About an hour on the train from Florence (after a change at Bologna), in the Emilia-Romagna is Ferrara, where the rather magnificent Castello Estense was home to the Dukes of Este.
The Este family rose to power in the late medieval period, building and expanding the castello over the centuries. Right in the centre of the town, the building, and moat, remain well preserved although the interior is rather Spartan, especially compared to somewhere like Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Still, the curators have done an impressive job with what little they have. There’s little furniture or wall decoration remaining but the ceilings are beautifully decorated and some rooms’ only floor furnishings are giant sloping mirrors so one can look at the ceilings without craning the neck. There’s also a lovely veranda with orange trees which feels almost Moorish in the bright sunshine: a stark contrast to the damp subterranean dungeons, used to imprison enemies of the Este family through to the sixteenth century.
It is in Ferrara, in the Castello Estense, that Lucrezia Borgia spent the second half of her life as the wife of Alfonso d’Este. She arrived in 1502 with two previous marriages behind her. She never returned to Rome and the nefarious influence of her father and brother. She flourished in Ferrara and although he had been reluctant to marry the notorious Pope’s daughter, Alfonso grew to love Lucrezia and despite numerous infidelities on both sides, their bond seems to have been strong and affectionate. They had six children, of whom four survived into adulthood. Her sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) never fell under the spell of the charming Lucrezia though and maintained a bitter hostility to her. No doubt fuelled by Lucrezia’s passionate affair with Isabella’s husband, Francesco Gonzaga.
Another point on the Lucrezia Borgia map of Ferrara is the little church, attached to the convent of Poor Clares, of Corpus Domini a short walk to the south. It’s hidden away from the hubbub of the town centre where bicycles trundle about in all directs. There’s little in the way of signs outside it: just a small plague erected in 2002, Ferrara’s Year of Lucrezia Borgia, which notes that inside is the Este tomb and Lucrezia’s grave.
The church is open to the public for two hours in the morning and another two after lunch. A door to the right of the altar leads through to the nuns’ choir where Lucrezia and other members of the Este family are buried, including one of Lucrezia’s daughters, Eleanor (1515-1575), who was a nun at Corpus Domini. Lucrezia is buried with her son Ercole, her husband, his mother, and the infant daughter, Isabella, Lucrezia died giving birth to.
As befits the convent, the nuns’ choir is very quiet and peaceful but brightened by the sun streaming through the simple coloured glass windows. Indeed, the nuns’ choir is much brighter, though more simply decorated, than the main church. When we visited just after Easter, the nun who was present, at the other side of a grill, was very helpful and pleasant though her English was no better than my Italian. She sqeezed a little English guide card through a gap in the grill so I could identify which of the six graves in front of the altar was Lucrezia’s. Sadly, they don’t allow photographs of the graves however I found this one (taken by someone less concerned for respecting the nuns’ wishes!):