Painter by Proxy: The art of Isabella d’Este

Antonio da Correggio (1489–1534), Allegory of Vices (1529-30), tempera on canvas, 148 x 88 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the best-known of all the Renaissance patrons, Isabella d’Este, the Duchess of Mantua, is among the best-studied, thanks to the preservation of her personal collection of paintings and more than thirty thousand of her letters. Her reputation as a patron is great: for example, in an excellent and detailed Wikipedia article about her, it’s stated:
“In painting she had numerous famous artists of the time work for her, including Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna (court painter until 1506), Perugino, Raphael, Titian, Antonio da Correggio, Lorenzo Costa (court painter from 1509), Dosso Dossi, Francesco Francia, Giulio Romano and many others.”

This article looks at Isabella d’Este’s patronage of painters and paintings, and concludes that her current reputation is at best misleading: she was one of the most remarkable women of the Renaissance, but was one of its least significant patrons.

She was born to the Duke of Ferrara and his wife Eleanor of Naples in 1474, the oldest and favourite of their children. Her mother ensured that she received an excellent education, even by male standards of the day, which emphasised the classics, including Greek and Latin. However, she seems to have struggled more in learning to read Latin, and in adult life received additional lessons to help her reading skills. She was particularly fond of music, singing and dancing, and learned to play several instruments including the lute and harpsichord. Her taste in music was predominantly secular.

When she was only six years old she was betrothed to Francesco, who was expected to succeed as the Marquess of Mantua, a city and small province in Lombardy, about a hundred miles (160 km) from Venice. They were married by proxy ten years later, by which time the young Francesco had inherited the title and realm which he was to rule until his death in 1519. He was also the commander-in-chief of the army of the Republic of Venice, which frequently took him away from their palace in Mantua. In 1509, he was held captive as a hostage in Venice, and wasn’t released until 1512.

Although Isabella had eight chidren between 1493-1508, six of whom survived into adult life (a very high figure for the time), her marriage was blighted by Francesco’s sexual incontinence. His most famous affair was with the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, which started in 1503, and only came to an end when Francesco contracted syphilis from his contacts with prostitutes.

In contrast, Isabella seems to have lived a virtuous life and became an accomplished statesman and diplomat, with shrewd political judgement even when dealing with the likes of Cesare Borgia. She saw Mantua promoted to a Duchy, and ruled it from the death of Francesco in 1519 until her son Federico came of age some years later. She then still hankered after political involvement, and in 1527 moved to Rome. On her return to Mantua, she promoted the education of girls and finally took charge of the town of Solarolo until her death in 1539, at the age of 64.

Isabella started to collect objets d’art soon after she moved to her palace in Mantua. With regard to paintings, she was foremost a collector who relied on the advice of others in the court, rather than a connoisseur in her own right. Surprisingly, her purchases had to be made from her own wealth, which was quite limited, and in times of hardship she resorted to pawning jewellery to raise funds. Her patronage concentrated mainly on music and sculpture. She was unusual for promoting women as singers, and placing them in choirs. Her literary sponsorship was limited: she seems to have enjoyed swashbuckling stories of the adventures of knights, such as those in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, and was a faithful supporter of his work.

Her sponsorship and taste in paintings is largely reflected in the works which she commissioned for her private study, her famous studiolo, which thankfully have been well preserved as they passed to the French Kings, and most are now in the Louvre as a result. Combined with records in her copious correspondence and a crucial inventory, it has been possible to reconstruct this studiolo in detail. Her period of collecting covered the appointments of two court painters in Mantua: Andrea Mantegna until his death in 1506, thereafter Lorenzo Costa. When Isabella was most active in her collecting of paintings in the early 1500s, Mantegna was around 70 years old, and Costa in his forties.

Mantegna arranged to be recommended to Isabella through her former tutor, but his first attempt to impress her with a portrait in 1493 met with a stony reception: Isabella declined it as being so badly painted that it didn’t resemble her.

Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), Parnassus (Mars and Venus) (1496-97), oil on canvas, 159 x 192 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite that discouraging start, her first commission for a painting for her study was awarded to Mantegna, for his painting of Mars and Venus, known better as Parnassus (1496-97). She had apparently grown to like his finely-finished and rather old-fashioned tempera paintings, and the artist probably painted this largely in tempera, only for it to be repainted using oils after his death.

This painting refers to the classical myth of the affair between Mars and Venus, the latter being married to Vulcan, who caught them in bed together and cast a fine net around them for the other gods to come and mock their adultery. The lovers are shown standing together on a flat-topped rock arch, as the Muses dance below. To the left of Mars’ feet is Venus’ child Cupid who is aiming his blowpipe at Vulcan’s genitals, as he works at his forge in the cave at the left. At the right is Mercury, messenger of the gods, with his caduceus and Pegasus the winged horse. At the far left is Apollo making music for the Muses on his lyre.

It’s an unusual theme for a woman of the time to have chosen, although it has largely been interpreted with reference to a contemporary poem which seems less concerned with the underlying story of adultery exposed.

Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), Triumph of the Virtues (Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue) (1499-1502), tempera and oil on canvas, 160 x 192 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

A couple of years later, Isabella returned to commission Mantegna to paint a more moralistic allegory of The Triumph of the Virtues, or Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (1499-1502), again largely in tempera. The scene is a garden with a pond, near a river which meanders down to a lush valley in the distance. Inside its arched perimeter Pallas Athena, at the left with her distinctive helmet and shield, is chasing away figures representing the vices.

At the far left is a tree representing Virtue Deserted, and to the right of Athena’s feet is the armless vice of Idleness. Also in the pond is a centaur who carries a standing figure, usually read as Diana, on its back. At the far right is the virtue of Prudence represented as a message from within her prison, and in the sky are the virtues of Justice, Temperance and Fortitude.

An unusual and very personal twist indicating the extent of Isabella’s involvement in this composition is Athena’s spear. Although one of her normal attributes, its head has broken off and rests on the ground. This is a reference to a broken lance which Francesco presented to his wife following his command of the Holy League (Venetian) forces at the Battle of Fornovo in 1495.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Portrait of Isabella d’Este (c 1499-1500), black and red chalk with stump, ochre chalk, white highlights, on paper, 61 x 46.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by RMN / Michèle Bellot, via Wikimedia Commons.

After Leonardo da Vinci had painted The Last Supper, he visited the court at Mantua, where he made this chalk Portrait of Isabella d’Este (c 1499-1500). Isabella apparently disliked wasting time sitting for portraits, and this elegant profile is one of few known to have been made of her. Leonardo and Isabella corresponded afterwards, she inviting him to undertake commissions for her including one for a painting of Christ at the age of twelve, but he turned her offers down.

She was also unsuccessful in getting Giovanni Bellini to paint a proper commission for her. She had originally asked him in 1496 to paint an allegory, no doubt destined for her study, but by late 1502 she reluctantly wrote that she’d settle for a Nativity so long as it included Joseph, “the beasts” and Saint John the Baptist. Bellini refused to include the last of those, which she finally agreed to. His painting arrived in 1504, but that work now appears to be lost. Isabella asked Bellini a third time in 1505, promising not to hold him to any detailed description of the painting, but nothing came of that.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Combat of Love and Chastity (1503), tempera on canvas, 160 x 191 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Isabella’s third painting was made by another artist who was reaching the end of his career, Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), who is believed to have taught Raphael. The latter may have been working for Perugino at the time that his former master painted The Combat of Love and Chastity in 1503, using Mantegna’s favourite medium of tempera although Perugino was highly accomplished in oils.

Mantegna worked in Mantua, so little of Isabella’s correspondence gives insight into the process of his commissions. She had to write to Perugino, though, and there’s a trail of letters which reveal how much detail she specified about this work, even supplying a drawing. Its theme is literary, as laid down in the contract by Isabella’s court poet, and shows a fight between the personifications of Love and Chastity, which may have worked well in words but doesn’t translate into visual art at all well.

It features a gamut of mythological figures in no particular order, including Apollo and Daphne, Jupiter and Europa, Polyphemus and Galatea, and Pluto and Proserpina – all couples in which the man abducted and/or raped the woman. In front are Pallas Athene about to kill Eros with a lance, and a more evenly matched fight between Diana with her bow and Venus, who is singeing the huntress with a burning brand. Isabella laid out strict instructions, for example requiring that Venus, who is traditionally shown naked, was clothed. Even the owl perched in the branches of the sacred olive tree at the left was prescribed in the commission. When Perugino didn’t follow these, she protested, and on completion she wrote that it should have been better finished to set alongside her Mantegnas, and was clearly unimpressed. For this the artist was paid just 100 ducats.

Lorenzo Costa (1460–1535), The Garden of the Peaceful Arts (The Crowning of a Female Poet) (1504-06), oil on canvas, 164.5 x 197.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Isabella then turned to Lorenzo Costa (1460–1535) for The Garden of the Peaceful Arts or The Crowning of a Female Poet (1504-06), which he painted in oil and tempera. Mantegna had originally been commissioned to paint this, but died before he could make much progress on it. Costa started from scratch, and under Isabella’s direction according to her poet’s literary theme produced this strange painting which is often known as an allegory of Isabella’s coronation, or construed as an account of Sappho’s career.

Figures identified include Diana, at the front on the right, and Cadmus, but reading this work coherently seems impossible now.

Lorenzo Costa (1460–1535) and Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), The Reign of Comus (1506-11), tempera on canvas, 152 x 238 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Another commission which Mantegna had started to work on just before he died was completed by Costa in 1511, The Reign of Comus, which again uses tempera for a complex composition. Comus, ruler of a land of bacchanalia, sits talking to a near-naked Venus in the left foreground. Just to the right of the centre foreground, Nicaea is lying unconscious through alcohol, against Dionysus (Bacchus), who got her into a stupor so that he could rape her.

Under the arch is the unmistakable two-faced Janus with Hermes, apparently repelling potential newcomers to the bacchanal. In the centre is a small group of musicians, and various naked figures are cavorting in the waters behind.

Isabella is believed to have commissioned other paintings which weren’t destined for her study, which include some religious works.

Francesco Bonsignori (1460–1519), Isabella d’Este, study for ‘Blessed Osanna Andreasi’ (1519), chalk, dimensions not known, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

One surviving painting which appears to have been commissioned by Isabella but remained outside the private world of her study is by Francesco Bonsignori (1460–1519), who made this chalk study of Isabella d’Este in 1519.

Francesco Bonsignori (1460–1519), Blessed Osanna Andreasi (1519), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Bonsignori’s painting of the Blessed Osanna Andreasi followed later that year (and I apologise for the limited quality of this image). This beatified Mantuan woman was the daughter of a Gonzaga, who started reporting visions when she was only six. She rejected an arranged marriage and secretly took orders, becoming a Dominican tertiary. She developed stigmata, learned to read and write in a miracle, and became a mystic. She died in Mantua in 1505, and Isabella led the campaign for her veneration.

Isabella is shown in profile, kneeling at the left, with her lifelong friend Margherita Cantelma. On the right, among the Dominican nuns, is Isabella’s daughter Ippolita, one of three of her children who took holy orders.

Antonio da Correggio (1489–1534), Allegory of Vices (1529-30), tempera on canvas, 148 x 88 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Late additions to Isabella’s study were a pair of tempera allegories by Antonio da Correggio (1489–1534), Allegory of Vices (1529-30) above, and Allegory of Virtues (1531) below. The latter reflects a detailed commission, as it shows once again Pallas Athena holding the broken spear which Francesco had brought back from battle for Isabella.

Antonio da Correggio (1489–1534), Allegory of Virtues (1531), tempera on canvas, 142 x 85.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Isabella d'Este, by Titian
Titian (1490–1576), Isabella d’Este, Duchess of Mantua (c 1536), oil on canvas, 102 x 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Inevitably, her portrait was painted by Titian (1490–1576). The original version from 1523 was made from life, but in about 1536, when she was in her early sixties, she sent an old portrait made by Francia in 1511 for Titian to paint from, with suitably updated fashionable dress of the day. The result is the anachronistic Isabella d’Este, Duchess of Mantua, which flatters more than it reveals.

With few exceptions, Isabella’s commissions were very personal, so much so that their elaborate stories and allegories are now elusive. More than one of the artists who painted for her must, at some stage, have wished that she had learned to paint. Those masters were used as proxy craftsmen, to turn poetry from her court poet into images for her study. No doubt she amazed distinguished guests by explaining their symbols and references when they were taken on a tour of her collection.

Isabella’s understanding of visual art was limited, her paintings fascinating, but of no consequence at all to the Renaissance or the history of painting. For the great masters of the day, who were changing art history by their paintings, Isabella’s commissions were to be avoided like the plague. They would have been archaic in style, stifled original creation, and could only have led to great dissatisfaction for all concerned.

Isabella d’Este was an outstanding example of what education and ability can achieve, and a great woman of any age. But as far as painting (at least) is concerned, her reputation as a great and influential patron is misleading if not completely false.



Alison Cole (2016) Italian Renaissance Courts: Art, Pleasure and Power, Laurence King, ISBN 978 1 78067 740 8.
Christine Shaw (2019) Isabella d’Este, A Renaissance Princess, Routledge, ISBN 978 0 367 00247 3.