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4 CHILDHOOD OF ISABELLA
daughter, Isabella, now a child of five years. Ercole, who had good reason to fear the enmity of Venice, and was the more anxious to strengthen his alliance with this near neighbour, gladly accepted his proposals, and as soon as preliminary matters had been arranged with the envoy, the Duke sent for his little daughter.
"Madonna Isabella," wrote Cusatro to his master, "was then led in to see me, and I questioned her on many subjects, to all of which she replied with rare good sense and quickness. Her answers seemed truly miraculous in a child of six, and although I had already heard much of her singular intelligence, I could never have imagined such a tiling to be possible."
A few days afterwards the envoy sent a portrait of the youthful princess by Cosimo Tura, the Duke's court-painter, to Mantua, with the following note: "I send the portrait of Madonna Isabella, so that Your Highness and Don Francesco may see her face, but I can assure you that her marvellous knowledge and intelligence are far more worthy of admiration."
The excellent impression which the little bride made upon Cusatro was confirmed by another Mantuan envoy, who informed the Marquis that he had seen Madonna Isabella dance with her master Messer Ambrogio, a Jew in the Duke of Urbino's service, and that the grace and elegance of her movements were amazing in one of her tender age.1
On the Feast of St. George, always a great day at the Court of Ferrara, another envoy arrived from Duchess Bona of Milan, and her brotherLETTERS TO FRANCESCO 5
1 A. Luzio, / Precettori d'Isabella d'Este, p. 12.
in-law, the Regent Lodovico Sforza, asking for Madonna Isabella's hand on behalf of the said Signor Lodovico. Since, however, his elder daughter was already betrothed, the Duke offered to give Lodovico the hand of his younger daughter, Beatrice, with the consent of her grandfather, the King of Naples, who warmly approved of the Milanese alliance. So on the 28th of May, the betrothal of the Duke's two daughters was publicly proclaimed on the Piazza in front of the Castello.
In the following spring, the Marquis of Mantua brought his son Francesco to spend the Feast of St. George at Ferrara, and make acquaintance with his bride and her family. The Mantuan chronicler, Schivenoglia, relates how on this occasion the Marquis and his suite of six hundred followers sailed down the Po in four bucentaurs, how Duke Ercole, in his anxiety to do his guests honour, fed the whole party on lamb and veal and similar delicacies during the four days which they spent in Ferrara, and how his master's famous Barbary horses won the race, and carried back the polio of cloth of gold in triumph to Mantua. After this first meeting with her future husband, Isabella frequently exchanged letters with Francesco, who sent her presents and verses written in her honour by the poets at his court. Some of these formal little notes, in Isabella's own handwriting, are still preserved, Dr. Luzio tells us, in the Gonzaga Archives. On the 22nd of May 1483, the little princess writes from Modena, where the Duke's children had been sent for safety during the war with Venice, thanking Francesco for his inquiries after her health. "Although when your letters and presents reached me I was ill, their arrival has made me 6 LEONORA'S MADONNA
suddenly well. But when I heard that if I were still suffering from illness Your Highness thought of coming to Modena, to see me, I almost wished myself ill again, if only to have the pleasure of seeing you."1
A year later the Marquis Federico died, and Isabella wrote to condole with Francesco on his father's death, begging him to dry his tears and take comfort for her sake. The new Marquis from the first showed himself an ardent lover, and neglected no opportunity of paying attention to his bride's family. Hearing that the Duchess of Ferrara was anxious to possess a certain Madonna by the hand of Andrea Mantegna, the loyal servant and court-painter of the Gonzagas, he wrote to that master on the 6th of November 1485, enclosing Leonora's letter, and begging him to comply with her request.
"Carissime noster. Our most illustrious Madonna the Duchess of Ferrara, as you will see by the letters which we enclose in order that you may the better understand her wishes, is very anxious to have a certain picture by your hand. We trust that you will satisfy this lady, and use the utmost diligence to finish the said picture, and beg of you to put forth all your powers, as we feel sure you will do, and that as quickly as possible, since we are most desirous to gratify the said illustrious Madonna." Goito, Nov. 6, 1485.
On the same day Francesco wrote to his future mother-in-law:—
"Hearing that Your Excellency desires to have a picture of the Madonna with some other figures that is still unfinished by the hand of Andrea Mantegna, ANDREA MANTEGNA 7
1 A. Luzio, / Precettori dIsabella d'Este, p. 13.
I have told him to finish it with the utmost care, and hope to bring it with me, when I come, as I hope, before long, to visit Your Illustrious Highness. If not, I will send it you, as it is my greatest pleasure to be able to do anything for you. To whom I commend myself, praying that you may fare well."
A week later, the impatient young Prince wrote again to Mantegna on the subject:—
"Carissime noster. We wrote before to beg you to finish a picture of the Madonna with other figures, at the prayer of that illustrious Madonna the Duchess of Ferrara, but do not know if you have yet put your hand to the work, so now we repeat that you must finish it as quickly as possible, seeing that we greatly desire this thing, in order to be able to satisfy the wish of the said lady as soon as possible." Goito, Nov. 14, 1485.
Again on the 12th December he returned to the charge:—
"We must remind you to lose no time in finishing the picture which you have begun, and which we wish to give the Duchess of Ferrara, and hope you will use such diligence that we may be able to present it to her this Christmas, and we will take care that you are well rewarded, and that your labour is not thrown away."
Mantegna did not fail to obey his young lord's command, and on the 15th Francesco wrote as follows:—
"We are sure that in finishing this picture you will use such diligence as will do you honour, and that it will bring you no small glory. And as Lodovico of Bologna is going to Venice, you had 8 ELISABETTA GONZAGA
better see him about that varnish, if you have not already spoken to him, that he may bring or send you some without delay."1
Leonora on her part wrote to express her joy not only at the prospect of receiving Messer Andrea's Madonna, but of seeing Francesco himself, and the young Marquis met with a cordial welcome when he reached Ferrara with his precious picture. Mantegna's Madonna was given a place among Leonora's choicest treasures, and is mentioned in the inventory of her pictures, taken after her death, as "a painting on panel of Our Lady and her Son with seraphim, by the hand of Mantegna." The picture now hangs in the Brera, and its smiling cherub faces and glowing tints are almost as fresh and fair as on the day on which they left Andrea's workshop.
It is uncertain if Leonora herself brought her daughter to visit her affianced husband at Mantua, and there saw Mantegna at work on the great series of Triumphs which he was painting for the Marquis, but we know that, in February 1488, Francesco's sister Elisabetta visited Ferrara on her way to celebrate her marriage at Urbino, and received the rite of confirmation from the Bishop of Ferrara in the chapel of the ducal palace in the presence of the Duke and Duchess and their family. There Isabella met the sister-in-law who was to become her dearest and closest friend, and the warm welcome which the motherless young Princess received from the kind Duchess Leonora, and the sisterly affection of the Marchesana, were a great consolation to her in the grief which she felt at parting from her brothers
1 Archiiio Gonzaga, Copialettera, 126, quoted in Andrea Mantegna, by Paul Kristeller, App., p. 482.