Julia Mary Cartwright Ady.

Isabella d'Este, marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539; a study of the renaissance (Volume 2) online

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at Mantua and Urbino, " I send you a marble figure,
which was lately dug up here. Your Excellency is
so learned in these things that you will, I am sure,
recognise its beauty and understand its meaning at
once, without sending for Zoan Cristoforo. And


I beg you to place it in your Grotta for my sake." *
Then Stazio Gadio, her son's tutor, tells her of a
head of Ariadne and a fine marble satyr, which have
been lately brought to light. Unfortunately Isabella
was compelled to decline these offers, sorely against
her will, having no money to spare, since she had
spent too much in building a new house ; although
she owned that, were she to see these antiquities, it
was quite possible they would please her so much that
she would have to keep them. 2 But in the course
of that autumn she did succeed in adding one antique
of rare beauty to her collection — a Cupid sleeping
on a hon's skin, which was ascribed to Praxiteles.
The precious marble belonged to Alessandro Bonatti,
and after a prolonged correspondence was ultimately
acquired by her agent, Brognolo, with the help of
Cardinal di S. Prassede, Duke Guidobaldo, and his
nephew, Francesco Maria. It was sent to Mantua
in December, and placed in the Grotta, where De
Thou saw it when he visited the Castello in 1573,
and pronounced it to be still more beautiful than
the famous Cupid of Michel Angelo. A tradition
indeed was current at Mantua in those days that
Michel Angelo himself, conscious of the superiority
of the Greek marble, begged the Marchesa always
to show his Cupid to visitors before they were allowed
to see the genuine antique. Cristoforo Romano,
who took a keen interest in the Roman excavations,
and was present with Michel Angelo when the Laocoon
was discovered in the bed of the Tiber, praised this
Cupid as one of the finest things which he had seen,
in a very interesting letter which he wrote to Isabella
on the 1st of December.

^ Luzio e Ilenier, Mantova e Urbino, p. l68.
* D'Arco, Arle e Artejici, ii. 77.


" Illustrious Lady mine, — This morning I pre-
sented your letter with much pleasure to the Cardinal
di S. Prassede, delivering it with my own hands,
and he spoke very warmly of you, and made me
all manner of offers in your name, for which I thanked
him sincerely. Only he is so old that he will hardly
be able to do much more for us. Thank God I
am keeping well, and live happy under the shadow
of Your Excellency's protection, which follows me
all over the world. Yesterday I kissed the feet of
His Holiness and saluted him in your name, which
pleased him greatly. He sends you his best thanks,
and will attend to your wishes, of which I informed
him ; but, as he was engaged with these Cardinals,
I could not say anything more to him. Since then
I have been spending my time in revisiting the
remains of ancient Rome. So many 'fine things'
have been discovered since I was here last that I
am dumbfoundered at the sight. Here many people
take interest in these matters, so that it has become
very difficult to get the best things, unless you are
the fii'st to see them and ready to pay well, as
they soon fetch large prices. I must go and see a
bronze relief worked in silver, which I hear is very
fine, and which, it seems to me. Your Highness
might hke. I will strike the bargain if I can, be-
cause it would be an ornament worthy of any place.
And I will keep my eyes open, and have already
told the excavators to let me know, before any one
else, if they find a really good antique, and I will
lose no opportunity of serving you. But, if Your
Excellency comes to Rome this carnival, I am sure
many fine presents will be given you, and here your
coming is awaited with the utmost eagerness. I


have already told several Cardinals that you are
coming to Rome without fail, and I know they will
give you so warm a welcome, and you will be so
happy, and this place and everything here will
please you so well, that you vnll grieve to leave
it, and will often wish to return, and this for many
reasons. Because, in the first place, you will find
sweet and pleasant company, most of all that of
Madonna Felice, the Pope's daughter, a most charm-
ing lady, of rare intellect and goodness, very fond
of antiques, of letters, and of all good works, and
a devoted slave of Your Highness, as she has often
told me. I rejoice to hear of your fine boy. Thank
God your illness has ended so happily I Be of good
cheer, dear lady, and may God give you much joy
in your children. I repeat that the Cupid which
Brognolo has secured for you is a most rare and
excellent thing, and I swear, by the God I adore,
that if it had been bought for any one but Your
Highness it should never have left Rome. In old
days, when I was a boy, I used all my power and
skill to prevent such things going to the Cardinal
of Aragon and Lorenzo dei Medici, because it grieved
me then, as it still grieves me to-day, to see Rome
stripped of all its treasures. And there are few such
marbles left here now. But for Your Excellency's
sake I would do anything, and care for nothing
else in the world as long as I am able to please
you. — Your servant, Zoan Cristoforg Romano."^
Cristoforo's description of the rage for antiques
which prevailed at the time in Rome, and of the
difficulty of securing any really good work at a
reasonable price, is confirmed by another of Isabella's

^ A. Venturi, op. cit.


correspondents, a Greek scholar, Giorgio diNegroponto,
whom she had also commissioned to send her some
beautiful thing for the Grotta. " Although, in truth,"
he writes to the Marchesa on the 19th of May 1507,
" nothing is left of ancient Rome but her immortal
name, with some ruins and fragments of statues,
whenever I see something of rare excellence I wish
for the magician's wand to waft it to my dear lady.
If it costs me my life, I will manage to send some
beautiful antique, but indeed, Madama mia, this is
a work of great difficulty. For, if such a thing is
found, there are in a moment so many buyers in
the market that it needs a miracle to secure it. I
hear of men buying finely worked medals, covered
with rust, for 8 or 10 ducats, and seUing them for
25 or 30, and sometimes they lose, and at other
times they make money. Not four days ago a
man bought a medal of Nero for 6 ducats, and after
cleaning it could have sold it for 12 ducats, but
would not take less than 25. Last Saturday a
Roman, who was digging in his garden in the Campo
di Fiori, found a Hercules clad in the hon's skin,
holding a club in the right hand, and in the left a
boy of four years old. Phsedrus (the learned Cardinal
Inghirami, whose portrait was painted by Raphael)
says that the statue is not a Hercules at all, but
represents the Emperor Commodus. It was taken
to the Vatican the day after it had been dug up, and
I hear that His Holiness has given the lucky finder
a benefice worth 130 ducats a year."

This statue of Hercules and Telephus, or Commo-
dus with the attributes of Hercules, as it is sometimes
called, is still one of the ornaments of the Belvedere
Museum, where it was placed by Pope Julius. Three


months later, this same Cioifrio offered Isabella an
antique pavement of porphyry, serpentine, and other
coloured marbles, but we do not hear if she was
able to pay for it, gladly as she would have obtained
it for her Grotta/

Unfortunately Isabella's wish to visit Rome was
once more disappointed. Several years passed away,
and her friend, the sculptor, had long been in his
grave, when she at length saw the wonders of the
Eternal City. On the very day that she received
Mantegna's Faustina, she wrote joyfully to tell
Cristoforo, who fully appreciated the value of her
latest acquisition. " We think you have heard,*' she
wrote on the 5th of August 1506, "how we secured
M. Vianello's agate vase and painting of Pharaoh,
and now we have also obtained possession of the
Faustina of M. Andrea Mantegna. So, little by
little, we are forming a studio of our own. Be stil]
on the look-out for any antiques, bronzes, medals, of
other excellent things, and let us know their prices
quickly, but in any case buy the medals, and we
will not fail to send the money." ^

This paragraph forms the postscript to a long
letter which the Marchesa devotes to one of those
practical jokes which these great ladies were fond of
playing on their courtiers. In this case, the person
m question was Bernardo Accolti, the brilliant
improvisatore known as TUnico Aretino, whose
popularity was so great in Rome that the shops
were shut and the streets deserted when he began
to recite. This eccentric poet professed the most
extravagant adoration for the Duchess of Urbino,

1 Luzio in Arch. St. Lomb., 1886, p. 9*.
" A. Venturi, Arch. St. d. Arte, i. 151.


while his excessive vanity exposed him to frequent
attacks from the wits and jesters at her court.^ On
this occasion Isabella had desired Cristoforo Romano
to give the poet one of her portrait medals when he
saw him at Fossombrone, on his way to Rome, but
the Duchess, by way of teasing her adorer, begged
the sculptor only to show him the Marchesa's medal
and tell him that he could not spare a replica. As
EUsabetta expected, the Aretine's jealousy was
greatly excited when he found how many of these
medals had been distributed in Rome and Urbino
among Isabella's friends, and he filled both courts
with bitter complaints. At length the Duchess
began to think it was time to put an end to his
delusion, and Isabella sent Cristoforo a letter feign-
ing the utmost displeasure at his forgetfulness in
neglecting to give the Aretine her medal. In a
postscript she privately begged him to let the poet
see this fictitious document, in order to save EHsa-
betta's reputation, and prevent the spoilt favourite
from discovering the trick which had caused every
one else so much amusement. This was only one
of many similar pieces of fooling in which both
these wise and middle-aged princesses took dehght,
and which the extravagant adulation of the Aretine's
language and sentiments provoked. The cruelty of
the traitress of Urbino and the fascinating wiles of
the siren of Mantua — " la ficatella delta Marchesana
e la giotoncella de la Duchessa di TJrhino^'' as he
presumed to style these illustrious ladies — were the
perpetual themes of the letters and verses which he
addressed to his patrons, and which they accepted
and answered in the same singular strain.

1 Dennistoun, op. cit., vol. ii. p. 63.


Another replica of the Marchesa's medal which
Cristolbro Romano took with him to Naples in the
autumn of 1507, was given by her orders to her
husband's faithful secretary, Jacopo d'Atri, who had
long been absent from Mantua, on a diplomatic
mission to Ferdinand the Catholic, and who welcomed
this gift with heartfelt joy.

" Zoan Cristoforo," he wrote to Isabella on the
24th of October, " your devoted servant, is here, and
has given me a medal of Your Excellency, which is
infinitely beautiful, as you are yourself. He tells me
that he has shown it as a divine thing to all these
Queens, who looked at it with the greatest admira-
tion. The Queen Consort saw it before she went to
Spain, and seemed as if she could never be tired of
looking at it, saying that, besides rare beauty of
feature, it showed signs of great intelligence, which
agreed with the reputation you possessed when she
Hved in France and made her exceedingly anxious
to meet you." This was Germaine de Foix, the
second wife of Ferdinand the CathoHc, who had been
brought up at the French court. The other illus-
trious ladies then present at Naples were Isabella's
aunt, Beatrice, the widowed Queen of Hungary ; her
cousin, Isabella, Duchess of Milan ; and the daughters
of Gonsalvo de Cordova, Viceroy of Naples. " All
the others who saw your portrait praised it in the
highest terms, especially the gallant and gracious
daughters of the Great Captain, who, after looking at
it again and again a thousand times over, kissed the
beautiful medal, saying that they too had often heard
of your talents and virtues. I asked Zoan Cristoforo
which of aU these great ladies would like to have a
similar medal best, and he replied that all of them had


praised it in the same glowing terms, but that those
who had the best judgment gave it the highest
praise. Above all, the fair and gallant daughters
of the Great Captain seemed to wish exceedingly to
possess such an effigy of Your Highness. Since
Zoan Cristoforo has been here, he has also made a
medal of the Duchess of Milan, which is very beauti-
ful, and has a very skilfully wrought veil, but only
the face and head are finished as yet. Besides this,
he has made another of the Pope, which is very like
him, but which people care for less, as he is old and
ugly. But the reverse — two figures offering a
sacrifice — is admirable, and may be compared, in
the judgment of the best critics, to a fine antique.
I feel sure that it will please Your Highness, whose
servant he always remains. To-day he goes to Rome
with the Cardinal of Aragon." ^

After spending the next two years in Rome and
Urbino, where he was always a welcome guest,
Cristoforo went to the Santa Casa of Loreto, where
Pope Julius employed him to rebuild the Campanile
of this famous Basihca, and to continue the works
which Bramante had begun. He still wrote lively
letters to his friend Bembo at the Court of Urbino,
*' the temple of virtue and chastity," where his happiest
days had been spent, and sent affectionate greetings
to the Duchess and Emilia Pia. And both Isabella
and her brother, Cardinal d'Este, exerted themselves
to obtain a rich benefice which he coveted. But his
health failed rapidly, and he died in IMay 1512, leaving
to the notary who made his will his copy of Bembo's
Asolani as his most precious possession. Casio wrote
a Latin epitaph for his tomb at Loreto, and Isabella

^ Venturi, op. cit.


lamented liim as a true friend and loyal servant, as well
as one of the most brilliant and accomplished artists
of her court.

There was another cultivated gentleman, the
Knight of S. John, Fra Sabba da Castiglione, a
kinsman of Baldassarre, and an intimate friend of
Cristoforo Romano, who corresponded frequently
with Isabella on those subjects which interested
her so deeply. Born in 1484 at Milan, Fra Sabba
had known Cristoforo and Lorenzo da Pavia at
the Sforzas' court, and remembered Niccolo da
Correggio as the finest gentleman of his day. On
his way to join the Knights of his Order in the island
of Rhodes, in May 1505, he paid a visit to Mantua
and promised the charming Marchesa to send her
some of the choice antiques that were daily being
brought to light in the isles of Greece. During the
three years which he spent on this barren island, far
from his "sweet friends and dearly loved Italy," he
devoted himself loyally to this task in spite of many
difficulties. There were, as he told her, in Rhodes,
especially in the garden of the Grand Master, many
excellent sculptures lying despised and uncared for,
exposed to wind and rain, which made him feel as if
the bones of his father were unburied. But when he
expressed his feelings in a sonnet, which he hung
round the neck of a statue, the Knights of other
nationaUties, " of whom," he remarks, " the less said
the better," declared that he was an idolater, like
all Italians, and he found it wise to hold his peace.
Under these circumstances Fra Sabba advised
the Marchesa to ask Monseigneur de Chaumont,
the French Viceroy of Milan, who was a nephew
of the Grand Master, to beg his uncle to


send him some Greek statues and other antiquities.
She might further suggest that, as His Reverence
was no doubt occupied with affairs of greater im-
portance, he should desire the Italian Era Sabba da
Castiglione to undertake this commission. Only,
the Marchesa must on no account allow it to appear
that the suggestion proceeds from Sabba himself.
" For in this case," wrote the young Knight, ** I shall
be handed over as a pagan and heretic to the Inqui-
sition, who will promptly reduce me to smoke and
ashes ! Such, alas ! is the folly and malevolence of
ignorant men ! " ^

In his lonely exile the poor young scholar thought
sadly of the happy days that he had spent at Milan
and Mantua, and begged to be affectionately remem-
bered to Messer Marchetto, the famous singer, and
Messer Fedele, the goldsmith. His own literary
pursuits, he tells Isabella, are all in abeyance. His
collection of epitaphs, which was to be dedicated to
the Marchesa, remains unfinished, and he can make
but little progress with a new work on Chivalry, in
which he is attempting to draw the portrait of a good
and perfect knight according to his own ideas. But at
least he can discuss the subject with the Castilian
Knights of his Order, who know, or think they know,
a great deal on the subject. But Mars, with his
horrid trumpet, is ever calling him to arms, and the
hand which once held the pen must now handle sword
and lance. For an attack from the Turk is daily
expected, and the gallant Knights are making ready
and await his coming with devotion and courage.

Meanwhile his one solace, he tells his dear lady,

1 Leltere inedite di Fra Sabba da Castiglione ; Luzio, Arch. St.
Lomb., 1886, p. 99.


is that he has founded a new Academy, on a strange
Parnassus if you will — with no magnificent halls or
golden portico, and no well-cultivated gardens gay
with flowers, but on the barren sea-shore, where the
waves dash against the rocks and the winds howl with
ceaseless fury. Here he recites tragedies, comedies,
eclogues, and satires to the music of the wild waves,
and if a hoarse raven should chance to alight on the
rocks and lend an attentive ear to his recitation, he
counts himself most fortunate and marks the day
with a white stone. " So life goes with a man doomed
to spend his days among barbarians I But perhaps,"
he adds, " Fortune, the strong goddess, is keeping me
for better times." There are gleams of sunshine too
in his dreary life, as when, in the month of May, he
goes for a summer sail to the Cyclades and sees the
birthplace of so many divine heroes. He visits
Delos, the home of Apollo and Diana, but could
weep to see the broken columns and infinite number
of marble statues, carved by the finest chisels, lying
on the ground, and longs in vain to bear away these
priceless fragments to adorn his lady's Grotta. All
he can send her are his medals, which he wraps
up in a sonnet written amid the ruins of the temple,
so that at least she may be able to say that her
collection boasts some antiques from the home of

At length, after eighteen weary months, the long-
desired letter from Monseigneur de Chaumont arrived,
and was duly presented to the Grand Master. The
Marchesa had acted with her habitual dexterity, and
ere long His Most Reverend Signory gave Fra Sabba
gracious permission to search for ancient marbles and

1 Luzio, op. cit., pp. 100-105.


send them by ship to Venice. The poor Knight
was in the seventh heaven ! Now at length he may
roam at will through the island, seeking out new
treasures with the eyes of Argus, without fear of being
branded as a heretic or idolater. But there are still
two perilous shoals to be avoided. One is the danger
of the treasures falling into the hands of a certain
Knight of the Order at Venice, who may detain them
longer than is convenient ; the other, that they should
be sent to Milan. For, although Monseigneur de
Chaumont, being of French race and a native of a
barbarous country, cares httle for such things — unless,
indeed, it were a head of Father Bacchus, the god of
wine I — there are many good antiquaries in Milan
who know the true value of these precious fragments.
So he takes advantage of the visit of a Parma
traveller, who is on his way home, to send Isabella
two heads of Amazons from the newly discovered
Tomb at Hahcarnassus, erected, it is said, by Arte-
misia in honour of her husband Mausolus, as well
as a marble statuette — without head or limbs, alas !
but with the finest draperies — from the Isle of
Naxos. "And although it is sadly mutilated," he
adds, " I beg Your Signory to take it with a glad
heart and serene brow, for I think it will not dis-
please Andrea Mantegna nor my own Zoan Cristo-
foro, if these two are still present in human form
among us." But when Fra Sabba's letter {ex clara
R/wdo) was written, on the 16th of April 1507,
Cristoforo had already gone to Rome, and Messer
Andi-ea had been dead many months.

These things, "contrary to their custom," as
Sabba remarks, reached their destination safely, and
brought him a grateful letter from the Marchesa,



" that happy Madonna who shines as the sun among
the smaller stars." Unluckily, his search for antiques
was interrupted by a serious illness, and when he was
about to land at Halicarnassus, after a two months'
cruise, in the depth of winter, the sudden appearance
of twenty armed Turkish galleys forced him to beat
a retreat, without ever seeing the noble Tomb which
was the object of his journey. When he suggested
that the Grand Master should present Isabella with a
marble sea-god clasping a nymph in his arms, which
had lately been sent him from Halicarnassus, His
Reverence repUed, " like a person of little knowledge
in these matters, that he could not send so insignifi-
cant a figure to so great a lady, and I dared say no
more," adds Sabba, "for the least contradiction
makes him as difficult to handle as a prickly
broom." Another marble vase, on which Sabba
also had his eye, was, unluckily, converted by the
same dignitary into a wine-cooler, so that all he
could send Isabella that time was a bundle of a
sweet-scented wood called calamus, "which takes a
most beautiful polish, and would make a fine lyre or
viol in the hands of any good instrument maker."
But in his secret soul, as he tells his dear lady, he
cherishes a magnificent dream, which, if carried
out, would give her glorious city a new splendour.
This is nothing less than the removal to Mantua of
the noble and celebrated Tomb lately discovered at
Halicarnassus. He has already spoken to the captain of
an Italian ship and a Cremona engineer, both of whom
assure him this could easily be managed, at compara-
tively small expense. But before this splendid dream
could be carried into execution, the leave of absence
arrived, for which Fra Sabba had so long pined


and he left Rhodes with joy, only regretting that he
had never seen Artemisia's Mausoleum.

Before his departure, he obtained the Grand
Master's leave to send the marble sea-god to Mantua,
and managed to smuggle a marble head from Chios
and another fine fragment from Delos among his own

In July 1508, Fra Sabba reached Rome after his
three years' exile, and to his great joy was invited to
enter the service of the Vicar- General of his Order
in that city. He remained in Rome till 1516, when
he was appointed Prior of a house of Knights of
S. John near Faenza. Here he lived till an
advanced old age, enjoying books and leisure, and
writing the Eicordi, in which he describes himself as
" a poor Knight, whose little studio is adorned with a
head of St. John Baptist by Donatello and a St.
Jerome in alabaster by a Lombard master, the finest
I have ever seen, and can also boast several intar-
siatura pictures by Fra Damiano da Bergamo." ^

Here he received visits fi'om Cardinal Bembo and
many of his old friends, and in 1529 had the honour
of entertaining His HoUness Pope Clement VII.
when he came to crown the Emperor Charles V.
at Bologna. Fra Sabba sent Isabella the antiques
which he had brought from Rhodes, as soon as he
landed in Italy, but we never learn if he saw the
Marchesa again.

1 Luzio op. cit. ; Peluso in Arch. St. Lomb., 1876, p. 370.



Isabella's library in the Grotta — Her relations with Aldo Manuzio —
Letters of Lorenzo da Pa via and of Aldo — The Aldine editions
of classics — Isabella's letters to Aldo — He is thrown into prison
on Mantuan territory — Letter of the Emperor Maximilian to
Isabella on his behalf — Death of Aldo Manuzio — Lorenzo
da Pavia's last letters to Isabella — His journey to Rome and

Online LibraryJulia Mary Cartwright AdyIsabella d'Este, marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539; a study of the renaissance (Volume 2) → online text (page 2 of 32)