Eleonora of Aragon

Written by  Luciano Chiappini
The wife of Duke Ercole I was not a secondary figure in the history of Fifteenth century Ferrara.
Virtue doesn't make news and very rarely makes history. The average reader prefers to give his curiosity free rein to explore the toils of passions, vices, and human eccentricities rather than the various expressions of an industrious and austere life.

It is no accident that in the field of Este studies attention has been particularly directed at the womenfolk of this great Ferrarese family: Parisina, beheaded for her adulterous affair with her stepson Ugo; Lucrezia Borgia, of whose life in Ferrara many have sought out prurient aspects that do not exist; Lucrezia, sister of Duke Alfonso II and wife of Francesco Maria della Rovere of Urbino, who made up for the bitterness of divorce with a love affair with a gentleman.

None of all this applies to Eleanor of Aragon, daughter of Ferrante, king of Naples, wife to Ercole I and mother to six children. The Duchess Eleanor took great pains over the education of her children, but her solicitous and generous attention was extended to her relatives, entourage, the court, and to all the people without discrimination of rank or class, as her copious correspondence, especially with Duke Ercole, amply demonstrates. Eleanor could be an authoritarian, determined woman.

For example, during the war against Venice of 1482-1484, the enemy was at the gates and enjoying the freedom of the Barco, only a few hundred yards from the Castle, while the citizens were a prey to agitation and terror. The Duke, hesitant and occasionally even prostrated, seemed to have given himself over to inertia. It was only her resolution and the timeliness of her decisions that saved the situation.
And in relatively more tranquil times it was she who tackled problems of internal politics and administration with a shrewdness and constancy that her husband certainly never possessed. She was also tolerant and understanding. She protected the Jews, enjoining the public preachers not to incite the people against them; she even invited the Jew Abramo Perizol to combat doctrines contrary to his religion in his book Maghem Abraam.

Together with expressions of delicacy and meekness, Eleanor was also dignified and proud and some of her judgements reveal a decidedly businesslike tone: «I deem this Giovanni de la Rivosa to be a masterly husbandman,» she wrote to Ercole, «but he strikes me as even more of a master in the guarding of his profits», and she was irremoveable in requiring him to to pay up all he owed.

She was profoundly religious. The chronicler Caleffini says: «The Most Illustrious Duchess is certainly a most sainted lady and gives more alms than could be counted nor known and this is certain...» Even more significant words follow: «And the Duke attends to his pleasures and play and merry making».

This shows that, in certain respects at least, the balance of power between Eleanor and her husband was decidedly in her favour, which leads us to add that Maria Bellonci's definition of Eleanor as a woman «with no story apart from that of her husband», amounts to an unacceptable judgement. The truth lies elsewhere: commonplaces - in this case the scarse consideration afforded to a woman's virtues - can lead even the most intelligent and well informed writers up the garden path.