Read CHAPTER III of Beatrice d'Este‚ Duchess of Milan‚ 1475-1497 , free online book, by Julia Mary Cartwright, on

Wars of Venice and Ferrara--Invasion of Ferrara--Lodovico Sforza and Alfonso of Calabria come to the help of Ercole d’Este--Peace of Bagnolo --Prosperity of Ferrara, and cultivation of art and learning at Ercole’s court--Guarino and Aldo Manuzio--Strozzi and Boiardo--Architecture and painting--The frescoes of the Schifanoia--Music and the drama--Education of Isabella and Beatrice d’Este.


Such was the prince to whom Duke Ercole had betrothed his younger daughter, and who had suddenly become one of the chief personages in North Italy. But more than ten years were to elapse before the child-bride even saw her affianced husband. During that time both Milan and Ferrara passed through many vicissitudes, and at one moment Beatrice’s father and his state were reduced to the utmost extremity.

The Venetians availed themselves of the troubled state of Lombardy and the civil strife that divided the house of Sforza, to attack their old enemy the Duke of Ferrara. In 1482 Roberto di Sanseverino, the valiant captain who had been one of the chief instruments in restoring his kinsman Lodovico Sforza to his country, left Milan in a rage, because he did not consider his salary sufficient, and offered his services to the Republic of Venice. With his gallant sons to help him, he invaded the territory of Ferrara at the head of an army of seventeen thousand men, and carried all before him. The Pope as usual took up the quarrel of the Venetians, in the hope of sharing the spoil, and while Ercole’s ally, King Ferrante of Naples, was engaged in resisting the papal forces, the Genoese, who had revolted against Duchess Bona in 1478, and elected a doge of their own, occupied Lodovico Sforza’s attention. The Ferrarese troops were completely defeated in a battle under the citadel of Argenta, many of the Ferrarese leaders were slain, and the duke’s nephew, Niccolo da Correggio, and three hundred men were taken prisoners to Venice. Sanseverino made good use of his advantage, and his son Gaspare, better known by his nickname of Fracassa, marched to the very gates of Ferrara, and planted the Lion of St. Mark on the peacocks’ house in the ducal park. Meanwhile the plague had broken out in Ferrara, and so great was the scarcity of wheat in the beleaguered city, that Battista Guarino, the tutor of the young Princess Isabella, applied to her betrothed husband Francesco Gonzaga for a grant of corn to save him from starvation. Worse than all, Duke Ercole himself lay dangerously ill within the Castello, and a report of his death was circulated through the city. At this critical moment Duchess Leonora once more showed her courage and presence of mind. Seeing the greatness of the danger, she sent her children with a safe escort to Modena, and calling the magistrates together, she harangued them from the garden loggia, and bade them be true to their old lords of the house of Este. The citizens, moved to tears at the sight of Leonora’s majesty and courage, shouted with one voice, “Diamante!” the watchword of the house of Este, and vowed to die for their duke. In their enthusiasm, the people broke open the palace doors, and rushing into the chamber where Ercole lay on his sick-bed, covered his hands with kisses, and would not be satisfied until they had heard his voice again and knew him to be alive. After this outburst of loyalty, they rallied bravely to the defence of the city. Every man who could bear arms in Ferrara helped to man the walls, and the country-folk, rising in thousands, harassed the invading army and cut off their supplies. Fortunately, help was at hand. On the one hand, Lodovico Sforza’s troops checked the advance of the Venetians on the side of Modena; on the other, Ercole’s brother-in-law, Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, himself rode at the head of fifty horsemen and a troop of infantry to the help of the beleaguered city.

Throughout the long struggle that followed, Lodovico Sforza proved himself a wise and faithful friend of the house of Este, and it was chiefly owing to him that Ferrara preserved her independence. But the duke and his people had to make great sacrifices on their part, and at the peace of Bagnolo, which was finally concluded in 1484, seven towns were ceded to Venice, and the fertile district of Rovigo in the Polesina, “un petit pays,” in the words of Commines, “tout environne d’eau et abondant a merveille en tous biens.”

A period of renewed peace and prosperity followed upon these disastrous wars. Ercole, although in his early youth he had proved himself a valiant soldier, had in reality far greater taste for the arts of peace than for those of war, and now devoted himself to the more congenial task of adorning Ferrara and cultivating letters. His father Niccolo III. had been the first prince in Northern Italy to take part in the revival of Greek learning that had been set on foot in Naples and Florence. He it was who, in 1402, revived the ancient University of Ferrara, and invited the best scholars of the day to give lectures to its students. At his prayer, the Sicilian Hellenist Aurispa, who had travelled to Greece and Constantinople in search of Greek manuscripts, fixed his residence at Ferrara; while Battista Guarino of Verona became the tutor of Niccolo’s own son Leonello, and inspired the young prince with that ardour for learning which made him the most accomplished ruler of his time. It was Niccolo, again, who invited the celebrated Paduan doctor, Michele Savonarola, to fill the chair of medicine at the University of Ferrara. Michele’s son became court physician to Ercole, and his grandson, the famous Dominican friar, Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who had forsaken the study of medicine to take the vows of a preaching brother, delivered his first course of Lent sermons in Ferrara during that troubled year 1482.

The General Council held at Ferrara in 1438 brought some of the first Greek Oriental scholars together in that city, and Niccolo d’Este himself assisted at many of the discussions held by these learned professors. His son Leonello, besides encouraging students by his own example, devoted great pains and expense to the University library which he founded, while his successor, Duke Borso, pensioned poor students, who were clothed and fed at his cost. Ercole now followed in his father’s and brother’s steps with so much success that under his reign the University of Ferrara became the foremost in Italy, and boasted no less than forty-five professors, while the number of students reached four hundred and seventy-four. In those days the most renowned scholars of the age flocked from all parts of Italy to hear Guarino lecture; and Aldo Manuzio, the great printer, and his illustrious friend Pico della Mirandola, the phoenix of the Renaissance, came to Ferrara to sit at the feet of this revered teacher. Here Aldo acquired the passion for Greek literature which made him inscribe the word Philhellene after his name on his first printed books. Here, in his own turn, he lectured on Greek and Latin authors to the cultured youth of Ercole’s court, and here he would have set up his printing-press, under his friend Duchess Leonora’s patronage, if the Venetian war had not forced him to leave Ferrara. Both from the court of Alberto Pio at Carpi, where he found refuge with a kinsman of the Estes, and at Venice, where he founded his famous printing-press, he kept up frequent communications with the duke’s family, and dedicated books to young Cardinal Ercole, and bound and printed choice editions of Petrarch and Virgil for his sister Isabella d’Este. But if Duke Ercole emulated the zeal of his predecessors in the encouragement of classical learning, he surpassed them all in his love of travel, of building, and of theatrical representations. During the next twenty years he indulged freely in all of these favourite pursuits.

His opportunities of travel, indeed, were limited by the duties of his position; but whenever he could find leisure, he gratified his roving taste by paying frequent visits to Milan or Venice, where the magnificent palace bestowed upon his ancestor Nicolas II. in the last century, but confiscated during the war with Ferrara, had been restored to him at the peace of Bagnolo. In 1484, he took Duchess Leonora there with a suite of seven hundred persons. On this occasion the palace originally decorated by Duke Borso was sumptuously restored, and the Doge and Senate entertained their guests with princely hospitality. A more distant pilgrimage to the shrine of S. Jago of Compostella in Spain, which Ercole had planned in 1487, had to be abandoned, owing to the opposition of Pope Innocent VIII.; but eight years later the duke paid another visit to Florence, on the pretence of discharging a vow which he had made to Our Lady of the Annunziata. To the last the adventurous disposition of the Estes, the love of seeing and hearing new things, marked his character and governed his actions.

Meanwhile his imagination found plenty of food for activity at home, and nothing interfered with his love of building or with the delight which he took in the stage. Under him, Ferrara became one of the finest cities in Italy. Her broad streets and spacious squares, her noble statues and imposing monuments, the stately symmetry of her well-kept ways, made a deep impression on Lodovico Sforza when he visited his wife’s home. At the beginning of his reign Ercole had sent to Florence to borrow Alberti’s Treatise on Architecture from Lorenzo de’ Medici, and had carried out his improvements on the principles advocated by the Renaissance architect. On every side new churches and palaces rose into being, a lofty Campanile was added to the ancient Lombard Cathedral, an equestrian statue of Niccolo III. and a bronze effigy of Duke Borso adorned the piazza in front of the Castello. Soon Ercole’s subjects caught their duke’s passion for building, and vied with him in erecting new and sumptuous houses. His brother, Cardinal Sigismondo, raised the Palazzo Diamante, that magnificent Renaissance structure in the Via degli Angeli. The Trotti and the Costabili, the Strozzi and Boschetti, all followed suit and built palatial residences in the neighbourhood.

These fine buildings were surrounded with spacious gardens. One of Ercole’s first improvements had been to lay out the noble park outside the town, and to people it with stags and goats, with gazelles and antelopes and the spotted giraffes which Niccolo da Correggio describes in his poems; and on the gates leading from the city were marble busts carved by the hand of Sperandio, the famous medallist who had worked so long for the ducal house, and who has left us portraits of all the chief personages at the Ferrarese court. The courtyard of the ancient Este palace was adorned with wide marble staircases, the villa of Belfiore was enlarged and beautified, while that of Belriguardo, twelve miles from the city, on the banks of the Po, became celebrated as the most sumptuous of all the stately pleasure-houses in which Renaissance princes took delight. No pains or expense were spared in the decoration of these luxurious country houses. The terraced gardens and marble loggias were adorned with fountains and statues, the halls were hung with costly tapestries and gold and silver embroideries. Eastern carpets and carved ivories, cameos and intaglios, precious gems and rare majolica from Urbino and Casteldurante were brought together in the Camerini of the Castello and the halls of the Schifanoia palace, that favourite Sans-Souci of the Este princes close to the court-church of S. Maria in Vado and to the convent of Leonora’s friends, the nuns of S. Vito. In this charming retreat, where Borso and Ercole alike loved to escape from the cares of state, we may still see the remnants of these splendid decorations which once adorned these halls: the painted arabesques and stucco frieze of children playing musical instruments, the barrel-vaulted ceilings, and marble doorways with their rows of cherub heads and dolphins. There the unicorn which Borso took for his device, figures side by side with the imperial eagle granted him by Frederic III when he came to visit Ferrara, and the fleur-de-lis of France, which the Estes were privileged to bear on their coat-of-arms. There we still see fragments of the frescoes on the months and seasons of the year which Cossa and his scholars painted at the bidding of successive dukes. Borso is there on his white horse as he rides out hunting, attended by falconers and pages leading his favourite greyhounds in the leash; or looking on at the races of St. George’s Day, surrounded by scholars and courtiers, dwarfs and jesters, and fair ladies clad in glittering robes of cloth of silver and gold. All the pageant of court-life in old Ferrara, as it was in the days when Duke Ercole reigned and Isabella and Beatrice d’Este grew up under the good Duchess Leonora’s care, passes again before our eyes, as we linger in these low halls of the little red-brick palace among the fruit trees of this deserted quarter.

Niccolo III. and his elder sons had all been liberal patrons of art, and had invited the best artists they could find from other parts of Italy. Vittore Pisanello and Jacopo Bellini had both of them visited Ferrara and painted portraits of the Este princes that of Leonello, with his long hooked nose and low forehead, is still preserved at Bergamo, and Piero de’ Franceschi, the mighty Umbrian, is said to have supplied a design for Duke Borso’s tomb. But it was in later years, under Ercole’s reign, that this little group of native artists arose, and that Cosimo Tura and his followers founded the school which gradually spread to Bologna and Modena and boasted such masters as Lorenzo Costa and Francia, or helped to mould the genius of a Raphael and a Correggio. Tura himself remained at Ferrara all his life, painting altar-pieces for Duchess Leonora’s favourite churches, as well as frescoes in the duke’s villas and portraits of the different members of the ducal family in turn. In 1472, before the Duke’s marriage, he painted the portrait of Ercole strange to say together with his illegitimate daughter Lucrezia d’Este, to be sent as a present to his bride, Leonora of Aragon, at her father’s court of Naples. Again, in the summer of 1485, he was called upon in his capacity of court painter to paint the likeness of the youthful Isabella for her affianced husband, Francesco Gonzaga; and before the year was out he had to perform the same task for the other little bride, who had just returned from Naples. The following paper in the Ferrarese archives fixes the exact date of the portrait, which was evidently sent as a Christmas gift to Lodovico Sforza at Milan. “On the 24th of December, 1485, Cosimo Tura received four gold florins from the duke, for painting from life the face and bust of the Illustrissima Madonna Beatrice, to be sent to Messer Lodovico Maria Sforza, Duca di Bari, consort of the said Beatrice Carlo Continga taking it to him.” Unfortunately, both of these portraits have perished, and the only representation of Beatrice as a girl that we have is the sculptor Cristoforo Romano’s well-known bust in the Louvre.

While the native schools of painting became active and prosperous under Ercole’s auspices, a flourishing school of arts and crafts arose in Ferrara under the immediate patronage of the duchess. From the day of her marriage, Leonora not only showed that intelligent love of art and learning which might have been expected in a princess of the house of Aragon, but a warm interest in the well-being of her subjects, together with excellent sense and a strong practical bent. At her invitation, tapestry-workers from Milan and Florence came to settle at Ferrara, and skilled embroiderers were brought over from Spain. The duchess herself superintended these workers, selected the colours and patterns, and became an authority in the choice of hangings and decoration of rooms. While Ercole had an insatiable passion for gems and cameos, antique marbles and ivories, Leonora showed an especial taste for gold and silver metal-work. Silver boxes and girdles curiously chased and engraved were constantly sent to the duchess by Milanese goldsmiths, and among the workers in this line whom she frequently employed was Francesco Francia, the goldsmith painter of Bologna. In 1488, this artist sent her an exquisite chain of gold hearts linked together, which excited general admiration, and may perhaps have been intended as a bridal gift for Elizabeth Gonzaga, the sister of Isabella’s betrothed husband, who visited Ferrara that spring, on her way to Urbino. Leonora’s own jewels were said to be the finest and most artistic owned by any princess of her day, and, as in the case of other Renaissance ladies, formed no inconsiderable portion of her fortune; and, in consequence, they were frequently pawned to raise money for her husband’s wars. The duchess’s famous necklace of pearls, we learn, was repeatedly lent by the duke to bankers or goldsmiths in Rome and Florence as pledges for the repayment of loans advanced during the war with Venice.

Music was another of Ercole’s favourite pastimes, and the choir of his court chapel at one time rivalled that of Milan, which was held to be the best in Italy. Violinists and lute-players were brought from Naples to Ferrara, French and Spanish tenors were included among the singers who accompanied the duke on his journeys. A still more distinctive feature of his court were the theatrical representations, which became a prominent part of all the palace festivities, and which undoubtedly owed much to the duke’s taste for dramatic art. Under his directions, a spacious theatre was fitted up in the old Gothic Palazzo della Ragione on the cathedral square. Here Latin comedies were performed before an audience which included the most learned classical scholars of the day, and Italian dramas were seen for the first time upon the stage. In 1486, an Italian version of the Menaechimi, translated by Ercole himself, was acted here, with interludes of masques and morris dances, violin music, and recitations. This was followed, a year later, by a performance of Cefalo, one of the oldest of Italian dramas, a pastoral play composed by Niccolo da Correggio, chiefly taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” and which is said to have suggested the subjects of Correggio’s famous frescoes in the Abbess of San Paolo’s parlour at Parma. Each Christmas and carnival these theatrical representations were repeated, and many were the distinguished visitors who came to Ferrara to witness these celebrated performances. The Amphitryon and Cassina of Plautus were frequently given. On one occasion, a play adapted from a dialogue of Lucian’s by Matteo Boiardo was acted. Another time, at the wedding of a Marchese Strozzi, a Latin comedy written by the bridegroom’s brother, Ercole Strozzi, was performed before the whole court. Sometimes, by way of variety, sacred subjects were placed upon the stages. Tableaux of the Annunciation and the history of Joseph were introduced, accompanied with recitations and music. While the duke was known to have a strong preference for classical plays, the duchess and her daughters took pleasure in lighter forms of literature, and encouraged the songs and romances which courtly poets wrote for their benefit in the lingua vulgare. A new school of Italian poets sprang up at Ferrara in the last years of the century. Antonio Tebaldeo, the friend of Castiglione and Raphael “our Tebaldeo,” whom Pietro Bembo declared Raphael had painted in so lifelike a manner that he was not so exactly himself in actual life as in this portrait had his home at Ferrara in these early days, and enjoyed the favour of the Marchioness Isabella in his later years. While the elder Strozzi, Tito, had the reputation of being the best Latin poet of the day, his son Ercole belonged to the circle of younger scholars, and, like his friends Bembo and Ariosto, wrote elegant Italian verses as well as Latin epistles and orations. Then there was the blind poet Francesco Bello, the author of the “Mambriano,” that heroic poem on the favourite Carlovingian legend; Andrea Cossa of Naples, who sang his own rime and strambotti to the music of the lute; Niccolo da Correggio, called by Isabella d’Este and Sabba da Castiglione “the most accomplished gentleman of the age, the foremost man in all Italy, in the art of poetry and in courtesy,” who devoted his muse to the service of gentle ladies, and composed canzoni and capitoli or set Petrarch’s sonnets to music for Isabella and Beatrice’s pleasure. And among Ercole’s courtiers at Ferrara there was one still greater, Matteo Boiardo, Count of Scandiano, who was intimate with both duke and duchess, and held many high posts at court. He was a member of the splendid suite sent in 1473 to escort Leonora from Naples to Ferrara, and afterwards held the important post of Governor of Modena during many years. But in the midst of official labours and court duties, Matteo was all the while engaged in writing his great work of the “Orlando Innamorato,” that wonderful epic in which classic and romantic ideas are mingled together as strangely as in Piero di Cosimo or Sandro Botticelli’s paintings. The first cantos of his poem, begun in 1472, were published at Venice in 1486, with a dedication to Duke Ercole, and the work was continued at intervals throughout his life, and was only interrupted by the death of the poet. This took place in 1494, when the first French armies were first seen descending upon Italy, and the sweet singer of high romance broke off abruptly with a prophetic note of warning in his last accents “While I am singing, I see all Italy set on fire by these Gauls, coming to ravage I know not how many fresh lands, alas!”

In this city which was at once the home of Italian epic and Italian drama, at this court where the boy Ariosto was to take up the song that dropped from the lips of Boiardo, and to wear the laurel in his turn, the young princesses of Este grew up. There were three of them, for Lucrezia, the duke’s illegitimate daughter, had found a kind mother in the duchess, and was brought up with her young step-sisters Isabella and Beatrice, until in 1487, she became the wife of Annibale Bentivoglio, and went to live in Bologna. Under Leonora’s careful and vigilant eyes, these maidens were trained in all the culture of the day. Their classical studies were directed by Battista Guarino, the son of the learned Verona humanist, the same who begged the Marquis of Mantua for a grant of wheat that he might the better be able to teach his betrothed bride Madonna Isabella during the famine at Ferrara. With him they learnt sufficient Latin to read Cicero and Virgil, as well as Greek and Roman history. Music and dancing were taught them almost from infancy. They learnt to play the viol and lute, and sang canzoni and sonnets to the accompaniment of these instruments. Beatrice, we know, was passionately fond of music. She employed the great Pavian Lorenzo Gusnasco to make her clavichords and viols of the finest order, and like her father, she never travelled without her favourite singers. Isabella herself had a beautiful voice, and sang with a sweetness and grace which charmed all hearers. The most accomplished poets of the Renaissance, Pietro Bembo and Niccolo da Correggio, Girolamo Casio and Antonio Tebaldeo, were proud to hear her sing their verses, and the Vicenza scholar Trissino, forestalling Waller in this, wrote a canzone addressed to “My Lady Isabella playing the lute.”

Messer Ambrogio da Urbino began to give Isabella dancing lessons almost as soon as she could walk. Later on a certain Messer Lorenzo Lavagnolo, who had taught Elizabeth and Maddalena Gonzaga, the young sisters of the Marquis of Mantua, and had afterwards been sent to the court of Milan to teach Duchess Bona’s daughters, came to Ferrara. This master, who was commended to the Duchess of Milan by the Marchioness Barbara of Mantua as superior to all other professors of the art of dancing, gave lessons to Isabella and her sisters, as we learn from a letter which she wrote to her affianced husband, thanking him in her sister’s name and her own for having sent so excellent a teacher to undertake the task, and recommending this faithful and devoted servant to His Excellency’s notice. A bill for making dresses and scenery that were employed in a “festa” composed by Messer Lorenzo for the duke’s daughters is preserved in the Gonzaga archives, and at Lucrezia’s wedding, in 1487, this renowned master travelled to Bologna to direct the fetes given in honour of her marriage.

Some knowledge of French seems to have formed part of an Italian lady’s education at this period, but even Isabella, with all her quickness and talent, was never able to speak French fluently, and Beatrice had recourse to interpreters when she received the visit of King Charles VIII. at Asti, and was required to make civil speeches in reply to his compliments. But they read Provencal poetry and translations of Spanish romances from the rare volumes, sumptuously bound in crimson velvet with enamelled and jewelled clasps and corners, that were among the most precious treasures of Duchess Leonora’s cabinet. Above all, they took delight in French romances, such as “I reali di Francia” that book which was so popular with Italian ladies, and became familiar with the exploits of Roland and the paladins of Charlemagne’s court. As they bent over their embroidery-frames at their lady mother’s side, in the painted camerini of the Castello, or under the acacias and lemon-trees of the Schifanoia villa, they listened to the wonderful fairy tales which Matteo Boiardo recited, and heard him tell how Rinaldo of Montalbano was pelted with roses and lilies and made captive by Cupid’s dames. Now and then, on summer evenings, they were allowed to join in the water-parties at Belriguardo, and float down the stream in the ducal bucentaur to the sound of the court violins, or else take part in those hunting expeditions for which Beatrice developed a passionate taste in after-years. As the frescoes of Schifanoia show, hunting was always a favourite pastime at the court of Ferrara. The duke kept many hundred horses in his stables, and the greatest care was bestowed upon his breed of dogs and falcons. When Borso went to Rome in 1471, he took in his retinue eighty pages, each leading four greyhounds in a leash; and when he entertained the Emperor Frederic III. at Ferrara, he presented him with fifty of his best horses. Ercole often received gifts of Barbary horses from the Sultan of Tunis or the famous Gonzaga stables that were reckoned the best in Italy, and bought Spanish jennets and steeds of Irish race to improve his own breed. And Duchess Leonora owned a special breed of greyhounds which were held in high esteem, and a pair of which she sent to Caterina Sforza, Madonna of Forlì, at the humble request of this adventurous lady.

But it was only on very rare occasions that the young princesses of Este were allowed to leave their studies, which occupied their whole days, and, as we learn from their different preceptors’ letters, absorbed their whole attention. Nor, we may be quite sure, was their religious education neglected under the eye of their mother, a sincerely devout and pious woman, who took pleasure in the converse of learned Dominicans and Carmélites, and paid frequent visits to S. Vito, close to the Schifanoia villa, and to the Convent of Corpus Domini, in which church she was buried. Her many charitable works, the liberality with which she helped her poorer subjects, relieved their wants, and gave dowries to virtuous maidens, as well as her munificence in adorning altars and churches with rich ornaments, are recorded by every Ferrarese historian. Sabadino degli Arienti places her high among the illustrious women of the age, and says her deeds cannot fail to have opened the adamant doors of Paradise, while Castiglione speaks of her excellent virtues as known to the whole world, and pronounces her worthy to have reigned over a far larger state. With the pattern of this admirable mother before their eyes, with all that was choicest in art and fairest in nature around them, Leonora’s daughters grew up to womanhood, and insensibly acquired that enthusiasm for beauty in all its varied forms, that fine taste and perception which distinguished them above their contemporaries, which made Isabella at the end of her long life still the most attractive woman of her day, and which caused the bravest soldiers and the wisest scholars to lament the untimely death of the youthful Duchess Beatrice. In all the difficult and tangled ways which they were separately called upon to tread, the breath of scandal, the slander of idle tongues, never sullied their fair names. Both princesses held fast to the ideal of their girlhood, and, leading the same pure and spotless life, left the same gracious memory behind them, alike in the old Mantuan city on the banks of the classic Mincio, where Isabella’s presence lingers like some delicate perfume about the Camerini of the ancient Castello, and in that grander and more splendid court where Beatrice reigned for a few brief years by the Moro’s side at Milan.