From defensive fortress to Renaissance residence – la brutalità e la bellezza del Castello Estense

From the dark eeriness of the dungeons in its belly to the extravagantly embellished rooms at its top – walking through the castle takes you on a journey that reflects its evolution from military fortress to beautiful palazzo.

The original Palazzo Ducale Estense is today found in the Palazzo Municipale, opposite the main cathedral. This building dates back to 1135 and was the position from which the Este family grew its political power over Ferrara, before the construction of the castle over 200 years later. During this time, the palazzo connected to a stronghold tower (Torre dei Leoni) that dominated the wall defences of the city and stood next to the Porta dei Leoni gate. Whilst the watchtower helped to protect the Este family home attached to it, it was first and foremost a defence for the whole of Ferrara and its people. That was all to change in 1385 however, with a revolt by the people against Nicolò II d’Este and when the gritty history of the ferrarese castle begins.

The revolt was the consequence of high taxes being put on the people. On top of being devastated by severe flooding in the area, they had eventually had enough and marched as an angry mob to the Palazzo Ducale on the 3rd May 1385. Fearing for his own safety and for that of his family, the Duke Nicolò II d’Este decided that the only way to immediately appease the crowd and avoid serious danger was to throw the Estense official unfortunate enough to have been in charge of collecting Nicolò’s taxes from the people, Tommaso da Tortona, from the window of the palazzo and into the enraged mass below. If the fall alone didn’t bring da Tortona to his end, being the merciless middle ages the people simply tore the official to pieces, of course.

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Palazzo Ducale Estense – from where Tommaso da Tortona was thrown

It’s therefore not such a surprise to hear that the Duke deemed the Palazzo Ducale an inadequate defence against any future revolts by his people… thus he ordered the extension of the Torre dei Leoni to begin on Saint Michael’s Day 1385 (which explains the castle’s other name – Castello di San Michele). From this year until 1450, the castle was the epitome of a medieval military fortress and home to the Este militia with three new towers, canons and dungeons. Furthermore, the physical dominance of the castle over the Ferrarese landscape also symbolised the hegemonic power of its inhabitants. Other noble families knew they could no longer challenge the Este dynasty and the locals were sent a clear warning not to repeat the events of 1385 as the castle fortified itself and even turned its cannons towards the city.

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Cannonballs on display within the castle walls – the Estensi were once renowned for their military prowess

The dungeons of the castle and the stories of those unfortunate enough to have been incarcerated there made me feel very unnerved on my visit. The first cell on the left after taking the steps down from the ground level once belonged to Don Giulio d’Este. Giulio was given the sentence of life imprisonment for conspiring to murder his half-brother Duke Alfonso I d’Este and remained in the same cell for 53 years until he was pardoned by his grandnephew Alfonso II d’Este. At the age of 81 he finally walked the streets of Ferrara again, in robes that were now five decades out of fashion. Reading Don Giulio’s story whilst stood in his cell, I was definitely relieved to duck through the tiny doorway again soon after. I won’t reveal any more of the stories, to save some excitement for future visitors to the castle that may be reading this, but it’s safe to say that they don’t get any jollier. Clearly the dukes of Ferrara took no mercy on their foes and it didn’t matter if they happened to be family too.

At this point on my visit I welcomed leaving the dungeons and taking the stairs up to the higher level of the castle. It’s here that the building goes from military fortress to Renaissance residence. From around 1450 some rooms of the castle first began to be used for non-military purposes and were therefore updated to be worthy of the title of ducal residence. Work continued  under the Este dynasty as the family commissioned artists and architects to keep their court amongst the most revered of the time.

Besides the beautiful frescoes that cover almost every room, my favourite part of the ducal residence is the Garden of Oranges. Particularly having come from the dark dungeons, stepping out onto the terrace of orange trees reminds you of how incredibly different the consequences of being in, and being out, of the duke’s favour could be. The garden also reflects the Renaissance interest in being able to control nature and manipulate it through landscaping. This idea was also a metaphor for the ideals of political power at the time and a concept that I find fascinating (in Dante’s Inferno you can find numerous references to this renaissance preoccupation with man’s command over nature).

The final thing to do on a visit to the castle, if you’re good with heights that is, is to climb the Torre dei Leoni to get a view of the whole of Ferrara. From here, at the top of the oldest part of the fortress-turned palazzo, you can see both parts of the city I spoke about in my last post. To the south you can see the part built during the Middle Ages, when the Castello Estense served as a warning to anyone thinking of challenging its owners. To the north you get a view of the Renaissance expansion of the town, built over the same period in which the castle transformed from military fort to ducal palace and allowed the Este dynasty to show off its cultural and political hegemony over the land.

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Ferrara – The seat of the Este dynasty

When trying to decide which Italian University to pick for my year abroad, I inevitably headed straight to Google to discover more about the different cities and towns I had on offer to me. Being off the general Italian tourist trail, I had like many people never heard of Ferrara before doing some research. It’s elusiveness was one of the aspects that immediately attracted me to the town however it was this article written by the novelist Sarah Dunant that really sparked my interest –  Why less-visited Ferrara is as fabulous as Florence. Funnily enough, having spoken to the other British students here, it seems as if we all have Sarah Dunant to thank in swaying us to come to this little gem of northern Italy. I mean, with a title such as ‘As fabulous as Florence – and not a coach party in sight’, how could any student wanting to get the real Italian experience and improve their language as much as possible not get excited?

Ferrara’s main landmark il Castello Estense certainly does not disappoint. ‘Estense’ comes from the Este family name, a dynasty that ruled Ferrara from the 13th-16th centuries, until 1597 when the last Duca d’Este Alfonso II died without heirs and Ferrara passed on from the House of Este to the Papal States. With four turrets, a moat and two drawbridges, the castle seems to have not lost any of the grandiose or intimidating statue intended by its builder. Built in 1385 by Niccolò II d’Este, the story of why the Duke ordered its construction is really worth its own entry so hang on for that.

I won’t go into the details of all of Ferrara’s historical landmarks but if you do go, of the ones available and that I do not mention, be sure to visit the Palazzo Schifanoia, Palazzina di Marfisa d’Este, Casa Romei, Piazza Ariosto and Il Cimitero Monumentale della Certosa di Ferrara. Besides these, from the castle in the centre of town there are two main areas of the rest of Ferrara to explore. To the south you’ll find the area of the city that was home to the Jewish Ferrarese population from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. It’s impossible not to sense the history of the area with its maze of small cobbled streets and tall, wonky buildings. This is my favourite part of town and is, in my opinion, the place to search for Ferrara’s best trattorias. To the north of the castle is supposedly one of the best (and first) examples of Renaissance city planning and the area in which Ferrara’s numerous Renaissance palaces can be found. Corsa Ercole I d’Este is a huge cobbled street that runs all the way from the castle to the periphery city wall and is your best starting place for exploring that side of town. About half way down is Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara’s biggest palace and now home to some of the town’s rich Renaissance art and impressive temporary exhibitions. The other Renaissance palaces on Corsa Ercole I d’Este are now used as university buildings and during the warmer months students often head straight from these across the road to the Parco Massari to enjoy some sun after lessons.

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Piazza Ariostea
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Via delle Volte in the Jewish Quarter of the town
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Looking down Via Mazzini in the old town onto Piazza Trento Trieste at Christmas. The whole town was covered with these lovely lights throughout the festive season.

Back in the centre of town and around a hundred metres from the castle is the main square, la Piazza Trento Trieste, il Cattedrale di San Giorgio and Ferrara’s Renaissance campanile (bell tower). Unfortunately I can’t show you a picture of the front of the cathedral because it has been covered with scaffolding since my arrival. The works were supposed to be finished by October 2016 but unexpected problems with the facade are apparently to blame for the project’s extension. The thought of spending a year here and not being able to see it for myself is frustrating (particularly considering that I haven’t actually seen much activity on the scaffolds), but restorative work is obviously extremely important and slow not only in Italy, and I would definitely prefer that it is around in the future to see it than not at all!

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View from a turret of the castle – spot the scaffolded cathedral

The town is also still holding on to its Renaissance defences, in the form of almost 10 kilometres of wall that surrounds it. Along with the town of Lucca, Ferrara’s wall is one of some of the best conserved in Italy and it is well worth taking the path that follows beside it. Finding ‘la campagna dentro le mura’ (countryside within the walls) and the outside bar and restaurant just off the northeastern section of the route is the perfect place to stop for a drink or spend a lazy summer afternoon

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Part of the path following Ferrara’s city walls

Coming from a large city such as Leeds in the UK, the dinkyness of Ferrara was something that I thought I was going to struggle with at first. To be honest I am pretty sure that I have walked almost every street here, however as you have read there is so much to history and interesting things to see. Moreover, in no way does its size compare to it’s strong sense of community and the huge variety of events you can find on almost every weekend. Besides the multitude of markets boasting fresh farmers’ produce from the surrounding countryside, antiques, clothing, books and more, Ferrara is host to an impressive number and quality of events, including one of Europe’s largest hot-air ballooning festivals, a renowned international buskers’ festival and the town’s own concert, film and jazz season.

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View from my bedroom window of il campanile (bell tower) – I hear the bells everyday but still haven’t figured out what schedule they run on… on Sundays it feels like they never stop!