Tag Archives: travels

Ferrara

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.

Castello Estense, Ferrara

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!):

Grave of Alfonso d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia

Florence- Scoppio del Carro

Florence is packed with history. There are relics of the Medici and other great dynasties everywhere (though very little relating to the city’s daughter who went on to be queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici).

View of Florence from the Pizza Michelangelo

As we were there over Easter, we went to the Duomo on Easter Sunday to watch the scoppio del carro (explosion of the cart) which is a practice peculiar to Florence, dating back nearly a thousand years to the Crusades when 3 flints from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were brought back to the city.

The flints were originally kept by the important Pazzi family. Traditionally all the fires (hearths, lamps, candles) were extinguished on Good Friday and a new fire started on Easter Sunday, marking the death and rebirth of Christ. The flints were used to create the spark for the new fire which was distributed to local households, for them to rekindle their own hearths, on a cart. Over the centuries, the ritual became more elaborate and fireworks were attached to the cart to make more of a spectacle for the most important Christian festival.

The Cart

Il Carro

The cart is taken through the streets to the area between the Duomo and the Baptistry (Florence’s oldest building) where the fireworks are ignited. The explosions last for around twenty minutes, in broad daylight. It’s loud; there’s a lot of coloured smoke and (if you can see it through the crowds) it’s a pretty amazing sight. My photos aren’t especially good- I’m not tall enough to see over the heads of the crowd! Hopefully they’ll give you an idea though.

Fireworks

Fireworks in front of the Campanile

Smoke by the Campanile

Smoke in front of the Campanile

Research- It’s A Tough Job

Tomorrow I’m off on a rather exciting research trip/holiday. First off, we’ll be in Florence for a few days to look at art, bookbinding workshops, perfumeries and anything connected to Catherine de’ Medici’s childhood. She spent much of her life before her move to France to marry Henri in 1533. After that, we’ll be spending a few days in Ferrara. Lucrezia Borgia lived in Ferrara from her marriage to Alfonso D’Este in 1502 until her death in 1519. I’m hoping to get a better idea of the other Lucrezia here, the one who inspired the town to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of her arrival by declaring 2002 to be the Year of Lucrezia Borgia. We are also hoping to take a trip to Venice.

Painting reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

Painting reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

I’m also looking forward to having a look around the cities where three of my favourite novels are set. Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus is set in Florence; In the Company of the Courtesan in Venice; and Sacred Hearts in a convent in Ferrara.

I shall be back in a week, hopefully with lots of photos and Borgia information.