15/16 April 2016
I’m taking a detour from the Veneto and briefly crossing into Emilia-Romagna to spend a night in Ferrara. It’s a city not often on a tourist must-see list but I’ve read so much about events there and famous past inhabitants that it’s easily made it onto my itinerary.
Ferrara is only 90 minutes from Venice by train. I’ve lucked out with my hotel, spending a few extra euros to stay in the block next to the Castello Estense. After a shower (living on a boat in Venice was lovely, but it is heavenly to have a proper bathroom again!) and a quick catch up with loved ones at home, it makes sense to head to the Castle first. I love a good fortress and this one is particularly attractive. It’s worth walking around the castle before heading inside. If you’re strapped for time/cash it’s possible to go inside and see the courtyard without paying to see the apartments and prisons. I instead plump for a ridiculously bargainous MyFE Ferrara tourist card, sold at numerous sites. It means I pay one price for access to everything that I want to see in the city as well as receive various discounts. Cards are available for various lengths of stay, I recommend them highly! Card purchased, time to enter the Castello.
Niccolo II d’Este, Marquess of Ferrara commissioned the castle in 1385 following an uprising in the city in which his tax advisor Tommaso da Tortona was murdered by the mob.
If you read as many books and historical novels set in Renaissance Italy as I do, chances are you’ve read about the Este family in Ferrara if only because Lucrezia Borgia married an Este and lived and died in Ferrara. Visiting her home here is a thrill. I’ve visited the Vatican but the crowds prevent the feeling of intimacy that it’s possible to feel here. There is much more to the Castello than Lucrezia and I really do recommend a tour so that you can see the wonderfully decorated rooms and read about Renaissance drama.
After a few rooms with introductory maps and information boards, visitors pass through the kitchens and arrive in the dungeons.
The cell pictured above is situated in the basement of the Torre dei Leoni – the Lion’s Tower. The tower was transformed into the most fortified section of the castle having been a watchtower before the castle was constructed.
The castle dungeons were specifically created for high ranking prisoners. This cell housed the brothers of Alfonso I (future husband of Lucrezia Borgia.)
Giulio and Ferrante d’Este were the younger brothers of Alfonso and Ippolito, who at the time of these events had recently become Bishop of Ferrara.
It seems that Giulio and Ippolito had always had a rather stormy relationship. In particular, one event stands out. In the year that their brother Alfonso succeeded their father as Duke, both Giulio and Ippolito were attracted to a cousin of their sister-in-law Lucrezia, a lady named Angela. Angela Borgia had been brought to live in Ferrara when Lucrezia had married Alphonso in 1502. She was incredibly beautiful and graceful and the Este brothers were not alone in falling in love with her.
Being bitter rivals already, the brothers competed for her affections. Angela seemed to favour Giulio, which infuriated Ippolito who saw himself as the obvious choice. Angela must have been unaware of the tension, for she publicly mentioned in 1505 that Giulio was so handsome that his eyes alone were worth more than the entire body of Ippolito.
Within a few days Ippolito met his brother outside of Ferrara at the Delizia di Belriguardo , an estate known as the ‘Versailles of the Estense family.’ Gamers among you may recognise it as a location in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Others may know it as a museum.
Ippolito brought his henchman, Giulio arrived alone and powerless. Ippolito ordered his men to kill Giulio and rip out the eyes that were supposedly so bewitching. Giulio survived, but only just. He was covered in scars and permanently lost the sight in one eye. The beating was so severe that he never gained full use of his other. Ippolito seemed content that his brother was alive as he had lost his good looks and could hardly seduce the beautiful women at court anymore.
When their brother the Duke did nothing to punish Ippolito, Giulio was enraged. Giulio recruited their other brother Ferrante into a plot to murder both Alphonso and Ippolito. The plot was hasty and clumsy and easily discovered. Alphonso sentenced them both to death, only to commute their sentences to imprisonment as the brothers mounted the scaffold.
Giulio and Ferrante were kept in the cells of the Lion Tower. Ferrante died there in 1540 having been a prisoner for 34 years, more than half of his lifetime. Giulio was released after 53 years of incarceration by his grandnephew Alphonso II. Giulio was 81 years old. He stunned the people of Ferrara by strolling confidently from the Castello dressed in clothes half a century out of fashion. Giulio had only two years of freedom before his death in 1561.
As an interesting footnote, Giulio had outlived his jealous brother by over four decades. Ippolito had died in 1520 after eating some bad lobsters. Ippolito had fathered two illegitimate children and married his daughter to the son of no other than Angela Borgia.
Other cells are open for viewing.
Signage in the first cell gives the information for the entire dungeon complex, but from what I can tell from a little digging is that the top cell housed Laura ‘Parasina’ Malatesta and the cell pictured below it was for Ugo d’Este. Their story would inspire poems and operas.
80 years before Giulio d’Este was spared execution, Parasina and Ugo were not to be so lucky.
Parasina Malatesta came to Ferrara in 1418 aged 14 from her home in Ravenna to marry the Marquess of Ferrara, Niccolo III. Her new husband was in his mid thirties, keen to make an strategic alliance with a grand marriage. Niccolo had been married before to Gigliola da Carrara. In their 15 years of marriage, Gigliola had never had children. She had died of plague in 1416.
That’s not to say that Niccolo was childless. He had many illegitimate children by several mistresses. His chief mistress had been Stella de ‘Tolomei, known as the Star Assassin. Stella had borne Niccolo three sons and no doubt hoped for marriage when Gigliola died.
It must have been galling for Stella to watch Niccolo marry a much younger woman. Stella died shortly after the wedding.
Parasina had been raised to marry a noble and would have been coached on what to expect when she arrived at the Court in Ferrara. She was introduced to nine of her illegitimate stepchildren, some nearly as old as herself.
By all accounts Parasina was bright with a solid education and a passion for horses and travel. She bore Niccolo twin girls Ginevra and Lucia within a year of marriage and a long awaited legitimate male heir in 1421; a boy named Alberto who sadly died aged 39 days.
Parasina was admired by all, except from her step son Ugo.
Ugo was the eldest son of Niccolo and Stella the Star Assassin and seemed to be the favourite child. One year younger than Parasina, he resented her for taking the place he felt belonged to his mother. Any male heir Parasina produced would be also be a threat to Ugo. Parasina returned his hostility. The two constantly fought making life at court particularly tense.
By 1424 Niccolo was desperate for the two teenagers to cease bickering. When Parasina travelled to Ravenna to visit her family, Niccolo sent Ugo as well in order for the pair to get to know each other and hopefully learn to become friends. Ugo was now 18 years old and was no longer a sulking youth, Parasina might even find she had things in common with him.
Niccolo’s plan worked a little too well. Away from Ferrara, Ugo and Parasina not only grew closer, they fell in love. They began a passionate affair. After the pair returned to Ferrara they could not bear to call their clandestine relationship off and continued to meet for secret trysts in the Castello and at a country residence called the Delizia di Belfiore. Niccolo had not had any more illegitimate children since his second marriage but it’s unlikely that he was faithful. It also doesn’t take much imagination to understand why Parasina might enjoy a relationship with a handsome young man, rather than her husband who was twice her age.
The stress of keeping her secret apparently caused Parasina to become irritable and one of her maids, stung by some slight, told Niccolo that his wife and son were cuckolding him within his own castle. Refusing to believe the betrayal, Niccolo spies on his wife’s bedroom himself to catch the lovers together.
Parasina and Ugo were thrown into the cells shown above. Parasina reportedly begged her husband to spare his son, urging Niccolo to punish only herself. Niccolo however was so furious that he ignored her pleas for mercy and the counsel of his advisors. A mere three days after they were discovered, the lovers were taken from the cells to the basement of the Marchesana tower. Parasina was still screaming for mercy on behalf of Ugo, becoming silent only when she was told he had already been beheaded. She also was then led to the block and decapitated.
The executions in 1425 shocked the citizens of Ferrara and other Italian cities. Niccolo showed some remorse if only for the death of his son.
As an epilogue, Stella de ‘Tolomei would not only provide Niccolo with an hier after all, she would provide two, even if she never lived to see it. After Ugo, Stella had given birth to Leonello and Borso. Niccolo had remarried for a third time and had two sons and yet both illegitimate sons were given precedence.
Leonello became Marquess upon the death of his father in 1441 and died in 1450. Despite the fact that Leonello had a legitimate son (named Niccolo for his grandfather,) power passed to Borso. Borso became the last Marquis and first Duke of Ferrara. Borso tried many times to poison his nephew Niccolo but failed. Borso died childless in 1471. 21 years after the death of Niccolo III his legitimate son, Ercole, became Duke. His nephew did try to wrest power away in 1476 (Leonello’s sons had been named heirs in Niccolo II’s will, Borso disregarded this but the younger Niccolo never forgot his stolen inheritance,) and so Ercole had him beheaded in the castle courtyard.
Interestingly, Parasina’s mother had been poisoned by her father and her daughter Ginevra was supposedly poisoned by her husband Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the cousin of Parasina. Three generations of women, all killed by their husbands.
If the lower floor is a testament to a violent past, the upper floors indicate that Ferrara also became a centre for art and beauty.
If the prisons are a bit claustrophobic, there’s almost immediately a chance for some fresh air at the Orange Loggia on the first floor of the Lion Tower and built under Alphonso I.
As well as Lucrezia Borgia’s marital home the Castle was the childhood home of her glamorous sisters-in-law Beatrice d’Este (who married Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan) and Isabella d’Este (who married Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, who had an affair with Lucrezia that only ended when Francesco caught syphilis from a prostitute.) Both sisters were famous for their taste, intellect and love of art and fashion. Their names rightly pop up repeatedly in history books and it’s wonderful to come to their first home.
It’s a short walk from the Castello Estense to the Piazza della Cattedrale. The Cattedrale di San Giorgio was begun in 1135. Work continued for some 500 years. The campanile was never finished even after 42 years of construction in the late 1400s.
The interior was overhauled in the 17th century.
The Cathedral Museum is housed a short walk away in what was the church of San Romano.
Heading back to the Cathedral, I can concentrate on the buildings around it.
Opposite is the Palazzo Municipale.
The statue is a copy. In 1796 Napoleon’s troops melted the original down to make artillery.
Time for a historic house. The Casa Romei is an aristocratic residence from the mid-15th century. It was built for a banker named Giovanni Romei and is suitably decorated in lavish style for his marriage to Polyxena d’Este.
The house was left to neighbouring nuns and was incorporated into the Corpus Domini convent to accommodate high ranking guests.
Speaking of the convent, it’s sometimes possible to enter and see the d’Este tombs including the grave of Lucrezia Borgia. Sadly, I missed out. Each website and guidebook I looked at had conflicting instructions and opening times. To save you the same disappointment I felt, here are the official opening times, as nailed to their own wall.
After a lazy dinner I want to try my new tripod out with some night time photography. Ferrara was perhaps not a good place to choose. Tourists from outside Italy seem fairly rare and as a woman alone with a camera I didn’t feel particularly welcome or safe. I gave up before I got to the Cathedral, thank goodness the Castello is two doors down from my hotel.
Never mind, a good night of sleep and some sunshine and I’m ready to go again.
There are a few places I will always be tempted by, archaeological museums are near the top of the list.
On the walk to the museum I make a brief detour to glance at the Monastery of Sant’Antonio in Polesine, which inspired a novel by Sarah Dunant called Sacred Hearts. Nuns still sing here just as they do in the novel, set in the Renaissance.
The Palazzo Constabili AKA Palazzo di Ludovico il Moro was built beside a lost branch of the River Po in the late 15th century. It seems to have been built by Antonio Constabili, the Este ambassador to the Sforzas in Milan on behalf of Ludovico, who wished to have a home in his wife’s hometown. Today the marvellous palace houses the National Archaeological Museum in Ferrara which holds the treasures of the nearby lost Etruscan city of Spina.
Spina was founded by the Etruscans in the late 6th century BC in the delta of the Po river. It was an important Mediterranean trading post and may have been Hellenised to a degree. There was certainly a lot of Greek pottery imported to the town. Within three centuries however, Spina was in irretrievable decline. The town was rediscovered in the 1920s.
When not looking at the exhibits, it’s easy to be enchanted by the decor.
There’s also a beautiful garden for when fresh air is required.
The highlight of the Palazzo is the Treasure Room which has a stunning ceiling fresco painted by Benvenuto Tisi in 1503-6.
Onwards to another Palazzo. The Palazzo Schifanoia started out as a single storey banqueting hall but was extended by Duke Borso d’Este (he who tried to poison his nephew.) in the 1460s. ‘Schifanoia’ means to escape from boredom. There is now a civic museum here but most visitors are here for the famous murals. The Room of the Months is a mural cycle was painted by Cosimo Tura and his students. Each month has a column of three sections. The top section features a pagan god in their triumphal chariots. In the centre is a sign of the zodiac. The bottom section features a scene from Borso’s life.
The next room is the Hall of Virtue painted by Domenico di Paris.
Ferrara is a city of red bricks and bicycles. It’s not often that I walk around an entire town able to count my fellow tourists on the fingers of one hand, it makes a lovely change. Anyone wanting a cultural city break would do well to consider Ferrara.
After a walk soaking up the atmosphere I collect my bags and head to the train station. Next stop, Padua.