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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Renaissance Cities--Ferrara

Ferrara's Castello Esterno,  Note the wide moat.
Imagine New York City declaring war on Washington, DC. It might not be a good time to live in the crossfire near Philadelphia. Today it might happen on a football field, but in Renaissance Italy armies from one city almost routinely did battle with armies from neighboring cities. So, what would you do if you were a small city sandwiched between to much bigger and more powerful cities? You throw lavish parties, smile a lot, and build wide moats. If you're the Este family living in Ferrara, you marry off your sons and daughters to the ruling families of other cities all over Europe, maintain a high social prominence, and just to be on the safe side, build your luxurious Renaissance palace adjacent to your well-fortified Medieval castle. In short, you forge astute diplomatic alliances and try to keep your neighbors happy.

Allegorical Figure of Calliope,
1460, Cosimo Tura
The city of Ferrara is located at the top of the Italian boot, inland from the Adriatic Sea and the east coast of Italy. And for the Ferrarese, it was also far too close for comfort to Venice. Meanwhile at its back door, something over a hundred miles away, was Milan. The Este family maintained one of the richest, most influential courts, in not just Italy, but in all of Europe. They claimed a lineage back to King Arthur and the Round Table, though it's strange that an Italian family should have an English connection. We don't often hear much about it, but there was even a Ferrarese school of painting, centering on the work of Cosimo Tura, Ercole de Roberti, and Francesco del Cossa. Though influence by Piero della Francesca and Donatello, Ferrarese painting has a look all its own. It's highly stylized, very decorative, colorful, and strangely enough, has a northern Renaissance look about it. But then again, perhaps it's not so strange.  Ferrara was a northern, very cosmopolitan town.

Members of the Este Family, c.1486 
Ercole de Roberti
Ferrara was actually quite the party town. If not really descended from English kings, at least their favorite sport came from western Europe and England--jousting. So rich and influential was the Este family that any royalty traveling through Italy in Renaissance times felt duty bound to stop by and pay their respects. And when they did, it was cause for celebration--pitch the party tents, light the lights (err...candles) and strike up the band. So well-connected was the Este family to nearly every city/state in the developing political environment in Europe at the time that they were in a position to exert social and political influence all over the continent far beyond the realm of their size and defensive military power. And their art was the rich, highly decorated backdrop against which such pomp and circumstance was played out. Even into the 21st century, Ferrara and the Este family remain quite prominent in the social and political circles of the Italian nation.

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