History of Collecting: Isabella d’Este

She lived between Ferrara and Mantua (Mantova) on the North of Italy. In the history of collecting, she is one of the most notable figures. Dear reader, let me introduce you Isabella d’Este Gonzaga, the Renaissance woman.

Recently, the women’s history became a popular keyword on social media. But when it comes to women from royalty and aristocracy, you are most likely to hear about those who are remembered as controversial.

For instance, everyone knows about Marie Antoinette and her extravagant lifestyle, along with some fake news of the 18th century. Secondly, the most famous Renaissance woman is likely Lucrezia Borgia, who happened to be Isabella’s sister-in-law.

On the other hand, Isabella d’Este did not feature as a main character in popular movies or shows. Her cities, Ferrara and Mantua, are not on the “must visit” lists for travellers who visit Italy. Usually only museum and art professionals know about her.

But back in the time, she was such an important figure that Leonardo da Vinci was preparing a portrait of her. He did not made the painting he planned, but the sketch remains as one of her most notable portraits.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, c. 1499-1500, chalk on paper, 61 x 46.5 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

I haven’t been there (just yet!)

Guess what? Although I was in the nearby regions multiple times, I haven’t been in neither Ferrara nor Mantua. However, with the emerging “virtual travel” ideas during the lockdown, I decided to write about the history of collecting, and this is my third article in the process.

Furthermore, the slow travel or “deep dive travel” as some museum writers suggest, is a new idea about traveling. Such a travel style is perfect for people who love to visit museums. Instead of visiting 10 cities in 10 days, you will visit just 3 cities in that period of time.

It means that you will get some slow, relaxed, meaningful discovery. It also suggests alternative destinations, for example visiting Mantua instead of Venice, as it is not far.

Who is Isabella d’Este Gonzaga?

Isabella d’Este was born in Ferrara in 1474 to the powerful House d’Este. She got a high quality education, so that she became fluent in several languages and a great diplomat. Additionally, she developed a particular passion for all kinds of art – from theatre to music, from painting to literature.

At the youngish age of 15 she was married to Francesco Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. As it was usual at that time, the marriage was arranged between the two powerful families. However, that marriage was likely consensual, as Isabella knew Francesco and developed a deep friendship with him before marrying.

Studiolo and grotta

After becoming the Duchess of Mantua, Isabella continued nurturing her knowledge and passion for discovery. She was thriving to commission artworks and to collect them. As a result, she became one of many wealthy people of Renaissance Italy who owned a private studiolo.

Take a look at the studiolo of the Mantua Ducal Palace!

Most importantly, Isabella was an active member of the society. Although she had as much as 8 children in her marriage, she was always trying to maintain a great public role. Above all, she never stoped writing letters to her family and friends, and as a legacy, there is a fascinating archive of Isabella’s letters.

Meanwhile, she needed a space for collecting. It resulted in a particular room which she called grotta (cave in Italian).

Privileged, but smart

To keep it simple, let’s remember one thing. Back in the time there were no museums as we know today. Most people did not know how to read and write. Those who were not born into families like d’Este or Gonzaga had no access to that level of privilege. Consequently, Isabella could never become Isabella we know if she was born into a modest average family from Ferrara.

However, very few women from the elite developed Isabella’s level of passion, curiosity, and – work-life balance! She wasn’t only dedicated to her duties, but she also wanted more. In other words, she didn’t take her privilege for granted.

Nowadays we have museums, libraries, and universities. Women have the equal rights to access the best education as men do. We don’t need to be privileged like Isabella to pursue the mission she had.

The Fun Paintings

The Gonzagas have their court painters. It is important to know that back in the Renaissance times, painters were some of the most successful entrepreneurs, and it doesn’t apply only to the likes of Leonardo da Vinci.

Nowadays, every smaller or middle sized Italian town has quite a splendid museum of art. Thousands of painters are represented in modern museums. While many of these paintings might look complicated and distant from us, they completely made sense back in the 15th/16th centuries.

Andrea Mantegna, Mars and Venus (or Parnassus), 1497, tempera and gold on canvas, 159 cm × 192 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

There was no photography, TV, radio, video, or anything like that, so the content was limited to books, music, theatre, and visual arts. Above all, wealthy people were enjoying scenes from ancient myths on the paintings like the one from Andrea Mantegna (picture above). They were likely enjoying that as much as nowadays we enjoy movies and TV shows made form popular books (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, game of Thrones, etc. etc.)

However, there are some cool recent trends this year, coming out of lockdowns. People staying at home were trying to remake classical paintings. I very much love that trend.

To sum up, Andrea Mantegna was one of the court painters in Mantua, so Isabella commissioned several works from him. She was not alone in the process. According to many historians, Isabella was consulting professionals in creating a good storytelling for her studiolo and grotta. Several scholar helped her making accurate, meaningful stories through the arts.

Slow travel and passion for collecting

Isabella d’Este is often described as a “female counterpart” of the Renaissance men. I don’t like that description. To me, she was a Renaissance human. Her life was not always happy, but most importantly, she found her happiness in things she loved doing.

To discover the fascinating stories like Isabella’s, it is necessary to take time for exploring, both books and places. Let’s not forget about the muses, the ancient goddesses of inspiration!

This is the first article I wrote about a topic I chose without actually visiting a museum about it. I enjoyed the process, but I also hope to visit both of Isabella’s hometowns and residences as soon as possible.


Renaissance woman: Isabella d’Este, article by dr. Lisa Boutin Vitela, on May 29, 2020 – also a source for pictures I used to illustrate the topic.

IDEA – Isabella d’Este Archives, on May 29, 2020 – also a source for the virtual visit I shared in this article.

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