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The Este Dynasty of Ferrara, Italy: Background information when reading The Marriage Portrait

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The Marriage Portrait

A novel

by Maggie O'Farrell

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell X
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 352 pages

    Jul 2023, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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About this Book

The Este Dynasty of Ferrara, Italy

This article relates to The Marriage Portrait

Print Review

Painting of Isabella d'Este by TitianIn The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O'Farrell captures the dark personality of Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara (a region in northern Italy), who lived from 1533 to 1597. Alfonso was the last in his family lineage, which stretched back to the 13th century. As monarchs around the world have experienced throughout history, a lack of male heirs doomed the Este dynasty — despite marrying three times, Alfonso fathered no children. Prior to the end of the line, however, the Este family produced some of the most colorful characters and generous art patrons of the Italian Renaissance.

The most notable members of the family include Ercole I (d. 1505), who became a leading patron by bringing artists to the court at Ferrara — he had a particular fondness for music and theater. His two daughters, Beatrice and Isabella, were famous in their time both for their love of fine art and for their political prowess. Beatrice died young, in 1497 at age 21, but she was the wife of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, and in 1495 she directed military operations against the invading French army while Ludovico recovered from a stroke.

Isabella (d. 1539) was also famous for her learning and statesmanship. As historian Margaret L. King writes in her book Women of the Renaissance, "…she had mastered Greek and Latin, the signs of serious scholarship, alongside such skills as lute-playing, dance, and witty conversation." She ruled in her husband's stead when he, Francesco, Marquess of Mantua, was captured by the Venetians in 1509. She managed Mantua's defenses until he was released. After Francesco died in 1519, she continued to rule as regent until her eldest son came of age.

Isabella was also renowned for her patronage of artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Titian. Her palace in Mantua had multiple rooms filled with fine paintings she commissioned, and she was an avid collector of antiquities. As a wealthy noblewoman, she had access to education — a relative rarity at the time — and she put her learning to good use.

Despite her erudition, political skills and eye for artwork, Isabella was very insecure about her appearance. Not helping that situation was her husband's affair with the beautiful and notorious Lucrezia Borgia, who was married to Isabella's brother.

It was Lucrezia Borgia's son, Ercole II, who married the Protestant Renée of France, and they produced Alfonso II. Renée looms in the background of The Marriage Portrait as a threat to the political and religious stability of Ferrara as the Reformation roils Europe.

Even with his reign imperiled by a lack of heirs, Alfonso II was a devoted patron of artists, including Torquino Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini. He maintained the family's dedication to art, but the dynasty ended with him in 1597, and within a year the pope annexed Ferrara, ending the eventful rule of the Este family.

Isabella d'Este painted by Titian, c. 1534–1536, courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Rose Rankin

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Marriage Portrait. It originally ran in October 2022 and has been updated for the July 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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