- Isabella d'Este: Selected Letters transed. by Deanna Shemek
This collection speaks not only to the career and agency of Isabella d'Este, marchesa di Mantova, but also provides evidence of the activities and influence of other powerful and influential women who formed part of her extensive networks of news-gathering and correspondence.
Elite and royal women such as Isabella d'Este might not have led armies in person, but they certainly had a considerable role to play in the organization and provisioning of military campaigns. Such women were not cloistered away from the main game of both secular and ecclesiastical politics and diplomacy — we fall into error if we assume that the public and the private in all of this existed as discrete spheres of influence and agency, with the domestic or private sphere held to be somehow less important. With this selection of 830 letters from some 16,000 extant letters preserved in the Archivio di Stato di Mantova, Shemek contributes to the accumulating body of evidence of the sans frontières un-exceptionality of elite and royal female agency, authority and influence during the pre-modern and early modern periods.
Shemek has arranged her almost 700-page volume coherently with a view to ease of access. She commences proceedings with a targeted Introduction, 'Isabella d'Este: Princess, Collector, Correspondent', which gives the reader ample background information regarding her protagonist as well as laying out her aims in selecting the letters she has included from the some 16,000 available to her. Shemek offers us a broad selection of Isabella's correspondence, the first of its kind and 'the most voluminous documentary record of her "voice" in many spheres' (pp. 2–3) and the first such selection to be translated into English. In offering up such a catholic selection, Shemek seeks both to 'entice new readers to explore the rich landscape of early modern Europe and bring new material to bear on discussions of the period among [End Page 252] experts in the field' (p. 3). In this she succeeds to an admirable extent, and I am convinced that she will likewise manage to unsettle 'comfortable notions of Isabella's character that derive from partial or prejudicial views' (p. 3).
The letters are organized chronologically across five decades of Isabella's highly productive and influential life. Section 1, Letters 1–200, covers the period 1479–99, taking in the first decade of her reign as marchesa of Mantua. It opens with a charming letter addressed to her father (23) recording the injustice she felt upon being held by her mother's lady-in-waiting Sirvia while being spanked by Madama, her mother Eleonora d'Este, having been first scolded by her governess Colonna. Shemek emphasizes that such letters give a rare glimpse of a princess in formation (21). Isabella's correspondence here testifies to her work on many fronts as a governing consort, and sheds light upon the urgency for the production of a male heir.
Section 2, 1500–1509, Letters 201–420, provides us with a rich tapestry of Isabella's second decade as marchesa. Moments of domestic intimacy share the pages with politics, luxury consumption, and the tricky business of court management. They show her hard at work on behalf of her subjects, and emphasize the importance of having trusted networks. With the capture of Francesco Gonzaga by Venetian forces, 1510 would prove to be Isabella's personal annus horribilis.
Section 3, 1510–1519, Letters 421–608, opens with Francesco's capture, then release, and closes with his death in 1519. Isabella strove mightily to keep their state solvent during Francesco's captivity: there was famine to complicate matters, and a schism developed between the couple as Francesco sought his freedom by suggesting that he exchange their young son and heir Federico as a hostage to obtain it. The couple emerged from...