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

Isabella d’Este joins her husband in Naples--Works of Bramante and Leonardo in the Castello of Milan--The Cenacolo--Lodovico sends for Perugino--His passion for Lucrezia Crivelli--Grief of Beatrice--Death of Bianca Sforza--The Emperor Maximilian at Pavia--The Duke and Duchess return to Milan--Last days and sudden death of Beatrice d’Este.


The records we have of Beatrice’s private life during this busy year are very meagre and disappointing. Scarcely one of her letters, belonging to this period, has been preserved, while those which her sister Isabella addressed to Milan are almost as rare. The marchesa’s time and thoughts had been much engaged in public affairs during the absence of her husband with the Venetian forces at Naples, and she had little leisure for correspondence. On the 13th of July she gave birth to a second child, which, to her great disappointment, proved to be another girl, who received the name of Margherita, but only lived a few weeks. Of this event the duchess was duly informed, and, in sending her congratulations, was able to tell her sister that she was hoping to become the mother of a third child early in the following year. In September the marquis fell dangerously ill of fever, and his wife hurried to join him in Calabria, and, as soon as he was able to move, brought him back by slow stages to Mantua. During that summer, the only letter of interest which Isabella wrote to the Milanese court was a note to her friend, the jester Barone, begging him to find out for her how Messer Galeazzo and others who like him are the glass of fashion, manage to dye their hair black on certain occasions, and afterwards resume the natural colour of their locks, adding that she remembers distinctly to have seen Count Francesco Sforza with black locks one day, and the next with brown.

On the 9th of November, Lodovico wrote an imperative note from Vigevano to the Castellan of the Rocchetta, Bernardino del Corte, desiring him to see that the walls of the new rooms are dry and ready for habitation by the end of the month, since the duchess must have the use of the apartments adjoining the ball-room during her approaching confinement, and telling him to ask Bergonzio, the treasurer, for money, if more should be required. Bernardino replied that the rooms were finished, and that good fires had been lighted to dry the walls, and that the whole suite would be furnished by the following week and ready to receive the duchess. He also informed the duke that the new rooms on the side of the garden would be completed by Christmas, and told him that Bramante, after finishing the arcades of the new gallery between the ball-room and Rocchetta, had begun the design of the new tower. Both Leonardo and Bramante were employed on extensive works in the Castello during the duke’s absence that summer, although the Florentine master, we know, was chiefly engaged in finishing his great fresco in the refectory of the Dominican convent outside the Porta Vercellina. Often during the summer heats, Matteo Bandello, then a young novice of the Order, saw the Florentine master at noonday, “when the sun was in the sign of the Lion,” leave the Corte Vecchia, where he was finishing his great horse, and, hurrying through the streets to the Grazie, mount the scaffold, brush in hand, and put a few touches to some of the figures in the Cenacolo, after which he would hurry away as quickly as he came. Often too the young friar watched him at his work; “for this excellent painter,” Matteo tells us, “always liked to hear other people give their opinions freely on his pictures.” Many a time the young Dominican saw Messer Leonardo ascend the scaffold in the early morning, and remain there from sunrise till the hour of twilight, forgetting to eat and drink, and painting all the while without a moment’s pause. Sometimes again he would not paint a single stroke for several days, but just stand before the picture during one or two hours, contemplating his work, and considering and examining the different figures. And the friars were very much annoyed because of the master’s delays, and complained to the duke, who paid him so large a sum for the work, that he had not yet begun the head of the traitor Judas. When the duke asked Leonardo why he left this head undone, he replied that during the last year he had been vainly seeking in all the worst streets of Milan to find a type of criminal who would suit the character of Judas, but that if desired he would introduce the prior’s own likeness, which he thought would answer the purpose excellently! This answer is said to have amused the duke highly, and Lodovico and his painter had a good laugh together at the expense of the prior.

But since Leonardo was otherwise engaged, and another painter who had been employed in the Castello suddenly disappeared, owing, we are told, to some scandal in which he was concerned, the duke determined to send to Florence for another artist to complete the decorations of his new rooms. There was evidently no Lombard master whom he considered equal to the task, and since Lorenzo de Medici had sent him Leonardo, there might be some other artists of rare excellence among his fellow-citizens. So Lodovico wrote to his envoy at Florence, and desired him to let him have a full description of the best painters then living there. In reply, he received the following list, which is still preserved in the archives of Milan, and which is of great interest, both as a monument of the Moros untiring perseverance in seeking out the best masters, and as a record of the different degrees of estimation in which living artists were held by their contemporaries: -

Sandro de Botticelli a most excellent master, both in panel and wall-painting. His figures have a manly air, and are admirable in conception and proportion.

“Filippino di Frati Filippo an excellent disciple of the above-named, and a son of the rarest master of our times. His heads have a gentler and more suave air; but, we are inclined to think, less art.

Il Perugino a rare and singular artist, most excellent in wall-painting. His faces have an air of the most angelic sweetness.

“Domenico de Grillandaio a good master in panels and a better one in wall-painting. His figures are good, and he is an industrious and active master, who produces much work.

“All of these masters have given proof of their excellence in the Chapel of Pope Sixtus, excepting Filippino, and also in the Spedaletto of the Magnifico Laurentio, and their merit is almost equal."

This intimation seems to have decided Lodovico to apply to Perugino, whom Leonardo had known as his fellow-pupil in Verrocchio’s atelier at Florence, and who was supposed to be in Venice at the time. So his secretary wrote to desire Guido Arcimboldo, the Archbishop of Milan, who was then in Venice, to inquire for the Umbrian master, and see if he could be induced to visit Milan. The archbishop, writing on the 14th of June, replied that Maestro Pietro of Perugia had left Venice six months ago and was back at Florence. Lodovico, however, did not lose sight of the master, and in the following October, by his desire, the monks of the Certosa of Pavia engaged this popular artist to paint an altar-piece for one of their chapels. In the following year the duke returned to the charge, and hearing that Perugino had returned to his native city, wrote two pressing letters to one of the Baglioni, who was the chief magistrate of Perugia, begging him, as a personal favour, to induce Messer Pietro to come to Milan, and offering to pay the artist whatever price he may ask, and to retain him permanently in his service or keep him only for a fixed time, as he may think best. Perugino, however, was then engaged in decorating the Sala del Cambio in his native town, and had already more commissions than he could execute. He declined the Duke of Milan’s repeated invitations, and the Moro was obliged to fall back upon Bramante and Leonardo to finish the works in the Castello.

But although the duke’s passion for building new churches and palaces or beautifying those which he had already built, was as ardent as ever, it became more and more difficult to find the money to meet the vast expenditure which his splendid schemes involved. The fetes in honour of Maximilian and the subsidies which had been granted for his expedition had already entailed heavy expenses, and on every side the same complaint was heard. There was no money to pay the salaries of the numerous professors at Pavia and Milan, whose chairs had been founded by Lodovico himself; none to pay the bills for building and furnishing the new rooms in the Castello, or to cast Leonardo’s great horse in bronze. Everywhere people were groaning at the heavy burdens imposed upon them, and at Lodi, Cremona, and other places there had been not only murmuring against the duke, but actual rioting and tumults, while in some parts of the duchy the inhabitants were leaving their homes to escape these harsh exactions. Lodovico’s most faithful servants began to look grave, and the duke himself could not but be aware of his growing unpopularity among his subjects.

Whether these rumours reached the ears of Beatrice and disturbed her happiness, we cannot tell; but we know that her life was saddened and the gladness of her heart clouded by a new sorrow that autumn. The duke, who for many years past had proved himself a devoted and affectionate husband, and realized better than any one what an admirable companion and partner he had in his young wife, suddenly found a new object for his affections in Lucrezia Crivelli, a beautiful and accomplished maiden of a noble Milanese family, who was one of the duchess’s ladies-in-waiting. Soon Lodovico’s passion for this new mistress became publicly known, Leonardo was employed to paint her picture; and, under the date of November, 1496, the annalist of Ferrara writes, “The latest news from Milan is that the duke spends his whole time and finds all his pleasure in the company of a girl who is one of his wife’s maidens. And his conduct is ill regarded here.” The chronicler Muralti, in his brief and touching account of the young duchess, after recalling Beatrice’s charms and joyous nature, tells us that, although Lodovico loved his wife intensely, he took Lucrezia Crivelli for his mistress, a thing which caused Beatrice the most bitter anguish of mind, but could not alter her love for him. And remorse for the pain which he had caused Beatrice gave the sharpest sting to Lodovico’s own despair, on that sad day when he wept for his young wife’s early death.

That autumn a fresh and unexpected blow fell upon the ducal family, in the death of Lodovico’s beloved daughter Bianca, the young wife of Galeazzo di Sanseverino, who died very suddenly at Vigevano, on the 22nd of November. Both the duke and duchess had been fondly attached to this fair young girl who only four or five months before had become the wife of Galeazzo, and was one of Beatrice’s favourite companions. Her sudden and premature death threw a gloom over the whole court, and in elegant verse Niccolo da Correggio deplored the loss of the gentle maiden who had gone in the flower of her youth to join the blessed spirits, and grieved for the gallant husband whom a cruel fate had so early robbed of his bride. There can be little doubt that we have a portrait of this lamented princess in the beautiful picture of the Ambrosiana, which, long supposed to be the work of Leonardo, is now recognized by the best critics as that of Ambrogio de Prédis. At one time this portrait was said to represent Beatrice herself, but neither the long slender throat nor the delicate features bear the least resemblance to those of the duchess, while the style of head-dress is equally unlike that which Beatrice wears in authentic representations. Again, some critics have supposed the Ambrosian picture to represent Kaiser Maximilian’s wife, Bianca Maria Sforza; but the discovery of Ambrogio de Predis’s actual portrait of the empress, and of his sketch of her head in the Venetian Academy, have shown this theory to be impossible. The Venetian Marc Antonio Michieli, who saw this picture in Taddeo Contarini’s house at Venice in 1525, describes it as “a profile portrait of the head and bust of Madonna, daughter of Signor Lodovico of Milan,” after which he adds, “married to the Emperor Maximilian ... by the hand of ... Milanese.” The connoisseur had evidently confused the two Bianca Sforzas, but now that this mistake has been explained by a comparison of the Ambrosian portrait with genuine pictures and medals of the empress, there is no difficulty in accepting the remainder of his statement. For we have here, there can be little doubt, the portrait of Lodovico’s daughter, by the hand of a Milanese painter, in all probability, as Morelli divined, the court-painter of the ducal house, Ambrogio de Prédis. And the German critic, Dr. Muller-Walde, is probably right in his conjecture that the companion picture in the Ambrosiana is the portrait of Bianca’s husband, Galeazzo di Sanseverino. This picture has been called by many names, and ascribed to many different hands. It has been described in turn as a portrait of Maximilian, of the short-lived Duke Giangaleazzo, and of Lodovico Moro himself. But Ambrogio’s portrait certainly represents none of the three, and it is far more likely that we have here a likeness of the duke’s son-in-law, painted about the time of his marriage to Bianca Sforza. This handsome man of thirty, in the fur-trimmed vest and red cap, with the dark eyes, long locks, and refined thoughtful face, touched with an air of melancholy, may well be the brilliant cavalier who played so great a part at the Moro’s court, the patron of Leonardo and Luca Pacioli, and the loyal servant of Duchess Beatrice.

Both the duke and his wife were overwhelmed with grief at Madonna Biancas death. Lodovico himself wrote to Isabella dEste that the wound had pierced his inmost heart, and the duchess and Messer Galeaz both expressed their grief in touching words. On the 23rd of November, Beatrice wrote these few sad lines to her sister

“Although you will have already heard from my husband the duke of the premature death of Madonna Bianca, his daughter and the wife of Messer Galeaz, none the less I must write these few lines with my own hand, to tell you how great is the trouble and distress which her death has caused me. The loss indeed is greater than I can express, because of our close relationship and of the place which she held in my heart. May God have her soul in His keeping!"

All the fetes which had been prepared in honour of the emperor’s return to Lombardy were stopped, and the duke and duchess, with their little son, attended by a small suite of courtiers and ladies, in deep mourning, travelled by water to Pavia, to receive their illustrious kinsman when he arrived from Sarzana on the 2nd of December. On this occasion Maximilian behaved with great consideration, and showed deep sympathy with his distressed relatives. Instead of making a public entry through the city, he rode up through the park to the private gate of the Castello, where the duke and duchess met him and conducted him to his rooms. Here he spent the evening alone in their company, and refused to see any one but the little Count of Pavia, for whom he is said to have cherished great affection. The Venetian envoy, Francesco Foscari, hearing of the emperor’s arrival, hastened to Pavia, and with difficulty obtained an audience from His Majesty, who told him that it was impossible for him to visit Milan or remain any longer in Italy, since the German Diet was about to meet, and he had promised to join his son, the Archduke Philip, at Augsburg. A council was held in the Castello to discuss political affairs, but it was plain that the Pisans had nothing more to expect from their imperial ally, and Maximilian was only anxious to be back in Germany. On the 4th he attended a solemn requiem mass for the lamented princess Bianca in the Duomo, and in the afternoon rode out to the Certosa with Lodovico, who showed him all the wonders of that famous church and abbey. On the 6th, the duke took his wife, whose delicate state of health needed rest, back to Milan, and a few days later returned with Foscari to meet the emperor at the ducal villa of Cussago. On the 11th, Maximilian went to Groppello, where he knighted the Venetian ambassador and dismissed him, after which he took leave of the duke, says the chronicler, with many expressions of affection on both sides, and once more set out on his journey across the terrible mountains. His expedition, remarked the Venetian writer, “has effected nothing, and he leaves Italy in still greater confusion than he found her.”

Lodovico now joined his wife at Milan in time to receive another guest in the person of Chiara Gonzaga, the widowed Duchess of Montpensier, who was on her way back from France. Since her husband’s death at Pozzuoli, this unfortunate lady had been vainly trying to recover her fortune from the French king, and was full of gratitude to the duke for his friendly exertions on her behalf. Both her sons, Louis de Bourbon and Charles the famous Connétable, were fighting with the remnants of the French army against her brother in Naples, and both were to lose their lives in the wars of Italy, while she herself spent the rest of her existence in poverty and seclusion at Mantua. But to the last she remained a loyal friend to Lodovico, with whom she corresponded frequently. On the 22nd, Chiara left Milan, and the celebration of the Christmas festival began. But the courtiers and ladies-in-waiting noticed the strange and mournful forebodings which seemed to oppress their young duchess. They often saw tears in her eyes, and wondered whether they were caused by her husband’s neglect or grief for the loss of Bianca. Day after day she paid long visits to the Church of S. Maria delle Grazie, where the duke’s daughter had been laid to rest in this his favourite shrine. There in those last days of the year Beatrice might constantly be seen, spending hours in prayer at the tomb of the young princess, and musing sadly on the vanity of human joys. But no one dreamt how soon her own end was at hand.

On Monday, the 2nd of January, the Duchess Beatrice drove in her chariot through the park of the Castello and along the streets of the city to the Porta Vercellina and the Church of S. Maria delle Grazie, where even then Leonardo was at work upon his great fresco. In the eyes of the people who saw her pass, she seemed in excellent health, and returned their loyal greetings with the same gracious charm. But when she reached the Dominican church, and had paid her devotions at Our Lady’s altar, and prayed for the repose of her daughter’s soul, she lingered by the new-made tomb, rapt in sorrowful thought, and it was long before her ladies could persuade her to come away. After her return to the Castello that afternoon, there was dancing in her rooms in the Rocchetta until eight o’clock in the evening, when she was suddenly taken ill. Three hours later she gave birth to a still-born son, and half an hour after midnight her spirit passed away.

That night, contemporary writers tell us, “the sky above the Castello of Milan was all a-blaze with fiery flames, and the walls of the duchess’s own garden fell with a sudden crash to the ground, although there was neither wind nor earthquake. And these things were held to be evil omens.” “And from that time,” adds Marino Sanuto, “the duke began to be sore troubled, and to suffer great woes, having up to that time lived very happily.”

Beatrice was gone, and with her all the joy and delight of the duke’s life had passed away. The court was turned from an earthly paradise into the blackest hell, and ruin overtook the Moro and the whole realm of Milan, as the poet of the house of Este sang in his Orlando Furioso

Come ella poi lascera il mondo, Così degli infelici andrà nel fondo.”