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There's just something about a castle with a moat....



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.

Comments (16)

How I enjoy your informative posts! I visited Ferrrara several tiimes during my year in Padova. I prefer it to Parma...and maybe even to Bologna!

I've been there - that brought back memories. :)

Looks great -another thing to add to my every growing list . . .

I just wanted you to know how much I enjoy your entries. They feature new sections of Italy I have not been to -- yet -- but are now on my list. The bit of history that you include puts it over the top! This is definitely a 'must' for my future travels. Love your camera angles. Mahalo, menehune

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, great post. I enjoyed reading your description of Castello Estense. You described it so well and you gave such great historical information. I also thought the frescos on the ceilings were very beautiful. Btw, lucky thing you left before the concert started.

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and photos from your recent trip.

Barb Cabot:

Such an interesting post. I always suspect I will learn alot when I click on your blog. Thank you for the great photos to go along with the information.


Hello Mary, thanks very much. Ferrara really has a rich history, I can understand why you would have returned several times. And as much as I appreciated Parma, there is something much deeper and more rich about Ferrara!

Thanks Leslie, I hope this brought back happy memories for you.

Jerry, I know how you feel -- my list of must-sees, including Torino (which you've blogged about) is getting longer and longer!

Menehune, I appreciate your kind words. If you enjoy history, I think you'd appreciate Ferrara. There was so much I didn't get to see -- isn't that always the way.

Hi Kathy. There are some really beautiful frescos in the castello. I couldn't do justice to them with my little photos, But there was much more to see there than I expected.

BYW, good luck with your decision-making on whether to return to Italy or go to Scotland.

Thanks Barb. I enjoy doing a bit research on sights, and I think that sometimes I do more research on places AFTER I have visited them than before I go!

Brad'll Do It:

Better than Parma? Hmmmm. Sounds like our first foray to Ferrara was superficial, as we were not particularly impressed. Then again, we didn't have the rich contextual perspective you so beautifully provided to truly "see" the city. And what are/were the Este novels?

What an interesting place. Love the castle and those frescoes. Really love the view out of that diamond shaped window!

I too love to do post-trip research. In some ways, it's more satisfying because you've got visual memories to go with it.


Hi Brad, when you and Palma were in Ferrara, did you have time to explore the Castello? That really hooked me! I also loved the city's cathedral.

I did find the heat and humidity when I was in Ferrara was almost overwhelming and, for such a good-sized town/city, it really shut down from about 1-4 p.m. Very off-putting for visitors there for the day.

One of the Este-based novels I read was titled Leonardo's Swans, by Karen Essex. The hook was Isabella's efforts to try to convince Leonardo to leave the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan and come paint for her. But the novel was really about the power struggles of the day.

Another novel, The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, tells the tale of a Jewish woman from Ferrara who becomes private secretary to Isabella d'Este.

Both were very interesting, if speculative!

Annie, that's exactly what I was thinking. AFTER a trip, when you have mental pictures and impressions of a place, the research can be more meaningful!

Thanks for a wonderful and informative post. I've never been to Ferrara, but I love castles, and enjoy visiting and learning about them, s your post put Ferrara on my list, oh, my ever growing list.


Wonderful post, Sandra! I too am fascinated by the Este clan! I've read Grazia dei Rossi, and a couple other novels in which an Este or two figure. I'm almost kicking myself now that I did not pop up to Ferrara last October as I'd briefly considered. It looks and sounds incredible. Good thing I can visit it vicariously through you for now!

Interesting post, Sandra! I briefly visited Ferrara seven years ago as a day trip from Verona. Your photos are fabulous and make me regret not making time to visit the castle.


Hi Candi, I know what you mean about the long and growing list of places to see! (On a short and tight budget!) I've started entering every travel contest I come across in the hope that maybe I can win a few trips to must-see spots.

Anne, it was interesting to match some of the places from the books we've read to what I was seeing! Ferrara isn't too hard to reach, so maybe you'll get a chance to swing by there during another visit to Italy. I think you'd like it.

Thank you Maria, I missed a few things in Ferrara that I had hoped to see -- a lot of sights aren't open in the afternoons at all, which makes sightseeing difficult!

Great post and photos! It brought back wonderful memories. I have been fortunate to go to concerts both inside the courtyard and outside next to the castle. I have only been inside once and want to return again after reading your description.

I am so glad you enjoyed Ferrara. I so wanted to return there again for a daytrip this summer but in the end did not have the time.


Wonderful photos, Sandra!

So many places on the to-do list - so little time (and money)!

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