A Noblewoman between Two Courts

Written by  Grazietta Butazzi
Isabella d'Este, or the culture of luxury in the courts of Ferrara and Mantua.
For those interested in manifestations of luxury and display, the mention of the Este family inevitably calls up the image of Isabella, eldest daughter of Ercole I and Eleonora d'Aragona.
In fact little Isabella was barely six months old when among other clothing expenses we find a payment for the lining in petit-gris fur of a "turca IN silver brocade».
The turca was an important overgarment FOR adults. Worn long AND OPEN AT the front WITH wide sleeves, a smaller version was also worn by baby boys AND girls IN the FIRST months OR years OF life.

But Isabella soon became accustomed TO her role AS noblewoman because shortly after her FIRST birthday the same wardrobe accounts DESCRIBE luxurious fabrics AND decorations FOR her monzili: by the END OF the Fifteenth century the monzile - a closed garment WITH the cloak worn ON top - represented elegant female dress, influenced by the Spanish fashion AND evidently a favourite WITH Eleonora d'Este, who numbered about forty of them in her wardrobe.

At the same time, the little girl was being introduced to humanist culture and the arts, dear to the Duke's ambitious heart NOT ONLY because OF their capacity TO foster a deeper AND MORE intense quality OF life but also because OF their worth AS symbols AND representations OF authority AND power.

Young Isabella was tutored by a series of important teachers, ranging from Battista Guarini, Jacopo Gallino and Sebastiano da Lugo to her favourite, Mario Equicola.
Isabella's determination to conform to the figure of the Prince as outlined by the humanist tradition must have been evident from an early age; in later years she liked to portray herself as the 'tenth muse' and patroness of the arts.

Sumptuous apparel was a part of this image - whose feminine aspects she clearly wished to emphasize - and given that she had to compete with many other splendid and refined court ladies, her objective was to attain a superlative level even when it came to clothing: and when display alone was not enough then surprise and the novelty element had to come into play. And so, every time she thought she descried a rival in terms of appearance, the first thing she did was to have her agents unearth all the possible details regarding the clothes worn by these supposed competitors.

Even when grief stricken over the death of her mother, she spared no pains to have an accurate description of Beatrice d'Este's choice of costume for the funeral. Informed about the dark-coloured outfit with white veils chosen by the latter, she wrote to her sister-in-law Clara Gonzaga Montpensier asking her to send some fine black cloth along with a train from France as it was known that French cloth was superior to anything that could be found in Italy.

She bought little in Mantua for her wardrobe as she preferred to order supplies mostly from Venice and Ferrara. Girolamo Ziliolo, encharged with making purchases for her in Ferrara, was enjoined to buy what he wished, as long as it was «gallant and novel» and he was further enjoined «not to consider expense... provided all was of excellent quality».

Unfortunately we do not know the contents of the thirteen chests painted by Ercole de' Roberti that followed Isabella to Mantua; all that is known is that her family had sent her as spouse to Francesco II Gonzaga with a trousseau worth nine thousand gold ducats. She had probably inherited her taste for dark colours from her mother: at the court of Naples, dark colours - black in particular - were preferred by Alfonso I.

Her slim figure swathed in sombre colours probably recalled Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy - permanently dressed in black after the killing of his father in 1419 - as strong political and cultural ties bound the lords of Ferrara with the splendid French court of Burgundy.
What is known is that even among the clothes worn by Isabella as a child, chosen by her mother, dark colours were not infrequent, enhanced by flounces or stripes in black velvet.

This last was a colour very much in vogue in the Sixteenth century, undoubtedly after its elevation to noble status by the courts of Ferrara and Mantua. But Isabella's innovative fashion sense seems to have lain principally in hair styles, where it was possible to move with greater freedom in an age in which sartorial skills had still to be codified in a method.

Isabella was probably the first of her age to wear her hair long, gathered up under a fine silk net, the way she is depicted in a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci dated 1500, nowadays kept at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. What we do know for sure is that Leonardo's drawing is the earliest record of this kind of virtually invisible hairnet. The capigliara, a turban-like style shown in Titian's portrait of her, was definitely her invention. As it hid the hair, the fashion was an understandable favourite with ladies whose hair was no longer exactly luxuriant.

With the demise of Isabella d'Este the last great exponent of display in Italian courtly life departed the scene. She was a personage capable of amazing with the richness and intelligence of the way she presented herself through dress and one whose example also influenced the wider European stage.

Latest from Grazietta Butazzi