Renaissance and Reformation Isabella d’Este
Deanna Shemek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0325


Isabella d’Este (b. 1474–d. 1539) was the eldest child of Ercole I d’Este (b. 1431–d. 1505), second duke of Ferrara, and Duchess Eleonora d’Aragona (b. 1450–d. 1493). Raised in luxury and privilege, she was educated by humanists in a city that boasted an exceptionally refined court culture and one of Europe’s greatest universities. In 1490 she married Francesco II Gonzaga (b. 1466–d. 1519), Marchese of Mantua, and entered that city in triumph as its new princess. As Marchesa, she displayed extraordinary skills in management, diplomacy, and Politics, often counseling her husband and at times assuming the reins of government. All of Isabella and Francesco’s six children attained important positions among the European elite (See Family Relations). She is mainly remembered for her achievements not as a ruler, however, but as a collector of art and antiquities and the first woman in Europe to fashion a personalized gallery space in which to display her acquisitions. She called these rooms her studiolo and grotta, or her camerini. Her apartments also housed an impressive book collection, the musical instruments she was adept at playing, and other luxury items she collected (See Patronage, Collecting, Studiolo and Exhibition Catalogues). Her portraitists include Andrea Mantegna, Francesco Francia, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, and Rubens. A woman of tremendous energies and intelligence, Isabella cultivated relationships with many writers and composers of her time. She also devoted notable attention to fashion, travel, gardening, food production and exchange, and the keeping of animals. Given her wide range of interests, her keen intelligence, and her extraordinarily active public profile, Isabella d’Este has often been regarded as a female version of the period’s “Renaissance men.” Her multifaceted life is recorded most visibly in the archive of her correspondence, now housed in the Archivio di Stato di Mantova (ASMn), where many thousands of her letters survive along with a wealth of official documents related to her court. Isabella d’Este’s art collections now reside in museums around the world, chief among these the Paris Louvre and the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Reference Works

Reference resources on Isabella d’Este refer overwhelmingly to the ASMn, although documents from her childhood are also housed in the Archivio di Stato di Modena (ASMo). The Gonzagas were unusual in that they transcribed much of their outgoing correspondence in copybooks (copialettere), filing it systematically along with incoming letters and important state documents. The ASMn is, therefore, an essential and extraordinarily powerful research tool for all primary scholarship on Isabella d’Este, as well as on many who came into contact with her through familial, patronage, and political relations. The relevant print guide to the ASMn is Luzio 1922, while Lorenzoni 1979 gives an excellent, synthetic overview of all Isabellian materials in the ASMn. The online IDEA: Isabella d’Este Archive enables virtual access to a growing body of materials associated with Isabella, both archival and secondary; many of these are in English. Este 2017 gives readers of English access to a large selection of Isabella’s correspondence, covering every aspect of her life. Tamalio 1999 is a comprehensive, international bibliography of scholarship focused on the Gonzagas. Brown and Lorenzoni 1982 and Brown, et al. 2002 (cited under Patronage, Collecting, Studiolo) contain transcriptions of letters regarding specific aspects of Isabella’s collecting. Campbell 2006 supplies an English translation of one important part of Stivini 2003, the inventory of Isabella’s possessions made shortly after her death. Tamalio 2004 is a concise encyclopedia article in Italian, while James 2009 serves a similar function for readers of English.

  • Campbell, Stephen. “Appendix One. The Library of the Studiolo.” In The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este. By Stephen Campbell, 270–279. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Alphabetically organized collation, translated into English, of two inventories of the books held in Isabella’s studiolo. There follows an Italian transcription of one of these inventories.

  • Este, Isabella d’. Selected Letters. Edited and translated by Deanna Shemek. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2017.

    A total of 830 full-text, annotated letters by Isabella d’Este. Includes glossary of more than 1,000 names, genealogical charts, analytical indexes, and biographical introductions to each decade. Essential.

  • IDEA: Isabella d’Este Archive.

    Online resource in English and Italian for study of the Italian Renaissance through the figure of Isabella d’Este. Interactive projects include IDEA Documents, IDEA Music, and IDEA Ceramics, as well as informational pages about various aspects of Isabella’s life and times.

  • James, Carolyn. “Isabella d’Este.” In The Literary Encyclopedia. Edited by Jo Ann Cavallo. New York: Literary Dictionary, 2009.

    Brief and accessible, this essay makes a fine starting point for English speakers wishing to investigate the life and significance of Isabella d’Este. Available only to users affiliated with paying institutional subscribers.

  • Lorenzoni, Anna Maria. “Contributo allo studio delle fonti isabelliane dell’Archivio di Stato di Mantova.” Atti e Memorie dell’Accademia Virgiliana di Mantova 47 (1979): 97–135.

    An indispensable starting point for beginning archival research on Isabella d’Este. Locates and identifies relevant content in the ASMn, including helpful guidance regarding the many types of sources within the Archive.

  • Luzio, Alessandro, ed. L’Archivio Gonzaga di Mantova. Vol. 2, La corrispondenza familiare, amministrativa e diplomatica. Verona, Italy: A. Mondadori, 1922.

    Catalogue of holdings in the Archivio di Stato di Mantova. Preceded by historical-analytical essay. An essential guide to primary research on Isabella d’Este written by the early-20th-century director of the ASMn. Partially available online. Anastatic reprint in 1993 (Mantua, Italy: Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana).

  • Stivini, Odoardo. Le Collezioni Gonzaga: L’inventario dei beni del 1540–1542. Edited by Daniela Ferrari. Milan: Silvana, 2003.

    Essential for scholars interested in domestic life at court as well as those concerned with the history of collecting. Comprehensively edited and furnished with a glossary of terms, it contains the inventory of Gonzaga belongings that was made one year after Isabella’s death. Organized by rooms in each palace. Includes lists of Isabella’s books, furniture, clothing, linens, and much more.

  • Tamalio, Raffaele. La Memoria dei Gonzaga: Repertorio bibliografico gonzaghesco, 1473–1999. Biblioteca della Bibliografia Italiana 158. Florence: Olschki, 1999.

    A total of 3,860 entries organized chronologically by date of publication cover studies of the main and cadet branches of the Gonzaga family. Eighty-six of these concern Isabella d’Este. Includes name and topic indexes.

  • Tamalio, Raffaele. “Isabella d’Este, marchesa di Mantova.” In Dizionario biografico degli Italiani. Vol. 62. Edited by Raffaele Romanelli, 2004.

    Substantial and reliable entry in a principal reference work on figures of Italian history.

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