Este. For me, the name has always had a mythical ring to it. The House of Este (Casa d’Este) can be counted among the best-known Italian dynasties. Ercole I d’Este (1431-1505) was one of the foremost patrons of art in fifteenth century Italy and his Renaissance court was the most famous in the entire Italian peninsula. His son and successor Alfonso d’Este (1476-1534) married the notorious Lucrezia Borgia. Their son Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (1509-1572) commissioned the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, while Beatrice d’Este (1475-1497), daughter of the aforementioned Ercole, was the wife of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. And yet the Estensi are probably best known as Marquesses and Dukes of Ferrara. They lost control of the town of Este, from which their house took its name, long ago. Still, the family left its mark on Este for some 200 years, a period that started with the construction of a castle here by Alberto Azzo II d’Este (died 1097) and ended when the notorious Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259), vicarius of the emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, conquered the town twice and forced the Este family to relocate to Ferrara.
But Este is much older than that. Already in the iron age, there was an important town of the Veneti here. When, in the second century BCE, the Romans began expanding their influence into the Veneto region (see Aquileia: remains of a Roman city), the Veneti were gradually absorbed and Romanised. Este was known as Ateste in those days, a name which survives in the name of the local archaeological museum, the Museo Nazionale Atestino. A Roman colony was founded at Ateste at some point in time, and after his victory at Actium, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus – known to posterity as the emperor Augustus – settled veterans from his legions here. Not much is known about life in Este in the imperial Roman period, apart from the fact that the town does not seem to have been very important, at least not in the bigger picture of history.
Ateste was virtually wiped off the map and reduced to a rural village by the tribal invasions of the fifth and sixth century CE. It was not until the aforementioned Alberto Azzo II d’Este constructed a castle here in about 1056 that Este was revitalised. People started to settle here again and soon the village was upgraded to a lively town. Unfortunately the Estes got into a long-standing feud with the Ezzelino family. Azzo VI d’Este (1170-1212), a Guelph and therefore a supporter of the Pope, fought against Ezzelino II da Romano (died 1235) and his son Ezzelino III, who as Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Ezzelino III then continued the struggle and fought against Azzo VI’s son Azzo VII d’Este (‘Azzo Novello’). Este was taken twice, in 1238 and 1249, causing Azzo to move his seat of government to Ferrara.
After Ezzelino’s death in 1259, Este – like nearby Monselice and Arquà – became a pawn in the power struggle between the Della Scalas of Verona, the Da Carraras of Padova and even the Viscontis of Milan. The castle was destroyed and rebuilt on more than one occasion, and then finally rebuilt in 1339 by Ubertino da Carrara, ruler of Padova. It is the remains of his castle that we see today: the Castello Carrarese. Padova itself was annexed by Venice in late 1405, and this caused Este to voluntarily join the Venetian Republic. It was a choice the citizens would not regret. Under Venetian rule, Este prospered again and the many fat years were only interrupted by a terrible plague in 1630. That same plague had hit Venice as well, causing the Serenissima to build the famous basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. In fact, Este has a Salute church as well, the Chiesa della Beata Vergine della Salute, which is located in the western part of the town.
Things to see
Many of the walls of the Castello Carrarese are still standing, and these are about a kilometre in circumference. They are an impressive sight, covering the southern slopes of the Colli Euganei. Twelve of the original fourteen towers have been preserved. The municipality of Este bought the Castello in 1887 and turned it into a lovely park (Giardini Pubblici), which was opened to the public in 1915. During the summer, the park is open from early in the morning until late in the evening. The eastern section of the park is used for open air theatrical performances. When we visited Este in July 2017, we tried to get a closer look at the keep (Mastio) in the highest part of the Castello, but found it closed. A note was posted here that stated that the keep is open to the public on the first two Sundays of the month, but I do not know whether this is a permanent arrangement.
Having largely lost its defensive purpose, the Castello became the property of the illustrious Mocenigo family from Venice during the Venetian era. The Mocenigos built a palazzo in the castle grounds, the Villa Mocenigo, in about 1570. The eastern section of the villa was destroyed by a fire in the eighteenth century, but the western wing survived and now houses the Museo Nazionale Atestino, an archaeological museum which is open every day (see the image above). Most items on display are from the era of the Ancient Veneti and of the Romans.
One of the most eccentric buildings of Este is its principal church, the Duomo, dedicated to Saint Thecla. According to the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, she was a follower of Saint Paul from the city of Iconium (now Konya) in present-day Turkey. The proconsul of the region condemned her to the stake, but the flames would not touch her body and rain and hail sent by God extinguished the flames (and killed some of the infidel bystanders). Paul and Thecla then travelled to Antiocheia, where Thecla was condemned to be thrown to the beasts. Again she was saved by divine intervention. Thecla ultimately retired to a cave where she lived for the next 72 years, dying at the ripe old age of 90. Her historicity can be debated, but she soon became a popular saint and her tomb in the monastery of Mar Taqla in Ma’loula, Syria, became an important destination for pilgrims. The Acts of Paul and Thecla, presumably from the second century CE, are interesting for many reasons, especially because they contain a description of Saint Paul that later became commonplace: “a man small in size, bald-headed, bandy-legged, well-built, with eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed, full of grace”.
There has been a church dedicated to Saint Thecla on this site since the fourth or fifth century. It apparently survived the onslaught of the Ostrogoths, Huns and Longobards and was rebuilt and restored on various occasions in the ensuing centuries. The church was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1688 and subsequently completely rebuilt. The job to erect a new edifice was entrusted to Antonio Gaspari, who started work in 1690. The new Duomo was completed in 1720, and the campanile – which reuses an eighth century base – in 1740. The facade of the building was left unfinished and is not much to look at. All we see is naked brick and two white spots where decorations or perhaps a clock could have been attached.
The Santa Tecla is most of all special because of its peculiar elliptical form. The bright white interior of the church is quite charming. Most travel guides will inform the visitor about the church’s most prized possession: a painting in the central apse by the Baroque artist Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), representing Saint Thecla liberating the town of Este from the plague of 1630. Unfortunately, when we visited Este in July 2017, the painting was no longer there. In fact, it had already been removed for restoration several years previously. Apparently, money is still a problem, and visitors were asked for donations to help finance restoration of both the painting and the Duomo, which is in need of renovation too. We gave generously, and hope to return some day to see the result.
Another church that is worth a visit is the Santa Maria delle Grazie, a church that is conspicuous because of its enormous dome, which can be seen from afar. The first church on this spot was sponsored by two condottieri from the House of Este, Taddeo d’Este (ca. 1390-1448) and his son Bertoldo (died 1463), who both left generous sums of money in their respective wills to enable construction of the church. Construction started in 1468 under the responsibility of the Dominicans. The new church of Sancta Maria de Gratia was finished in 1472 and consecrated in 1479. In 1717, the Dominicans decided that a larger church was necessary, which was completed in 1745. This is the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie that we see today. The huge dome (cupola) is a 1889 addition. The interior of the church is modern, but it does have one more ancient artefact on display, a fifteenth century icon of Saint Mary of Graces of the Cretan School, which has been in the church since the beginning.
The small historical centre of Este is lovely, with charming piazzas and picturesque streets. One final point of interest is the clock tower – Torre Civica – of the Porta Vecchia, one of the former gates of the town. The tower in its current form dates from the end of the seventeenth century and is basically composed of three parts: the gate, a large bronze clock made in 1637 and a bell room.
Just around the corner is one of the best restaurants in Este, Ristorante Le Strie. In fact, it may be one of the best restaurants in the Colli Euganei region. We enjoyed the original, modern dishes, but especially the traditional desert. Try the ‘Losanga ‘stregata’ di crema fritta’, a lozenge-shaped piece of pastry with delicious custard, based on a recipe that was popular in Este in the 1940s. It was served with a smile and really made our day.