items, mainly coins and medals, 72 vessels and 40 engraved gems, were part of Isabella d’Este art collection. Among all of these, a few important ones were Seated Nymph, Apollo Belvedere, The Spinario, and Hercules and Antaeus by Antico.

It is no exaggeration to say that Isabella was an exceptionally wise lady, who gave so much to the entire Renaissance movement as a fond art collector. Additionally, as ruler, she did a terrific job in maintaining and nourishing the culture of the Mantua by inviting poets, writers and artists. Because of Isabella, we know much about the history of the Renaissance from the view of females, thanks to the 12000 letters that survived. Perhaps you now understand what did Isabella d Este accomplish and why she was first lady of the Renaissance!

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