Isabella d’Este & Art


Lorenzo Costa,
Allegory of Isabella d’Este’s Coronation
Paris, Louvre Museum


The art collections of Isabella d’Este Gonzaga, marchesa of Mantua, demonstrate important themes of the Renaissance: possessing the ancient world through the collection of antiquities, demonstrating erudition and virtue through the acquisition of classical narratives, and fashioning an identity through portraiture and personal emblems. Isabella’s accumulation of paintings and art objects increased her cultural capital among the aristocracy.1 Her collecting also reflected her humanist education as a child at the court of Ferrara, enhanced the prestige of the Gonzaga court in Mantua, and facilitated political and social opportunities for her children.

A Desire for Antiquities


Isabella’s letters reveal a longing for ancient art objects and sculptures. She regularly expressed urgency about acquiring antiquities to agents in Rome.2

Gian Cristoforo Romano,
Detail of Minerva from the doorway to Isabella d’Este’s grotta
Mantua, Palazzo Ducale

In 1506, Isabella negotiated with the Gonzaga court painter, Andrea Mantegna, to acquire his prized bust of Faustina the Elder when the artist was in need of funds.3 A few years later in 1511, Isabella purchased an ancient bust of Plato from Venetian artists, Giovanni and Nicolò Bellini.4 A bust of Octavian, an onyx vase, a Venus given by Cesare Borgia, and a Cupid attributed to the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles were also documented in her collection.5 Isabella displayed the Praxitelean Cupid next to a Sleeping Cupid by Michelangelo in order to compare the ancient and modern sculptures.6

Pier Jacopo Alari (Antico),
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

When Isabella d’Este could not acquire a truly ancient sculpture, she turned to Pier Jacopo Alari, better known as Antico. He created statuettes in gold and bronze for her. Subjects included the Spinario and Hercules and Antaeus. Cast in 1519, Isabella’s Hercules and Antaeus was marked with an inscription of her ownership.

(Divine Isabella, Marchesa of Mantua)

These sculptures could be held and examined closely, and, thus, scholars have considered how these small works demonstrate the interactive nature of Renaissance art collecting and reception.7

A Careful Patron of Portraits


Surviving portraits of Isabella d’Este and accounts of her commissions indicate her careful control of representations of her physical appearance. Isabella refused to share a portrait created by Andrea Mantegna probably because his portraits tended to reveal the flaws of his subjects.8 Isabella preferred artworks that emphasized her beauty, erudition, and virtue. Gian Cristoforo Romano arrived at the Mantuan court in the late fifteenth century and cast bronze medals featuring an idealized Isabella in profile on the obverse. Isabella distributed these bronze versions of the medal to those she favored and retained one medal created in gold and embellished with diamonds and enamel on a gilt frame.9

Leonardo da Vinci also drew an idealized version of Isabella d’Este’s likeness during his stop in Mantua as he travelled from Milan to Venice.10

Leonardo da Vinci,
Portrait of Isabella d’Este
Paris, Louvre Museum

While never completed as a painting, Leonardo’s drawing of Isabella (c. 1499-1500) provides a detailed depiction of the marchesa with a profile view of her face and frontal view of her shoulders. Leonardo disguised his subject’s substantial figure in her billowing sleeves. The attention to her garment reveals Isabella’s interest in fashion, which was a frequent subject of her letters. A drawing after Leonardo’s original reveals that Isabella’s hands may have been visible and that one hand gestured toward a book, an attribute of erudition, before Leonardo’s original drawing was cropped along the bottom edge.

While Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait smoothed over Isabella’s imperfections, Titian’s portrait of Isabella in Black (c. 1534-36) represented the sixty-year-old dowager marchesa as a young woman in her teens. Based on an earlier portrait of the marchesa by Francesco Francia, Titian’s painting was well-received by the marchesa, but Isabella also expressed doubt that she had ever possessed the beauty it depicted.11 Titian’s painting pushed ideal portraits to the extreme, but nonetheless fulfilled the Renaissance requirement that virtuous women be beautiful, for, as recorded in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, a “woman lacks much who lacks beauty.”12

Spaces for Collecting


Soon after Isabella’s marriage to Francesco II Gonzaga, the marchesa developed a space for a painting gallery – her studiolo – and a room to display her growing collections – the grotta. Isabella’s original studiolo and grotta were constructed within the Castello di San Giorgio, the medieval castle that forms part of the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Later, these rooms were moved to the Corte Vecchia of the Ducal Palace. The ground-floor location of these later rooms allowed for the addition of a secret garden and easier access for Isabella, who struggled with mobility as she aged.

Andrea Mantegna,
Paris, Louvre Museum

Isabella sought paintings with mythological themes from significant Renaissance artists for her studiolo. The program, which scholars continue to analyze and debate, was developed in consultation with the humanist scholar Paride da Ceresara. While the seven paintings have traditionally been interpreted as allegories of virtue conquering vice, art historian Stephen Campbell has emphasized the paintings’ roles within the epistemological space of the studiolo and within the context of humanist literature at the Mantuan court.13 Andrea Mantegna delivered the first two paintings, Mars and Venus (or Parnassus) in 1497 and Pallas expelling the Vices in 1502. After much correspondence between Isabella and the painter Pietro Perugino, he delivered The Combat of Love and Chastity (or Battle between Lasciviousness and Chastity) featuring Pallas and Diana fighting Venus and Cupid in 1505.


Pietro Perugino,
Combat of Love & Chastity
Paris, Louvre Museum

The result did not please Isabella; she wrote that Perugino’s painting appeared deficient in comparison to Mantegna’s canvases. Her letters also document that Isabella desired a mythological painting by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini for her studiolo.  Instead, he offered a Nativity, which did not suit the studiolo’s humanist themes. Following Mantegna’s death, the new Gonzaga court painter, Lorenzo Costa, created a coronation scene, variously titled Coronation of a Woman Poet or Allegory of Isabella d’Este’s Coronation (c. 1504-06), and a second painting entitled The Reign of Comus (c. 1507-11). Antonio da Correggio contributed Allegory of Virtue and Allegory of Vice (c. 1528-30) once the studiolo was established in the Corte Vecchia.

In her later rooms in the Corte Vecchia, Isabella’s studiolo was connected to her grotta through a carved marble doorway attributed to Gian Cristoforo Romano. The grotta also featured intarsia designs along the walls and Isabella’s emblems (imprese) ornamenting the ceiling. The emblems included her motto (NEC SPE NEC METU) and initials (YS), twenty-seven (XXVII), lottery tickets, musical times and rests, and the alpha and omega. Both Gian Cristoforo Romano’s gold medal and Antico’s Hercules and Antaeus (mentioned above) were on display in the grotta. The inventory conducted after Isabella’s death revealed the extensive collections acquired over the course of her life.14

Beyond the Ducal Palace


While the Ducal Palace provided spaces to display her collections, Isabella looked forward to leaving its dark, damp environment. Her frequent diplomatic travels and her suburban villa, the Palazzo di Porto, provided opportunities for escape. Porto in particular became an important retreat for Isabella to enjoy her gardens, fruit trees, and loggia. This environment was ideal for displaying and possibly using Isabella’s maiolica service, as earthenware dishes were preferred to silver in country villas.15 The service was probably commissioned by Isabella’s daughter, Eleonora Gonzaga, duchessa of Urbino, around 1524 from master maiolica artist, Nicola da Urbino. A 1524 letter from Eleonora to Isabella mentions an earthenware service that is “a villa thing” (“cosa da villa”) to be used at Porto.16 Decorated with mythological and Old Testament narratives, as well as her coat-of-arms and emblems, the twenty-three surviving dishes of the maiolica service used classical imagery to emphasize Isabella’s personal virtue in a manner that echoed her collections in the Ducal Palace.

While often identified as the most significant female collector of the Renaissance, Isabella d’Este is notable among all early modern patrons, both male and female, due to the variety of her collections, which span a broad range of materials, iconographic sources, and historical periods. Isabella’s patronage also influenced the collections of other rulers. Her husband Francesco II Gonzaga modelled his rooms in the Palazzo di San Sebastiano in Mantua after Isabella’s.17 Similarly, her brother Alfonso I d’Este commissioned a room of mythological paintings inspired by her studiolo,18 and her son Federico II Gonzaga, commissioned his own maiolica services.19

About one hundred years after Isabella’s death, the primary Gonzaga hereditary line died out and the Mantuan court became part of the dominions of the Holy Roman Empire. Although Isabella’s paintings and art objects have long been dispersed from their original locations and are now in museums around the world, the marchesa’s rooms in the Corte Vecchia remain in Mantua and allow us to imagine the original splendor of this collection.

 – Lisa Boutin Vitela
30 November 2017


1 Rose Marie San Juan, “The Court Lady’s Dilemma: Isabella d’Este and Art Collecting in the Renaissance,” Oxford Art Journal 14, no. 1 (1991): 67-78.
2 Clifford M. Brown, “‘Lo Insaciabile Desiderio Nostro de Cose Antique,’ New Documents for Isabella d’Este’s Collection of Antiquities,” in Cultural Aspects of the Renaissance: essays in honour of Paul Oskar Kristeller, ed. Cecil H. Clough (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976), 324-353.
3 Guido Rebecchini, Private Collectors in Mantua: 1500-1630 (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2002), 214.
4 Patricia Fortini Brown, Venice & Antiquity: The Venetian Sense of the Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 118.
5 Clifford M. Brown, Per dare qualche splendore a la gloriosa città di Mantua: Documents for the Antiquarian Collection of Isabella d’Este (Rome: Bulzoni, 2002).
6 Kathleen Wren Christian and David J. Drogin, “Introduction: The virtues of the medium: the patronage of sculpture in Renaissance Italy” in Patronage and Italian Renaissance Sculpture, ed. Kathleen Wren Christian and David J. Drogin (Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2010), 6.
7 Geraldine A. Johnson, “In the Hand of the Beholder: Isabella d’Este and the Sensual Allure of Sculpture,” in Sense and the Senses in Early Modern Art and Cultural Practice, ed. A.E. Sanger and S.T. Kulbrandstad Walker (Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate 2012), 183-197.
8 Joanna Woods-Marsden, “Ritratto al Naturale: Questions of Realism and Idealism in Early Renaissance Portraits” Art Journal 46, no. 3 (Autumn, 1987): 209-216.
9 Luke Syson, “Reading Faces: Gian Cristoforo Romano’s Medal of Isabella d’Este,” in La Corte di Mantova nell’età di Andrea Mantegna: 1450-1550 Atti del Convegno, London, 6-8 March 1992/Mantua 28 March 1992, ed. Cesare Mozzarelli, Robert Oresko, Leandro Ventura (Rome: Bulzoni, 1997), 281-294.
10 Francis Ames-Lewis, Isabella and Leonardo: The Artistic Relationship between Isabella d’Este and Leonardo da Vinci, 1500-1506 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
11 Alessandro Luzio, “Arte Retrospettiva: I Ritratti d’Isabella d’Este,” Emporium 11 (1900): 344-359; 427-442.
12 Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Leonard Eckstein Opdycke (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 176.
13 For discussion of the studiolo and its paintings, see Stephen Campbell, The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
14 Daniela Ferrari, “L’ ‘Inventario delle Gioie,” in Isabella d’Este: I luoghi del collezionismo: Mantova, Palazzo Ducale, appartamenti isabelliani (Modena: Il Bulino, 1995), 11-15.
15 Lisa Boutin Vitela, “Dining in the Gonzaga Suburban Palaces: The Use and Reception of Istoriato Maiolica,” in Le Banquet de la Renaissance: Images et Usages, ed. Diane Bodart and Valérie Boudier (Pisa: Predella, 2013), 103-115.
16 Mariarosa Palvarini Gobio Casali, La ceramica a Mantova (Ferrara: Belriguardo, 1987), 211-212.
17 Molly Bourne, Francesco II Gonzaga: The Soldier-Prince as Patron (Rome: Bulzoni), 443, doc. 216.
18 Charles Hope, “The ‘Camerini d’Alabastro’ of Alfonso d’Este,” Burlington Magazine 113 (1971): 641-650 and 114 (1972): 712-721.

Suggested readings/viewings


Brown, Clifford. Isabella d’Este in the Ducal Palace in Mantua: An overview of her rooms in the Castello di San Giorgio and the Corte Vecchia. Rome: Bulzoni, 2005.

Chambers, David and Jane Martineau, ed. Splendours of the Gonzaga, exh. cat. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1981.

Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, ed. “La Prima Donna del Mondo”: Isabella d’Este: Fürsten and Mäzenatin der Renaissance, exh. cat. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1994.

Furlotti, Barbara and Guido Rebecchini. The Art of Mantua: Power and Patronage in the Renaissance. Translated by A. Lawrence Jenkins. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008.

Morselli, Raffaella, ed. Gonzaga: La Celeste Galeria, Le Raccolte. Milan: Skira, 2002.

The Illustrated Credenza