In Continuous Expectation: Isabella d’Este’s Reign of Letters

By Deanna Shemek - ES46

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The sixteenth century is commonly identified with the advent of print culture, but in truth it was also a century of explosive growth in the practice of handwritten correspondence. This is a book about one assiduous correspondent and the roles that letter writing played in her public and private life. Because the letters of Isabella d’Este (1474–1539), daughter of the Este dukes of Ferrara and marchesa of Mantua, are so numerous, so wide ranging, and so explicit about their own production and circulation, it is also, by extension, a book about postal communication in sixteenth-century Europe.
Examining Isabella’s letters as both documentary evidence and scripted performance, In Continuous Expectation proposes a view of the early modern letter as a technology: a tool and a medium not only for investigating, persuading, and reporting, but also for the circulation of the writer’s persona within the many speech acts letters are designed to perform. Isabella d’Este was an extraordinary figure on many accounts. Her letters are presented here not only as vehicles for the activities and personal expression of one, remarkable woman, but also as examples of a shared epistolary culture in which both men and women participated and that rewards the attention of anyone interested in the values, practices, concerns, and indeed the people of Renaissance Italy.
By Deanna Shemek.

Deanna Shemek is Professor of Italian and European Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is author of Ladies Errant: Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy (1998). She has co-edited several collections of essays on early modern Italy, and has published essays on authors including Boccaccio, Ariosto, Aretino, and others. Her monumental edition of the Selected Letters of Isabella d'Este (2017) won the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women's 2018 prize for translation. She co-directs the online resource, IDEA: Isabelle d'Este Archive

214 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-7727-2524-0 softcover
Published: 2021


“Isabella d’Este made the letter the quintessential expression of her ability to negotiate on behalf of herself, her family, her state and its subjects. Deanna Shemek’s marvelous study of Isabella’s correspondence, the product of many years working with this immense archive, gives us a fresh and compelling portrait of one of the most fascinating and important figures in Renaissance Italy.” — Paula Findlen, Stanford University

“Deanna Shemek’s insightful and authoritative study of Isabella d’Este makes a major contribution to our understanding of this multi-faceted figure. Shemek’s deft analysis of her extensive correspondence illuminates how skillfully Isabella used the epistolary art to craft and manage her persona and her relationships. As much an examination of early modern epistolary culture and practices as a portrait of Isabella herself, Shemek’s book will be of great interest to scholars of all disciplines.” — Meredith Ray, University of Delaware



Transcription Criteria, and Note on Naming

1. “What News Occurs to Me”: Isabella d’Este as Renaissance Correspondent

2. “Ci Ci and Pa Pa”: Script, Mimicry, and Mediation in Isabella d’Este’s Letters

3. “In Continuous Expectation”: Isabella d’Este’s Epistolary Desire

4. “When You Consider That I Am a Woman”: Isabella d’Este and the Properties of Persuasion

5. “Our Art and Our Fiction”: Isabella d’Este’s Mendacious Missives

6. “Neither Hope Nor Fear”: Isabella d’Este as Prince “About the Other Hand”: Isabella d’Este’s Epistolary Helpline