The Este DynastySo who is this Borso d’Este? Let’s briefly look at the Este dynasty of marchesi that had ruled Ferrara since the late Middle Ages just because they’re such a fun and colorful bunch. From the late 1100’s on the Estensi already powerful landholders began to take an interest in Ferrara, eventually establishing the Este lordship.Borso’s father, Niccolò III, reigned from 1393 to 1441. Niccolò had three wives, and fathered between twenty and thirty acknowledged illegitimate children. That works out to between eight to 18 more than Bob Marley and from 13 to 23 more than Mick Jagger. That's him looking very confident on the mount.... The Este women, on the other hand will have the macabre distinction of perishing in very unfortunate and sometimes dramatic circumstances as you’ll remember from Browning’s My Last Duchess. His first of three wives, Gigluola da Carrara died of the plague. Niccolò then married Parisina Malatesta, who was beheaded along with Niccolò’s first born son (for their sakes I will forebear mentioning the reason but it has to do with his *ahem* and her *cough*) and legitimized heir Ugo in 1424. This reads like a renaissance soap opera: Niccolò’s favorite mistress, Stella dell’Assassino, bore him many children, Leonello (b. 1407), and Borso (b. 1413). While Niccolò had Leonello declared legitimate by Papal bull in 1429, our friend Borso was never legitimized.
In 1429, Niccolò summoned Guarino da Verona, one of the most famous and influential humanists of the fifteenth century, to Ferrara to tutor his heir Leonello. From all accounts, Leonello d’Este was an ardent and gifted student of ancient literature and unfortunately for Borso, both contemporary and modern accounts depict him at the golden child.Now meanwhile, our Borso received a markedly different education than that of his elder brother. From a young age, Borso was taught chivalric values and traditional noble skills such as jousting and hunting and was never schooled in Latin. Borso d’Este's military career lasted for ten years and met with limited success (and some gloriously stunning defeats).
When Niccolò III died in 1441, Borso returned to Ferrara with his troops to honor and support the succession of his brother. Throughout Leonello d’Este’s reign, he undertook ambassadorial duties at the Visconti and Aragon courts. Borso’s position within his brother’s court was so secure that when Leonello died in 1450 he became the uncontested successor.Both contemporary and modern literature on Leonello and Borso employ the divergent proclivities of the two brothers to illustrate the respective merits of Ars and Mars in the education of princes. While Leonello was encouraged in the pursuit of letters, Niccolò III secured a more traditional, chivalric education for his younger son.But has Borso been labeled unfairly? Although contemporary writers were less critical, modern scholars assume that Borso’s illiteracy in Latin reflects a lack of interest or ability. Scholars often describe the rule of Borso d'Este (1450 - 1471) as an epoch of cultural decline.. An overwhelming majority of scholars interpret his patronage of illuminated manuscripts like the Bibbia as the result of an ignorant love for splendor conditioned more by vanity than erudition.But because Niccolò took actions to ensure Leonello’s succession, Borso’s education was probably not intended to prepare him to rule. His propensities for letters were considered only in retrospect, after his ascent to power. Let’s look at the courtly culture established by Leonello to place Borso as a patron in his proper context.
The Culture of Learning During the Reign of Leonello d’Este (1441-1450)Although scholars tend to cast Leonello as the model of the enlightened Renaissance prince, many aspects of his court patronage reflect the medieval, chivalric ideals that are so pervasive in the art commissioned by Borso. Even his patronage of letters bears some resemblance to the courtly pastimes of his ancestors.One of the most important pieces of evidence that scholars use to study Leonello d’Este’s court, his patronage of literature and the marchesanal library is the work De politia letteraria by the Milanese humanist Angelo Camillo Decembrio. The work is constructed in the form of a contrived dialogue where Leonello and members of his entourage conduct a search for normative standards in various fields of learning and how that relates to good governance.In much the same way that the characters in Castiglione’s The Courtier construct an idealized archetype of a what a courtier should be, the protagonists in De politia seek a paradigmatic vision of the perfect intellectual culture.In some ways, the beguiled fascination with ancient learning demonstrated in De politia reflects what scholars describe as the driving force behind the Renaissance: the revival of ancient Greek and Roman culture. Scholars of the Este family during the Quattrocento treat variations in styles of patronage as exhibiting either progressive or traditional tendencies in relation to a static definition of "Renaissance humanism". Unfortunately history is seldom so tidy or so linear.
One of the ostensible objectives in the work is the construction of an intellectual Arcadia ruled by a Platonic Philosopher-King where characters were permitted to temporarily abandon their particular role within the complicated hierarchy of social codes in order to participate more candidly in the dialogue, but this is not a true reflection of the power structure of the court which was still essentially medieval and chivalric in nature. In this light, De politia seems as much an anachronistic fantasy for the delight of courtiers as the Arthurian legends.But while the political importance of the humanist in Leonello’s is overstated court we must not underplay their importance in the formation of courtly culture. The humanist coterie surrounding Leonello valued books more for their practical usefulness to the ruler and the enrichment of courtly discourse and the illuminated manuscript functioned as a tool. The courtly culture that took shape under Borso shows a markedly different relationship to the written word.