One of the most prominent figures in the Gonzaga family was a woman named Isabella d’Este. Today she would be considered something of a fashion influencer—meaning that she was one of those rare people who drew attention for her innovative style, which eventually evolved to having influence in foreign relations among heads of state. We could consider her to be something like the modern Italian influencer Chiara Ferragni of her day.
Isabella d’Este was charmed from the time of her birth to the duke of her homeland and the princess of Naples. In other words, she was blessed with high birth, intelligence, and beauty. The saying “you can’t have it all” clearly didn’t apply to her.
She was married at sixteen, which was unsurprising for the time, but she was betrothed at just six. Even considering the customs back then, it’s still pretty shocking when I think back on my own maturity at that age.
Italy was at war in those days, while the Duchy of Mantua was small and by no means a wealthy territory. Isabella’s husband Francesco II was out fighting battles and never around.
As a woman left alone in Mantua, Isabella in her great wisdom must have certainly realized that the neighboring territories had their sights set on conquering it. She had no knowledge of the techniques and ways of war, but she must have thought long and hard of what she could do to protect her duchy.
She must have been convinced that her strengths, which could be used as a weapon, lay in the sophisticated culture, extensive knowledge, and good taste that she had cultivated since early childhood. This made me realize how precocious and insightful she was.
High society took note of her innovative fashion sense. She was so influential that even the Queen of France imitated her style. Meanwhile, Mantua became famous for a kind of female headwear that she invented. It was adorned with pearls, precious stones, and intricate embroidery—earning her the admiration and envy of other women when she appeared with headwear they had never seen before in social settings, along with what were surely jealous sighs.
Isabella must have also been an accomplished interior designer, evidenced by the interest in textiles and lavishness seen in the properties of the House of Gonzaga that remain from the years of her court. She was also well-versed in the styles and trends of Venice and the rest of Italy along with Spain and other foreign lands, actively incorporating them as she established textile workshops and more. These achievements were enough to demonstrate how action-oriented she was, yet she did even more than all that.
There is no way to list all of Isabella’s many great achievements, but the fact that she protected her little duchy of Matua during a time of war demonstrates the magnificence of her knowledge and actions.
Her motto was “Fear not, dream not,” a phrase that I have to admit feels devoid of romance and a little disappointing. Still, in reading about her many accomplishments I have come to admire the way she calmly assessed what needed to be done to survive and protect her homeland in a time of war—bringing her intelligence to bear, sometimes actively maneuvering with cunning, and sometimes taking courageous action in the face of her insecurities.