Isabella d’Este: Renaissance Patron

Titian (1534-36)

Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Titian (1534-36)

  Isabella d’Este is a controversial figure in the Italian Renaissance. There have been many assumptions made about her character (she was frigid, difficult to get along with, and shallow for starters) and as with many women who have made history in a mostly male-dominated area, her gender has come to define her. However, while the motives behind her extensive collection of artwork and antiques may be riddled with analyses like “she chose pieces based on aesthetic qualities rather than scholarly value” and “her penchant for ancient jewels was inherently feminine,” no one can deny that her contributions were bountiful.


 Isabella d’Este married into the court of Mantua at the age of 15, where she began her first collection. She had no money of her own. Her dowry immediately became her husband’s property after their marriage. Her husband provided her with a yearly allowance, but as the lady of the court, it was her job to keep the “culture” of the Court alive by hosting events and entertaining guests. There was little to nothing left of her allowance once she completed all of her duties. In order to fund her collection, Isabella cut back on the yearly Court budget. She then used the savings to invest in real estate that would provide her with a steady income.
Mantegna (1497)

Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna (1497)

The themes of Isabella’s collection focused primarily on love and classical mythology. Her pieces were meant to both inspire reflection on one’s own actions and to gently push the viewer to some sort of moral understanding. One such piece is her commissioned painting titled Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna. The image depicts the story of Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war standing together in front of a bed. Venus’ husband, Hephaestus, is the blacksmith of the gods. He is pictured hard at work in the background while the two are together. In Roman mythology, Venus and Mars take part in an elicit affair. They are eventually caught by Hephaestus and publicly humiliated in front of the other gods. Isabella meant for the painting to be a warning against extramarital affairs within the court.

Historians may say whatever they like about Isabella d’Este as a person, but there is no doubt that she accomplished great things in her time. It was essentially unheard of for a woman to become a patron of the arts on such a scale during the Italian Renaissance. Yet, Isabella’s collection spanning four rooms would go on to be the most popular of its day.  People would travel from all over Italy just to see it, and guided tours were given when she was not home. Men also considered notions like the use of allegory and the Classics to be beyond the mental capacity of women, but both would make regular appearances in Isabella’s commissioned works. Despite all of this, Isabella d’Este’s contribution to the field of Renaissance art collecting is still regularly diminished, because she was a woman. I guess haters are just going to hate.

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About the Author

Tierra Holmes is a senior studying Art History and History at UNCC. When she isn’t chained to her computer working on research projects, she enjoys marathoning Korean dramas and spending money she doesn’t have. After graduation, she hopes to curate a museum or gallery and possibly guest-star on Mysteries at the Museum.