Isabella d’Este & Letters

The 16th century is often remembered as the time when print culture emerged, but it was also a period of substantial growth in the production of handwritten correspondence, by writers spanning from the merchant class to the nobility. Isabella d’Este’s extensive production of letters reflects an understanding among her contemporaries that letters were a crucial medium for conducting both public and private affairs. Much early modern correspondence has been lost, but in bureaucratized states like that of the Gonzaga of Mantua, scribes and secretaries systematically copied, saved and filed incoming and outgoing documents of many kinds, including letters. A central element of Isabella’s historical legacy are the nearly 16,000 copies the Gonzaga chancery made of her outgoing mail, which they bound into fifty-two copialettere (copybooks) and filed along with incoming correspondence. These precious resources are held today in the State Archives in Mantua. The copybooks and incoming mail document a governing noblewoman’s activities in every sphere of life, both public and private. They thus constitute an immensely rich resource for historians in all the fields Isabella’s wide interests touched, including art, music, politics, family life, travel, health, and social customs, as well as containing information that is useful for more recently emerged fields: performance studies, Mediterranean studies, animal studies, food studies, and more. No other state of early modern Italy — not even that of Medicean Florence — was so consistent as Mantua’s in the systematic preservation of the ruling family’s mail. Isabella’s letters are thus valuable both as informational resources and as examples of early modern media and communication practices.

In what ways do Isabella’s letters cohere in the voice of a single, speaking subject? In what sense are they true? By definition, letter writing stands at a threshold between the literary and the documentary, the spoken and the written, the public and the private. It also bridges the divide between the immediate and the mediated, the ‘original’ and the formulaic, and even the crucially authentic and the treacherously insincere. Some of Isabella’s letters are small masterpieces of persuasive discourse that defend a cause or profess loyalty, while others may simply record the purchase of salt or silk. They are written artifacts, but they were produced to stand in for conversation between people who were not in a position to speak face-to-face; in this way, they bear traces of the mode of conversation and, to some extent, capture speech patterns of sixteenth-century Italian. Folded and closed with wax and an authenticating seal, Isabella’s correspondence was produced for restricted audiences, but once it was sent, it could be read aloud in groups, copied, shared, and even stolen. We may be tempted to take these artifacts as the unfiltered words of their sender, but Isabella’s letters were mediated by the forms and conventions of the genre, and often by the presence and advice of a secretary or scribe. Some letters contain secrets and true information, but others are built around falsehoods and take advantage of the reader’s trust in their authenticity. This is all to say that while early modern correspondence may serve as historical “evidence” on a number of grounds, it is also artful discourse and must be read, to varying degrees, as performance: of affection, of respect, of authority, of taste, of generosity, of severity, of delight, and even of sorrow. It is the reader’s role, in confronting these texts, to discern fact from fiction, person from persona.

— Deanna Shemek
2 November 2017