Court Life at Ferrara

F.M. Godfrey describes how, during the fifteenth century, the courtly civilization of Ferrara gave birth to splendid works of art.

The castello d’estense, “the most impressive sight which Italy offers in this genre,” was built in 1385 by Bartolino da Novara, also the architect of the Gonzaga fortress at Mantua. Rising out of the flat marshy plain of the Polesina, the gigantic citadel, with its four square towers and moat, was originally designed for the Obizzi lords as a refuge against popular risings, and stands in dramatic contrast with the white garden-city beneath, its straight network of roads and dignified palaces such as “Diamante” or “Schifanoia,” where Borso d’Este went into villegiatura. For only during the fifteenth century did the courtly civilization of Ferrara come to fruition. After a barbarous period of bloodshed and family feuds, the natural sons of Niccolo III, Lionello and Borso d’Este, and after them dukes Ercole and Alfonso, encouraged in Ferrara a humanist and artistic flowering equal to that of Mantua under the Gonzaga, Ravenna under the Malatesta and Urbino under the Montefeltro. This city-culture of the Italian Renaissance was based upon the romantic enthusiasm with which the civilization of Greek and Roman antiquity was absorbed by scholars and burghers, and fostered by princely wealth and patronage. Niccolo III, by no means a paragon of learning and of virtue, inherited, together with the more ruthless qualities of his race, a sense of curiosity and adventure which not only took him as a pilgrim to the Holy Land, but prompted him to search for the most gifted humanists at home. It was thanks to his efforts that Guarino da Verona and Giovanni Aurispa settled in Ferrara as princely tutors and teachers at the University. Within ten years, Greek studies had become so flourishing, that Pope Eugenius III summoned the universal council to Ferrara, there to meet the Eastern Emperor, John Palaeologus, and the Patriarch of Byzantium. Niccolo himself belongs to a more barbarous age.

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