The Galleria Estense is one of the museums that have found accommodation in the Palazzo dei Musei on the edge of Modena’s city centre. The museum was founded in 1854 by Francesco V, the last truly independent duke of Modena from the d’Este family (the duchy was annexed by the kingdom of Italy in 1860). In 1894 the museum moved to its current location. Its collection is mostly the art collection that the d’Este family managed to put together over the course of several centuries. Right up until the end of the sixteenth century, much of that art could be admired in another city in the Emilia-Romagna, i.e. in Ferrara, which was also under d’Este control. However, as their name indicates, the d’Este family was originally from the town of Este in the Veneto. In this post, I will briefly discuss the family history and take stock of the highlights of the Galleria Estense.
Marquises and dukes of Ferrara
The history of the Estensi goes all the way back to the tenth century. At the end of the twelfth century they managed to acquire Ferrara, situated further to the south, for the first time. Between 1212 and 1240 this city was ruled by the Torelli family, but in the latter year it was retaken by Azzo VII d’Este (also called ‘Azzo Novello’). 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 marquises – and since 1471: dukes – were formally invested by the Pope.
We find several famous names among the marquises and dukes of Ferrara. It was Alberto V d’Este (1388-1393) who in 1391 founded the University of Ferrara, while Ercole I d’Este (1471-1505) turned Ferrara into a genuine Renaissance city and Alfonso I d’Este (1505-1534) married the notorious Lucrezia Borgia and was considered a patron of the arts. However, the year 1597 proved to be disastrous for the duchy. The childless duke Alfonso II (1559-1597) had died and Pope Clemens VIII refused to accept his cousin Cesare d’Este (1562-1628) as his successor. The papal investiture was ended and the remaining members of the House of Este were kicked out of Ferrara. Where should they go now? The answer was pretty simple. Ever since the end of the thirteenth century Modena and Reggio Emilia had been integral parts of the marquisate and later duchy ruled by the Estensi. Modena, located about 55 kilometres southwest of Ferrara, proved to be the best option. The family obviously decided to take most of their furniture and art with them. Not much was left at the palace in Ferrara. Some of the art ended up elsewhere, for instance in Rome.
Dukes of Modena
And so it happened that Cesare d’Este became the first duke of Modena. After his death in 1628 he was succeeded by his son Alfonso III, whose reign lasted just a year. In 1629 he abdicated and joined the Capuchins. Alfonso was henceforth known as brother Giovan Battista of Modena. Around 1635 he had his portrait painted by Matteo Loves, who was a fairly obscure English painter working in Italy. The portrait is currently in the Galleria Estense. The former duke can be seen wearing the Capuchin habit and pointing at the crucifix in his left hand. It is a portrait filled to the brim with symbolism. On the table we see a skull and hourglass, symbols of the finiteness of life. With his left foot, brother Giovan Battista treads on a sceptre and crown, symbols of secular power. Around him we see all kinds of objects that also have a connection with secular power. It is crystal clear that the monk has renounced all these things: he is now exclusively in the service of God.
Alfonso III was succeeded as duke by his eighteen-year-old son Francesco I. His long reign – Francesco died in 1658 – was not in all respects successful. In 1630-1631 the population of Modena was decimated by a plague and the duke also failed to retake Ferrara. Francesco I was nevertheless very important for the arts. In 1638 he visited Spain as part of a diplomatic mission to the court of King Philip IV. On that occasion he had his portrait painted by the famous Spanish artist Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). The splendid portrait may surely be counted among the highlights of the Galleria Estense. Perhaps even more splendid is the enormous bust that the duke commissioned in 1650-1651 from one of the greatest sculptors of all time, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). The bust (see the first image in this post) is almost one metre high and over one metre wide. In the case of the portrait and the bust, Francesco was kind enough to pay the bill, but he also had a reputation for simply taking works of art from churches in and around Modena if he wanted to expand his collection. A good example is Cima da Conegliano’s Lamentation of Christ, of which I have included an image in this post. This work is from a church in Carpi.
Francesco I was succeeded by his son Alfonso IV. The new duke was still young, but suffered from gout and tuberculosis. In 1662 he passed away at the tender age of 27. Unwittingly, he proved to be of great importance posthumously for the history of both England and the Netherlands. In 1673 his daughter Mary of Modena (1658-1718) married James, duke of York. When James’ brother King Charles II died in 1685, James became the new king of England. Like his Italian wife, James was a devout Catholic, but his daughters Mary and Anne were members of the Anglican church. As the king had no sons, it looked like England would not be lost for the Protestant cause. However, in 1688 the queen finally gave birth to a son (another son had died in 1677 after just a month). The boy would obviously be raised a Catholic, and this was one of the reasons for the so-called Glorious Revolution. Mary’s husband, the Dutch Prince of Orange William III invaded England and deposed his father-in-law. William and Mary then shared the throne until the latter’s death in 1694. At the time of the Glorious Revolution Alfonso IV had been dead for over a quarter of a century. The Galleria has a nice portrait of him made by the Flemish master Justus Sustermans (1597-1681). The canvas is dated to 1653-1659 and was only acquired by the museum in 1899.
The collection of the Galleria Estense
The collection of this art museum is large and impressive, but it could have been even larger and more impressive if it had not been for two lamentable incidents in the eighteenth century. First of all, during the long reign (1737-1780) of Francesco III the duchy had basically gone bankrupt. This had forced the duke to sell a significant number of works from his collection to Frederick August II, Elector of Saxony (also known as August III of Poland). The Elector had a reputation for purchasing valuable art in Italy (see Piacenza: San Sisto). The works he bought can now be admired in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. There is much one can say of Frederick August’s actions, but at least he paid the bill. That was more than could be said of Napoleon Bonaparte towards the end of the eighteenth century. He had much art from Modena moved to the Louvre, and after the fall of Napoleon not everything was returned to the city. The two incidents left the Estensi collection somewhat depleted, but in the decades after 1854 it was enlarged again when new works were bought at antiques markets.
As the Estensi took much art with them when they had to leave Ferrara in 1598, it should not come as a surprise that the Galleria Estense has a large number of works by Ferrarese masters. Cosmè Tura (ca. 1430-1495) for instance painted a weird, almost surrealistic portrait of Saint Anthony of Padova (1195-1231). The painting has intriguing background details, such as rocks, a building and boats on the water. Another painter from Ferrara, Ercole de’ Roberti (ca. 1451-1496), was responsible for a work from about 1490 that features the Roman heroine and symbol of chastity Lucretia (Lucrece). She has been raped by the son of the last Roman king and is about to plunge a dagger into her heart to save her honour. Art historians believe that the portrait of Lucrece is actually that of Eleanor of Naples, the wife of Ercole I d’Este. Next to Lucrece are her husband Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus, traditionally considered the first consul of the Roman republic after the monarchy had been abolished. Other Ferrarese painters of which the Galleria Estense owns works are Benvenuto Tisi (ca. 1481-1559), also known as Il Garofalo, and Dosso Dossi (ca. 1489-1542).
Of course not all paintings in the museum were made by artists from Ferrara, although most works were in fact made by Italians. An exception is a Madonna and Child and Saint Anne (ca. 1516) by the Southern Netherlandish painter Joos van Cleve (ca. 1485-1540). Many paintings in the Galleria date from the sixteenth century. Examples include a Lamentation of Christ with Saint Franciscus of Assisi and Bernardinus of Siena by Cima da Conegliano (ca. 1460-1518), as well as works by Correggio (1489-1534), Veronese (1528-1588), Jacopo Bassano (ca. 1515-1592) and Tintoretto (1518-1594). A tour of the museum continues with works by Baroque painters such as Guido Reni (1575-1642), Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) and Guercino (1591-1666). Reni’s 1639 Crucifixion reminded me of a similar work by the same artist that is currently in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome. The painting was one of the favourite works of duke Ercole III (1780-1796). Lastly, I would like to mention a splendid painting of the Roman goddess Flora by Carlo Cignani (1628-1719).
Further reading: the website of the Galleria Estense.