Postcard from Modena, Italy: How Modena ended up with the Estense family art

A short train ride to Modena helped us tidy up a few of the loose ends lingering from the Machiavellian soap opera of long ago we began unraveling in Ferrara. For us, the main mystery was the art missing from the walls of Ferrara’s castle and palaces.

Surely you remember all the details and intrigue surrounding the Este family of Ferrara from an earlier post, so we’ll just pick up with the ducal reign of Alfonso I (1476-1534), the one who was the final husband of Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519). Alfonso I continued to remodel the castle in Ferrara, adding expansive wings to reflect his ducal power and building up the family’s art collection.

Following his death, the dukedom passed down to his son Ercole II (1508-1559). Still smarting from the trio of pesky Italian Wars in the first decade or so of the 1500s during which King Louis XII of France wrenched control of parts of Italy, some of the powerful were miffed when Ercole II had married Louis XII’s daughter Renee (1510-1574) in the year 1528. Renee assembled an artistic court around her that the same people regarded as too French-centric.

But Ercole II patched things up with Rome, if not his wife, when he inherited the title of duke from his father in 1534. He expelled the French coterie and pledged his allegiance to the pope. Maintaining the guests had been expensive, and Ercole II preferred to continue to enhance the castle in Ferrara and to accumulate artwork.

Among those to whom Renee turned for comfort was John Calvin (1509-1564), who was quickly assembling a major coalition of enemies in Rome. But Ercole II was so loyal to the papacy, in 1554 he turned his own wife into the Inquisitor for her Protestant tendencies.

(Sorry, we’re still not in Modena yet. But this is complicated.)

When Ercole II died in 1559, their son Alfonso II (1533-1597) assumed the title of Duke of Ferrara. The pope immediately required him to banish his mother Renee to France, where she was able to resume her Protestant friendships. Alfonso II tried and tried through three marriages to produce an Este heir without luck. At the time of his death not even an illegitimate child could be rounded up to follow him.

While the Roman Emperor recognized his cousin Cesare (1561-1628) as his successor, the Vatican did not. In the meantime, Alfonso II’s sister, Lucrezia d’Este (1535-1598) was conspiring with papal powers. Lucrezia had never forgiven her brother for having her lover assassinated to end her scandalous behavior. Cesare d’Este was forced to pack up his court and flee Ferrara. The now pious Lucrezia turned the castle keys over to papal powers.

Instead, Cesare assumed the title of Duke of Modena and Reggio. Most of the Este treasures were spirited away by Cesare and moved with a large contingent of Este family members and hangers-on to Modena. Which solves the mystery of the missing artwork. As you can imagine, some of the Modenese were not pleased with the Ferrarese invasion, but Cesare masterfully managed to consolidate his power.

Construction of the Palazzo Ducale of Modena was begun in 1630, with an older medieval building at its core. While I’m not sure of the square footage, the new Este compound appears both larger and grander than the one left behind in Ferrara.

After Italy finally attained unity in 1861, the ducal art collections were moved to Palazzo dei Musei, formerly a hospice for the poor. The Estense Gallery was opened to the public in 1894.

Artists represented in the collection include Correggio, Tintoretto and Velazquez. Several amazingly ornate instruments indicate the Este family patronized the musical arts as well.

This collage shows the Ducal Palace (featured photo), some items from the museum and random sites in the historic center of Modena, the home of flavorful aged balsamic vinegar.

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