The stately Castello Estense, and the very powerful d'Este family that ruled Ferrara for centuries from this castle, continue to loom large over the historic city. They also loomed very large over my stay in Ferrara, for just 3 extremely hot, humid days and nights in mid-June.
The castello really is quite remarkable to visit, and the story of the Este family truly dominates the history of the city and the region. I chose a hotel, and rooms, that looked directly over the great, square castle and so it haunted me day and night during my visit.
Ferrara, in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, is only about 50 kilometers northeast of Bologna and so was a logical stop after my week in Bologna. Ferrara is quite striking, with medieval streets and a number of interesting Renaissance palazzos. For all of this, it has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
My time there was so short, but the history of the Este dynasty and their medieval Castello Estense itself really captured my imagination.
As you might expect, the history of the castle is founded in violence. (Why else did rich families need moats and drawbridges?)
A revolt in 1385 by the Ferrarese people, driven to desperation by taxes and ruinous flooding, convinced Marquis Niccolò II d'Este that his family needed a more secure home than the family’s palazzo (which is now the Palazzo Comunale.) Because the castello became a home as much as a defensive structure, apartments for different branches of the family were built and over the centuries, the structure became more of a grand, royal court with a greater emphasis on beauty and luxury.
It seems that the definitive transformation was marked by works ordered by Ercole II after a fire in 1544. The interior of the castello is fascinating. The city uses the interior courtyard for events, like a classical music concert I listened to on my last night in town. (The Piazza Castello, where both my hotel and the castle sit, facing each other, is also popular. In fact, during my entire stay, an enormous stage with an elaborate sound system was being constructed right outside my hotel window -- I could have touched the scaffolding! Thankfully, the major concert that would have all but taken place in my hotel room was scheduled for the night after I left!)
Inside the Castello Estense, many rooms have been carefully restored -- including some with wonderful frescos -- and are open to the public. I visited everything from the loggia and Orange Gardens high up in the castle, to Don Giulio’s Prison where Giulio d’Este was imprisoned for many years. Apparently, he was shut up in his cell for many years for trying to overthrow his brother Alfonso I.
I confess: I was especially interested in the Este clan because, as a fan of historical fiction, I've read a few novels based loosely on the Este characters particularly Ercole's daughter Beatrice (1475–1497) who married Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan; and Isabella (1474–1539) who was married to Francesco Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua. Ercole I's successor was his son Alfonso I (1476–1534), third husband of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia. Quite the family tree!
One of the most beautiful chambers in the castle, the Dawn Room, has gorgeous ceiling frescos representing the four parts of the day. Here is the Dawn, a young winged Goddess who advances pulling the horses of the sun’s chariot by their reins.
The room is also called The Apartment of the Mirror because great mirrors are around the room to help visitors admire the ceiling without craning their necks.