Two Princesses and a Dungeon

Moat view of Castello Estense

Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy, begun around 1385

The Renaissance was just a short time ago.  It was a revolution of aesthetics and the beginning of the Modern Age.  Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, but we’ve been civilized for only 6,000.   Today, one of the famous symbols of civilization is a painting:  Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa.  In my view, the woman who is Mona Lisa was herself shaped by a privileged, but male- and church-dominated life in a Castle.  You can see the castle walls in the painting, and you can see the lands she controlled in the background: Mantua’s famous lake country.  In my view, the real Mona Lisa – Isabella d’Este – belongs on anyone’s list of extraordinarily accomplished women.  For one thing, she’s one of the first women about whom we know so much.  It’s hard to compare our lives today to people’s lives at 6,00o years ago – but 600 years ago, that we can start to do.  Isabella d’Este was born 537 years ago.  She didn’t blog, but she wrote more letters than any other woman of her time.

When farming first began  in Italy only, 6000 years ago, population density was low.  Jobs were practical, like dam and canal building.  The dam builders were still farmers, not truly specialists. Little by little, farms produced more.  Families began to specialize in  pottery, weaving, earthworks, woodworking, metalworking – and soldiering. Most sons grew up to be whatever occupation their father was, or if their family could arrange it, they were apprenticed to another family to learn a trade.  No castles were built.  Artwork existed – but nothing like Leonardo. Bureaucratic positions, such as Castellan began to emerge, but nothing like what was to come later.

In Europe, a system of simple symbols called pictographs had been moving in the direction of  an actual writing, but it wasn’t until 3,800 years ago that true writing showed up in Europe. This was of course the Phoenician alphabet, but the odd thing is that the Phoenicians and the Greeks show up at almost exactly the same time, and with the same seafaring set of skills. Building boats isn’t that easy, and these boats (like the boats of the Norsemen, also already in production) were quite sophisticated.

Depiction of Greek ship from around 3,800 years ago

Greek ship as one might have looked at 3,800 years ago

By the time of the Renaissance, Justice was a two-tiered system. Nobility had one system and commoners had another.  Italy didn’t exist as a nation, like France or England.  Instead, it was divided up into several different kinds of states:  city-states, duchies, kingdoms, papal states and others.  Each had their own money.  Each had their own laws, and each had their own ruler.  They rarely got along.  Each Duke or Prince or Marquis or Doge could pretty much do as they pleased.

France tried to have a strictly patrilineal system of noble inheritance, called Salic law with only one monarch, going back to the Salic Franks, one of those so-called Germanic tribes (nobody was much calling themselves “German” at 700 A.D., this is an anachronistic name, always bugs me).   Anyway, usually the oldest son inherited the power, authority, land and money from his father and all the other kids had to just deal with it.  Every semester, at least one male in one class of mine is in this same privileged position, his siblings have been disinherited and he will be trusted to make the right decisions regarding the family property – usually a California ranch style tract house.

Italy wasn’t one big nation, like France tried to be.  It did not work the same way as France.  Popes do not usually pass their power on to their sons.  Whatever else you want to say about Catholicism, one thing about Renaissance Catholicism is that it didn’t follow strict rules of inheritance.  The Church was free to frolick about, choosing a new Pope however the Cardinals saw fit, resulting in some of the most bizarre and interesting leadership choices in the history of Europe.   If you’ve been watching the Borgias (Showtime), you already know that.  Okay, so maybe “frolicking” isn’t quite the right word – but you know what I mean.

The little Duchy of Ferrara, nestled in pretty Tuscany, had its own rulers and relative peace and prosperity for a very long time, perhaps even in days before the Etruscans.  For the first 2,500 years of Italian farming, farmers were few and far between, still working at adapting crops to the Italian climate.  But, then the Etruscans arose and civilization began on the northern Italian peninsula. By 2,600 years ago,  they also had writing which strongly resembled European pictographs and Greek writing, at least to my eye.  They were also a military people, with a strong penchant for building towers.

Whoever built Rome (Greeks and/or Etruscans), by  600 A.D., Rome had seen its ups and downs. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the little cities of northern Italy felt disconnected and less prosperous, even with all their glorious towers.  Getting people to pay the taxes to upkeep the cities became the job of each local prince or duke.

That’s when some Teutonic tribes saw an opportunity and moved into Northern Italy.  Whether the Este clan, who ruled Ferrara, were Teutonic (like the Langobards who took over Lombardy), I don’t know.  I strongly suspect it.  At any rate, like the Langobards, the Estes took care to marry into other local ruling houses and to solidify strong alliances.  They left everything to their oldest son, following ancient traditions for preserving power within the family.  They tried to marry their daughters off to other people’s oldest sons, of course.  They also knew they needed to build a strong castle around the existing tower for defense against all manner of marauders.  And when they built their castle, they also knew it needed a dungeon with several cells.

The Estense Castello was begun in 1385 and by the time of the two little Princesses, was about 200 years old.  It was the Hearst Castle, the Waldorf-Astoria and the Tower of London rolled into one. Ferrara was an amazing city and the castle was at the heart of it, with working drawbridges and moats.  The living areas were enormous, and beneath the formal rooms and great halls, hung with amazing tapestries; below the huge kitchens, there were dungeons.

That way, if the Duke of Ferrara had enemies or needed to imprison a wrongdoer, he had them right where he could see them.   Everyone in town knew and agreed there was only one Duke and one Duke only, and anyone who disagreed either left town or ended up in the dungeon (or dead).  This system worked pretty well.  When the townspeople were unhappy about something, they knew who to complain to (the Duke).  If the townspeople got into an uproar, the Duke knew what to do (imprison their leaders).  None of this due process stuff; no trial by peers.  Frankly, almost no one could read.  The Duke and his family employed anyone who was anybody and paid them pretty well, and the rest of the town had to just live with their decisions.

But did this keep the Estense from having family feuds?  Nope.

Eleanor of Aragon

Eleanor of Aragon, from the Louvre, probably Cristoforo Romani

Eleanor of Aragon (Mona Lisa’s mom) was a beautiful and cultured woman, daughter of the King of Naples, descendant of the noble family of Aragon, Spain. She married Duke Ercole I of Este and moved into the Castello in Ferrara in 1473.  She was known far and wide for her gentleness, her refined taste, her education, her needlework and her devotion to the arts.  She had been married once, already, to the aged Sforza Duke of Bari, but Bari was a tiny place in the middle of nowhere, compared to Ferrara.

On approach to Ferrara, gardens had been planted so as to give visitors the idea that the entire town was an island of paradise. Visitors arrived by boat, up a canal from the Po River.  There were fountains and birds of all kinds awaiting them as they disembarked.  Eleanor’s dining hall and evening entertainments were legendary, all the best musicians and poets of the day were at her court.  Recitations, plays, recitals, dances that resembled ballets, all of this was part of weekly life, and every night had some sort of marvelous entertainment.  Ercole was a Francophile, and, some would say, a traitor to the notion of Italy:  when Charles VIII sought to take over the Kingdom of Naples (depicted in The Borgias on Showtime), Ercole was his strongest ally.  Ercole had to be quiet about it, but in those days, simply withholding information and silently supporting (with goods and services) the enemy was a powerful tactic.  It would be as if New Mexico decided to aid and abet Mexico in Mexico’s bid to take over Arizona.  And he kept it on the down-low, which is amazing.  To a great extent, he even managed to look like the good guy on the block, while Ludovico Il Moro, Duke of Milan certainly looked like a traitor.  It’s possible Ercole set him up to take the fall, it was fairly easy to do.  Ludovico was his son-in-law and trying to side with his father-in-law.

When Eleanor’s first child with Ercole was a girl, Isabella D’Este, unlike many patrician families, they rejoiced.  They were not caught up in the “we have to have a boy” mentality of so many of their contemporaries, at least not with that first baby.  Little Isabella would grow up to become the First Lady of the Renaissance, as most history books call her, a patroness of the arts whose own house at Mantua rivaled the house she grew up in.  I believe that Isabella D’Este is clearly and obviously the woman known as the Mona Lisa (more on that in later posts).  All you have to do is look at Leonardo’s famous drawing of Isabella and read his notebooks, where he speaks about how to “turn” a profile drawing into a three quarter drawing – and there you have her, Isabella D’Este, right where she should be – the most important painting in the world.  Because Isabella D’Este, the woman, was the most important woman in the world at her time (maybe rivaled a bit by Queen Isabella of Spain of Castille, her distant cousin).  Leonardo didn’t spend much time with Isabella, and he probably used Lisa Gherardini as a body double, back at his studio, to help with painting Isabella’s body – and obviously, over the years, Leonardo used Salai (as usual) as his model and little by little, Isabella D’Este started looking more like Leonardo’s friend and model, Salai – so he could never have given the portrait to her.  She was, as it turns out, more than a little spoiled, extremely demanding and prone to refusing and strongly criticizing portraits that she didn’t like, that made her look fat or just generally didn’t make her look gorgeous.  I’m guessing she liked the one by Titian, which makes her look 30 years younger than she was at the time it was painted.

Mona Lisa

I believe this is an attempted portrait of the perfectionist, Isabella D'Este

As a girl. little Isabella was a demanding and petulant princess, accustomed from a very early age to dominating the servants and the courtly world around her.  Eleanor of Aragon knew how to raise a princess.  Isabella’s life was one of brightness, ease and complete luxury. By age 15, she was ready to have her own court and to marry the boy she’d been betrothed to since childhood, Francesco Gonzaga, future Duke of Mantua.  The two of them carried on a shy and proper courtship via letters.

One year after Isabella’s birth, in an attempt to produce a boy, Eleanor gave birth again – this time to another girl, and there wasn’t quite so much rejoicing.  Beatrice D’Este, considered less beautiful than her sister, was also a bit superfluous – a second girl wasn’t needed.  A boy was needed.  Dutifully, Eleanor produced another baby a year later, this time, a boy, Alphonso.  He’s the one who will go on to marry Lucrezia Borgia.  

In the meantime, things weren’t always so peaceful in Ferrara, as Duke Ercole couldn’t resist being drawn into a war with the Republic of Venice, allied with the powerful deRovere family – who happened to have their man up as Pope at the time.  By the time the war actually came to Ferrara itself, Eleanor had had three more children, for a total of six.  Eleanor was home  when the Venetian conditierre (mercenaries) came to take Castle Estense.   She had to issue orders, get the drawbridge pulled up and ultimately escaped with the children, who probably would have been massacred.  She ran from the castle with her children in arms, the older ones running behind her – and not much else.

Eleanor of Aragon was not pleased with this outcome.  If she spent any time pondering whether children were supposed to be killed in war, we’ll never know.  She certainly knew that taking over a Duchy meant capturing the Duke – and his heirs.  Even if the children were only to be hostages, which was quite the common procedure of the day, Eleanor was not happy about it.  She’d been living in a Disney-like paradise, with her six beautiful children (or, 5 beautiful children and Beatrice) and now it was all in ruins.  Not only that, but on the day the enemy came, her husband the Duke was nowhere to be seen.

Ercole was able to make peace by bribing the Venetians and the Pope, ceding property to them and staying neutral in all future wars involving Pope Sixtus.  This was extremely humiliating to him.  Eleanor reacted by sending at least two of her children away from home and harm’s way.  She sent the precious heir  and Beatrice to their grandfather, the aging King Ferrante of Naples, who had his own fiercely defended and rather bizarre court.  No one messed with Ferrante of Naples, at that time (more on that later).

Isabella was kept at home, perhaps because she was old enough to be a companion to her mother, perhaps because she was her mother’s favorite.  Both Isabella and Beatrice had had lots of lessons by then, and Beatrice still learned plenty at Ferrante’s court, but in general, Beatrice was allowed to run wild, be a tomboy and had way more fun at her grandpa’s house, while Isabella continued on her course of becoming First Lady of the Renaissance.

The clothes, harps, keyboards, and other implements of the Este household at Ferrara were all at Isabella’s disposal (and Beatrice’s too, until she left at about age 10).  The two little girls would have taken music, dancing and singing lessons upstairs, right above the dungeon where their other grandpa, Niccolò III d’Este had imprisoned and then decapitated his son Ugo and his wife, Parisina.  I like to picture little Mona Lisa/Isabella and Beatrice (who would later turn out to be quite a beauty herself) running up and down the stairs of the Castello, playing Princesses in the Tower, waiting for their princes, tossing things in the moat, picking flowers for their hair, riding their ponies over the drawbridge and just generally having the life of Renaissance princesses.  Their maids helped them with their hair and dress, although Isabella always favored just wearing her hair loose around her shoulders, while Beatrice’s hairstyle would later become the rage of all Milan.  They had those cool dresses with the slashed sleeves and all the ribbons anyone could want.  Occasionally they must have demanded, “Tell us what happened to Uncle Ugo again?” and listened in horrified entracement as someone, maybe a servant, told the story late at night, with the Tower looming over their heads.

So the two little princesses would have been brought up with the tale of how Daddy’s younger (illegitimate) brother Ugo was beheaded at the foot of the Tower.  It would surely have been obvious that adultery was a serious crime, and that even sons of Dukes could lose their heads (and wives of Dukes too). Poor Parisina, the doomed lover of Ugo, was married off to a much older man (much as Beatrice would be), and was known for her gentle kindness, her care for the impoverished and the fact that she treated common people, servants and even the poor with equality and fairness.  Unfortunately she also fell madly in love with her husband’s handsome young son.  Niccolò would repent of his overly hasty decision, but the blood was still on his hands.  Aside from having to confess his sins in the usual Catholic manner, nothing happened to a Duke who beheaded his wife and his son.

renaissance dress

What an Este girl might have worn

I can’t help but think that Isabella D’Este’s extremely proper, decorous, competitive, obsessive and perfectionistic persona had to be shaped by growing up above just such a dungeon.  While men focused on war (and many must have feared it), women had to stay at home, ever aware that dungeons were made to punish any crime the Man of the House and Lord of the Town deemed necessary.  A good girl didn’t have to fear a dungeon, and Isabella D’Este was going to go down in history as one of the best girls ever.  Her famous smile is a testimony to the fact that she survived, independent and powerful – as a woman – while her own little brothers, unfortunately, ended up being put in that same dungeon by their older brother, Ercole’s son and heir, when he became Duke Alphonso d’Este.  Isabella D’Este, somewhere between a Lady Madonna and an Overprivileged Princess, survived to a ripe old age, opened a school for girls that wasn’t a convent and had many more adventures, liaisons and good times.  She was the Original High Maintenance Woman.  To me, her smile says it all.

So were there ever lots of happy, traditional families?  Does sibling rivalry get out of hand?  Do people harm the ones they love?  Do we really differ that much from people 500 years ago?
Not by much – it’s just that most of us don’t really have a dungeon under the dining room floor any more.

dungeon Castello Este

Dungeon under the Main Hall, Castello Estense, Ferrara


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ronald Green
    May 18, 2011 @ 08:43:31

    That was an excellent aricle, Linda. Very interesting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: