During the sixteenth century, Isabella d’Este was a dominant personality in the Italian Court of Mantua. As wife to the Duke of Gonzaga, Isabella used her rank and gender in order to participate in the male dominated activity of patronage. Isabella empowered her status through the intellectual pursuits of painting and connoisseurship as seen in the creation of the studiolo as well as in the production medals with her portrait. In promoting personal prestige, Isabella’s controlling use of the arts reveals a woman who possessed the qualities of a humanist such as virtú and magnificence. By examining notions which shaped the outlook of wealthy men in the Renaissance, Isabella’s unconventional behaviour as a patron can be better understood in its historical context.
In regards to patronage, Isabella took on the characteristics of a courtly prince rather than a royal consort. Through her active involvement in the creation of a personal studiolo, Isabella departed from her prescribed role as a duke's wife. As codified by Castiligione in The Courtier, the Court Lady was expected to provide aesthetic pleasure to the court in her husband’s honour. However, the frequent absence of Isabella’s spouse, Francesco Gonzaga, provided the wilful marchesa with the opportunity to easily establish an independent presence. However, in establishing this presence, Isabella transferred her skills of beautification into the traditionally masculine space of the studiolo rather than being the showpiece herself. Thus, Isabella purported her public role of adornment into the domestic sphere by devoting a space in her private apartments for scholarly pursuit. This merging of courtly and domestic duties is indicated by her management of the household income as she utilised her strict budget to fund the construction of her luxurious chamber. Such an assertive gesture by a woman in creating a conventionally male space challenged the traditional ideal of a modest and passive female. Considered by art historians to be the first known case of a court consort arranging such a space, Isabella’s studiolo was also pioneering as it was one of the first instances of a room devoted to the display of art collections. By elevating her role of ornament to a greater level of visibility, Isabella visually magnified her own cultural position rather than enlarging her husband’s presence, as tradition would have dictated. Thus, the studiolo reveals Isabella’s subversion of the designated gender roles of the Italian Renaissance.
Isabella’s transgression into the masculine sphere of public life is also revealed in the surviving correspondence documenting the business negotiations for the construction of the studiolo. As evidenced in the written documentation, the marchesa’s attitude towards artisans and advisors comported more with Castiligione’s definition of male virtú than that of female virtus. For instance, in commissioning the Battle of Love and Lasciviousness, Isabella’s agents were given precise and controlling instructions. These agents were directed to provide Perugino with a detailed programme including canvas measurements, the position of the light source, the medium of paint, and the scale of principal figures. Such thorough instructions, designed to achieve a basic uniformity amongst the panel paintings, have nonetheless caused some historians to consider Isabella’s patronage as overbearing, a trait often displayed by male patrons during the period. For example, in keeping with the popular Aristotelian belief that “the magnificent man is an artist,” Piero Medici closely monitored the projects of Benozzo Gozzoli while the Duke Ercole d’Este spent entire days with his court painter in explaining the requirements for a set of mural paintings. Accordingly, while Isabella’s’ controlling traits appear masculine, her fastidious instructions also fall precisely within a genderless established pattern of consultation between patron and painters in which the patron was considered the primary author of the artwork. Further, Isabella’s support of the arts differed from the noted male contemporaries since she was required to remain involved through indirect means as her sense of honour could be placed at risk through commercial activity. For instance, Isabella’s could only communicate her conditions for commission to Perugino, who was working outside Mantua, through detailed written instructions delivered by an agent. Although Isabella was entrepreneurial in her endeavour to create a personal studiolo, the marchesa was still dependent on others to materialise her desire as can be seen through her reliance on agents and artists.
Despite Isabella’s assertive behaviour in the male environment of patronage, she was conscious of her feminine reputation as revealed by the depiction of chastity in Perugino’s Battle of Chastity and Lasciviousness. Isabella’s ability as a collector and patron was limited by her need to maintain a respectable sexual identity. Castiligione noted that the main endeavour of the Court Lady was to possess both “public visibility” and “private chastity” requiring the royal consort to maintain a precarious balance between persona and domesticity. In order to make the content of classical mythology less contentious and thus safe from scandalising Isabella’s reputation, the marchesa commissioned paintings in which chastity triumphed- as if offering a kind of shrill apology for her forays into the masculine spheres of humanism and collecting. In Battle of Chastity and Lasciviousness, the allegory depicts Diana, the goddess of chastity, and Pallas, the goddess of learning, combating against the sensuous figures of Venus and Cupid.  Perugino had initially deviated from Isabella’s invenzione by depicting Venus as a classical nude rather than being clothed. Within humanist iconography, the dressed figure of Venus signified carnal love while the nude version of the goddess symbolised divine love. Thus, the demand that Perugino alter his depiction of Venus to one clothed was hardly the case of a patron being dictatorial as Isabella stated in a letter to her agent: “because in altering one figure the meaning of the fable will be perverted.” Similar to Isabella’s involvement in patronage, the female protagonists of the painting act with ‘manly’ force rather than ‘female’ compliance; thus, chastity is reconceived as an active virtue achieved through virile means. Through altering the traditional feminine connotations of morality, Isabella visually reinforced her position as an active woman who was both chaste and virile.
A more conventional way in which the Marchesa of Este secured her status was through the production of portrait medals with her image. These large metal discs was often presented as a token of favour and acted as a cultural sign of Isabella’s magnificent liberality. The cult of the gift in Renaissance society allowed the aristocracy a form of social networking in which personal interest was masked in social etiquette. Rather than exchange coins as financial currency, portrait medals were incorporated into a social economy of merit and reward. Thus, within the context of gift culture, Leonardo Bruni’s notion of the liberality of magnificence is incorporated into Isabella’s bestowal of portrait medals to notable courtiers. As demonstrated in Isabella’s golden prototype made by Gian Cristoforo Romano, magnificent expenditure was indicated through the use of costly material during the coin’s production. No longer an instrument of commerce, the medium of gold is transformed into a higher form of coinage as Isabella’s name is encrusted with the precious stones of diamonds and enamel. Although on a small scale, the expense of creating a bejewelled coin (as well as the distribution of numerous bronze versions) allowed the patron’s sophisticated splendour to be conveyed on a limited budget. This sophistication extends beyond the medium of the object to the intellectual thought involved in its design as indicated by the use of classical motifs. The medal’s format echoes ancient coinage as seen in Isabella’s severe profile and the Latin inscription of her motto: Benerentium Ergo translated as “For those who deserve well.” These classical references were further reinforced by the medal’s location in the grotta as it was exhibited next to an antique cameo; the medal’s visual allusions to antiquity made its esoteric meaning exclusive since it would have only been understood by the educated elite. Through the medal’s humanist connotations, Aristotle’s requirement that “the contemplation of a work must inspire admiration” is fulfilled. Thus, Isabella succeeded in creating public prestige not only through the medals’ dissemination but also through its erudite meaning. Through the circulation of portrait medals, Isabella was able to promote her magnificence within the established framework of gift-giving.
Through endorsing the fine arts, Isabella empowered her status within the Court of Mantua. Isabella mobilised her scholarly pursuits of collecting and connoisseurship through her involvement in the studiolo and the distribution of portrait medals. Although controlled by the gendered framework of Renaissance conventions, Isabella negotiated between the required virtues of a royal consort and the necessary virtú of a powerful patron. By applying humanist principles to Isabella d’Este’s active involvement in the arts, it is revealed how the marchesa utilized her rank and gender within the confining conventions of courtly society to establish and control her role as a magnificent patroness.
© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2014-2018
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 San Juan, Rose. “The Court Lady’s Dilemma: Isabella d’Este and Art Collecting in the Renaissance,” Oxford Art Journal, 14, 1991, 71.
 Ibid., 71.
 Hollingsworth, M. Patronage in Renaissance Italy: from 1400 to early 16th century, Baltimore, 1994, 222.
 Aristotle. “Aristotle on the Virtue of Magnificence: Book IV.2 of the Nicomachean Ethics,” Blackboard, 2008, http://www.blackboard.ucc.ie.
 Campbell, S. The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este, London, 2004, 175.
 Ibid., 55.
 Kelly-Gadol, J. “Did Women Have a Renaissance?,” Becoming Visible: Women in European History, 1977, 151.
 Campbell, S. The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este, London, 2004, 171.
 Ibid, 183.
 Ibid., 174.
 Bruni, L. “Leonardo Bruni: Selected Writings,” Blackboard, 2008, http://www.blackboard.ucc.ie.
 Chambers, D and Martineau, J. Ed. Splendours of the Gonzaga, London, 1981, 55.
 Ibid., 51.
 Aristotle. “Aristotle on the Virtue of Magnificence: Book IV.2 of the Nicomachean Ethics,” Blackboard, 2008, http://www.blackboard.ucc.ie, 2 April 2008.