31 December 2020

Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino

Image of wise ruler has been preserved in paintings

Titian's portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, which can be seen in the Uffizi in Florence
Titian's portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, which
can be seen in the Uffizi in Florence 
Eleonora Gonzaga, a noble woman who was painted four times by Titian, was born on this day in 1493 in Mantua.

When she was 15 she married Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, the 16-year-old nephew of Pope Julius II and the marriage was celebrated at the Vatican in Rome.

Eleonora, along with the dowager duchess, Elisabetta Montefeltro, became largely responsible for the internal government of the duchy because Francesco was a captain in the papal army and often absent from Urbino. She also became an important patron of the arts.

Eleonora was the eldest of the seven children of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua and Isabella d’Este. Although her father was a notorious libertine, her mother was also famous for being a patron of the arts. As a result, Eleonora was well educated in reading, writing, Latin, music and needlework, which had made her cultured and very suitable for marriage with another member of the nobility.

But, within six years of their marriage, the fortunes of Eleonora and her husband, Francesco, changed suddenly. The new pope, Leo X, ordered Francesco to lead an army in the pope’s planned invasion of France.

Titian's portrait of Eleonora's husband, Francesco, which is also in the Uffizi
Titian's portrait of Eleonora's husband,
Francesco, which is also in the Uffizi
Francesco refused and also dismissed the army that had been paid for by the pope, so Leo X summoned him to Rome to answer for his actions.

Francesco and Eleonora fled from Urbino to Mantua to seek the protection of Eleonora’s family.

Pope Leo X used Francesco’s flight as a pretext for sending an army to take over the Duchy of Urbino. He then excommunicated Francesco and stripped him of his titles.

When Leo X died in 1521, the new pope, Hadrian VI, restored their rights to Urbino.

While Francesco was away on more military campaigns, Eleonora organised the rebuilding of Urbino and other towns nearby, which had been damaged during battles in their absence.

She supervised the building of the palatial Villa Imperiale in Pesaro and a Latin inscription on the palace dedicates it to Francesco from Eleonora as a mark of her love for him. She also encouraged the founding of the majolica industry in Urbino.

During her life, Eleonora became a friend of the poet and scholar, Pietro Bembo, and the poet Torquato Tasso.

She also knew the author Baldassare Castiglione, who had lived at the court in Urbino during the reign of Francesco’s uncle, Guidobaldo I, when it was presided over by his wife, Elisabetta Montefeltro. In his Book of the Courtier, Castiglione describes the elegance of the court in Urbino in great detail.

Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier
described the elegance of the Urbino court
Tiziano Vecellio, known in English as Titian, painted a formal portrait of Eleonora in 1537 as a companion to his formal portrait of her husband, Francesco, which was executed in the same year. This portrait is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

But art experts believe Eleonora’s face is also recognisable in three other paintings executed by Titian at around that time, La bella, Girl in the Fur Cloak and the Venus of Urbino, which was commissioned by Eleonora’s son, Guidobaldo.

Francesco died suddenly in 1538 while on a military campaign, possibly having been poisoned.  Eleonora’s health began to deteriorate after his death and she died in 1543 while in Gubbio, aged 49.

Guidobaldo was the second of Eleonora’s 14 children, many of whom did not survive infancy. Eleonora also had numerous miscarriages and still born babies during her marriage. He became Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino after his father’s death in 1538. He married Giulia da Varano, daughter of the duke of Camerino, and then later married Vittoria Farnese, daughter of Pier Luigi Farnese, Duke of Parma. Their son, Francesco Maria II della Rovere, succeeded him as Duke of Urbino.

The Ducal Palace in Urbino, which is thought to have been completed by Donato Bramante
The Ducal Palace in Urbino, which is thought to
have been completed by Donato Bramante
Travel tip:

Urbino, which is inland from the Adriatic resort of Pesaro, in the Marche region, is a majestic city on a steep hill.  It was once a famous centre of learning and culture, known not just in Italy but also in its glory days throughout Europe, attracting outstanding artists and scholars to enjoy the patronage of the noble rulers. The Ducal Palace, a Renaissance building made famous by The Book of the Courtier, is now one of the most important monuments in Italy and is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. It is a city that is home to a number of gastronomic delights, including crescia sfogliata, a flatbread often served stuffed with melted caciotta cheese, and prosciutto di Carpegna, a local cured ham.

The Palazzo dei Consoli stands at one end of the spectacular Piazza Grande in Gubbio
The Palazzo dei Consoli stands at one end of
the spectacular Piazza Grande in Gubbio
Travel tip:

Gubbio, where Eleonora died, is a small city in Perugia in the region of Umbria that still has many of its medieval buildings. It became absorbed into the territory of the Montefeltro family in the 15th century and Federico Montefeltro had the ancient Palazzo Ducale rebuilt in a similar style to his palace in Urbino. The elevated older part of Gubbio is notable for the panoramic views offered from Piazza Grande, a square flanked by the Palazzo dei Consoli and the Palazzo del Podestà, which looks out over the rooftops of the city and the sweeping valley beyond.

More reading:

Why Isabella d'Este was known as the 'first lady of the world'

How Francesco II Gonzaga spent his childhood living as a political hostage

Pietro Bembo, the poet and scholar who was Lucrezia Borgia's lover

Also on this day:

1842: The birth of portraitist Giovanni Boldini

1855: The birth of poet Giovanni Pascoli

1990: The death of architect Giovanni Michelucci

The Festa di San Silvestro


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