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.
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.
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.