Music for the Dukes of Ferrara

Here is some fascinating background information about the colourful lives of the Este family that David has prepared for the concert on 17th March in Leominster Priory. Part 2 about the music will be published shortly!

The city of Ferrara, in northern Italy, enjoyed a golden age from the late fifteenth century, lasting just over a century. During the reigns of the Dukes of Ferrara, a title then held by the Este family, opulent patronage of the finest artists, musicians and poets, in addition to scientists, architects and philosophers gave rise to a culture which has bequeathed future generations some of the greatest achievements in those fields.

The House of Este can be traced back at least to the tenth century and the figure of Margrave Adalbert of Mainz. His son, Oberto I, Count Palatine of Italy died in 975. His grandson, Alberto Azzo II, built a castle at Este, a small town near Padua, in around 1073 and had three sons. The middle son died without issue, but the eldest and youngest sons, Welf and Fulco I, gave rise to the German and Italian branches of the Este family. The German line, the Younger House of Welf, included the duchies of Bavaria and of Brunswick-Lüneburg, which was later to become the Electorship of Hanover, which in the 18th century provided the United Kingdom its Hanoverian dynasty. During the 12th century, Ferrara came under the rule of the Este family, Fulco IV being named Podestà, or chief magistrate. It was not until the reign of Niccolò III d’Este, from 1393 until 1441, that Ferrara started to develop into an important cultural centre. Niccolò was succeeded by two of his illegitimate sons (he had children with at least eleven different women, three of whom were his wives), first Leonello and then Borso, as Lords of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio. Borso was elevated to Duke of Modena and Reggio in 1452 and subsequently made Duke of Ferrara by Pope Paul II in 1471, the year of his death.

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Borso’s half brother, Ercole I d’Este was the next Duke of Ferrara, ruling until his death in 1505. During Ercole I’s reign, the patronage of both the arts and sciences developed dramatically, with major figures in the musical world serving in court, including Josquin, Martini, Alexander Agricola, Adrian Willaert and Antoine Brumel. Many great musicians were encouraged to visit, such as Heinrich Isaac and Jacob Obrecht, who died of plague during his second visit in 1505, and poets, including Matteo Maria Boiardo and Ludovico Ariosto, the author of Orlando Furioso, benefitted from the Duke’s eclectic tastes and patronage. Ercole’s court was the first to promote purely secular musical theatre in renaissance Europe, and even the city itself was greatly enlarged when, under Ercole’s edict, the ducal architect Biagio Rossetti was given the task of creating whole new neighbourhoods, all enclosed within greatly expanded city walls, in the project known as the Ercolean Addition.

Ercole’s first son and heir, Alfonso I, was initially married in 1491 to Anna Sforza, daughter of the powerful Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan. The marriage was a sad affair, with a single child who died at an early age. Anna herself died in childbirth and Alfonso was unable to attend her funeral due to his facial disfigurement as a result of contracting syphilis.

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Alfonso’s next match was to the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI and sister to Cesare Borgia. Alfonso was to be her third husband; her first marriage was annulled and the second ended with the murder of her husband (possibly arranged by Lucrezia herself). They had eight children, but neither partner was faithful. Lucrezia had a passionate affair with her brother-in-law, Francesco II Gonzaga of Mantua, who was married to Isabella d’Este, Alphonso’s sister. Upon succeeding as Duke, Alfonso’s first task was to suppress a plot to unseat him, directed by his brother Ferrante and half-brother Giulio. The two were captured and sentenced to death. At the last moment the sentence was commuted to permanent imprisonment. Ferrante died in his cell, thirty four years later and Giulio was released after fifty three years in prison, only to die two years later. Alfonso continued the remarkable patronage of the arts developed by his father, employing the painters Bellini, Titian and Dosso Dossi, the poets Tasso, Guarini and Ariosto, and composers Willaert, Luzzaschi and Brumel.


Alfonso died in 1534 and was succeeded by his son Ercole II, the first surviving child of Lucrezia (her first was stillborn and the second died within its first year). The alliance with France that Alfonso I had developed as a safeguard against the aggression of the Papal States was further enhanced by Ercole II’s marriage in 1528 to Renée of France, daughter of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. However, the union seems to have been a difficult one: Renée had significant protestant sympathies and gathered around her a court of like- minded reformists, including Calvin himself in the summer of 1536. Upon

his succession, Ercole made moves against his wife and her largely French court. By 1543, most of the French courtiers were dismissed and Renée was forced to confess to heresy by the Inquisition in 1554. Throughout Ercole II’s reign, lavish amounts of money were spent on the arts as a means to glorify the courts of both the Duke and his consort, epitomised by the appointment of Cipriano de Rore as Maestro di Capello on 6th May, 1546.

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The fifth and final legitimate Duke of Ferrara was Alfonso II, the second son of Ercole II and Renée, who ruled from 1559. He was married three times: firstly to Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici, who died after only two years of marriage. Next, in 1565 he married Barbara of Austria, who died seven years later in 1572, and his final match was with Margherita Gonzaga, the niece of his second wife. He continued in his ancestor’s footsteps, regarding patronage of the arts as an essential duty of the renaissance prince. Luzzaschi was his court organist, Giaches de Wert and Carlo Gesualdo both served at court and Johannes Berchem dedicated his settings of Ariosti’s epic poem Orlando Furioso to Alfonso II. Alfonso had Adrian Willaert’s magnus opus, Musica Nova published by Gardano in Venice in 1559, being both patron and dedicatee of the collection. Despite his three marriages, Alfonso died in 1598 without an heir, and so ended the golden age of the Italian house of Este.  David Hatcher March 2019

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