Isabella d’Este & Music

The history of music in Renaissance Italy is dominated by foreigners. These men, known as oltramontani, came from northern France and the Netherlands to work as chapel masters, composers, and singers in the cathedrals and chapels of Italy – most notably, at the Basilica di San Pietro in Rome, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Naples,  the as yet incomplete Duomo of Milan, and the Cattedrale di San Giorgio Martire in Ferrara. Many had studied at the Cathedral of Cambrai, where Guillaume Dufay was once a canon, and they brought the musical style known as Franco-Netherlandish polyphony to Italy.

But in the mid-15th century, a revolution in music composition and music aesthetics began on the Italian peninsula. Innovations analogous to the discovery of perspective in art were enunciated for the first time in the 1430s by Ugolino of Orvieto, who combined the previously separate perspectives of music as a speculative study (musica speculativa) and music as a practical art (musica practica) as essential elements of a comprehensive understanding of music. This heightening of awareness of music as a combination of advanced mathematics and rhetorical expression shifted the foundations of classical education in Italy. Whereas music, as a mathematical construct, had been a component of the quadrivium since Martianus Capella delineated the seven liberal arts in the early 5th century, in the 15th century, music was added also to the trivium as a rhetorical art.

Ugolino of Orvieto spent much of his career (ca. 1429 to his death in 1457) as a singer and deacon at the Cattedrale di San Giorgio Martire in Ferrara. At this time, the great humanist scholars Guarino Veronese and Vittorino da Feltre were teaching in Ferrara and Mantua, respectively. From 1441, also in Ferrara, the renowned poet-singer Pietrobono dal Chitarino was employed at court. As a result, the area around Ferrara, including also Verona and Mantua, was the locus of the revolutionary ways of thinking that define Italian humanism. Isabella d’Este’s uncle Leonello, the marchese of Ferrara, created a burgeoning center of arts and literature and lavished attention on the University of Ferrara. When Isabella’s father Ercole I d’Este came to power, he continued to nourish humanist education and the arts, and this is the rich cultural climate in which Isabella d’Este was raised. Her first tutor was Jacopo Gallino, followed by Battista Guarini, son of Guarino Veronese. She studied Italian poetry with the Ferrarese poet Antonio Tebaldeo.

Benvenuto Tisi (Garofalo)
Detail from the ceiling fresco of the Sala di Tesoro
Ferrara, Palazzo Costabili

Isabella was interested in Greek, Latin, and Italian literatures and was an avid musician, a patron of music and musicians, and a connoisseur of musical instruments. As a member of the nobility, she learned to sing, dance, and play musical instruments as a child – her music tutor was the Netherlander Johannes Martini, maestro di cappella of her father’s ducal chapel, she learned to play musical instruments with Girolamo da Sextula, and Lorenzo Lavagnolo taught her to dance.1 As an adult, too, she continued her studies, both in music and in humanist literature. Her library, catalogued at her death, includes a substantial number of texts in ancient Latin and Greek, including works by Seneca, Horace, Catullus, Pliny, Cicero, Aristotle, Ovid and Virgil, and a host of compositions by more modern writers, including Petrarch, Dante, Sannazaro, Galeotto del Caretto, and Nicolò da Correggio. Also prominent in this collection are several books of psalms and the Fior di musica by Franchino Gaffurio of Lodi.2

For her engagement in 1480 to the marchese of Mantua, Francesco II Gonzaga, Isabella’s father commissioned a music manuscript now known as Rome, Casanatense 2856. This is the only surviving Ferrarese music manuscript from the late 15th century, and it is filled with French chansons inscribed with only the first few words of their poetic texts. As a result, scholars sometimes assume that the collection was intended for performance by instruments, such as Ercole I d’Este’s famous wind band – a reminder of Isabella’s childhood home.3

As marchesa, Isabella made concerted efforts to increase the size of the musical establishment at Mantua. Among the noblewomen of Italy, Isabella was unique in establishing her own musical household, employing her own musicians, and maintaining a collection of musical instruments.4 This was typical of noblemen, but not of noblewomen. Soon after her marriage in 1490, Isabella asked her father to send Johannes Martini and Girolamo da Sextula to Mantua, so she might continue her music lessons. When Sextula left her court around 1495, she hired the great lutenist Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa, who taught her to play the lute and other viole. She sent Mantuan musicians to Ferrara to study and requested musical instruments to be sent from Ferrara. In 1491, she commissioned Johannes Martini to find her two singers: a contralto and a soprano. Over time, she hired over a dozen new musicians for the Gonzaga court.5

Impresa di tempi e pause
Isabella d’Este’s apartments in the Corte Vecchia
Mantua, Palazzo Ducale

When Isabella first arrived in Mantua, she began having a set of rooms (camerini) built to showcase her books, artworks, and musical instruments, and to provide her with spaces for reflection, contemplation, and intimate music-making. Her first camerini were in the Castel San Giorgio in Mantua, adjacent to the Camera degli Sposi, which is decorated with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna. The room Isabella dedicated to the display of paintings was called her studiolo, and the room dedicated to music was the grotta. The grotta features a gilded, barrel-shaped vaulted ceiling, a shape that creates a warm acoustical environment, which is decorated throughout with Isabella’s musical symbol, the impresa di tempi e pause.


A window at the end of the room looks out over a large lake. In addition to the ceiling decoration, Isabella had cabinets made for the grotta that were decorated with wood inlay, two of which show collections of musical instruments. Her books and statuary were also kept in these cabinets and on shelves above them. A thin horizontal piece of wood embedded in one of the cabinets displays an engraving of the music for Johannes Ockeghem’s rondeau “Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux.” Ockeghem was one of the great Franco-Netherlandish composers of the 15th century, but unlike many of his contemporaries, he remained in France throughout his career. The entire text reads,

Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux:
Commencement d’amours est savoureux
et le moyen plain de paine et tristesse
et la fin est d’avoir plaisant maistresse,
mais au saillir sont les pas dangereux.
Take me as your example in love:
the beginning of love is delicious,
in the middle it is full of pain and sadness,
and the outcome is to have a pleasing mistress;
but getting free of it is a dangerous path.
Servant amours me suis trouvé eureux
l’une des foiz et l’autre malleureux,
ung jour sentant confort l’autre destresse.
Serving love I have found myself happy
at one time, and at another unhappy,
one day feeling confidence, another distress.
Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux:
Commencement d’amours est savoureux
et le moyen plain de paine et tristesse.
Take me as your example in love:
the beginning of love is delicious,
in the middle it is full of pain and sadness.
Pour ung plaisir cent pensers ennuieux,
pour ung solas cent dangiers perilleux,
pour ung accueil cent regars par rudesse;
s’amours sert donc de telz mets a largesse
et les loiaux fait les plus doloureux.
For one pleasure a hundred cruel thoughts,
for one solace a hundred perilous dangers,
for one welcome a hundred harsh looks;
such dishes does love serve generously
and makes the loyal the most sorrowful.
Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux:
Commencement d’amours est savoureux
et le moyen plain de paine et tristesse
et la fin est d’avoir plaisant maistresse,
mais au saillir sont les pas dangereux.
Take me as your example in love:
the beginning of love is delicious,
in the middle it is full of pain and sadness,
and the outcome is to have a pleasing mistress;
but getting free of it is a dangerous path.6

Isabella was never known to be a devotee of French songs, and scholars have asserted that her interests extended only to music she could perform herself,7 but her father’s gift of the chansonnier Casanatense 2856 and the prominent placement of a French rondeau in her grotta demonstrate her interest in the genre. Indeed, in the year following her marriage, she commissioned the Franco-Netherlandish composer Johannes Ghiselin Verbonnet to go to France in search of young singers for the chapel in Mantua. She clearly understood that music for the ducal chapel would be dominated by Franco-Netherlandish polyphony, and that chansons might figure in the music-making in her camerini.

During Isabella’s residence in Mantua as marchesa, she and Francesco founded a court cappella at the Cathedral of San Pietro in 1510/1511, shortly after Francesco’s release from prison in Venice. The cappella at Isabella’s childhood home Ferrara, founded in 1472, was both large and famous – including such Franco-Netherlandish singer-composers as Josquin des Prez, Jacob Obrecht, Antoine Brumel, and Johannes Ghiselin Verbonnet – but when the fortunes of war went against Ferrara in 1510, Francesco hired many of these musicians for the new cathedral cappella at Mantua. The Ferrarese maestro Antoine Brumel did not join the others in Mantua; the position of maestro di cappella instead went to a musician we know best today for his frottole, Marco Cara.

Music & Poetry


The frottola (plural, frottole) was the predominant type of Italian secular song during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The peak of activity in the composition of frottole was the period from around 1470 to 1530, and the person most often associated with their rise in popularity is Isabella d’Este. At the Gonzaga court, Isabella commissioned poems from her favorite authors – among them, Serafino Aquilano, Galeotto del Carretto, Baldassare Castiglione, and Pietro Bembo – which she then gave to composers for musical setting. One of the “little books” that Isabella kept for collecting poetry is now in the Municipal Library in Mantua; it contains 374 poems, roughly one third of which appear in  musical settings in Ottaviano Petrucci’s printed volumes of frottole.

One frottola, not included in this volume of poetry, is noteworthy because we know Isabella performed it herself in 1514 – this is the sonnet “Cantai mentre nel cor lieto fioria,” which you can hear performed by Marco Beasley and Franco Pavan toward the end of the video Ad tempo taci: Songs for Isabella d’Este. This song helps to explain a famous passage about music from Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier:

“Vedete la musica: le harmonie della quale hor son gravi, e tarde, hor velocissime, & di novi modi, & vie. Nientedimeno tutte dilettano, ma per diverse cause, come si comprende nella maniera dal cantare di Bidon: la quale è tanto artificiosa, pronnta, vehemente, concitata, & di cosi varie melodie, che i spirti di chi ode tutti si commoveno, & s’infiammano, & cosi sospesi par chee si levino al sino al cielo. Ne men commove nel suo cantar il nostro marchetto Cara, ma con piu molle armonia: che per una via placida, & piena di flebile dolcezza intenerisce, & penetra le anime, imprimendo in esse soavemente una dilettevole passione.”

Consider music, whose harmonies are at times solemn and slow, at times fast and novel in mood and manner. They all delight, but for varied reasons, as one may hear in Bidon’s manner of singing – so artful, clever, vehement, and exciting – it has such varied melodies that the spirits of his listeners are inflamed and rise toward heaven. No less moving in his singing is our Marco Cara, but with softer harmony, that by a placid path filled with plaintive sweetness, it softens & penetrates his listeners’ souls, gently imprinting on them a delightful passion.8

Marco Beasley’s and Franco Pavan’s performance of the sonnet “Cantai mentre nel cor lieto fioria” in Isabella’s grotta makes sense of this passage. Not only does the song represent the combined efforts of Castiglione as poet and Cara as musician, but the interweaving melody lines of the counterpoint are beautiful in their simplicity, giving both structure to the composition and an enchanting quality to its sound. Franco Pavan’s intabulation of the lute part follows standard Renaissance practice of rendering only the bassus and tenor parts, while the singer sings the cantus – the altus part is omitted entirely. This song shows Cara to have been a masterful contrapuntist, who had a keen sense for both the craft of composition and its resulting sound. He is shown here to have highlighted a new technique, developed in the mid-15th century, of playing the lute by plucking melody lines with the fingers of the player’s right hand rather than strumming with a plectrum or quill.9

Letters exchanged by Isabella d’Este and the Marchese di Bitonto in 1515  demonstrate the perceived beauty of the song and its role as a recollection of an evening spent together.10 During this period, Isabella was travelling in the south of Italy, visiting Rome and Naples, while her ailing husband Francesco remained home in Mantua. She documented the journey well, in part because she was negotiating marital alliances that would potentially help bring the Italian Wars to an end. Meetings with the new Pope Leo X, Giuliano de’ Medici, in Rome began in mid-October and lasted through the Christmas holidays, with Isabella making a brief sojourn to her ancestral home in Naples in early December. She stopped in Pozzuoli for only two nights, 15-16 December 1514, to break up her return from Naples to Rome. She took the opportunity to spend a day outdoors, looking at antiquities with the young queen Giovanna Sforza and her entourage. That evening, Isabella dined with her cousin, the Marchese di Bitonto, and after dinner she sang “Cantai mentre nel cor lieto fioria.” For months following this occasion, the Marchese di Bitonto wrote to Isabella, asking her to send him the music and lyrics of this song as a remembrance of the enchanting evening they shared.

After her husband died in 1519, Isabella moved into a new set of apartments in the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Here, she commissioned a new studiolo and grotta to be built. Although she had much of the architectural decoration from her old rooms installed in the new spaces, including the wood-inlaid cabinets, a marble doorway, and gilded colonnettes, the new rooms are larger than the old, and a courtyard garden was added, where Isabella might enjoy the sun and grow herbs and flowers. The acoustical ceiling in the new grotta was re-designed and now features rounded vaults on all four sides, creating an even warmer acoustical environment than before. As in the old grotta, Isabella’s impresa di tempi e pause forms part of the ceiling decoration, and a window at the end of the room looks out over a large lake. Throughout both the studiolo and grotta, visual depictions of music-making, musical instruments, and musical symbols refer, not only to Isabella’s penchant for collecting, humanistic education, and devotion to themes from classical antiquity, but also to her knowledge and skill as a musician.

– Anne MacNeil
20 February 2020

1 Guglielmo Ebreo of Pesaro, De pratica seu arte tripudii: On the Practice or Art of Dancing, ed. Barbara Sparti (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 32.
2 ASMN, Archivio Gonzaga, busta 330, cc. 182r-185v; ASMN, Archivio Gonzaga, busta 400, cc. 184r-187v; busta 332, transcribed in Alessandro Luzio & Rodolfo Renier, “La coltura e le relazioni letterarie di Isabella d’Este Gonzaga,” Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana 42 (1903): 75-87; Stephen Campbell, The Cabinet of Eros (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 270-79.
3 Lewis Lockwood, ed., A Ferrarese Chansonnier: Roma, Biblioteca Casanatense 2856 “Canzoniere di Isabella d’Este” (Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2002), xi.
4 William F. Prizer, “Music in Ferrara and Mantua at the Time of Dosso Dossi: Interrelations and Influences,” in Dosso’s Fate: Painting and Court Culture in Renaissance Italy, ed. Luisa Ciammitti, Steven F. Ostrow, and Salvatore Settis (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1998), 293.
5 William F. Prizer, Courtly Pasttimes: The Frottole of Marchetto Cara (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1974).
6 Peter Woetmann Christofferse, “The Copenhagen Chansonnier and the ‘Loire Valley’ chansonniers,” accessed 21 September 2017,
7 Prizer, “Music in Ferrara and Mantua,” 294.
8 Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del Cortegiano, (Venice: Aldine Press, 1525), 29; ibid., trans. by Charles S. Singleton as The Book of the Courtier (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), 60.
9 Paul O’Dette, Alla Venetiana: Early 16th-Century Venetian Lute Music. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907215, 11.
10 ASMN, Archivio Gonzaga, busta 2996, lib. 31, cc. 94v-95v; lib. 32, cc20r-v; busta 809, ccnn.

Suggested readings/listening:


Fenlon, Iain. Music and patronage in sixteenth-century Mantua. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Frottole. Accordone, directed by Marco Beasley and Guido Morini. Cyprus CYP 1643.

Jennings, Lauren McGuire. Senza Vestimenta: The Literary Tradition of Trecento Song. Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2014.

Lockwood, Lewis. Music in Renaissance Ferrara 1400-1505. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

MacNeil, Anne, director. Ad tempo taci: Songs for Isabella d’Este. Zefiro Film, 2015.

O’Dette, Paul. Alla Venetiana: Early 16th-Century Venetian Lute Music. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907215.

Shephard, Tim. Echoing Helicon: Music, Art and Identity in the Este Studioli, 1440-1530. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.