Art Historian Reads Other People’s Mail

Sally Hickson uses 500-year-old letters to paint a new image of the Italian Renaissance

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Sally Hickson

Prof. Sally Hickson -- Photo by Martin Schwalbe

If there’s ever a movie made of Isabella d’Este’s life, art history professor Sally Hickson could see Meryl Streep in the main role ─ or someone else with the talent to play a complex, strong, intelligent woman.

Isabella d’Este has been compared to Jackie Kennedy because of her contributions to the art and culture of her community and her times, and she’s known as the “First Lady of the Renaissance.” And although this woman, who was the marquise of a small city in Italy, has been dead for almost 500 years, Hickson talks about her like an old friend. That’s because she’s spent many years researching d’Este’s life as told through the thousands of letters she wrote, now stored in the archives in Mantua, Italy.

Seen through Hickson’s eyes, those letters tell the story of a woman who contributed significantly to the Renaissance in Italy, not as an artist but as a collector.

“In many ways she had a great life,” says Hickson. “Isabella faced a lot of obstacles but she always found a way to accomplish what she wanted.”

Hickson first learned about Isabella d’Este as an undergraduate student at Carleton University, where she studied both Italian and art history. One of her professors there, Clifford Brown, pointed out that knowing Italian gave her access to documents that other art history majors wouldn’t be able to read. He taught her how to understand the Italian archives. Hickson points out: “Old Italian isn’t the same as modern Italian, and there are many different dialects, so reading these old documents isn’t easy.”

In the process, she says she realized: “I’m just nosy. I like to poke around through old letters and correspondence.”

After graduation, Hickson completed a master’s degree at Queen’s University, then worked in Montreal at the Canadian Centre for Architecture before returning to Queen’s to complete her PhD. She had the opportunity to teach in the Queen’s summer program in Italy and often brought the students to see where she was researching in Mantua.

“All my research goes back to those archives in Mantua,” she says. “Right now I have three articles being published that all seem to be on different topics but, in fact, they all stem from the same sources.”

Isabella was a prolific letter-writer, and her missives give great insight into her life, her personality and her role in society. Born into a wealthy family, she received more education than most young girls of the time. By the time she married the Marquis of Mantua when she was 16, Isabella was already known for her intelligence and knowledge.

“Isabella began collecting art and antiquities and had some very cutting-edge stuff,” says Hickson. Leonardo da Vinci sketched her portrait ─ it now hangs in the Louvre ─ and she was also painted by Titian. “She had two figures of a sleeping cupid,” adds Hickson, “one from ancient Greece, and the other a copy done by Michelangelo.”

Isabella’s collections and her influence in Mantua brought visitors from across Europe. Hickson has even found documents showing that ambassadors from Japan made a point of touring her collection. She also shared recipes for food and perfumes with her friends and designed a headdress that became very popular. “She was a trend-setter,” says Hickson.

Despite her busy life, Isabella’s archives show that she ─ like many others of her time ─ spent hours each day writing letters to people. Hickson finds it interesting to imagine what she might have accomplished with email and Google. “On the other hand, she might have accomplished less. People in those times needed to think and plan and strategize more, and she was very good at that.”

When she’s not reading other people’s mail in Mantua, Hickson likes to cook and garden. She collects cookbooks and was taught Italian cooking techniques by one of her professors. “I can make pasta from scratch, and homemade ice cream,” she says. She’s recently become interested in “scent gardens,” something she learned about during one of her Italian research visits. “People planted herbs like thyme and basil, as well as roses and other flowers, for their scents rather that their appearance,” she explains. “I’m interested in creating one for myself.”