Este Family




Establishment of Regional Dominance

The Este family, who worked as condottieri and charged tolls for passage through their territory, dates back to the 11th century.  They gained control of Ferrara in 1264 through the efforts of Obizzo d'Este.


A palace, the Palazzo del Corte, was built next to the cathedral, and a watch tower nearby was turned into a fortress.


Beginning of Castello Estense

After an uprising protesting higher taxes in 1385, the fortified watch tower was enlarged into a four-tower fortress known as the Castello Estense or the Castello Vecchio (Old Castle).  In the Renaissance, this structure, which symbolized Este power, was visible from many parts of the city.


Este Family's Effect on Ferrara

Este governance of Ferrara, which extended over three and a half centuries, had a positive effect on the city culturally.  In 1391, Alberto V established a university.  He also began a program of paving the city's streets and piazzas.


In the Renaissance, Ercole I expanded the city walls, and Ferrara grew to nearly twice its former size.  The Este court attracted noted humanist scholars, artists, musicians, and writers, and it became one of the most sophisticated courts of Europe.  Many illustrious visitors were entertained there.






The Este family continued to govern Ferrara throughout the Renaissance.  In the 15th century, it was governed by Nicolò III and three of his sons:  Leonello, Borso, and Ercole.


Much of the architecture, painting, and sculpture commissioned by Leonello and Borso is now lost.


Nicolò III (ruled 1393-1441)

Niccolo III assumed the title of the twelfth Marchese of Ferrara after the death of his brother, Alberto V, in 1393.  He maintained a splendid court that encompassed a wide range of arts and cultural achievements.  Nicolò enhanced the family palaces in Ferrara and built villas and hunting lodges in the countryside.


Leonello d'Este (ruled 1441-50)

Leonello d'Este was not only an avid patron of the arts but also a connoisseur, a person with expert knowledge and qualified judgment in a particular area.  His commissions stressed quality over quantity.  Among the humanist scholars who frequented his court was Alberti, who wrote treatises on painting, sculpture, and architecture and designed several buildings.


Leonello was especially interested in ancient art.  He collected antique coins, and commissioned the sculptor Pisanello to design medals patterned after coins in which a profile portrait head is backed by an image of an event being commemorated.  Leonello's commissioning a number of such metals contributed to the subsequent popularity of this form.


The painter Jacopo Bellini was among the artists who worked for Leonello.


Borso d'Este (ruled 1450-71)

Borso d'Este's interest in art was less that of a connoisseur like his brother Leonello and more that of a politician who appreciated the propagandistic impact of art.  Borso favored greater ostentation, and when engaging Cosimo Tura to decorate one of his palaces, he requested that the artist view and imitate a work by the Italian Gothic artist Gentile da Fabriano, who used bright colors and lots of gilding.


To decorate his palaces and villas, Borso commissioned expensive treatments such as intarsia and tapestries.  Borso's chief painters were Cosimo Tura and his follower Francesco del Cosa.


One of Borso's projects was the decoration of the Palazzo Schifanoia, which had been largely built by Alberto in the 14th century.  The name literally means "avoid boredom" or "escape every nuisance."  One of the palace's most admired rooms is the Salone dei Mesi, whose frescoes illustrate a calendar of the months (mesi).


A high point of Borso's collections was a Bible he commissioned.  Its copious use of illustrations and gilding made it one of the most expensive books of its day.


Borso was named Duke of Ferrara by Paul II on August 14, 1471, but he did not enjoy the elevation in rank for long as he died only six days later.  The title of duke passed to his brother Ercole.



ERCOLE I (RULED 1471-1505)


Early Experience in Naples

As a young man, Ercole d'Este (1431-1505) worked for the court of Naples before Borso called him to Ferrara to assist in governing.  As a ruler, he was a shrewd statesman and an avid supporter of a wide range of the arts.  Ercole understood how the arts, especially architecture, contributed to the regime's prestige and reputation.



As a patron of architecture, Ercole took an active role in the design process.  He had the vision to radically expand the city walls with the Addizione Erculea by his chief architect, Biagio Rossetti, which roughly doubled the city's size.  The new area included wide, straight streets and spacious piazzas surrounded by new churches and palaces.


Ercole's building program included constructing twelve new churches and repairing and refurbishing many existing churches.


Agency Overseeing Building

To facilitate his building program, Ercole established a central agency to oversee all building projects.  Procedures were put in place for obtaining and paying for materials and regularly inspecting the work.  The responsibilities of all parties were listed in contracts.


Remodeling Palace and Castle

Ercole thoroughly remodeled the Palazzo del Corte, the original family palace near the cathedral, using the architects Biagio Rossetti and Pietro de Benvenuti.  Ercole's chief painter and architectural consultant was Ercole de' Roberti.


In 1471 Ercole built a covered corridor, the Via Coperta, which bridged the moat and connected the Castello Estense to the Palazzo del Corte.  After an attempted coup d'état a few years later, he began installing luxurious accommodations in the castle so that his family would not have to flee from the palace to the castle in times of threat.






Several of Ercole's children enjoyed high rank.  Ercole arranged for his daughters Beatrice and Isabella to marry the rulers of Milan and Mantua, respectively, for his heir to marry the daughter of a former duke of Milan, and for his son Ippolito to receive a cardinalate and other lucrative ecclesiastic appointments.


Isabella d'Este (1474-1539)

Isabella d'Este was married to Francesco II Gonzaga, Marchese of Mantua, with whom she had six children.  During periods when Francesco was away, she governed as regent and proved herself to be an able politician and negotiator. After Francesco died of syphilis at the age of 53, she acted as an advisor to her eldest son, Federico II Gonzaga, who, at the age of 19, became the new Marchese of Mantua.


Isabella's cultural interests made the court of Mantua one of the most splendid courts in Italy at that time.  She collected art and was famous for her studiolo and grotto in the palace in Mantua.

See more about Isabella d'Este in the Gonzaga section.


Beatrice d'Este (1475-1497)

Isabella's younger sister, Beatrice d'Este, was married to Ludovico Maria Sforza, "Il Moro," who became the Duke of Milan.  She died in childbirth at age 22.


Alfonso d'Este (1476-1534)

Ercole's oldest son and successor was Alfonso d'Este, who is discussed in the next section.


Ippolito I d'Este (1479-1520)

Ippolito d'Este, Ercole's second son, was made a cardinal in 1493.  Ippolito lived in Rome during the pontificates of popes with whom he had a positive relationship and lived far away when he did not, as during the pontificate of Julius II, who was at war with Ferrara because of Alfonso's alliances with the French.  Ippolito became very wealthy from having received many high-paying positions such as Archbishop of Milan, a post he later passed to his nephew Ippolito II, who also enjoyed the rank of cardinal.






In 1491, Alfonso d'Este, the oldest son of Ercole I and Eleanora of Aragon, was married to Anna Sforza, a granddaughter of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti.  Anna's uncle Ludovico Sforza married Alfonso's sister Beatrice d'Este at the same time.


Anna died in childbirth in 1497.


In 1502, Alfonso married Lucretia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI.  They had several children.



In 1505 Alfonso succeeded his father.  He patronized all forms of the arts, including music, drama, and literature.  The famous Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) celebrated members of the Este family in his mock epic poem Orlando Furioso (Mad Roland).


Alfonso continued to build and re-decorate.  In the Castello Vecchio, he refurbished the apartment of the duchess, which was formerly occupied by his mother.


Camerino dell'Alabastro

Like his sister Isabella, Alfonso collected paintings for his studiolo, which was probably modeled on her famous studiolo.  Alfonso's studiolo, the camerino dell'alabastro (small room of alabaster), was built in quarters constructed by his father over the Via Coperta, the covered corridor leading from the Palazzo del Corte to the Castello Vecchio.


For the Camerino, Alfonso commissioned or attempted to commission mythological works from the most famous artists of his day.  From Bellini he commissioned Feast of the Gods, and from Titian he commissioned Bacchanal of the Andrians and Bacchus and Ariadne. Raphael's sudden death in 1520 prevented his fulfilling Alfonso's commission.


Interest in Weaponry

Alfonso was especially interested in weaponry and skilled in casting cannon. His foundry and armory at the Castello Vecchio contributed to Ferrara's military prowess.


He cast a large cannon known as "La Giulia" from the broken pieces of the seated bronze portrait statue of Julius II by Michelangelo that the pope had commissioned and had placed over the portal of San Petronio in Bologna after his conquest of the city.  Three years later the Bentivogli family overthrew papal control in Bologna, and the statue, which had become a symbol of papal conquest, was thrown down and broken into pieces.





Ercole II (ruled 1534-59)

Alfonso arranged for his heir, Ercole (1508-59), to marry Renée of France, the daughter of the French king Louis XII.  After Alfonso's death in 1534, Ercole became the duke of Ferrara.  With Renée, Ercole II continued to patronize the arts and maintain a dazzling court.


A fire at the Castello Estense in 1554 occasioned the rebuilding of much of its upper stories and included tower additions over the corners, which create its current appearance.


Because his wife was a Protestant, Ferrara was more tolerant of religious differences and became a haven for religious dissenters.


Ippolito II (cardinal 1538-72)

Ippolito II d'Este (1509-72) was the second son of Alfonso d'Este and Lucretia Borgia.  Like his uncle Ippolito I, he enjoyed a cardinalate and many benefices.  As a cardinal, he attained great influence, and as the leader of the pro-French faction, he was a candidate for the papacy several times.  Ippolito maintained an illustrious court at Ferrara until his political enemy Julius III exiled him to Tivoli by naming him as its governor, a post that required residency.  This followed his having just competed against Julius for the papal crown in 1550.


In Tivoli, Ippolito built much of the Villa d'Este, one of the most spectacular garden villas of the Renaissance.


Alfonso II (ruled 1559-97)

Ercole II's son, Alfonso II (1533-97), maintained a lavish court despite challenges offered by a devastating earthquake in 1570.


Although he was married three times, Alfonso died without issue in 1597.


End of Este Rule of Ferrara

Because Alfonso had no legitimate heir, the Este family's rule of Ferrara ended, and the Este family moved to Modena, which had also been ruled by the Este dukes.


In 1598, Ferrara was annexed by the Papal States.







Palazzo del Corte. In the 13th century, a family palace was begun across from the cathedral on the northern side of the city.  Over the centuries of Este ownership, the palace was expanded and redecorated many times.  In the late 15th century, Ercole I thoroughly remodeled it using the architects Biagio Rossetti and Pietro de Benvenuti and the painter Ercole de' Roberti.  A notable feature begun in 1508 under Alfonso I was the first permanent theater built since antiquity.  Today the palace is the city hall. 


Castello Estense. The Castello Estense, also called the Castello Vecchio, was built in the late 14th century by the Este family, who enlarged and remodeled it during the Renaissance.


Via Coperta. In 1471 Ercole I began the Via Coperta, a covered corridor that extended out over the moat from the Castello Estense and led into the Palazzo del Corte.  Above the corridor he built an apartment that his son Alfonso I remodeled and made famous with his studiolo, the camerino dell'alabastro.  To decorate his studiolo, Alfonso commissioned Bellini's Feast of the Gods and Titian's Bacchanal of the Andrians and Bacchus and Ariadne.


Palazzo Schifanoia. Much of the Palazzo Schifanoia was built by Alberto V in the late 14th century.  In the next century, Borso d'Este commissioned the decoration of the Hall of the Months from Cosimo Tura.


Palazzo dei Diamandi.  The Palazzo dei Diamandi was designed by Biagio Rossetti for Sigismondo d'Este, Ercole I's youngest son.  The façade of this palace is unusual for its rustication in which the faces of blocks have been precisely cut into pyramid shapes.




Ligorio's Villa d'Este, 1565-72. Pirro Ligorio designed a magnificent garden villa, the Villa d'Este, for Cardinal Ippolito d'Este at Tivoli.  The gardens were laid out geometrically in a grid-like configuration of walkways and staircases. Accentuated features, mostly large fountains, were symmetrically located at the center and outer areas.  Water entered the garden from an aqueduct at the Oval Fountain.  From there, it divided into three channels, which flowed through the three tiers of the Wall of the Hundred Fountains.  Other fountains include the Dragon Fountain and the Organ Fountain. Today the gardens are overgrown, and the all-important central view from the uppermost terrace is marred by tall trees.  

















Patron Families 2 of 8




Hunt scene with Borso d'Este by Cosimo Tura, Hall of Months, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, 1469-70