IN the first quarter of the sixteenth century the most active centers of the Renaissance were Ferrara, Venice, and Rome. The student who wanders through Ferrara today can hardly believe—until he enters the mighty Castello—that this slumbering city was once the home of a powerful dynasty, whose court was the most splendid in Europe, and whose pensioners included the greatest poet of the time.

The city owed its existence partly to its position on the route of commerce between Bologna and Venice, partly to the agricultural hinterland that used it as a mart and was itself enriched by three branches of the Po. It was included in the territory given to the papacy by Pepin III (756) and Charlemagne (773), and was again deeded to the Church by the Countess Matilda of Tuscany (1107). While formally acknowledging itself to be a papal fief it governed itself as an independent commune, dominated by rival mercantile families. Disordered by these feuds it accepted Count Azzo VI of Este as its podesta (1208), and made this office hereditary in his progeny. Este was a small Imperial fief, some forty miles north of Ferrara, which had been given to Count Azzo I of Canossa by the Emperor Otho I (961); in 1056 it became the seat of the family, and soon gave it its name. From this historic house came the later royal families of Brunswick and Hanover.

From 1208 to 1597 the Estensi ruled Ferrara technically as vassals of the Empire and the papacy, but practically as independent lords, with the title of marquis or (after 1470) duke. Under their government the people prospered tolerably, and supplied the needs and luxuries of a court that entertained emperors and popes, and supported a notable retinue of scholars, artists, poets, and priests. Despite lawless cruelties and frequent wars, the Estensi retained the loyalty of their subjects through four centuries. When a legate of Pope Clement V expelled the Estensi and proclaimed Ferrara a papal state (1311), the people found ecclesiastical rule more irksome than secular exploitation; they drove out the legate, and restored the Estensi to power (1317). Pope John XXII laid an interdict upon the city; soon the people, deprived of the sacraments, began to murmur. The Estensi sought reconciliation with the Church, and obtained it on hard conditions: they acknowledged Ferrara to be a papal fief, which they would rule as vicars of the popes; and they pledged themselves and their successors to pay, from the revenues of the state, an annual tribute of 10,000 ducats ($250,000?) to the papacy.1

During the long rule (1393–1441) of Niccolò III the house of Este reached the acme of its power, governing not only Ferrara but also Rovigo, Modena, Reggio, Parma, and even, briefly, Milan. Niccolò married as widely as he ruled, having a long succession of wives and mistresses. One especially pretty and popular wife, Parisina Malatesta, committed adultery with her stepson Ugo; Niccolò had them both beheaded (1425), and ordered that all Farrarese women convicted of adultery should be put to death. When it became clear that this edict threatened to depopulate Ferrara, it was no longer enforced. For the rest Niccolò ruled well. He reduced taxes, encouraged industry and commerce, summoned Theodorus Gaza to teach Greek in the university, and engaged Guarino da Verona to establish at Ferrara a school rivaling in fame and result the school of Vittorino da Feltre at Mantua.

Niccolò’s son Leonello (1441–50) was a rare phenomenon—a ruler both gentle and virile, refined and competent, intellectual and practical. Trained in all the arts of war, he cherished peace, and became the favored arbiter and peacemaker among his fellow rulers in Italy. Taught letters and literature by Guarino, he became—a generation before Lorenzo de’ Medici—one of the most cultivated men of the age; the learned Filelfo was astonished by Leonello’s mastery of Latin and Greek, rhetoric and poetry, philosophy and law. This Marquis was the scholar who first suggested that the supposed letters of St. Paul to Seneca were spurious.2 He established a public library, provided fresh funds and inspiration for the University of Ferrara, brought to its staff the best scholars that he could find, and participated actively in their discussions. No scandal or bloodshed or tragedy marred his reign, except its tragic brevity. When he died at forty, all Italy mourned.

A succession of able rulers continued the Golden Age that Leonello had begun. His brother Borso (1450–71) was a man of sterner stuff, but he maintained the policy of peace, and Ferrara’s prosperity became the envy of other states. He did not care for literature or art, yet he supported them amply. He administered his realm with skill and comparative justice, but he taxed his people heavily, and spent much of their substance on court pageants and displays. He loved rank and title, and longed to be a duke like the Visconti of Milan; by expensive gifts he persuaded the Emperor Frederick III to invest him with the dignity of Duke of Modena and Reggio (1452), and marked the occasion with a costly festival. Nineteen years later he secured from his other feudal lord, Pope Paul II, the title of Duke of Ferrara. His fame spread throughout the Mediterranean world; the Moslem sovereigns of Babylonia and Tunis sent him gifts, presuming him to be the greatest ruler in Italy.

Borso was fortunate in his brothers: Leonello, who had given him the best of examples; and Ercole, who had refused to sanction a conspiracy to depose him, had remained his loyal aide to the end, and now succeeded to his power. For six years Ercole continued the reign of peace, pageantry, poetry, art, and taxation. He cemented friendship with Naples by marrying King Ferrante’s daughter Eleonora of Aragon, and welcomed her with the most lavish festivities that Ferrara had ever seen (1473). But in 1478, when Sixtus IV declared war on Florence because of its punishment of the Pazzi conspirators, Ercole joined Florence and Milan against Naples and the papacy. That war having ended, Sixtus induced Venice to join him in attacking Ferrara (1482). While Ercole lay sick in bed the Venetian forces advanced to within four miles of the city; the dispossessed peasantry crowded within the gates, and joined in the general starvation. Then the temperamental Pope, fearing that Venice, not the papacy or his nephew, would get Ferrara, made peace with Ercole; and the Venetians, retaining Rovigo, retired to their lagoons.

The fields were planted again, food came into the city, trade was resumed, taxes could be gathered. Ercole complained that the fines levied for blasphemous profanity were falling away from the normal total of 6000 crowns a year ($150,000?); he could not believe that profanity was any less popular than before; he demanded strict enforcement of the law.3 Every penny was needed, for Ercole, perceiving that the people had multiplied beyond their housing, built an extension as large as the older city. He had this Addizione Erculea designed with such wide straight streets as no Italian town had known since Roman days; the new Ferrara was “the first really modern city in Europe.”4 Within a decade the growth and influx of population had filled the added space. Ercole raised churches, palaces, and convents, and coaxed holy women to make Ferrara their home.

The focus of the people’s life was the twelfth-century cathedral. The elite preferred the giant Castello that Niccolò II had built (1385) to protect the government from foreign attack or domestic revolt. Restored and transformed through seven generations, its massive towers still dominate the central square of the city. Below are the dungeons in which Parisina and many others died; above are the spacious halls, adorned by Dosso Dossi and his assistants, where duke and duchess held court, musicians played and sang, dwarfs pranced, poets recited their verses, buffoons put on their antic jests, male sought female, ladies and cavaliers danced through the night, and on quieter days, in quieter rooms, dames and lasses read romances of chivalry. Isabella and Beatrice d’Este, born to Ercole and Eleonora in 1474 and 1475, grew up like fairy princesses in this environment of wealth and festival, war and song and art. But a fond grandfather lured Beatrice to Naples, a betrothed called her to Milan; and in that same year 1490 Isabella left for Mantua. Their departure saddened many hearts in Ferrara, but their marriages strengthened the alliance of the Estensi with the Sforzas and Gonzagas. Ippolito, one of several sons, was made an archbishop at eleven, a cardinal at fourteen, and became one of the most cultured and dissolute prelates of the age.

We should in fairness note again that such ecclesiastical appointments, ignoring fitness and age, were part of the diplomatic alliances of the time. Alexander VI, pope since 1492, was eager to please Ercole, for he aimed at making his daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, the duchess of Ferrara. When he proposed to Ercole that Alfonso, son and heir of the Duke, should marry Lucrezia, Ercole received the proposal coldly, for Lucrezia had not then the fumigated reputation that she has now. He finally consented, but after wringing from the eager father such concessions as made Alexander call him a haggling shopkeeper. The Pope was to give Lucrezia a dowry of 100,000 ducats ($1,250,000?); the annual tribute of Ferrara to the papacy was to be reduced from four thousand to one hundred florins ($1250?); and the duchy of Ferrara was to be settled by papal confirmation upon Alfonso and his heirs forever. Despite all this Alfonso was reluctant, until he saw the bride. We shall see later how he welcomed her.

In 1505 he succeeded to the ducal throne. He was a new type among the Estensi. He had traveled through France, the Lowlands, and England, studying industrial and commercial techniques. Leaving to Lucrezia the patronage of arts and letters, he devoted himself to government, machinery, and pottery. With his own hands he made a painted fine majolica, and founded the best cannon of the time. He studied the art of fortification until he was the leading authority on the subject in Europe. He was normally a just man; he treated Lucrezia kindly, despite her epistolary flirtations; but when he dealt with external enemies or internal revolt he gave scant play to sentiment.

One of Lucrezia’s ladies, Angela, charmed two of Alfonso’s brothers: Ippolito and Giulio. In a moment of thoughtless arrogance Angela taunted Ippolito by telling him that his whole person was worth less to her than the eyes of his brother. The Cardinal, with a band of bravos, waylaid Giulio, and looked on while these pierced Giulio’s eyes with stakes (1506). Giulio appealed to Alfonso to avenge him; the Duke banished the Cardinal, but soon allowed him to return. Stung by Alfonso’s apparent indifference, Giulio conspired with another brother, Ferrante, to murder both the Duke and the Cardinal. The plot was discovered, and Giulio and Ferrante were imprisoned in the cells of the Castello. Ferrante died there in 1540; Giulio was freed by Alfonso II in 1558, after fifty years of genteel confinement; he emerged an old man, white of hair and beard, and dressed in the fashion of half a century before. He died shortly after his release.

Alfonso’s qualities were what his government needed, for Venice was expanding into the Romagna and was plotting to absorb Ferrara; while Julius II, the new Pope, resenting the concessions made to the Estensi in connection with Lucrezia’s marriage, was resolved to reduce the principality to the status of an obedient and profitable fief. In 1508 Julius persuaded Alfonso to join with him and France and Spain in subduing Venice; Alfonso agreed because he yearned to recover Rovigo. The Venetians concentrated their attack upon Ferrara. Their fleet, sailing up the Po, was destroyed by Alfonso’s concealed artillery; and their soldiers were routed by Ferrarese troops under Cardinal Ippolito, who enjoyed war only next to venery. When Venice seemed on the verge of defeat, Julius, not wishing to weaken irreparably the strongest Italian bulwark against the Turks, made peace with her, and ordered Alfonso to do the same. Alfonso refused, and found himself at war with both his enemy and his late ally. Reggio and Modena fell to the papal forces, and Alfonso seemed lost. In desperation he went to Rome and asked the Pope for terms; Julius demanded the complete abdication of the Estensi and the absorption of Ferrara into the Papal States. When Alfonso rejected these demands Julius tried to arrest him; Alfonso escaped, and after three months of disguises, wanderings, and perils, reached his capital. Julius died (1513); Alfonso retook Reggio and Modena. Leo X resumed the war of the papacy for Ferrara; Alfonso, always improving his artillery and shifting his diplomacy, held his own obstinately until Leo too died (1521). Pope Adrian VI gave the indomitable Duke an honorable settlement, and Alfonso was allowed, for a spell, to turn his talents to the arts of peace.

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