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From 1200 to 1600

The Estense Court


In 1264, Obizzo d'Este prevailed over the rival Salinguerra family of Ghibelline allegiance and for over three centuries the political scene in the city and its territory was dominated by the house of Este.
This political and administrative continuity made the splendour of Ferrara and the Estense court grow until it occupied a recognised space among the most prestigious European courts.
In the first part of their lordship, in a little over a hundred and fifty years, Ferrara underwent surprising urban development and saw its own city walls grow by up to four times in length, vast areas of the Po Delta reclaimed and its art and culture enjoy periods of great esteem and resonance.
Under Nicolò II d'Este the family's power was definitively confirmed.
The people of Ferrara worn out by famine rose against their governors in 1385 in a rebellion so bloody that Nicolò, feeling himself to be in danger, ordered the construction of the great Castello di San Michele to the design of Bartolino da Novara. This became the symbol of a despotic power that dominated a city it had at last subdued, a sign of the house of Este's great political and military strength that removed any ambition competing Ferrarese families might have with regard to control of the city.
After Nicolò II, his brother Alberto held power for a few years; he governed with a favourable eye to the arts and other studies. In fact, it is to him that the founding of the University of Ferrara in 1391 is owed.
Alberto's son, Nicolò III, was endowed with great political instinct. His talent gave stability to the state enabling it to make headway within the setting of Italian affairs with increasing success from this moment on.
Nicolò was succeeded by his sons Leonello, Borso and Ercole in that order.
Leonello, a prince enlightened in politics, refined and an art lover, started up a distinguished group of humanists whose names include maestro Guarino da Verona, Angelo Decembrio and Leon Battista Alberti.
Borso, a man of action, an able soldier, ambitious and a shrewd statesman, earned the title of Duke for his family in 1471. He never stopped working to sustain the economy above all through land reclamation work on the Ferrarese territory, which was for the most part swampy and unproductive. He supported the University and among his commitments in the field of arts are the realisation of the famous pictorial cycle of the months in the Delizia di Schifanoia and that of the extraordinary illuminated codex known as Borso's Bible.
Ercole I reigned from 1471 to 1505 after a hard-fought battle with his nephew Nicolò, son of Leonello, who tried to seize power leading a revolt into the city of Ferrara in 1476, causing Eleonora of Aragon, Ercole's wife to hurriedly take refuge along with her children in the Castello di San Michele. The duke was then able to suppress the revolt but not without a savage bloodbath. During Ercole's dukedom a lot of new and important decoration was done, both on the inside and the outside, but more than anything else significant extensions and changes were made along the side that runs from the old palace to the rooms near the Torre dei Leoni.
It was his far-sightedness which gave us the vast extension of the city walls, the so-called Addizione Erculea, which, commissioned to the great architect Biagio Rossetti, radically changed the appearance of the city.
Ercole was succeeded by his son Alfonso I who had at his side during his first marriage Anna Sforza and in his second Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Alternating contradictory passions turned from the casting of cannons, which turned Ferrara into a feared military power, to the arts and culture. Under Alfonso I the dukedom went through undeniable development. This was due to a series of political events that saw it involved, in among other things, wars against Venice (1505) and battles against the Julius II's papal army, but it was also due to an artistic and cultural growth whose maximum expression is to be found in the increase of the Estense collections with art works which were to be conserved in the famous Golden Study that Alfonso himself had built above the Via Coperta.
When Alfonso died in 1534, he was succeeded by his son Ercole II. Ercole's wife, Renée of France, daughter of the King of France Louis XII, had considerable influence over the court and Ferrarese culture. With her foreign culture, she helped to bring down many barriers of provincialism within the dukedom and the court: broadening considerably the diplomatic and cultural horizons, not least through her Calvinist faith which she had no problem in professing and promoting, giving hospitality to John Calvin in 1536.
During Ercole II's dukedom, many public works were realised in Ferrara. There was a fair extension of university studies and in general a fair consolidation of the economy despite being in a time in which the political situation within Italy made it difficult and hazardous for a medium-sized estate such as the Estense one. The dukedom's economic solidity was also evident in the great extension and decorative works that Ercole commissioned for the castle from the architect and painter Girolamo da Carpi which transformed the building once and for all into that architectural fairytale hybrid something between a court palace and castle that we admire today.
Ercole II died in 1559, leaving the dukedom to be run by his son Alfonso II.
At this point, the political solidity of the Estense dukedom was jeopardized by the lack of a male descendant to succeed Alfonso II.
Three marriages, to Lucrezia de' Medici, Barbara of Austria and Margherita Gonzaga, were not enough to discourage the designs of the Papal States.
Alfonso II tried several ways to avoid the expected annexation and the end of the house of Este, such as taking part in the Crusade against the Turks, a vain claim to the succession of the throne in Poland; participation in battles and diplomatic negotiations with the Pope at various levels.
The dukedom was economically exhausted by all these fruitless exploits and by a disastrous earthquake that struck the city in 1570.
The castle was badly damaged and the duke ordered its repair along with the realisation of an interesting decorative cycle that we can still see in the apartment known as the Appartamento dello Specchio (Mirror Apartment).
The death of Alfonso II in 1597 without a legitimate heir and not even a successor recognised by the Church forced the Este family to abandon the city of Ferrara and their princely residence, the Castello Estense, in 1598, for a forced move to their seat in the neighbouring dukedom of Modena.


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