Books: Isabella d’Este's hunt for a Leonardo painting

Isabella d’Este was not satisfied with an objet d’art and a drawing; she was determined to have Leonardo da Vinci paint her portrait


Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua, was born in 1474, married in 1490, and died in 1539. Thanks in large measure to the single-minded devotion of her principal tutor, the neo-Platonist scholar Mario Equicola, Isabella developed a formidable intellectual capacity that she put to good use in the development of her studiolo and, in due course, of her grotto as well.

Both of these became areas within her private domain in which she housed her collection of works of art, and it is no wonder that this became the much sought after destination of such famous names as Montaigne, Perugino and Giovanni Bellini. In or about the year 1500, Isabella’s imagination was fired to acquire one or more of the objets d’art that had, in an earlier time, been among the famous possessions of the Medici family. This became Isabella’s overriding aim, but it soon became clear to her that its achievement would require resources well beyond her financial capacity. It then occurred to her that a more readily accessible means of achieving at least an approximation to her purpose would be to seek out someone with the knowledge and skill capable of providing her with a truly excellent copy of what she sought. This episode has been carefully reconstructed in Isabella and Leonardo: the Artistic Relationship between Isabella d’Este and Leonardo da Vinci, by Francis Ames-Lewis, the Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London. He relates how she, for this project, turned to none other than Leonardo da Vinci, a man of proven ability in this and many other fields. And Leonardo did not disappoint her. Thanks to him, Isabella became the proud possessor of a copy of the object she sought and, better still, a drawing of herself. (Sad to relate the precious object, wrought in jasper, silver and much else besides, no longer exists in its original form, although it is possible that it may yet be found among the many artefacts preserved in the Florentine Museo degli Argenti.)

Various travels on the part of Leonardo ensued, including journeys to Florence, Naples, Milan and Mantua. It was during one of his sojourns in Mantua that Isabella decided to remind Leonardo that, although he had given her a copy of the drawing that he promised her, he had failed to give her, as he had also promised, her painted portrait.

True, to have acquired a drawing of herself by this famous artist was an achievement, but how much more impressive would be a full-scale picture in colour? It was thus in these terms that Isabella now wrote to Leonardo, who replied with a mixture of courtesy and prevarication. Suspecting that it was Leonardo’s tendency to respond to a plea for assistance in this way, Isabella sought the assistance of an influential friend and ally in the person of Fra Piero da Novella, vicar-general of the Florentine Carmelites. Fra Piero’s response was honest but not altogether encouraging: Leonardo, he said, was extraordinarily busy with many commitments; he would doubtless do what he could to meet Isabella’s wishes, but she should not expect a speedy reply, etc, etc. Isabella was thus in baulk, and came to the conclusion that she must now make a rather different approach. Modestly, she wrote to Leonardo with a simple request for a painting of the young Christ at the age of 12. The reply was, alas, predictable: Leonardo was, it appeared, deeply touched—but Isabella must recognise that his response would necessarily be delayed by other pressing commitments. Perhaps Isabella, he suggested, would accept an alternative subject? On the verge of desperation, Isabella wrote to indicate that she would gratefully accept whatever painting Leonardo chose. But answer came there none.

In part, the truth of the matter was that Leonardo was indeed very busy, with a major depiction of the Battle of Anghiari commissioned for display in Florence’s Palazzo della Signoria. What hope did Isabella have of competing successfully against such a demand from such a source? More to the point, the artist within Leonardo would never have seen this simply as a competition between a painting and a drawing: to him, both were potentially valid representations of an inherently beautiful concept. If Isabella could not or would not accept this, that would be her loss, not his.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Master and the Marchesa'