18 November 2016

Eleonora Gonzaga – Holy Roman Empress

Pious princess who promoted the arts and education

Eleonora Gonzaga: a portrait by Frans Luycx, the Flemish artist
Eleonora Gonzaga: a portrait by
 Frans Luycx, the Flemish artist
Eleonora Gonzaga, Princess of Mantua, Nevers and Rethel, was born on this day in 1630 in Mantua.

She grew up to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, and established a reputation as one of the most educated and virtuous women of her time.

Eleonora became fascinated by religious poetry, founded a literary academy and was a patron of musical theatre.

As Holy Roman Empress she developed the cultural and spiritual life at the Imperial Court in Vienna, continuing the work of her great aunt, also called Eleonora, who had introduced opera to Vienna in the early part of the 17th century.

Vienna subsequently became recognised as the music capital of Europe.

Eleonora was the second child of Charles Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers, who was heir to the Duchy of Mantua, and Maria Gonzaga, who was heiress to the Duchy of Montferrat.

She was given a good education, became fluent in French, Spanish and Italian and learnt about literature, music and art.

Having become interested in poetry, she composed religious and philosophical poems herself.

Ferdinand III, as depicted by Jan van den Hoecke
Ferdinand III, as depicted by Jan van den Hoecke
A marriage was arranged for her with the Holy Roman Emperor, who imposed the condition that the Duchy of Mantua had to remain loyal to the Empire. It was agreed that Mantua would stay loyal to the empire provided it didn’t have negative consequences for the Duchy.

It was the third marriage for Ferdinand, who had children from both his previous marriages.

But after the wedding in April 1651 at Wiener Neustadt, he became happy with Eleonora and she established good relationships with all her stepchildren.

She learned German and Ferdinand learned Italian. They were both interested in literature and music and enjoyed going to the theatre and hunting together.

They founded a literary academy and encouraged the development of science.

Italians became more influential at the Imperial Court and Italian became the most used language among the German aristocracy.

They had four children between 1652 and 1657, but Ferdinand died two months after the birth of his first son by Eleonora, Ferdinand Joseph Alois, who himself died just over a year later.

But under Ferdinand’s will, Eleonora assumed guardianship of all his children and she supported her stepson, Leopold I, when he became the new Emperor.

She tried to improve the standard of education for girls by inviting the Ursuline nuns to Vienna, where they established a monastery, church and school. She also established the Order of Virtuosity and the Order of the Starry Cross for women.

After Eleonora’s death in Vienna in 1686 she was buried in the Imperial Crypt.

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Mantua
The Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Mantua
Travel tip:

Mantua, where Eleonora Gonzaga was born, is an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, to the south east of Milan. In the Renaissance heart of Mantua is Piazza Mantegna, where the 15th century Basilica of Sant’Andrea houses the tomb of the artist, Andrea Mantegna. The church was originally built to accommodate the large number of pilgrims who came to Mantua to see a precious relic, an ampoule containing what were believed to be drops of Christ’s blood mixed with earth. This was claimed to have been collected at the site of his crucifixion by a Roman soldier.

Hotels in Mantua by Hotels.com

Travel tip:

Mantua is famous for its Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family between 1328 and 1707. The Camera degli Sposi is decorated with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, depicting the life of Eleonora’s ancestor, Ludovico Gonzaga and his family in the 15th century. The beautiful backgrounds of imaginary cities and ruins reflect Mantegna’s love of classical architecture.

More reading:

Monteverdi's l'Orfeo, the oldest opera still regularly performed, makes its debut in Mantua

Claudio Monteverdi - the viola player at the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga who became the first great opera composer

How Andrea Mantegna from Mantua used perspective to break new ground in painting

Also on this day:

1626: The consecration of St Peter's Basilica in Rome

(Picture of Basilica di Sant'Andrea in Mantua by Vitold Muratov via Wikimedia Commons)


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