Isabella of Aragon, Duchess of Milan

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Isabella of Aragon
Duchess of Bari
Duchess consort of Milan
Isabella von Neapel.jpg
Born 2 October 1470
Kingdom of Naples
Died 11 February 1524 (aged 53)
Burial San Domenico Maggiore, Naples
Spouse Gian Galeazzo Sforza
Issue Bona, Queen of Poland
Francesco, Count of Pavia
Ippolita Maria
House House of Trastámara
Father Alfonso II of Naples
Mother Ippolita Maria Sforza
Religion Roman Catholic

Isabella of Aragon (2 October 1470 – 11 February 1524), also known as Isabella of Naples, was Duchess of Milan by marriage to Gian Galeazzo Sforza and suo jure Duchess of Bari. Her life was characterised by the political crises surrounding the Italian Wars. Isabella often found herself torn between her native Kingdom of Naples and her marital home of the Duchy of Milan, causing her to suffer personal and political difficulties. After a difficult marriage and lack of support in Milan, she received the Duchy of Bari. This change in circumstances gave Isabella the opportunity to form her own court as well as build up political support and security against the ongoing wars. These reforms along with her interest in arts and literature, resulted in Bari undergoing revival and refurbishment. During this period, she also concentrated on the education of her daughter Bona, who became Queen of Poland.


Childhood and Family[edit]

Isabella was born in the Kingdom of Naples, during the reign of her paternal grandfather Ferdinand I of Naples. She was the daughter of his heir, Prince Alfonso and his first wife, Ippolita Maria Sforza. During her childhood, Isabella's parents had a rough relationship, which was characterised by rivalry and contempt. Alfonso, perhaps threatened by Ippolita's high level of education or disdainful of her pedigree, treated his wife with a lack of respect throughout the marriage. [1] Alfonso preferred the company of his mistress, Trogia Gazzela, by whom he had two illegitimate children during Isabella's childhood. Her grandfather was a courageous ruler, who did not hold back when it came to dealing with his enemies. Being raised at this ruthless court in Naples certainly would have had an effect on Isabella, impacting on her own character as an adult. [2]

Isabella was the only daughter from the marriage, though she had two brothers: the elder was Prince Ferdinand, who would succeed their father to throne in 1495 and the younger was Piero, who was Lieutenant General of Apulia, but died young of an infection following leg surgery. The siblings were raised alongside their cousins, the children of Eleanor of Naples, who included Isabella and Beatrice d'Este. Isabella had a particularly close relationship with the latter, developing into something of a sisterhood.[3] When the children were just adolescents, Ippolita died.


Isabella's destiny was not to be in the Kingdom of Naples but in the Duchy of Milan. A marriage was arranged for her to a cousin on her mother's side, Gian Galeazzo Sforza. On 1 May 1480, when Isabella was nine years of age, her betrothal was celebrated within the Duchy.[4] It would not be until nine years later that the planned wedding took place. On 26 December 1488, the eighteen-year-old Isabella left her childhood home by sea for Genoa and from there, she travelled to Milan to join her husband. [5] The couple officially married on 2 February 1489.

Great celebrations followed the marriage. A masque or operetta was held, it was entitled Il Paradiso, with words by Bernardo Bellincioni and sets and costumes by Leonardo da Vinci. [6] Isabella was praised for her beauty, the Ferrarese ambassador commented: "she was so beautiful and radiant that she seemed like the sun".[7] The operetta was written very much with this praise for Isabella in mind. Il Paradiso was the representation of the seven planets orbiting round. A man portrayed each of the planets and all would speak praise of Isabella.[8] Therefore, the operetta depicted Isabella as being at the centre of the universe. In addition to the acknowledgment of her physical appearance, Isabella was also noted for having an energetic personality. [9]

The bridegroom was quite a contrast to his wife; Gian Galeazzo was pale, studious and melancholy. [10] The differences of personality would certainly have an impact on the marriage as well as in politics during the 1490s.

Unhappy duchess[edit]

Gian Galeazzo had been duke since he was aged seven; due to his youth, his uncle, Ludovico Sforza, had been acting as regent. By the time of the wedding, Ludovico had been in power for almost thirteen years and showed no sign of relinquishing the reins of government to his nephew. He viewed the young couple with suspicion, as potential figureheads for opposition to his position. This was worsened in 1491, when Isabella gave birth to a son and heir Francesco. In order to weaken any coup attempts made by Isabella and her husband, Ludovico had her Neapolitan retinue returned home and restricted the young duchess from appointing and rewarding followers. [11]

One source of comfort to Isabella was the presence of Beatrice, who married Ludovico in 1491. The young cousins socialised regularly: they went hunting, played endless games of palla and designed dresses that they wished to have made. [12] Beatrice was regarded as naughtier than Isabella, often persuading her cousin to participate in other activities, such as wandering around the market place dressed in disguise and without a chaperone. [13]

Despite this early warmth between the cousins, their relationship suffered due to Ludovico's political schemes. The birth of Beatrice's son, Maximilian, was greeted by great pomp and ceremony, befitting an heir, something that had been denied to Isabella's son.[14] In addition, Leonardo da Vinci was active in creating pageants and decorations in honour of Beatrice, despite the fact that she was not the highest ranking woman at the Milanese court. Beatrice was even given a political role, acting as ducal ambassador to Venice in 1492. [15] In contrast, Isabella and her growing family were starved of household funds and she was forced to make petitions for allowance increases.[16] It is of little surprise that she wrote to her father, asking him to intervene on her behalf.[17] Ludovico used the Neapolitan connection to his advantage, portraying Isabella as working in the interests of her Neapolitan family or indeed in her own desire to dominate her husband and obtain power in Milan.[18] In the same year that Beatrice travelled to Venice, Isabella was accused of attempting to poison Galeazzo da San Severino, her husband's favourite courtier and Ludovico's captain. [19] As Gian Galeazzo was malleable to the scheming of his uncle, he did not defend his wife and so the scandal placed relations with Isabella under enormous pressure. [20]

Isabella pleads before King Charles

Ludovico was now openly pursuing his ambition for absolute control over Milan. An important aspect of this was foreign policy, and his anti-Aragonese policy was far from favourable to Isabella or her Neapolitan family. In response to Ludovico's actions, Isabella's father had encouraged French ambitions over Milan. Understanding the weight of this threat, Ludovico severed diplomatic ties with the Neapolitan court and built an alliance with Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor. The reason for this particular alliance was that the Emperor had the power to grant the Dukedom to Ludovico.[21] Meanwhile, Isabella found herself confined to Castello Visconteo in Pavia, the disputed duchess was essentially a prisoner. [22]

Ludovico encouraged Charles VIII of France to attack Naples and remove the threat of Isabella's father. When the French King arrived in the Duchy of Milan in October 1494, on his way to Naples, he was well-received by Ludovico and Beatrice.[23] Around this time, Isabella made a move and appealed to Charles. She tearfully pleaded for the King to have mercy on her father; Charles was embarrassed by Isabella's actions but he did have sympathy for her husband, who was dying.[24] Isabella's pleading was in vain, the Italian Wars were underway and her father would be ousted from his throne by the French in 1495. In his infamous work The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli blamed Ludovico for the devastation, claiming that it was down to him inviting the French to attack Naples.[25]


Purported painting of Isabella as the Virgin by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio

When Isabella appealed to the French King, the historian Philippe de Commines had been a part of his retinue. He had the following to say about her actions: "She had better have prayed for herself, who was still a young and fair lady."[26] This quote has particular relevance when observing that the fall of Naples was not the only tragedy to befall her at this time. The sickly Gian Galeazzo died on 21 October 1494, in the confinement that he shared with Isabella in Pavia. Until the end, he was completely in his uncle's thrall.[27] The couple had been married for just five years and like the marriage of Isabella's parents, theirs had been a difficult one. Gian Galeazzo appeared to have no interest in exerting his authority in Milan nor did he support his wife when she became the target of Ludovico's schemes.

The aftermath of this loss led to another problem. Having built up his support base over the years, Ludovico could easily bypass the claims of Isabella's son and obtain the Dukedom which he had been the de facto ruler of for eighteen years. Isabella was at a low point, Ludovico may have allowed her to live in the ducal apartment with all her honours in tact, but she had lost the father of her children, her Neapolitan family support had been destroyed by the French and her son had been denied his birthright. [28]

During the remaining years of the 1490s, Isabella and her children were under the watchful eye of Ludovico at Sforza Castle. In 1497, Beatrice, Isabella's one-time friend and rival died in childbirth, aged twenty-one. This was only the beginning of Ludovico's misfortunes. Two years later, he was toppled from power by Louis XII of France. However, any satisfaction that Isabella could have gained from witnessing the downfall of her rival was minimised. Isabella petitioned Louis to name her son the Duke of Bari, a title that belonged to the Milanese family.[29] Louis responded by taking the young boy to France, assuring Isabella that he planned to marry him with his daughter. In reality, Louis deceived Isabella by placing Francesco in a monastery.[30] With Francesco under Louis' control, Isabella was unable to claim Milan on his behalf.

She refused to give up hope for her son's return and petitioned Emperor Maximilian to liberate him from France. However, this effort proved fruitless.[31] The unfortunate duchess would never see her son again. [32] This, along with the destruction of her family in Naples, led to Isabella developing a hatred for the French. [33]

Apparently, Isabella began signing herself as Isabella, unique in misfortune. [34]

Duchess of Bari[edit]

In 1496, Isabella's brother Ferdinand died, this made her the heir of the Brienne claim to the title King of Jerusalem.

After the collapse of the Sforzas in Milan in 1499, Isabella was granted the title of suo jure Duchess of Bari, Princess of Rossano and Lady of Ostuni, which Louis had denied to her son.[35] She ruled there from 1500 until her death twenty-four years later. Ironically, Isabella now appeared as a usurper herself as Bari should have passed to Maximilian, the son of Ludovico and Beatrice.[36] Her acquisition of the Duchy appears to be a form of compensation for her previous struggles.

Isabella's life in Bari was one of splendour.[37] She lived in Castello Normanno-Svevo and spent her spare time working on music and literature. She summoned the writer Amedeo Cornale to her court, which witnessed the printing of Bari's first book.[38] Her administration greatly benefited the Duchy, which entered into a period of revival, refurbishment and cultural florescence, which it had not enjoyed under the earlier administration of Isabella's Aragonese relatives. [39]

Keeping in mind her previous life experiences, Isabella made it her priority to enhance the castle's defences, ensuring that it was up to date with the form of warfare that had harmed Milan and Naples.[40] This emphasis on security turned out to be well placed. In July 1502, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba distributed a small portion of his forces to Bari, under Isabella's protection. This led to the French considering an attack on Isabella's Duchy, some argued it would be an advantageous way of conducting war against the Spanish.[41] However, this was avoided when ideas of chivalry were taken into consideration. [42] Whilst Isabella may have avoided danger on the count of her gender, it was a reminder that her hold on Bari was far from secure and her gender may not always excuse her. Aside from building up defences, the situation in Milan had taught Isabella that political security was also essential; her will needed to be upheld at all times, never weakened or undermined. Therefore, she introduced more vigorous surveillance of public officials, ensuring that their notorious corruption was combated. [43]

Isabella's daughter Bona, depicted here in the year that she married (1517)

Although it may appear that Isabella had finally found fortune, these later years were also plagued with family tragedies. In 1501, her elder daughter and namesake of her mother, Ippolita died around the age of eight. In 1512, her nephew, Rodrigo, whom Isabella had fostered since 1506, died aged twelve. Eleven years after young Ippolita's death, Francesco followed his sister to the grave. Isabella then dedicated herself to raising her sole surviving child, Bona. [44] Under Isabella's direction, Bona received a humanist education, which included the teaching of statecraft. [45] This education prepared Bona for her future role as Queen consort of Poland.

Initially, Isabella desired for Bona to wed her cousin, Maximilian Sforza, in the hope of uniting their two rival branches of the family.[46] However, Sforza control over the duchy proved too weak at this point and the French took it over once again in the aftermath of the Battle of Marignano in 1515.

In the same year, Barbara Zápolya, wife of Sigismund I the Old died. The marriage had not produced male issue and so it was expected that the Polish king would remarry. Zápolya came from an anti-Habsburg family, something Emperor Maximilian was conscious of. In order to eliminate anti-Habsburg sentiments within Poland, the Emperor requested that Sigismund marry a bride selected by him.[47] Bona was on the list of selected candidates. As the other candidates were ruled out for various reasons, Sigismund consented to marrying Bona in the spring of 1517.[48] Isabella raised extra taxes in Bari to pay for the wedding. [49]

Like her mother, Bona was known for her energetic personality; she was not afraid to openly disagree with her husband and acted as a patron to artists.[50] However, unlike Isabella, Bona was able to build up her own political faction in her marital homeland.[51] In her final years, Isabella saw her daughter become a mother to four of her six children, amongst them were Isabella and Anna Jagiellon. Not giving up on uniting the rival branches of the Sforza family, Isabella sent envoys to Poland to propose marriage of her granddaughter, the younger Isabella, to Francesco II Sforza, newly installed Duke of Milan.[52] However, Sigismund refused as the duchy was contested and Francesco's hold was tenuous.


Isabella died in Bari on 1 February 1524, aged fifty-three.[53] She had been Duchess for twenty-four years and a widow for thirty. The Italian Wars were still ongoing at the time. Her body was returned to Naples and buried in San Domenico Maggiore.[54] Bona succeeded her in Bari, returning years later as a widow, during the final year of her own life in 1557.

In 2012, anthropologists excavated the body of Isabella, and concluded that she had syphilis. Her teeth had a high level of mercury, which was used (ineffectively) to treat syphilis, and had given a black color to the tooth enamel, most of which had been removed by abrading. They concluded that she was poisoned by her own medicine. [55][56]

Mona Lisa[edit]

Isabella was first suggested as the subject of the Mona Lisa in 1979. This presupposes that the painting took place in the 1490s, when da Vinci was at the Milanese Court. However, the painting has officially been dated as later, likely ruling Isabella out as the subject. [57]



  1. ^ Colin Tribble, 'A Trusting Partnership: Sentiment and Politics in Quattrocento Dynastic Unions', Unpublished Dissertation (University of Edinburgh, 2012)
  2. ^ Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), p.172
  3. ^ Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood: A story of Women, Power and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance (Hachette UK: 2012)
  4. ^ Jane Black, 'The Duchy of Milan in Contemporary Historical Writing, ca 1400-1540', in Christian Thorsten Callisen (ed.) Reading and Writing History from Bruni to Windschuttle: Essays in Honour of Gary Ianziti (Routledge: 2016)
  5. ^ Capasso, B. (ed.) ´Le chronache de li antique ri del regno di Napoli di D. Gaspare Fuscolillo´, Archivio storico per le province Napoletane, Anno Primo, Fascicolo I (Naples, 1876) ("Gaspare Fuscolillo"), I, p.57
  6. ^ Charles Nicholl, Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind (Penguin, 2005)
  7. ^ Ibid
  8. ^ Ibid
  9. ^ Charles Chawley, 'SICILY', Medieval Lands
  10. ^ Nicholl, Leonardo Da Vinci
  11. ^ Evelyn S. Welch, Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan (Yale University Press, 1995), p.219
  12. ^ Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood
  13. ^ Ibid
  14. ^ Ibid
  15. ^ Elizabeth Lev, Tigress of Forli
  16. ^ Evelyn S. Wlch, Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan, p.219
  17. ^ Ibid
  18. ^ Ibid
  19. ^ Ibid
  20. ^ Translation from equivalent article in Polish
  21. ^ Evelyn S. Wlch, Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan, p.219
  22. ^ Charles Nicholl, Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind
  23. ^ Ibid
  24. ^ Ibid
  25. ^ Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (Penguin Books, 2011)
  26. ^ Charles Nicholl, Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind
  27. ^ Ibid
  28. ^ Translation from Italian Wikipedia article on her son
  29. ^ Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood
  30. ^ Ibid
  31. ^ Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood
  32. ^ Desmond Seward and Susan Mountgarret, Old Puglia: A Cultural Companion to South-Eastern Italy (Haus Publishing, 2016)
  33. ^ Ibid
  34. ^ Ibid
  35. ^ Mona Lisa Foundation, Mona Lisa: Leonardo's Earlier Version (The Mona Lisa Foundation, 2012), p.55
  36. ^ Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood
  37. ^ Desmond Seward and Susan Mountgarret, Old Puglia: A Cultural Companion to South-Eastern Italy
  38. ^ Ibid
  39. ^ Christopher Kleinhenz, Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia (Routledge, 2004), p.96
  40. ^ Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood
  41. ^ William Hickling Prescott, History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic, Volume 3, Issue 2, (Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1840), p.43
  42. ^ Ibid
  43. ^ Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood
  44. ^ Desmond Seward and Susan Mountgarret, Old Puglia: A Cultural Companion to South-Eastern Italy
  45. ^ Peter G. Bietenholz & Thomas Brian Deutscher, Contemporaries of Erasmus: A Biographical Register of the Renaissance and Reformation, Volumes 1-3, A-Z, Volumes 1-3 (University of Toronto Press, 2003), p.165
  46. ^ Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood
  47. ^ Jacqueline Glomski, Patronage and Humanist Literature in the Age of the Jagiellons: Court and Career in the Writings of Rudolf Agricola Junior, Valentin Eck, and Leonard Cox (University of Toronto Press, 2007), p.186
  48. ^ Ibid
  49. ^ Leonie Frieda, The Deadly Sisterhood
  50. ^ Peter G. Bietenholz & Thomas Brian Deutscher, Contemporaries of Erasmus: A Biographical Register of the Renaissance and Reformation, p.165
  51. ^ Ibid
  52. ^ Małgorzata Duczmal, Jogailaičiai (in Lithuanian). Translated by Birutė Mikalonienė and Vyturys Jarutis. (Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidybos centras, 2012) p.206
  53. ^ Charles Cawley, Medieval Lands
  54. ^ Isabella of Aragon, Find a Grave
  55. ^ Ann Gibbons (13 December 2013). "The Thousand-Year Graveyard". Science. 342 (6164): 1306–1310. doi:10.1126/science.342.6164.1306. PMID 24337272. 
  56. ^ Fornaciari G. (2006). "The Aragonese mummies of the Basilica of Saint Domenico Maggiore in Naples". Med Secoli. 18 (3): 843–64. PMID 18175625. 
  57. ^ The Mona Lisa Foundation, Mona Lisa: Leonardo's Earlier Version, p.55

Isabella of Aragon
Born: 2 October 1470 Died: 11 February 1524
Italian nobility
Preceded by
Bona of Savoy
Duchess consort of Milan
Succeeded by
Beatrice d'Este
Titles in pretence
Preceded by
Ferdinand II of Naples
Brienne claim
Succeeded by
Bona Sforza