As often happens with academic books, my first search resulted in sticker shock. But the advantage of reviewing books is that publishers often send them free of charge, so I pursued this angle. My initial plan to interview the author for New Books in History, another podcast channel on the New Books Network, foundered on the reality of a fifteen-hour time difference, so I persuaded the author (who was actually willing, bless her heart, to get up at the crack of dawn to talk with me) to answer written questions instead.
So read on. This is not exactly the world behind my Legends novels, although Juliana and Felix, in Song of the Siren, would definitely feel quite at home. But even at a distance of fifteen hundred miles, there are principles operating here that my characters would recognize. After all, the second wife of Ivan III of Russia, Sophia (Zoë) Paleologina, left Italy, where she had grown up, to marry him in 1472. And she brought with her not only scholars and diplomats but those artists and architects whose work we can still see in the Moscow Kremlin.
Not such a great gulf after all!
So tell us, who were Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga, and what do we most need to know about them?
Isabella d’Este (1474–1519) was the eldest child of Ercole d’Este, duke of Ferrara (r.1471–1505), and of the Neapolitan princess Eleonora d’Aragona (1450–1493). Francesco Gonzaga (1466–1519) was heir to the neighboring marquisate of Mantua. The betrothal of Francesco and Isabella in 1480 continued a tradition whereby the Este and Gonzaga rulers married women from more illustrious families than their own. By doing so, they aimed to improve their bloodlines while bolstering their hold on power by forming alliances with major political dynasties. However, whereas in the previous two generations the Gonzaga had looked to Germany in their search for suitable brides for the future ruler, the third marquis, Federico Gonzaga, decided to strengthen relations with the neighboring duchy of Ferrara by agreeing to a match between his fourteen-year-old son, Francesco, and the duke’s six-year-old daughter, Isabella. The couple married in early 1490, after a decade-long betrothal.
Federico Gonzaga’s death in 1484 thrust Francesco into power at a young age. His mother had already died in 1479. During the remaining six years of the betrothal, Isabella’s parents encouraged their future son-in-law to spend long periods in Ferrara. They attempted to fill the emotional void that Francesco experienced in the aftermath of his parents’ death. The alliance between Ferrara and Mantua therefore became very close.
The political partnership of Isabella and Francesco was by no means unique. There were similar collaborations in earlier generations of their families. The duchess of Ferrara, Eleonora d’Aragona, supported her husband’s regime by taking charge of diplomatic relations with her Aragonese relatives and acting as Ercole d’Este’s occasional regent. Francesco’s mother, Margaret von Wittelsbach of Bavaria, and particularly his grandmother, Barbara of Brandenburg, who lived until 1481, also played important diplomatic and administrative roles. Isabella was carefully educated to ensure she would be able to do the same. The stark differences in literacy and levels of education between husband and wife that characterized most premodern marriages did not exist in that of Isabella and Francesco, or indeed in those of their immediate forebears. The letters exchanged by the couple show how well matched they were in terms of cultural sophistication and political acumen. My book explores the consequences of this parity in a marriage that was still subject to conventional notions about a husband’s absolute authority over his wife.
And what got you interested in them as subjects of your research? How did you discover their correspondence?
Scholars have long been aware of the existence of correspondence between Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga. The late nineteenth-century archivist and antiquarian Alessandro Luzio used some of the couple’s letters in his many studies of Isabella, which characterized Francesco as a crude and violent soldier who did not deserve such a peerless wife. This exaggerated interpretation is not supported by the evidence.
The letters exchanged by Isabella and Francesco over the twenty-nine years of their marriage survive in many separate files of the Gonzaga archive. I became interested in the couple’s correspondence while I was working in the State Archive of Mantua on the Bolognese literary figure Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti. He wrote a collection of biographies of famous women modeled on Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women). Boccaccio’s work, written in about 1360, focused on ancient classical heroines. In Gynevera de le clare donne (Ginevra among the Famous Women) Arienti wrote mostly about women near to his own time, many of them from Italy’s political dynasties. He sent Isabella d’Este a copy of his work in 1492. She was pleased by the gift, which showcased the virtue, political competence, and intelligence of women who, like her, were active in the public sphere. The biographies pushed back against an entrenched clerical tradition of misogyny, which insisted that the female sex was innately weak, prone to sin and unfit for political responsibilities of any kind. Arienti’s literary offering initiated a warm relationship with the marchioness in which she accepted him as a client who supplied her with regular political and other news that came his way in Bologna.
In searching for Isabella’s replies to Arienti’s letters, I became aware of the magnitude of her correspondence with Francesco. After a thorough search, I discovered that three thousand of the couple’s exchanges were extant, many of them in more than one copy. Outgoing letters were recorded before dispatch, and the originals were brought back by the couple’s secretaries for filing in the chancery once they had been read by the recipient. Thus almost the entire correspondence exists in one form or another—a very rare occurrence, even in modern times. It struck me that the letters were a unique record of the evolution of an elite marriage. The collection spoke of so many aspects of the couple’s lives and, although nearly all the letters were dictated to secretaries and were therefore not private documents, they nonetheless revealed an extraordinary range of the emotional currents that ran through this politically charged relationship and how those feelings changed over time.
Both Isabella and Francesco grew up in households where women played powerful political roles. For readers who may not expect that of Renaissance Europe, explain how that happened.
Isabella and Francesco came from families which had established their political dominance in the late medieval period through force of arms. The rulers of Mantua and Ferrara remained soldier-princes and earned much needed extra income by fighting as military captains for wealthier states such as the duchy of Milan and the republic of Venice. With economies that were mainly agriculturally based, taxation levied on crops, tithes paid by craft traversing the river Po, and imposts on commodities crossing their borders were simply not sufficient to fund the lavish courts and magnificent cultural patronage of the Este and Gonzaga princes.
The Gonzaga and Este rulers preferred to have their wives act as regents while they were on the battlefield, bitter experience having shown that male relatives were likely to use the temporary absences of the reigning prince to usurp power for themselves. A female consort had an investment in power devolving to her children and was therefore a far more trustworthy political lieutenant than a ruler’s younger brother or uncle.
Isabella, when she married, was fifteen, and Francesco a young man of twenty-three. How did that age difference affect the early years of their marriage?
The eight-year age difference that separated Isabella and Francesco would have been perceived by their contemporaries as unremarkable, indeed far less than the marital norm. In the republic of Florence, for example, it was common for forty-year-old men to marry girls of sixteen. Age difference between prospective partners was not a significant consideration for parents thinking about prospective matches, although the capacity of a woman to bear children was. Girls usually married when they reached physical maturity. The Gonzaga pressed for the wedding of Francesco and Isabella to take place when the latter was twelve. Eleonora refused to contemplate this possibility on the grounds that her daughter was too young and her health too delicate for such a profound change in her life. The duchess made various excuses to delay the wedding until Isabella was a few months short of sixteen. Even so, there is evidence that Isabella experienced the early phase of marriage as a physical and emotional trauma. She suffered acutely from homesickness and was terrified of becoming pregnant for fear of dying in childbirth, a fate she well knew took many young women to an early grave.
The Este and Gonzaga parents were proactive in trying to kindle love between their betrothed children. In the early years, the age gap between them yawned significantly, separating a coddled little girl from an adolescent man already sexually active and interested in vigorous outdoor sports. It took some years for the pair to bond after marriage, but eventually they did so.
Despite those initial difficulties, they succeeded in developing a functional political and personal partnership. What does their correspondence reveal about that process?
Although Isabella was slow to adapt to the emotional and procreative expectations of marriage, letters to Francesco show that she was far more forthcoming in embracing a political role. Francesco was pleased by her readiness to take on administrative duties and he gradually permitted her to help him more often.
The failure to produce a male heir during the first decade of marriage was a source of great anxiety for Isabella. Francesco was more relaxed, the birth of two daughters, the second of whom died in infancy, reassuring him that his wife was fertile and that a boy would eventually come along. The joy with which he greeted the birth of Federico in May 1500 suggests that he too may have been growing worried as the years rolled by with no heir to secure the Gonzaga succession.
The period between 1500 and 1506 were golden years in the couple’s relationship as their political collaboration prospered and their family grew. By 1508, they had produced eight children, although only six survived to become adults. Their correspondence documents the pleasure they took in bringing up their children, but also the satisfaction they took in working together politically. Against all the odds, the Gonzaga regime survived the early decades of the Italian Wars, an achievement due in no small part to canny strategizing by Francesco and Isabella who coordinated a campaign of double diplomacy to cultivate the protagonists of both sides of the conflicts.
In the end, though, they grew apart again. Why?
When their children were young, Francesco and Isabella had taken mutual delight in the joys of parenthood, especially savoring the satisfaction of having produced a male heir who in their view was both unusually intelligent and completely charming. The success of their biological collaboration was a source of comfort and pride in a period that witnessed a steady worsening of the Italian political scene. The couple cooperated cannily to deflect the dangers to the regime posed by the Italian Wars, with Francesco serving as a military commander during the early phase of the conflicts, and Isabella keeping the home fires burning with competence and persistence.
However, Francesco’s military career declined swiftly after 1508, when the symptoms of the Great Pox became so invasive and debilitating that, not only was he was unable to fight, but he had to retreat from public view by leaving his apartments in the Gonzaga castle to live in seclusion at a palace on the edge of the city. Here he was subjected to painful and ultimately futile treatments with only a small number of chancery bureaucrats to help him govern. It was Francesco’s secretary, Tolomeo Spagnoli, who now collaborated with him politically, not Isabella.
The couple had already experienced misunderstandings, and there were many earlier squabbles. However, Francesco’s isolation and the suffering imposed by his illness made him far more irritable and autocratic. Marital tensions became more frequent. During a brief period of remission in 1509, Francesco attempted to take to the battlefield in support of the French king, Louis XII. However, he was almost immediately captured and imprisoned by mercenaries in the employ of Venice. Isabella ruled Mantua during her husband’s captivity and negotiated doggedly for his release, which she secured by permitting the pope to take their ten-year-old son Federico into his care as guarantor of the pact that freed Francesco from captivity. Isabella expected to be able to build on the experience she had accumulated during the crisis created by her husband’s imprisonment in Venice. Instead, she was sidelined again. In the last years of the couple’s marriage, the marchioness spent long periods in Milan and Rome in protest at her political marginalization. Although she and Francesco occasionally recovered some of their former camaraderie in letter exchanges that expressed affection and sympathy for the other, the couple mostly lived separate lives. Cordial letters alone were not able to compensate for the lack of routine domestic contact that the couple had experienced when they lived in adjoining apartments within the Gonzaga castle.
What can we learn from their experience about political marriages more generally?
Political marriages were organized to cement strategic alliances, but the lack of consideration given to the personal compatibility of a prospective couple meant that the objectives of such unions were often not realized. Indeed, antipathy between a married couple could create serious diplomatic tensions between the regimes supposedly brought together by the union.
My book explores the ways in which the Gonzaga and Este parents attempted to foster amiable relations between their betrothed children in the long prelude to their marriage so the pair would eventually form a loving and cooperative bond. Francesco and Isabella continued the efforts of their parents and consciously strived to cultivate marital affection, especially through their shared enthusiasm for, and love of, their children. Few sources are as complete and richly evocative in revealing the internal dynamic of a premodern marital relationship as the correspondence between Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga.
And what of you? Does your new research project on the Italian Wars grow out of this one?
My current project does grow out of the study of the political and personal relationship of Isabella and Francesco, since all but four years of their marriage played out against the backdrop of the Italian Wars. This was a series of conflicts that began in 1494 with Charles VIII’s campaign to claim the kingdom of Naples from its Aragonese rulers and continued well beyond the end of the couple’s marriage in 1519. Francesco died that year from the Great Pox, likely contracted on the battlefield soon after the new disease appeared in Naples among French soldiers in the mid-1490s. It spread rapidly throughout Italy and then Europe. Francesco’s life was blighted by the disease, which at its worst rendered him an invalid, racked by intolerable pain and disfigured by disgusting open wounds.
The project on the Italian Wars examines not so much the military aspects of the conflicts which have been much studied, but rather their social, cultural, and political impact. The extreme violence experienced by the populations of Italy’s city states at the hands of the multiethnic mercenaries and their French and Spanish leaders was traumatizing for societies used to the idea that they could control their own political fate. The trophies of war that were ransacked from Italian cities, especially during the infamous sack of Rome in 1527, transported the fruits of the Italian Renaissance to many other parts of Europe, where they profoundly influenced local artistic and cultural traditions.
The political role that Isabella played during the first two decades of the conflicts, which saw the Gonzaga regime vulnerable to attack, especially after Francesco was taken prisoner by the Venetians and imprisoned for a year in 1509, was partly the result of extraordinary circumstances. However, similar crises thrust other elite women into major diplomatic and political roles. The project seeks to examine some of the themes of A Renaissance Marriage over a longer time frame and in various political contexts, not just in Italy but in Europe more generally.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Carolyn James is Cassamarca Associate Professor in the School of Philosophical, Historical, and International Studies at Monash University, Australia. She has edited the letters of the fifteenth-century Bolognese literary figure Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti and analyzed his literary works. With Antonio Pagliaro, she translated the late medieval letters of Margherita Datini. She has written on women's political and diplomatic roles in Renaissance Italy, as well as early modern women's relationship with letter-writing. She is presently engaged on a project focused on the Italian Wars, 1494–1559, with Professor Susan Broomhall and Dr Lisa Mansfield.
Images: Portrait of Francesco Gonzaga (n.d.); Isabella d'Este, by Titian (1535); Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz, The Grand Captain after the Battle of Cerignola (Italian Wars, painted 1835)—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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