The many-sided Renaissance

Written by  Gianni Venturi
The Courts of Ferrara and Milan at the turn of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries
Renaissance: a word which says everything and nothing. What is the "Renaissance" were an invention or a mental construct, an aspiration, a wish, a utopia? Certainly, on a spring day in the Tatti Gardens in Florence we can easily agree with the English and the Americans of the last century or more who claimed that the invention of the word was theirs. It is striking how the idea of a city, Florence, has taken solid form in an equation that goes: Renaissance = Florence.

Anyone who is familiar with Isabella Stewart Gardner's museum house in Boston or the Cloisters near New York can understand that even today Florence is the Renaissance for Americans - though maybe less so for the British. It takes the vast and illuminating intelligence of Roberto Longhi to understand that other Renaissances, other places and other cultures also go to make up the mosaic of that name and that age.

And like him, Adolfo Venturi, the custodian of memories of the Este, or to some extent Berenson himself, understood that although the Renaissance might be viewed in terms of a railway line with its main station in Florence, this line passed not only through Rome or Venice but also stopped and picked up passengers in "minor" but nevertheless magnificent courts which were at the very forefront of the new way of representing man and the world.

And to help us understand the signified and the signifier of the complex web of institutions, motivations and achievements which the Renaissance courts produced, «three women have come round my heart». This quotation from Dante's Rime well fits the role which these ladies played between Ferrara, Mantua and Milan. Two of them have Spanish names, emphasising their relationship with the royal house of Aragon: Isabella and Beatrice, sisters. One is Roman: Lucrezia, the daughter of the Pope, sister-in-law to the other two and wife of Alfonso I d'Este.

Three women who have dominated our image of the Renaissance and influenced the history of the period not because of their particular beauty, intelligence or learning, but because three states - Ferrara, Mantua and Milan - made them the symbol of a style of power in which the restricted territory of the state stood in inverse proportion to its cultural stature. Thus they became the models for a knowledge and wisdom which rejected the ephemeral and the contingent.

At this point, however, we must reconstruct the historical thread which united events in Milan and Ferrara when, around the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Charles V of Spain established the new European political system. At this time, matrimonial policy, already experimented with some success by the now Ducal Este family, reached its height through the success of the cautious and extremely avaricious Ercole I who, well advised by his wife, Eleonora of Aragon, took the decision to restore the uncertain fortunes of the state through a policy of political marriages.

Ercole, like his son Alfonso, maintained the alliance with France (the marriage of Alfonso and Lucrezia's son Ercole II with the daughter and sister of the kings of France, Renée, is the most obvious proof) but did not under-estimate the growing weight of the Habsburgs, as can be seen from the marriage of Alfonso II, le beau chevalier, with the ill-favoured Barbara of Habsburg, the daughter and sister of emperors.

It was not easy for Ercole to manoeuvre between the parties. Alfonso's first marriage with Anna Sforza was not a success: the macho prince of Ferrara cannot have been too pleased to find Anna in the arms of a beautiful Moorish girl, the traditional and usual ornament inspired by taste for Orientalism so popular at the Este court.

But not much happier when in 1502 he married Lucrezia, the most talked-about of Renaissance ladies, with her fabulous dowry and the power and the protection of the Pope and Cesare Borgia. Lucrezia, who was not loved by her sisters-in-law, was nevertheless able to establish herself as a figure who reflected Court policy and who to some extent enhanced the glory of the Este state.

Lucrezia's image, and the strangely alternating judgement of history, is fictitious to the extent that she was subject to political propaganda in Rome on the part of anti-Borgia factions opposed to the dangers inherent in the attempt by Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia to transform the papacy into a kingdom; in the more reassuring climate of Ferrara, intellectual circles in the Court encouraged and spread the image of a wise administrator, gifted with a lucid political intelligence and a generosity all her own, capable without hesitation of employing her jewels to relieve one of the endemic famines which were the scourge of the Este state.

We know everything about Isabella. La signora del Rinascimento, to quote the title of the fine biography by Daniela Pizzigalli, was given a sovereign's education, as was the Este policy. Brought up at the Aragon court of her mother and among the highly refined intellectual circles of the Este court, Isabella became the most prestigious pawn in the Italian game of chess of which matrimonial policy formed the hinge.

This most learned of the Este was betrothed to one of the many condottiere lords who sustained their own power and states in the service of leading Italian and European powers. In Mantua, Isabella introduced that cultural refinement which was by now the hallmark of the Este family.

She pursued an idea of the Renaissance formed and moulded in Ferrara among the court humanists, by men of letters such as Battista Guarino and Ecquicola. Her insatiable desire for information regarding everything that went on at the Este court is well-known; the reports which the Este ambassador sent her every evening during the Carnival season, providing her with details of Ariosto's comedies or the toilettes of her sister-in-law Lucrezia and the court ladies, are famous.

But perhaps Isabella's true greatness, beyond her gifts for politics and government, lay in her insatiable collector's instinct, which made her the most feared and ambitious of buyers. The episode in which Leonardo fled Mantua without completing the painting of Isabella, for which only the sketch remains, is perhaps the best-known and most-quoted example.

Finally there remains little Beatrice, apparently the least gifted and the least fitted to play the part of faithful and acquiescent wife who had to fight not only to carve out her place at the court of Ludovico Sforza. Ludovico had asked Ercole for Isabella's hand in marriage, but was already betrothed to Francesco Gonzaga.

In 1480, therefore the two sisters, still only children, were promised to the lords of Mantua and Milan respectively. Isabella married Francesco in 1490; Beatrice's wedding to Ludovico took place in the following year. The ceremony took place in Pavia, and Isabella set off in the state barge to attend the event.

Pizzagalli quotes a letter Isabella's lady in waiting Beatrice Contrari sent Francesco Gonzaga describing the discomforts of his wife's journey: a delightful glimpse of contemporary life which illustrates the intellectual refinement of the Este "girls" and their circle.

«When it was time to sleep, considering the miserable room on this barge full of holes, the desire to go to bed left us. And the poor Marchioness, feeling the cold and having no fire, began to complain that she was half dead, so that I was so sorry for her that I could not help crying a little. Finally she went to bed and called me to stay close to warm her. To obey her I did so, but I wished your lordship were here, feeling myself to be a poor exchange and being unable to warm her as you would, being without the means.» (Pizzigalli, p. 52).

There is another feature which unites these three women and forms a part of the dark Este legend. We could say that Isabella, Beatrice and Lucrezia all made bad marriages, and despite this successfully managed to combine reasons of state with a solid union, including the remarkable case of Beatrice who conquered Ludovico's heart despite the disturbing and dominant presence of the "lady of the ermine", Cecilia Gallerani.

Leonardo's famous portrait of Ludovico's favourite dates to 1489-90. The year before, Ludovico had chosen the ermine, the symbol of purity, as her emblem; Cecilia received the consecration of power because she held an ermine in her arms (the Greek for ermine is "gale", a clear reference to her family name). Beatrice proved able to rival the powerful and cultivated favourite and even overshadow her, winning the hearts of the Milanese and even of Ludovico himself. For the rest of his life her husband would honour the memory of his wife, who died young, and who was perhaps, in the marvellous painting in the Ambrosiano attributed to Leonardo, had the signifier and the signified of a "Renaissance" destiny.