The second daughter of Duke Ercole d'Este of Ferrara and his wife Eleonora d'Aragona, Beatrice was raised in two of the most culturally sophisticated courts of Italy. Between the ages of three and ten she was fostered in Naples under the care of her aunt Ippolita Sforza, a highly learned woman who saw to it that Beatrice was given a fine education, one that would continue under the supervision of her equally learned mother when she returned to live in Ferrara. Along with her older sister Isabella, Beatrice studied the classics, contemporary literature and poetry, and French, as well as music and dancing.
In 1491, at the age of sixteen, Beatrice married the thirty-nine-year-old Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza, the de facto ruler of Milan. She was immediately entranced by her new home. In Ferrara, Beatrice often found herself overshadowed by her beautiful and talented sister. Next to Isabella, she tended to be regarded as the younger and less talented sister. Even in marriage, she was a consolation prize: Ludovico had originally sought Isabella’s hand, only transferring his suit to Beatrice when he learned the older sister was already engaged. But all that changed when Beatrice entered her new husband’s household: all of sixteen, she was suddenly no longer a child on the fringes of courtly life, but rather the wife of the most powerful prince in Italy, surrounded by wealth and luxury, by artists eager for her patronage and poets who wooed her with elegant sonnets.
Beatrice proved immediately popular in the Milanese court, winning everyone over with both her beauty and – even more so – her vivacious personality, warm laughter and keen enjoyment of life. She delighted in beauty and splendour, being described by her contemporaries as “the inventor of new fashions” and a “woman of the greatest luxury”. She was a key patron of the arts, filling her court with poets, musicians and academics, and encouraging poets across Italy to settle in Milan. Theatre culture, previously near-nonexistent, flourished as poets and performers vied with each other for the duchess’s patronage. After her death, Beatrice’s secretary Vincenzo Calmeta wrote of her,
“Her court was composed of men of talent and distinction, most of whom were poets and musicians, who were expected to compose new eclogues, comedies, or tragedies, and arrange new spectacles and representations every month. … she sent to all parts of Italy to inquire for the compositions of elegant poets, and placed their books as sacred and divine things on the shelves of her cabinet of study, and praised and rewarded each writer according to his merit. In this manner, poetry and literature in the vulgar tongue, which had degenerated and sunk into forgetfulness after the days of Petrarch and Boccaccio, has been restored to its former dignity.”
Beatrice adored riding and hunting, and was seemingly fearless in the face of danger. As children, she and Isabella had competed with one another over who could be the bravest, the most reckless, as they chased down wild boars and wolves, and even as an adult she took to the hunt with the same thrill. In 1491, Ludovico wrote to Isabella of a near miss with a wounded stag that had gored Beatrice’s horse:
“All at once we heard that the wounded stag had been seen, and had attacked the horse which my wife was riding, and the next moment we saw her lifted up in the air a good lance’s height from the ground; but she kept her seat, and sat erect all the while. The duke and duchess and I all rushed to her help, and asked if she were hurt; but she only laughed, and was not in the least frightened.”
She remained close to Isabella throughout her life, despite the sometimes opposing interests of their husbands and Isabella’s occasional envy at the superior wealth and splendour of her sister’s position. Their relationship was a loving but competitive one; just as they’d tried to outdo one another in hunting during childhood, as adults they would vie for the most impressive displays of fashion and extravagance.
Her position was not entirely free from troubles. Prior to marriage, Ludovico had kept a mistress, Cecilia Gallerani, who had lived in his castello and treated with all the honour due a wife. Unwilling to give her up, he initially sought to have things both ways; Beatrice, however, wouldn’t stand for it, and upon learning of the mistress demanded her husband choose one or the other. Ludovico capitulated, ending the affair and marrying Cecilia off to one of his courtiers, although he did later take other mistresses. Along with this, Beatrice had to struggle with the effects of her husband’s ruthless ambition, particularly as some of her closest childhood friends were now married to Ludovico’s political rivals.
Beatrice died tragically young, in childbirth at the age of 21. Calmeta later lamented, “when Duchess Beatrice died everything fell into ruin. That court, which had been a joyous Paradise, became a dark and gloomy Inferno, and poets and artists were forced to seek another road.”
Isabella d'Este was a woman of great intellect and stainless virtue, whose genuine love of art and letters attracted the choicest spirits to their court, and exerted the most beneficial influence on the thought of the day. Isabella, whose vast correspondence with the foremost painters and scholars of the age has been preserved almost intact, was probably the most remarkable lady of the Renaissance.
Her younger sister, Beatrice, Duchess of Milan, as the wife of Lodovico Sforza, reigned during six years over the most splendid court of Italy. The charm of her personality, the important part which she played in political life at a critical moment of Italian history: her love of music and poetry, and the fine taste which she inherited, in common with every princess of the house of Este, all help to make Beatrice singularly attractive, while the interest which she inspires is deepened by the pathos of her sudden and earlv death.
If in Isabella we have the supreme representative of Renaissance culture in its highest and most intellectual phase, Beatrice is the type of that new-found joy in life, that intoxicating rapture in the actual sense of existence, that was the heritage of her generation, and found expression in the words of a contemporary novelist, Matteo Bandello himself of Lombard birth when with his last breath he bade his companions live joyously, “Vivete lieti!”
Beatrice d'Este (29 June 1475 – 3 January 1497), duchess of Bari and later of Milan, was the wife of the Milanese ruler Ludovico Sforza (known as “il Moro”). She was one of the most beautiful and accomplished princesses of the Italian Renaissance. A member of the Este family, she was the younger daughter of Ercole I d'Este and the sister of Isabella d'Este and Alfonso d'Este. Along with her sister, Beatrice was noted for her excellent taste in fashion and for having invented new clothing styles.