Who was Isabella d'Este?

February 7-9, 2020, we bring music from the unique court of Isabella d’Este to Chicagoland stages. These concerts, a collaboration with acclaimed Renaissance wind band Piffaro [link to website] will prominently feature our own Ellen Hargis performing frottole, a special song form that flourished at Isabella’s Mantuan court. But just who was Isabella d’Este?

 

To learn more, read on!

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07, 08, 09

FEBRUARY, 2020

Isabella d’Este was born in 1474, the eldest child of Ercole d’Este and his wife, the Duchess Eleonora d’Aragona. Unlike most young girls born during this time, Isabella benefitted from an exceptionally well-rounded humanist education. She was a skilled translator who even as a child could fluently speak Latin and Greek and recite Virgil and Terence by heart, to the delight of the ambassadors and political liaisons who frequented the Ferrara court.

Because Isabella was born into a noble family that prioritized such pursuits, learning to sing, dance, and play multiple instruments were crucial aspects of her upbringing. And her parents spared no expense, procuring the best teachers to instruct young Isabella. Her singing master was Johannes Martini, the Franco-Flemish maestro di cappella of her father’s ducal chapel. She additionally studied various instruments with Girolamo da Sextula and dancing with Lorenzo Lavagnolo, a master teacher who was in high demand not just for noble young ladies in Ferrara but also at courts in Mantua, Bologna, Urbino, and Milan. 

Like many girls from politically-connected families, Isaballa’s marriage was determined for her when she was a child. Isabella’s betrothal to the future Marchese de Mantua was made official when she was just six years old. Over the next ten years, Isabella and her intended, Francesco Gonzaga, developed a deep intellectual friendship through the exchange of letters, sonnets, and little songs. 

The two were married in 1490 in an elaborate, formal display of both families’ wealth and political power. Before the wedding ceremony, teenaged Isabella paraded through the streets of Mantua on horseback, dripping in gold and jewels. 

By all accounts, the marriage between Isabella and Francesco was a happy one, buoyed by their shared intellectual and cultural values. Still, Francesco was the Captain General of the Venetian armies, leaving Isabella all alone for long stretches of time at La Reggia, the opulent Mantuan palace and familial home of the Gonzaga family.

Francesco’s military campaigns gave Isabella remarkable political power in Mantua and over life at court. She quickly wrote to her father to send for her music tutors, Girolamo da Sextula and Johannes Martini, and set about establishing a musical household at La Reggia, complete with her own house band and instrument collection. All told, she hired twelve new musicians for the Mantuan court. 

 
Isabella also commissioned the construction of special rooms called camerini to house her considerable library and art collection. Centuries before Virginia Woolf penned “A Room of One’s Own”, Isabella created a private space to write, reflect, practice, and host intimate musical performances. 

Francesco’s military campaigns gave Isabella remarkable political power in Mantua and over life at court. She quickly wrote to her father to send for her music tutors, Girolamo da Sextula and Johannes Martini, and set about establishing a musical household at La Reggia, complete with her own house band and instrument collection. All told, she hired twelve new musicians for the Mantuan court. 

 
Isabella also commissioned the construction of special rooms called camerini to house her considerable library and art collection. Centuries before Virginia Woolf penned “A Room of One’s Own”, Isabella created a private space to write, reflect, practice, and host intimate musical performances. 

Despite of Francesco’s protracted absences, Isabella bore eight children. When her husband was captured and imprisoned in Venice in 1509 until 1512, Isabella took control of the Mantuan military, fending off would-be invaders and revealing a shrewd and strategic mind. Indeed, she was so successful in this new, political role that Francesco reacted angrily when he finally returned from imprisonment. Their bond fractured by his bitter jealousy, Isabella traveled extensively through Italy to avoid her embittered husband, returning to the Mantuan court only after his death in 1519. 

 
After the death of Francesco, Isabella flexed her considerable powers as Regent for her young son Federico, working to advance Mantua’s interests by securing politically savvy betrothals for her children and hosting important détentes with Urbino and Venice. 
 
Even as she ruled Mantua, Isabella continued her aim to establish a rich cultural center at the Mantuan court. Under her careful curatorial eye, La Reggia became home to some of the most important artists, musicians, and poets of the Renaissance. While during her lifetime, she was respected as a keen military strategist and politician, she is best remembered today for her patronage of the arts.
 
Among the painters she employed were Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo da Venci. Her camerini were decorated with paintings by Mantegna, Perugino, Costa, and Correggio. She hired Michelangelo, Romano, and Lombardo to sculpt for her. She engaged in long-running correspondence with important writers like Pietro Bembo, Baldassare Castiglione, Pietro Aretino, among many others. And in music, Isabella contracted composers Bartolemeo Tromboncino and Marco Cara to write music for her to enjoy as both a performer and listener. Unusually, among those many musicians she hired for the Mantuan court were several women, including Cara’s wife, famed singer Giovanna Moreschi. 

This February, experience Isabella’s legacy for yourself at The Marchesa. [link to Newberry website page] Hear the colorful, sonorous compositions by Trombocino brought to life in blazing color by Piffaro and Consort musicians. Listen as Ellen Hargis gives voice to the unique, sensuous poetry of Isabella’s favorite songs while Shawn Keener’s lush and vibrant projections vividly display beautiful paintings and architecture from Isabella’s intimate camerini. 

guest artists, Piffaro! The Renaissance Band

07, 08, 09

FEBRUARY 2020

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