Today Ferrara is a modest city of 130,000 people in northern Italy's Po Valley.
During the Renaissance it was a place of much more significance, because it was the seat of the d'Este family. The d'Estes became lords of Ferrara in 1264 and retained that title (among many others) down to 1598. They never held much land but they punched well above their weight in Renaissance politics through a strategy that included numerous illustrious marriages and support for the arts on a grand scale. Plus the luck of producing a sufficiency of sane, fertile offspring for 350 years running.
The main sites on any tour of Ferrara are the many d'Este palaces. This one, dating to the 15th century, later became the town hall.
The Palazzo dei Diamanti (Palace of Diamonds), yet another 15th-century construction. This now holds a branch of the Italian National Gallery, specializing in works by the many painters who benefited from d'Este patronage.
Famous painting of an unidentified woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia, who was married for a while to Alfonso I d'Este.
Ercole I d'Este by Dosso Dossi.
The Palazzo Bentivoglio, dating to the late 16th century.
In the center of Ferrara is a rather incongruous fortified castle, the Castello Estense. In 1385, after a run of bad years (plague, floods, war, the usual woes) the people of the town revolted against the high taxes imposed by their rulers. The current d'Este lord, Niccolo III, appeared to the people but failed to calm them. So following ancient tradition he blamed everything on his chief minister, Tommaso da Tortona. Niccolo allowed Tommaso to confess and receive communion, then handed him over to the mob, which tore him to pieces.
This scare convinced Niccolo that he needed a safe refuge in the city, lest the mob come after him again and no minister be on hand to sacrifice. So he built Castello Estense to be a safe refuge in time of trouble, and perhaps also to loom over the people and instill in them a little fear of authority.
Equestrian statue of Niccolo III.
Construction of the cathedral began in the 1260s, but the original Romanesque structure has been overlaid by so much later work the only the facade gets much attention these days. The interior is all Baroque.
The town is said to be a charming, stylish place, with many restaurants serving wonderful food.
The root of my interest in Ferrara has to do with one of my writing projects. Some of you know that I am writing what I call a Historical Fantasy about the England of Edward II, real events plus magic, and I have imagined a whole series of others in the same vein. One might be set in the years around 1500, with a great deal of alchemy, Neoplatonism, and magical ideas concealed in complex allegorical emblems. It struck me that the court of the d'Estes would be a great place to set some of the action, and so I started reading about them.
So when I send my thoughts wandering they sometimes take me to Ferrara, city of palaces, home of artists, poets, and humanists, one of the best places, they say, for imagining the Renaissance world.
Great, wonderful city. I loved the post. I had myself recently posted this:
Nice to know someone shares my admiration for Ferrara.
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