First Lady of the Renaissance: Music at the Court of Isabella d'Este Comes to Chicago, Philadelphia, and Delaware

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The popular image of the Renaissance Man is an educated, multi-talented humanist, advancing learning, art and culture. But what about the Renaissance Woman? Two acclaimed early music groups have joined forces for a concert that will summon the ghost of a woman who was a diplomat, military leader, mother, musician, and international tastemaker. Chicago's Newberry Consort will add their voices and strings to Piffaro's renaissance winds in a concert that focuses on one of the great "influencers" of the Renaissance--Isabella d'Este, the Marchesa of Mantua, a ruler known to her peers as "the First Lady of the World".

The concert will open in Chicago and travel to Philadelphia on February 21 and 22 and to Wilmington, DE on February 23. Chivalric songs known as frottole, which were Italy's rebellious answer to French cultural dominance, will form the heart of the program, while courtly dances and instrumental fantasias will keep things lively. The Newberry Consort has been delighting audiences for three decades. Directed by David Douglass and Ellen Hargis, the ensemble plumbs the vast music collection of Chicago's Newberry Library to present world-class performances of music from the 13th to the 18th centuries. The Consort also serves as an ensemble-in-residence at both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. The Boston Globe has described the ensemble as "Chicago's gift to early music."

February21 @ 7:30PM - Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral

February 22 @ 7:30PM - Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill

February 23 @ 3PM - Christ Church Christiana Hundred (DE)

Free pre-concert lecture one hour prior to concerts.

Tickets start at $29: 215-235-8469 or

Isabella d'Este's voluminous correspondence and lifelong patronage of artists and intellectuals give us a thorough account of her life and add flesh to the spare bones of the "Renaissance Woman." Her story contains many compelling chapters: her diplomatic missions; her defense of Mantua against French attacks during her husband's imprisonment; her patronage of painters like Titian and da Vinci and collections of Roman and Greek antiquities; and her skillful governance of her city, supervising matters as diverse as criminal justice, espionage, and public health.

Isabella was unique in employing her own musicians and maintaining her own collection of instruments, independently of her husband. She continued taking private music lessons throughout her life, preferring the lute, and was said to be an accomplished musician in her own right. February's program, which was developed collaboratively by Ellen Hargis, David Douglass (artistic directors of The Newberry Consort), Joan Kimball, and Bob Wiemken (artistic directors of Piffaro), focuses on Isabella's role in shaping the music she nurtured, encouraging new directions of growth. The frottolo song form popularized at her court was a rebellion against the dominant French influence: an act of creating an "Italian" aesthetic and containing the seeds of the mighty effloresce of Italian composition that was to come. The program will feature frottole by important composers patronized by Isabella, including Josquin des Prez, Bartolomeo Tromboncino, and Marco Cara, and will be rounded out with courtly dances and instrumental fantasias.

A statement by Isabella's music tutor provides insight into both Isabella's tastefulness as a musician and, perhaps, her effectiveness as a diplomat: "the most prudent Isabella d'Este, Marchesa of Mantua, with all the rests of musica practica, which admonish and almost aloud say: 'at times, hush.'" Indeed, her grotto is decorated throughout with a personal insignia of sorts: the impresa di tempi e pause - what we now call in musical notation a rest.

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