The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 12 Out-Princing the Princes: The Renaissance Patronage and Diplomacy of Isabella d’Este

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Out-Princing the Princes: The Renaissance Patronage and Diplomacy of Isabella d’Este

Bald-faced treachery has always been a stalwart component of European statesmanship, but there was one era and one nation that elevated it to the central principle of all diplomacy worth the name—Renaissance Italy. Pope and Borgia, Emperor and Medici, along with every city state that could field two dozen ramshackle soldiers formed and dissolved alliances with a cynical relish curbed by neither family ties nor honor. As a result, the threat of attack and siege was part of every city’s routine waking existence. Every city, except one.

ToonHistory12_IsabellaDesteMantua. It raised excellent horses, and that was more or less it. And yet, during the time that Urbino was sacked (twice), Milan was invariably being ruled by a French puppet, the Pope strapped on armor to lead an army to conquer Bologna, and the Medicis rose, fell, and rose again in Florence, Mantua remained untouched thanks almost entirely to the keen statesmanship of its de facto ruler, the irrepressible Isabella d’Este (1474-1539).

She was born in Ferrara to a ruling family that worshipped literature and the arts as the summits of human expression, particularly anything springing from pagan antiquity. She was given free rein in the magnificent d’Este palaces, with their overflowing bookshelves and art-saturated walls, and absorbed it all so readily that before even entering the teenage years she was renowned throughout Italy for the depth of her culture and quickness of conversation.

Isabella’s family held onto her as long as they could but eventually had to surrender her to the arranged marriage, contracted when she was a child, to the Mantuan heir, Francesco Gonzaga. He was a brave soldier but a hopelessly outclassed diplomat with zero ability to artfully dissemble, and a penchant for serial infidelity. On his own, Mantua would have been the hapless plaything of greater powers. Fortunately, while he was away playing soldier for Venice, or the pope, or whoever needed a man in an impressive doublet to bark orders, Isabella remained behind, forming a network of friends and informers that would secure the safety of Mantua while at the same time earning her the reputation as the greatest humanist patron of the early sixteenth century.

And that is why she is remembered, if she is remembered, now. Her diplomatic achievements, while stunning, are obscure and complicated to modern ears, employing influences with third cousins and well-placed courtiers to neutrally straddle temporary alliances just long enough to spring to the next big thing. But, her patronage has left us some of the unambiguously great masterpieces of human fancy. In painting, she supported Mantegna, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Perugino, Bellini, and Costa. In literature, she backed the production of a collected edition of all the known works of antiquity. She sent her son to study with the great skeptic thinker (and denier of the immortality of the soul) Pietro Pomponazzi and provided financial and emotional aid to Niccolo da Correggio, Ariosto, and a host of other Italian poets and humanist scholars who used that support to create a new, classically centered intellectual culture in the heart of Catholicism.

In her grotto, Isabella displayed all the works she commissioned on classical themes as well as a startling array of antique treasures, providing a thematically unified gateway into the mythological past that was the admiration of, and inspiration for, a new generation of artists and writers. Her agents combed Italy and Greece, hunting for rarities and forging personal connections with highly placed individuals who would, in their turn, be used by Isabella as sources of political and artistic information. In many ways, it was her ceaseless stream of correspondence and patronage that rendered Isabella practically immune to the workaday treachery of the day. While Medici, Sforza, and Borgia stormed across Italy, allied with popes, and French & German kings, her letters,  presents, devoted ambassadors, and eager informants kept her and Mantua in the good graces of all, and two steps ahead of the shifting political scene, even in the midst of near-universal ruin.

As Machiavelli wrote The Prince in honor of the meteoric, determined rise of Cesare Borgia, he might have more profitably turned to the diplomatic magic of Isabella d’Este, who managed to somehow simultaneously earn both Borgia’s good will and that of his most bitter enemies. For three decades, nobody could bring themselves to attack Isabella’s Mantua, culminating in one of the most remarkable episodes of the Renaissance, the sacking of Rome.

The popes had been asking for a comeuppance for the better part of a half-century, expanding their role as land-hungry secular rulers until Pope Julius II decided that he might as well drop all pretense and lead his armies personally on a conquering tour through central Italy.  They dethroned legitimate kings at sword point, created cardinals to raise money for weapons, and switched allegiances with the political wind. Eventually, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had enough of the papacy’s duplicity and sent a conquering force into Italy. Unfortunately, he failed to send money to pay these troops, so after their first victory against the Italians, the soldiers formed a mob that moved onto Rome with plunder in mind.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este

Portrait of Isabella d’Este

Isabella was in Rome at the time, working on the pope to grant a cardinal’s hat to her second child (he had been made a bishop at the age of fifteen, which gives a rough idea of the rigor of ecclesiastical office-granting during the Renaissance). When the approach of the riotous army was announced, she took charge, dispatching notes to the officers she knew, and gathering over two-thousand refugees within the walls of her personal palace to protect against the coming onslaught.

When the invaders arrived, the horror was general. Spaniards and Germans poured through the streets of Rome, violating nuns, throwing babies from windows, desecrating the most holy shrines of the Vatican, and kidnapping anybody of note to extort immense ransoms. Only one place in the city and one group of people were protected from the devastation—Isabella’s palace and the people seeking refuge therein. In spite of being a staunch ally of the pope, such were her personal connections with the Spanish and German officers that, directly upon the breaching of Rome’s walls, her palace was assigned a contingent of German guards to ensure the safety of all inside. While 30,000 people died in the Eternal City, Isabella, her friends, and her collection of antiquities all survived unscathed.

As Isabella’s son, a dissipated and impetuous soldier like his father, assumed increasing control of the governance of Mantua, Isabella retired to her grotto to bask and add to the art and ideas that she had brought into the world. She eventually assumed the rulership of a small town in Romagna that kept her organizational skills occupied to her death in 1539. Hailed as one of the greatest statesmen of her time, she has been all too easily forgotten in the intervening years. We remember the warriors, not the peacekeepers, the artists, and not the patrons who gave them work and encouragement. While not above profiting from the misery of others (the episode in today’s comic is just one example of many), she made it a principle never to cause misery for her friends. And everybody was her friend. In that idea of diplomacy, as a measured accord seeking peace above all things through open lines of communication, she left a successful example of cooperation all too little followed in the subsequent European centuries. But in her granting of affection and ducats to a collection of disparate humanists, she founded a movement that would only gain in momentum through the coming years and in that sense, she is the patron of us all.


Further Reading

The book to read is still Julia Cartwright’s 1905 two-volume biography, Isabella d’Este: Marchioness of Mantua. She drew heavily from Isabella’s massive correspondence, and while the pages upon pages of direct quotations can get bogged down in descriptions of quaternary historical figures, all of whom have basically the same name, they provide a personal glimpse into the pageantry and intricacy of Renaissance nobility that is unparalleled. While Cartwright’s book is available as an electronic book, the character recognition of the version I saw is dodgy in places—spend a bit more and you can get a second or third edition of the original books with their gorgeous black and white plates that makes for a much more pleasant reading experience.