The Castle Estense or Castle of Saint Michele is an imposing, moated, medieval structure in the center of Ferrara, northern Italy. It is a large block with four corner towers.
On May 3 1385 the Ferrarese people, driven to desperation by taxes and flooding that had brought ruin upon them, took themselves to the Marquis Niccolò II d'Este’s palace to ask the advice of Tommaso da Tortona, the high official held to be responsible for this grave situation. Nicolò tried to calm the revolt all day, but by the evening it was clear that the people's spirits were getting more and more angry and that the very safety of the Estensi was endangered. The order was therefore given to summon the disgraced Tommaso, who was given confession and communion and then given to the crowd, who literally tore him to pieces.
This episode, which resulted later in the death of the leaders of the revolt, convinced the Marquis that the family’s Palace (which is now the Palazzo Comunale) was insufficient to guarantee the security of the nobility in the event of riots. He therefore ordered the construction of a defensive fortress on the north side of the Palazzo, entrusting the project to the architect Bartolino da Novara. He used a pre-existing tower (the Torre dei Leoni), which was part of the defensive walls, at that period very much to the south of the present ones, running, roughly speaking, along the line of the present Corso Giovecca and Viale Cavour. The tower was joined by curtain walls to another three newly built for this project. Between the Este residence and the new fortress was built an aerial passageway (perhaps in wood) to allow people to flee from one to the other.
As the city grew the city walls were moved, so the defensive function of the castle became less important and apartments began to be built in its interior, which was by now considered an annex to the court palace. From the time of Ercole I d'Este on, there are many records of construction of apartments, and of their enlargement and enhancement. The definitive transformation works were ordered by Ercole II after a fire in 1544, which had damaged the previous accommodation. The architect Girolamo da Carpi gave the castle the external appearance which can be still seen today, although the interior has been remodelled several times across the ages. After the departure of the Este to Modena, the castle became the residence of the Papal Legate who administered the Ferrarese territory as civil governor (for a maximum term of four years). There were few changes made to the structure of the building, the most obvious being the increase in height of the north ravelin (the room which currently houses the cafeteria).
After the Unification of Italy, the castle was acquired by the province of Ferrara, who still hold it.
On the outside, the castle essentially presents the appearance given to it by Girolamo da Carpi in the second half of the 16th century. Surrounded by a moat, it has three entrances with drawbridges fronted by brickwork ravelins. The fourth entrance, to the east, was sacrificed to make room for the kitchens.
At the bottom, the appearance of the building still recalls a mediaeval fortress, bit higher up, da Carpi replaced the battlements with elegant balconies in white stone, making it higher again by constructing a higher storey, covered by a skew roof. The towers were improved and made more graceful with roof terraces.
The courtyard, nowadays fairly austere, was frescoed. In particular, at the top were portraits of all the ancestors (real and legendary) of the Este family: the only ones surviving, considerably damaged but still discernible, have been detached and placed under the portico on the east side of the courtyard.
The wells were to provide water in time of drought; the round stone balls that are seen about the place are ammunition for catapults.
The Gothic Rooms are series of four evocative living rooms with cross-vaulted ceilings. The first is certainly the most beautiful, with rich decorations of clusters of flowers running along the ribs of the vault. The room is dedicated to Nicolà II d’Este (his portrait stands out facing the entrance), who built the castle. At the centre is found a magnificent reconstruction in wood of the castle in the early years of its existence.
The three following rooms are dedicated to the Marquises Alberto
and Niccolò III
, and finally Borso
, the first duke of the dynasty. A series of panels illustrates the political and cultural life of the period.
The east ravelin of the castle was enlarged and used to house the court kitchens. The first of the two rooms, long and narrow, shows signs of the two distinct functions, military and civil, that it had over the course of time: opposite the entrance can be seen a chimney pipe from the kitchen, while along the inside walls are found arrow-slits for archers, some walled up so as to be nearly useless. In the second room, much bigger and lighter, some stoves have been reconstructed. On one wall is seen the portrait of Cristoforo da Messisbugo, the most famous of the Este’s ‘Scalcos’ - the Scalco was the official who supervised many of the practical aspects of court life, organised spectacles, directed the kitchens, and readied things whenever necessary for moves to and from the family's country residences, etc.
Sala del Cordolo (The String Course room)
This room is so called because of the marble string course that runs along the right-hand wall, at the bottom: this is in fact the external course that the Torre dei Leoni had before being incorporated into the structure of the castle. The room was probably a guard post.
Don Giulio’s Prison
Shortly after entering a narrow corridor, on the left the low deep doorway that leads into this room, at one time allotted for a cell and perhaps also a torture chamber. On the right-hand wall can still be seen the writing of 16th century prisoners, including a rounded chessboard in whose white squares can be read, amongst other things: "I am Unlucky Marco ... deprived of his freedom”.
Notably Giulio d’Este was shut up in this cell for many years; he was the legitimate brother of Alfonso I and the lead actor in a famous and unhappy affair.
The prisons of Ugo and Parisina
Going back onto the corridor that goes around the cell, a steep and narrow stairway leads to the cells that held the unlucky lovers Ugo and Parisina.
Parisina Malatesta was the second wife of Marquis Niccolò III, who was something of a rake and a great deal older than her. After seven years of marriage that had been generally quite calm, she ended up falling in love with her step-son Ugo, son of the Marquis and Stella dei Tolomei, and he with her. The two young people were discovered, subjected to a rapid trial and finally beheaded. It was 1425; Parisina was 20 years old, Ugo still only 19.
Coming down the stairway, on the left was Parisina’s cell. Following the corridor is Ugo’s one, having, on the ceiling, prisoners' writing done with candle smoke.
Coming out of the prisons is a short staircase which leads onto an inclined plane paved in brickwork, once used to take artillery into the castle’s bastions. Nowadays it allows access to the upper floor.
The Gallery has several rooms with remains of frescoes and panels describing the different apartments of the castle.
Loggia and Garden of the Orange Trees
The Giardino degli Aranci assumed its current size and characteristics under Alfonso I
and evokes powerfully the presence of the court, standing here unseen by the people, amid the perfume of the orange blossoms, admiring the city. The wall of the hanging garden was constructed following the plans of Girolamo da Carpi
. Archive documents are rich in observations about the hanging gardens and these have allowed the reconstruction of their various arrangements: from little paths among large flowerbeds (whose soil had been carried up here) of annual plants, to the 18th century arrangement, which featured only citrus plants, in pots that were sheltered in the winter in a Loggia used as a greenhouse.
Room of the Bacchanalia
This is a little passage-way that was at one time completely painted; the right-hand wall still shows three scenes inspired by the myth of Bacchus
The Ducal Chapel is a little room with elegant geometric lines, intended for private prayer. An old tradition has it that Renée of France
- a Duchess who had Calvinism
sympathies - ordered this particular decoration, without sacred images. It's an attractive hypothesis, but is contradicted by the ceiling, where are represented the Four Evangelists and the white eagle of the Este.
The Dawn Room
Located inside the Torre dei Leoni, the Dawn Room (Torre dell'Alba
) has a sumptuous ceiling representing the four parts of the day: on the right (coming in from the chapel) is the Dawn, a young winged Goddess who advances pulling the horses of the sun’s chariot by their reins. Proceeding then in a clockwise direction is the Day, when the chariot of the sun proceeds in all its shining glory, preceded by Dawn with two torches in her hands; then the Dusk, with the chariot of the sun going away towards the horizon; and Night, where Diana
, with the lunar disc on her forehead, rejoins her lover Endymion
. At the centre is an old man representing the Time, seated between the three Fates - Goddesses of Life and Death. In the lower part is a long procession of cherubs on chariots drawn by every type of animal.
The great mirrors that are a feature of this room and the two following were set there by the curator of the restoration, Gae Aulenti, recalling the name of these rooms, recorded in documents as ‘The Apartment of the Mirror'.
The Little Games Room
This Stanza dei Giochi
has a ceiling decorated, in the centre, with the round dance of the Four Seasons, and around that frescoes with scenes of the Games of Ancient Rome; on the long side a Bacchanal; opposite that the Basket Fight, a sort of boxing in which the competitors had around their hands bandages called ‘baskets’. On the two short walls are represented Gladiator fights. At the bottom, scenes of children's games rendered in the artistic style of Ancient Rome.
From the The Little Games Room is possible to climb right up to the balustrade of the Torre dei Leoni, from which it is possible to see the panorama of Ferrara.
Room of the Poisons
This Stanza dei Veleni
seems to have been used originally by the court pharmacists to produce medicine and, according to some, also the poisons used against political enemies. The ceiling is from the 20th century and represents Italy surrounded by symbols of conquest from the fascist period.
The Hall of Games
This large room was intended for evening amusements, whether concerts or games. The ceiling is divided into eleven panels, each one containing a scene of a sport, following the tastes of Duke Alfonso II. Not all of them are equally well done: the most worthwhile, on the courtyard side, are by Bastianino and represent, from left to right: all-in wrestling, lancio delle pietre [like the Discus but with stones], and Greco-Roman wrestling. The athletes are naked in deference to the tradition of ancient Greece. Also by Bastianino is the panel depicting swimming, on the short side next to the Greco-Roman wrestling.
Room of the Tower of St. Catherine
At one time this was the first room of the Appartamento della Pazienza
("Apartment of Patience"), made for Ercole II. Its decoration is late, with a neo-Renaissance ceiling; at the edge are represented the signs of the Zodiac. The room is dominated by an enormous reproduction of a an 18th century panorama of Ferrara by Andrea Bolzoni
Antechamber to the Gallery
This formerly came before a long gallery made for Ercole II
, in the style which all the great princes of the period had built in their residences. The neo-Renaissance ceiling displays some of the Este coats of arms. The space is dominated by a large panel that reproduces an antique print showing Ferrara at the end of the 15th century, when the architect Biagio Rossetti
had started the enlargement of the city ordered by Ercole I (the Addizione Erculea) and the new walls had already been built to the North, with the old walls still awaiting demolition. The still navigable Po is in foreground position. At the end of the main piazza (on the right the cathedral, on the left the Palazzo Ducale, behind which are poking out the towers of the Castle), is portrayed a gate which closes it off, while behind the built-up areas the old walls can be seen. Higher up is a second circuit of walls, surrounding a thinly populated area.
Room of Hector and Andromache
This room was created by shortening the Gallery. In the 19th century Cardinal Tommaso Benetti had the ceiling decorated with an epic scene: Hector leaving his son and his wife Andromache (Iliad Book VI).
The large panel reproduces a fresco with a representation of Estense territory: the Duchy of Ferrara at the centre, with Modena and Reggio on the left.
All that remains of that large chamber has lost all trace of decoration. Originally on the walls were frescoed views of the Dukes’ city. The panels here are dedicated to the ‘Delizie’, the country residences of the Este for retreat and pleasure. The large panel shows the Ferrara region in the Napoleonic era.
Room of Land Reclamation
This room is dedicated to the works of land reclamation over the centuries.
Hall of St Paul’s Tower
An elegant room decorated with neo-classical grotesques, with medallions and divinities.
Those who requested audience with the Duke waited in this little room. The ceiling is richly frescoed. The floor is from the Este period.
Created for Ercole II
(1534-1559) to deal with the business of government, it still displays its splendid original ceiling with painted and gilded lacunars (recessed panels), one of the most beautiful in this style in the whole of Italy. In the centre, in the large oval, is represented the Myth of Pan
. Other Mythical forms are found in the other panels: the whole should be read as a celebration of the Prince and his good government.
Sala della Devoluzione
The ceiling, dating to the 19th century, represents the ‘Devolving’ of Ferrara, or rather its passing from Este's domination to that of the Pope in 1598. The four pictures are to be read clockwise, starting from the side nearest the Sala del Governo: in the first one, Lucrezia d’Este, sent by the Duke of Ferrara, is conversing with Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini
, the Pope’s nephew; in front, two secretaries are drawing up the Agreement which was then to be signed by these two plenipotentiaries. In the second, Duke Cesare d'Este
, surrounded by dignitaries, leaves the city he has lost, on horseback, bound for Modena, which he had declared the new capital of his State. On the third, Cardinal Aldobrandini arrives in Ferrara the day after the Duke’s departure. In the fourth, finally, one of the many festivities organised in honour of Pope Clement VIII
, come to take possession of the city: in the castle moat, ladies from Comacchio race the typical boats of the lagoons, the batane
Room of the Landscapes
This room takes its name from the band decorated with fine landscape frescoes, painted in the 18th century by an unknown hand (perhaps Giuseppe Zola).
The gallery was used as a Reception Room when this was the residence of the Prefect. It is richly decorated with neo-Renaissance grotesques.
Sala delle Geografie o Marchesana
Situated in the Torre Marchesana, otherwise called the Clock Tower, this hall has notewhorty maps of Ferrarese territory created in 1709-1710. The enormous expanse of the area covered by water and marsh has for mostly disappeared today, in the wake of the Great Land Reclamation.
Blue Saloon, the Council Room
This area is not part of the tourist tour.
Hall of Coats of Arms
This hall displays twin decorations from the Pontifical period. The older is a long series of shields with the papal tiara and the keys of St Peter; one part is taken up with the coats of arms of the Popes from Clement VIII
(1592-1605) to Pius VI
(1775-1799), the others are empty. Beneath this is a decoration with the coats of arms of the Cardinal Papal Legates who had their residence in the castle: some are visible on the upper part of all four walls. The lower part is however occupied by a decoration made in 1857 on the occasion of the visit of Pope Pius IX, which completely hid the earlier paintings. More coats of arms and some views of the Ferrarese territory of that time: the city of Ferrara (the Castle), Comacchio
(the Trepponti), Cento
(the main square), Lugo di Romagna
(the porticoes), Pomposa Abbey and Bagnacavallo
After the hall is a 16th century spiral staircase that leads back to the courtyard.
- Luciano Chiappini, Gli Estensi : Mille anni di storia, Corbo, Ferrara 2001.
- Riccardo Rimondi, Estensi. Storia e leggende, personaggi e luoghi di una dinastia millenaria, Ferrara 2004
- Marco Borella (a cura di), I Camerini del Principe, Edizioni Le Immagini, Ferrara 2006.
- Jadranka Bentini, Marco Borella (a cura di), Il Castello Estense, BetaGamma Editrice, Viterbo 2002.
- AA.VV., I Racconti del Castello, EDSAI, Ferrara 2006.