Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: Machiavellian Times

The influence and power the Este family exerted in Ferrara clearly was demonstrated when they began construction in 1264 on a palace directly across from the front door of the city’s cathedral. But the palace now serving as city hall proved not grand enough to accommodate the ducal family.

Next door, a castle-like fortress begun in 1100 as a single watchtower was undergoing major expansion to counter continual threats from enemies. The royal court began moving into the larger accommodations afforded by Castello Estense, surrounded by its protective moat, in 1479.

Careers in politics and religion were not peaceful pursuits in those times. Ferrara-born Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) joined the Dominican order and promoted a puritanical campaign against secular art and culture in Florence, offending many by even trying to reinsert religion into the exuberant pre-Lenten carnival celebrations for which Florence was known. Savonarola railed against the corruption within the church itself, predicting an apocalyptic event such as a biblical flood on the horizon.

Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), a member of the Borgia family, found Fr. Savonarola’s assertions of corruption offensive and summoned him to Rome. Snubbing the papal invitation proved unwise, and Savonarola found himself excommunicated, shortly before his public hanging.

If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513

The papacy was different then, and the words above written by Machiavelli (1469-1527) applied to practices embraced by Pope Alexander VI. Casting aside ethics in favor of political expediency, the pope proved himself worthy of serving as the poster child for what we now label Machiavellian behavior and as a master of nepotism.

The pope chose to legitimize illegitimate children born to his favorite mistress prior to his ascension to the papacy. Daughter Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) became a political pawn for maneuvers to consolidate power under his authority. Her first marital liaison was deemed not effective enough to achieve her father’s increasing desires for supremacy, so Pope Alexander VI had it annulled on the grounds that it had never been consummated. While the marriage was being annulled, however, Lucrezia was tucked away in a convent where she secretly gave birth.

Following her second marriage, the pope elevated his illegitimate daughter to governor of Spoletto. But having served his usefulness in increasing the Borgias’ power, Lucrezia’s second husband soon was deemed disposable as well. He was murdered mysteriously, possibly by a brother of Lucrezia.

The pope needed to bring the Estes family under his control, so a third marriage was arranged for the beautiful Lucrezia. This marriage to Alfonso d’Este (1474-1534), the duke of Ferrara, proved more long-lasting than her earlier ones. Presumably, Alfonso breathed somewhat easier after the death of his father-in-law in 1503. Lucrezia died soon after giving birth to her tenth child 16 years later.

One could say Savonarola had the last laugh over the descendants of Pope Alexander VI, as his statue is perched predominantly on a plaza between the Este castle and the cathedral. But he does not appear to be smiling; his dour expression seems still to condemn those who are enjoying themselves on the surrounding public plazas.

Covering almost two blocks, the Castello Estense and its moats could be a major impediment to the movement of pedestrians in the heart of modern-day Ferrara. Instead, with its drawbridges down, the castle courtyard proves a convenient passageway for locals continually moving between the city’s Renaissance addition and its medieval quarters.


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