by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Este Castello at Ferrara

The Este and After

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA 28 May 1993


Flamboyant, despotic, devious, often cruel, but generally endowed with impeccable taste in artistic matters, the Este family ruled this walled city on the plain, where the Po flows into the Adriatic, for nearly 350 years. They were especially fond of music and theater, and the traditions they established lived on long after the dynasty became extinct in 1597, when the Pope took over Ferrara and installed a Cardinal as its governor.

Successive Cardinal-Legates continued to promote the performing arts, though religious and worldly interests did sometimes collide: when Vivaldi was invited to stage his operas here in 1738, he had to direct by remote control, since the then Cardinal refused to allow him to enter the city, scandalized that Vivaldi (a priest) should be travelling openly with his protegee, the beautiful young soprano Anna Giraud.

In 1796 Cardinal Carafa completed the city's impressive Teatro Pubblico, now the Teatro Communale, or Municipal Theater, a solid but stylish stone-built structure that replaced a series of earlier theaters that had, with monotonous regularity, gone up in flames. Carafa's patronage of theater did not extend to an appreciation of Italy's characteristically boisterous audience participation, and he forbade clapping, foot-stamping, whistling and calls for encores during performances - on pain of public whipping, imprisonment and even death.

Opposite the theater is the Old Castle - scene of many Este entertainments, intrigues and excesses. A massive medieval brick structure, surrounded by a moat, the castle served as much to overawe the local populace as a defence against external enemies. The upper rooms were transformed into airy, frescoed appartments, where Lucrezia Borgia presided for the second half of her life, setting the moral tone as the perfect housewife and hostess.

The dungeons below are authentically dismal. Here, several inconvenient members of the Este family met gruesome ends. An attendant is still on hand, just as a Victorian traveler found, to tell with a sigh the story of Paisina, the young second wife of Niccolo d'Este (1383-1441) who had the misfortune to fall in love with her handsome stepson, Ugo: 'Decapitati, tutti i due' (Both beheaded). In the same prison another Este who stepped out of line, Don Giulio, was kept for 53 years. He was finally released by his great-nephew in 1559, and took a stroll around town to re-acquaint himself with the haunts of his youth, still dressed in the fashion of half a century before, and followed everywhere by an admiring crowd.

To the south of the castle lies Ferrara's medieval heart, and the Via delle Volte, a mile-long street with a series of vaulted äarches, reminiscent of an eastern bazaar. To the north is the Addizione Eraclea, or Herculean Extension, named after Ercole (Hercules) I, who commissioned the local architect Biagio Rossetti (1447-1516) to vastly increase the city's size. Rossetti laid out a grid of broad streets - making Ferrara 'the first modern city' - and built numerous houses, palazzi and churches to fill them. (The project was, however, so ambitious that it was only in the 20th century that the entire area was urbanized.) Rossetti's most striking edifice is the Palazzo dei Diamanti - its exterior faced with 12,600 stone blocks cut like diamonds (one of Ercole's heraldic devices).

Around the corner is the more modest house of poet and keen amateur gardener Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), which he built with the royalties from his romantic epic bestseller Orlando Furioso, creating for himself a rustic haven only a few minutes walk from the center of town.

The Este themselves built numerous villas, pavilions and hunting lodges in and around Ferrara, some linked by the legendary 'Viale', a leafy private corridor shielded by trees, vines and hedges, so that the court could move from one pleasure dome to another invisible to the gaze of lesser mortals.

The most interesting survivor of these exclusive residences is Rossetti's Palazzo Schifanoia ('Away-with-boredom'). A fantastic-realistic cycle of frescoes depict the zodiacal signs and months of the year, and sparklingly evoke life in the Este court. Amidst the classical and allegorical imagery one scene shows Borso d'Este and his entourage laughing at a court buffoon's latest witticism, and another, snappily dressed young courtiers at a musical party making so bold as to cuddle the girls - and meeting only the most token displays of resistance.

Close by the Schifanoia is the church of Santa Maria in Vado ('by the ford'). An unusual bar, run by the parish, has little tables set out in the 15th-century cloister - a most delectable spot to pause for a late afternoon or evening drink.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023