Dynastic Marriage in Early Modern Europe

Professor Carolyn James

About the project

Although the concept of privacy began to receive some formal recognition in sixteenth century Europe in ambassadorial correspondence that distinguished between affairs of state and personal matters, the border between the public and private spheres remained blurred in premodern societies. Men were expected to maintain patriarchal authority over their households, as well as over the polis, and the state kept a watchful surveillance over its citizens’ behavior and attitudes. My research explores these themes within the context of political marriages.

A recently completed project explores the dynastic marriage of Isabella d’Este, one of the most famous figures of the Italian Renaissance, and Francesco Gonzaga, ruler of the small northern Italian principality of Mantua (r. 1484-1519). Within several years of their wedding, the aristocratic couple had to deal with the huge challenges posed by the first decades of the Italian Wars (1494-1559) and, later, the scourge of the Great Pox. My monograph, A Renaissance Marriage, OUP 2020, humanizes a relationship that was organized for entirely strategic reasons, but had to be inhabited emotionally if it was to produce the political and dynastic advantages that had inspired the match.

The study draws on correspondence between Isabella and Francesco over twenty-nine years, as well as their exchanges with relatives, government bureaucrats and courtiers. It reveals the personal tensions generated by the public scrutiny to which this relationship was always subject and the ways in which the couple cultivated marital intimacy through a shared devotion to their children and a mutual commitment to the survival of the Gonzaga marquisate in politically challenging times.