Ferrara: Castello Estense

The Castello Estense.

The Castello Estense in the centre of Ferrara is arguably the city’s most famous building. Constructed primarily for defensive purposes towards the end of the fourteenth century, it later became the archetypal Italian Renaissance palace. Nowadays, its outward appearance is still quite impressive, but once inside, the castle feels rather empty and deserted. There is a logical explanation for this: in 1598 the Este family that had ruled Ferrara for over three centuries was expelled from the city by Pope Clemens VIII (1592-1605) and forced to relocate to nearby Modena. The family took most of their furniture and art with them. Whatever was left usually ended up in the collections of papal legates. Still, in spite of its rather empty rooms and apartments, a visit to the Castello Estense is highly recommended. Do not forget to buy an extra ticket to climb the Torre dei Leoni, which offers a panoramic view of Ferrara.

Early history

The House of Este named itself after the town of Este in the Veneto. It was Azzo VII d’Este (also called ‘Azzo Novello’) who both lost control of Este and became the first Este marquess of Ferrara. Upon his death in 1264, his son Obizzo II was proclaimed dominus generalis by the people of the city. Since a lordship based exclusively on a popular mandate was considered too shaky, the Estensi subsequently sought papal approval as well. Since the House of Este had always fought on the Guelph side and was thus a loyal supporter of the papal cause, this was not a problem at all. Right up until 1598, Ferrara’s marquesses – and since 1471: dukes – were formally invested by the Pope.

View from the Torre dei Leoni, with the Duomo in the background.

Under Niccolò II d’Este, who ruled the city from 1361 until his death in 1388, many important changes took place in Ferrara. Niccolò was responsible for turning Ferrara into a more modern city, with paved streets and stone buildings. He had enjoyed much success on the battlefield as well, making Ferrara a military force to be reckoned with. However, there was also much disaster during his long reign. There were floods, droughts and plagues, and on 3 May 1385, a bloody popular revolt broke out when taxes in the city were raised, especially those on bread. It was this rebellion which convinced Niccolò to build a stronghold on the edge of the city, the Castello Estense.

Construction started on 29 September 1385, Saint Michael’s day, and the castle was named the Castello di San Michele after this saint. The first architect of the castle was Bartolino da Novara (died between 1406 and 1410). There had already been a sturdy watchtower here since the 1100s, the Torre dei Leoni. To this tower were now added three more towers, four walls and several rooms and buildings surrounding a square courtyard, with gates, drawbridges and a moat on all sides. As the castle’s architectural layout clearly shows, the Castello Estense was primarily intended to protect the Este family against the people of Ferrara, not against external threats.

Ceiling frescoes seen in a mirror in the Sala dell’Aurora.

Niccolò II was succeeded by his brother Alberto V d’Este (1388-1393), whose main contribution to history was the opening of the University of Ferrara in 1391. The famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) obtained his doctorate in canonical law here, and the firebrand preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was also a student at the University of Ferrara for a while. Savonarola was a rather controversial figure. As a Dominican preacher, he advocated church reforms, but he was also responsible for the destruction of precious art in so-called ‘bonfires of the vanities’. Artists like Sandro Botticelli were for a while under his spell (see Milan: Museo Poldi Pezzoli). Although burned at the stake in Florence in 1498, the Ferrarese still honour him as one of their own. The piazza just south of the Castello Estense was named the Piazza Savonarola after him, and it is here that we find his statue, made in 1875.

From Renaissance to Risorgimento

It was under Alberto’s son and successor Niccolò III d’Este (1393-1441) that one of the saddest episodes in Ferrarese history took place. Niccolò had first married Gigliola da Carrara, who died in 1416 of the plague without having born him any children. The marquess of Ferrara then married Laura Malatesta, also known as Parisina. Apart from these official relationships, Niccolò had also been involved in a long-standing affair with his mistress Stella de’ Tolomei. It was an affair that had led to the birth of three illegitimate sons: Ugo, Leonello and Borso. In a tragic turns of events, Ugo (born in 1405) fell in love with his stepmother Parisina, who was about the same age. The love affair was unfortunately discovered, and the two love birds were decapitated on 21 May 1425 in the dungeons of the Castello Estense. In spite of this cruel act, Niccolò III d’Este was a patron of the arts, who ushered in the Renaissance for Ferrara. One of the highlights of his reign was the Council of Ferrara of 1438, which was set up to bring about a reconciliation of the Churches of the West and the East (see Ferrara: The Duomo).

Borso d’Este’s Bible.

Upon his death in 1441, Niccolò was first succeeded by his son Leonello (1441-1450) and then by his other son Borso (1450-1471). The Castello Estense still has Borso’s Bible on display, the Bibbia di Borso d’Este. This illuminated manuscript in two volumes is truly exceptional. The artists Taddeo Crivelli and Franco dei Russi were responsible for this wonderful piece of Renaissance art, which was made between 1455 and 1461. Since Borso never married and did not have any heirs, he was succeeded by his half-brother Ercole I d’Este (1471-1505), born in 1431 as the son of Niccolò III d’Este and his third wife Ricciarda da Saluzzo. It was Ercole who really turned Ferrara from a medieval town of modest size into a much larger Renaissance city. Under his rule, the city was almost doubled in size. The so-called Addizione Erculea led to an extension of the city walls way beyond their original location. As a result, the Castello Estense now no longer found itself on the outskirts of the city, but in the very heart of it.

Ercole I d’Este was one of the foremost patrons of art and music in fifteenth century Italy and his Renaissance court was the most famous in the entire Italian peninsula. His son and successor Alfonso I d’Este (1505-1534) first married Anna Sforza of Milan and then the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503). Alfonso, another great patron of art, was succeeded by his son Ercole II (1534-1559), who was in turn succeeded by his son Alfonso II (1559-1597). Despite being married three times, Alfonso II had no children and therefore no heir. Upon his death, Pope Clemens VIII refused to recognise his cousin Cesare d’Este (1562-1628) as his successor. The papal investiture was withdrawn, the surviving Estes were forced to move to Modena and Ferrara was incorporated into the Papal States. From now on, the city would be governed by a papal legate, a situation that continued until Ferrara became part of the Italian state in 1860. The legates’ coats of arms, and those of the Popes, can be found in the Sala degli Stemmi on the first floor.

Coats of arms in the Sala degli Stemmi.

Highlights of the castle

Garden of the Oranges.

Since the 1450s, the Castello Estense has slowly but determinedly been transformed from a military fortress into a Renaissance palace. Borso, Ercole I and Alfonso I d’Este all played their part in this process. Stables, armouries and rooms for the military garrison were converted into lavishly decorated apartments and studies. But however cultured these dukes may have been, they also had to resort to less civilised means to consolidate their rule.

Leonollo d’Este’s son Niccolò tried to stage a coup against Ercole in 1476, who managed to crush it with Venetian help and much bloodshed. Alfonso I d’Este for his part had to deal with a conspiracy in 1506 by his younger brother Ferrante and his half-brother Giulio d’Este. The conspiracy, directed against both the Duke and his brother Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, was poorly planned, led and executed. Ferrante and Giulio were captured and condemned to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Ferrante died in captivity in 1540, while Giulio was released in 1559 after spending 53 years in the dungeons of the Castello. There is a popular story that when he walked through the streets of Ferrara, he quickly became the laughing stock of the people because his clothes were completely out of fashion. Giulio d’Este died two years later, in 1561. It is possible to visit the prisons beneath the castle. Mind you, it is quite gloomy down there and the doorways are very low!

Wor Bas relief.

Wall decoration in the Salone dei Giochi.

The Torre dei Leoni offers a very nice view of the city of Ferrara (see the image above). It is 122 steps to the top and you need to buy an extra ticket at the ticket office. However, the true highlight of the tower cannot be seen from it. I am referring to a large relief incorporated into the fabric of the tower (see above). You can admire it when standing outside on the Largo Castello just to the north of the castle. The relief features two lions that are wearing helmets with large eagle heads, so in fact they are two griffins. The most intriguing part of the object are the two serpent-like scrolls between the animals, which have the words WOR BAS carved into them. The lions are said to represent the brothers Niccolò II and Alberto V d’Este, and WOR BAS is assumed to have been their battle cry. The words are of Germanic origin and could mean something along the lines of “forwards” (in German: vorwärts; in Dutch: voorwaarts). The relief was restored in 2011.

One of the most charming parts of the Castello Estense is the lovely garden and loggia of the oranges (Loggia degli Aranci; see above). It can be found on the first floor. Its present design goes back to the reign of Alfonso I d’Este. Of special interest is the Ducal Chapel on the same floor. One theory is that this was the chapel of Renée de France (1510-1574), daughter of King Louis XII of France and wife of Ercole II d’Este. Although raised a Catholic, she later converted to Calvinism and even entertained John Calvin himself at her court in the summer of 1536. Since there is barely any decoration inside the chapel, which is in line with protestant teachings, it was assumed to have been prepared for a staunch Calvinist like Renée, who would be expelled from the court after the death of her husband in 1559.

Ceiling frescoes in the Ducal Chapel.

However, the theory is problematic, as the chapel seems to have been built long after Renée’s death in 1574. It was constructed between 1590 and 1591 on the orders of her son, Alfonso II d’Este, the last Duke of Ferrara. His relationship with his mother was strained and he certainly did not embrace the Protestant cause. It is true, however, that there is very little decoration inside the chapel. The four evangelists on the ceiling were frescoed by the relatively unknown court painter Giulio Marescotti. They were heavily restored in the nineteenth century by Giuseppe Tamarozzi (1796-1855). The gilded decorations on the walls are the work of Giovan Battista Rosselli.

Many rooms on the first floor of the Castello Estense have interesting fresco decorations, although none of the artwork is of exceptional quality. Nice ceiling decorations can be found in the Sala dell’Aurora (see above) and the Saletta and Salone dei Giochi, the small and large Hall of Games. The frescoes that we find here are attributed to Sebastiano Filippi, known as Bastianino (ca. 1528-1602), Ludovico Settevecchi and Leonardo da Brescia. Mirrors have been set up so that it is possible for visitors to admire the decorations without straining their neck muscles. All of the decorations were painted during Alfonso II d’Este’s reign and almost certainly after the terrible earthquake that hit Ferrara in 1570 and caused much damage in the city.

Ceiling of the Saletta dei Giochi.

Unfortunately the frescoes were damaged during the 2012 earthquake that struck in the Emilia-Romagna region. This damage has not yet been repaired, and it shows. Washi paper has been applied to the frescoes to seal the cracks. While this is better than nothing, it now looks like someone has stuck dozens of sheets of toilet paper up the frescoes. It is not a pretty site. Let us hope the city of Ferrara soon finds funds to restore the frescoes. Visiting the Castello Estense will certainly help!

The website of the Castello Estense is a mine of historical and cultural information. Much of the information for this post came from this website. My Trotter travel guide to North-East Italy provided additional information.


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