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The Castello of Ferrara--The House of Este--Accession of Duke Ercole I.--His marriage to Leonora of Aragon--Birth of Isabella and Beatrice d’Este--Plot of Niccolo d’Este--Visit of Leonora to Naples--The court of King Ferrante--Betrothal of Beatrice d’Este to Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Bari--And of Isabella d’Este to Francesco Gonzaga.


In the heart of old Ferrara stands the Castello of the Este princes. All the great story of the past, all the romance of medieval chivalry, seems to live again in that picturesque, irregular pile with the crenellated towers and dusky red-brick walls, overhanging the sleepy waters of the ancient moat. The song of Boiardo and Ariosto still lingers in the air about the ruddy pinnacles; the spacious courts and broad piazza recall the tournaments and pageants of olden time. Once more the sound of clanging trumpets or merry hunting-horn awakes the echoes, as the joyous train of lords and ladies sweep out through the castle gates in the summer morning; once more, under vaulted loggias and high-arched balconies, we see the courtly scholar bending earnestly over some classic page, or catch the voice of high-born maiden singing Petrarch’s sonnets to her lute.

St. George was the champion of Ferrara and the patron saint of the house of Este. There year by year his festival was celebrated with great rejoicings, and vast crowds thronged the piazza before the Castello to see the famous races for the pallium. It is St. George who rides full tilt at the dragon in the rude sculptures on the portal of the Romanesque Cathedral hard by; it is the same warrior-saint who, in his gleaming armour, looks down from the painted fresco above the portcullis of the castle drawbridge. And all the masters who worked for the Este dukes, whether they were men of native or foreign birth Vittore Pisanello and Jacopo Bellini, Cosimo Tura and Dosso Dossi took delight in the old story, and painted the legend of St. George and Princess Sabra in the frescoes or altar-pieces with which they adorned the churches and castle halls.

The Estes, who took St. George for their patron, and fought and died under his banner, were themselves a chivalrous and splendour-loving race, ever ready to ride out in quest of fresh adventure in the chase or battle-field. Men and women alike were renowned, even among the princely houses of Italy in Renaissance time, for their rare culture and genuine love of art and letters. And they were justly proud of their ancient lineage and of the love and loyalty which their subjects bore them. The Sforzas of Milan, the Medici of Florence, the Riarios or the Della Roveres, were but low-born upstarts by the side of this illustrious race which had reigned on the banks of the Po during the last two hundred years. In spite of wars and bloodshed, in spite of occasional conspiracies and tumults, chiefly stirred up by members of the reigning family, the people of Ferrara loved their rulers well, and never showed any wish to change the house of Este for another. The citizens took a personal interest in their own duke and duchess and in all that belonged to them, and chronicled their doings with minute attention. They shared their sorrows and rejoiced in their joys, they lamented their departure and hailed their return with acclamation, they followed the fortunes of their children with keen interest, and welcomed the return of the youthful bride with acclamations, or wept bitter tears over her untimely end.

Of all the Estes who held sway at Ferrara, the most illustrious and most beloved was Duke Ercole I., the father of Beatrice. During the thirty-four years that he reigned in Ferrara, the duchy enjoyed a degree of material prosperity which it had never attained before, and rose to the foremost rank among the states of North Italy. And in the troubled times of the next century, his people looked back on the days of Duke Ercole and his good duchess as the golden age of Ferrara. After the death of his father, the able and learned Niccolo III., who first established his throne on sure and safe foundations, Ercole’s two elder half-brothers, Leonello and Borso, reigned in succession over Ferrara, and kept up the proud traditions of the house of Este, both in war and peace. Both were bastards, but in the Este family this was never held to be a bar to the succession. “In Italy,” as Commines wrote, “they make little difference between legitimate and illegitimate children.” But when the last of the two, Duke Borso, died on the 27th of May, 1471, of malarial fever caught on his journey to Rome, to receive the investiture of his duchy from the Pope, Niccolo’s eldest legitimate son Ercole successfully asserted his claim to the throne, and entered peacefully upon his heritage. Two years later, the next duke, who was already thirty-eight years of age, obtained the hand of Leonora of Aragon, daughter of Ferrante, King of Naples, and sent his brother Sigismondo at the head of a splendid retinue to bring home his royal bride. After a visit to Rome, where Pope Sixtus IV. entertained her at a series of magnificent banquets and theatrical representations, the young duchess entered Ferrara in state. On a bright June morning she rode through the streets in a robe glittering with jewels, with a stately canopy over her head and a gold crown on her flowing hair. Latin orations, orchestral music, and theatrical displays, for which Ferrara was already famous, greeted the bridal procession at every point. The houses were hung with tapestries and cloth of gold, avenues of flowering shrubs were planted along the broad white streets, and ringing shouts greeted the coming of the fair princess who was to make her home in Ferrara. The happy event was commemorated by a noble medal, designed by the Mantuan Sperandio, the most illustrious of a school of medallists employed at Ferrara in Duke Borso’s time, while Leonora’s refined features and expressive face are preserved in a well-known bas-relief, now in Paris. Ercole and his bride took up their abode in the Este palace, a stately Renaissance structure opposite the old Lombard Duomo, a few steps from the Castello, with which it was connected by a covered passage.

The charm and goodness of the young duchess soon won the heart of her subjects. From the first she entered eagerly into Ercole’s schemes for ordering his capital and encouraging art, and brought a new and gentler influence to bear on the society of her husband’s court. There, too, she found a congenial spirit in the duke’s accomplished sister, Bianca, that Virgin of Este, who was the subject of Tito Strozzi’s impassioned eulogy, and whose Latin and Greek prose excited the admiration of all her contemporaries. This cultivated princess had been originally betrothed to the eldest son of Federigo, Duke of Urbino, but his early death put an end to these hopes, and in 1468 she married Galeotto della Mirandola, a prince of the house of Carpi, who lived, at Ferrara some years, and afterwards entered the service of Lodovico Sforza and served as captain in his wars.

On the 18th of May, 1474, the duchess gave birth to a daughter, who received the name of Isabella, always a favourite in the house of Aragon, and was destined to become the most celebrated lady of the Renaissance. A year later, on the 29th of June, 1475, a second daughter saw the light. Her appearance, however, proved no cause of rejoicing, as we learn from the contemporary chronicle published by Muratori

“A daughter was born this day to Duke Ercole, and received the name of Beatrice, being the child of Madonna Leonora his wife. And there were no rejoicings, because every one wished for a boy.”

No one in Ferrara then dreamt that the babe who received so cold a welcome would one day reign over the Milanese, as the wife of Lodovico Sforza, the most powerful of Italian princes, and would herself be remembered by posterity as “la piú zentil donna in Italia” the sweetest lady in all Italy. At least the name bestowed upon her was a good omen. She was called Beatrice after two favourite relatives of her parents. One of these was Leonora’s only sister, Beatrice of Aragon, who in that same year passed through Ferrara on her way to join her husband, Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, and whose presence, we are told by the diarist, gave great pleasure to both duke and duchess. The other Beatrice was Ercole’s half-sister, the elder daughter of Niccolo III., who had long been the ornament of her father’s court, when she had been known as the Queen of Feasts, and it had become a common proverb that to see Madonna Beatrice dance was to find Paradise upon earth. In 1448, at the age of twenty-one, this brilliant lady had wedded Borso da Correggio, a brother of the reigning prince of that city, and, after her first husband’s early death, had become the wife of Tristan Sforza, an illegitimate son of the great Condottiere Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. Although her home was now in Lombardy, Beatrice d’Este remained on intimate terms with her own family, and her son Niccolo da Correggio was known as the handsomest and most accomplished cavalier at the court of Ferrara. He had accompanied his uncle Duke Borso on his journey to Rome, and had been one of the escort sent to conduct Duchess Leonora from Naples.

In the summer of the year following Beatrice’s birth, the hopes of the loyal Ferrarese were at length fulfilled, and a son was born to the duke and duchess on the 21st of July, 1476. This time the citizens abandoned themselves to demonstrations of enthusiastic delight. The bells were rung and the shops closed during three whole days, and the child was baptized with great pomp in the Chapel of the Vescovado, close to the Duomo. The infant received the name of Alfonso, after his grandfather, the great King of Naples, and a “beautiful fete,” to quote one chronicler’s words, “was held in honour of the auspicious event in the Sala Grande of the Schifanoia Villa.” On this occasion a concert was given by a hundred trumpeters, pipers, and tambourine-players in the frescoed hall of this favourite summer palace, and a sumptuous banquet was prepared after the fashion of the times, with an immense number of confetti, representing lords and ladies, animals, trees, and castles, all made of gilt and coloured sugar, which our friend the diarist tells us were carried off or eaten by the people as soon as the doors were opened.

But a few days afterwards, while Duke Ercole was away from Ferrara, his wife was surprised by a sudden rising, the result of a deep-laid conspiracy, secretly planned by his nephew, Niccolo, a bastard son of Leonello d’Este. Niccolo’s first endeavour was to seize on the person of the duchess and her young children, an attempt which almost proved successful, but was fortunately defeated by Leonora’s own courage and presence of mind. The palace was already surrounded by armed men, when the alarm reached the ears of the duchess, and, springing out of bed with her infant son in her arms, followed by her two little daughters and a few faithful servants, she fled by the covered way to the Castello. Hardly had she left her room, when the conspirators rushed in and sacked the palace, killing all who tried to offer resistance. The people of Ferrara, however, were loyal to their beloved duke and duchess. After a few days of anxious suspense, Ercole returned, and soon quelled the tumult and restored order in the city. That evening he appeared on the balcony of the Castello, and publicly embraced his wife and children amid the shouts and applause of the whole city. The next day the whole ducal family went in solemn procession to the Cathedral, and there gave public thanks for their marvellous deliverance. A terrible list of cruel reprisals followed upon this rebellion, and Niccolo d’Este himself, with two hundred of his partisans, were put to death after the bloody fashion of the times.

A year later, when the danger was over and tranquillity had been completely restored, Leonora and her two little daughters set out for Naples, under the escort of Niccolo da Correggio, to be present at her father King Ferrante’s second marriage with the young Princess Joan of Aragon, a sister of Ferdinand the Catholic. The duchess and her children travelled by land to Pisa, where galleys were waiting to conduct them to Naples, and reached her father’s court on the 1st of June, 1477. Here Leonora spent the next four months, and in September, gave birth to a second son, who was named Ferrante, after his royal grandfather. But soon news reached Naples that war had broken out in Northern Italy, and that Duke Ercole had been chosen Captain-general of the Florentine armies. In his absence the presence of the duchess was absolutely necessary at Ferrara, and early in November Leonora left Naples and hastened home to take up the reins of government and administer the state in her lord’s stead. She took her elder daughter Isabella with her, but left her new-born son at Naples, together with his little sister Beatrice, from whom the old King Ferrante refused to part. This bright-eyed child, who had won her grandfather’s affections at this early age, remained at Naples for the next eight years, and grew up in the royal palace on the terraced steps of that enchanted shore, where even then Sannazzaro was dreaming of Arcadia, and where Lorenzo de’ Medici loved to talk over books and poetry with his learned friend the Duchess Ippolita. Beatrice was too young to realize the rare degree of culture which had made Alfonso’s and Ferrante’s court the favourite abode of the Greek and Latin scholars of the age, too innocent to be aware of the dark deeds which threw a shadow over these sunny regions, where the strange medley of luxury and vice, of refinement and cruelty, recalled the days of Imperial Rome. But the balmy breath of these Southern climes, the soft luxuriant spell of blue seas and groves of palm and cassia, sank deep into the child’s being, and something of the fire and passion, the mirth and gaiety, of the dwellers in this delicious land passed into her soul, and helped to mould her nature during these years that she spent far from mother and sister at King Ferrante’s court.

In these early days many personages with whom she was to be closely associated in after-years were living at Naples. There were scholars and poets whom she was to meet again in Milan at her husband’s court, and who would be glad to remind her that they had known her as a child in her grandfather’s palace. There was Pontano, the founder of the Academy of Naples, who was busy writing his Latin eclogues on the myrtle bowers of Baiae and the orange groves of Sorrento. There was her aunt, the accomplished Ippolita Sforza, Duchess of Calabria, who had learnt Greek of the great teacher Lascaris in her young days at Milan, and whose wedding had brought the magnificent Lorenzo to the court of the Sforzas. And for playmates the little Beatrice had Ippolita’s children: the boy Ferrante, whose chivalrous nature endeared him to his Este cousins, even when their husbands joined with the French invaders to drive him from his father’s throne; and the girl Isabella, who was already affianced to the young Duke Giangaleazzo, who was in future years to become her companion and rival at the court of Milan. Here, too, in the summer of 1479, came a new visitor in the shape of Duchess Ippolita’s brother, Lodovico Sforza, surnamed Il Moro, himself the younger son of the great Duke Francesco. On his elder brother Sforza’s death, the King of Naples had invested him with the duchy of Bari, and now he promised him men and money with which to assert his claims against his sister-in-law, the widowed Duchess Bona and the minions who had driven him and his brothers out of their native land. In June, 1477, only a few days after Leonora and her children left Ferrara, the exiled prince had arrived there on his way to Pisa, and had been courteously entertained by Duke Ercole in the Schifanoia Palace. Since then he had spent two dreary years in exile at Pisa, fretting out his heart in his enforced idleness, and pining for the hour of release. That hour was now at hand. Before the end of the year, Lodovico Sforza had, by a succession of bold manoeuvres, driven out his rivals and was virtually supreme in Milan. The first step which the new regent took was to ally himself with the Duke of Ferrara. The houses of Sforza and Este had always been on friendly terms, and Ercole’s father Niccolo had presented Francesco Sforza with a famous diamond in acknowledgment of the services rendered him by the great Condottiere. When Francesco’s son and successor, Duke Galeazzo Maria, was murdered in 1476, his widow, Duchess Bona, had renewed the old alliance with Ferrara, and a marriage had been arranged between her infant daughter Anna Sforza and Duke Ercole’s new-born son and heir Alfonso. In May, 1477, this betrothal was proclaimed in Milan, and a fortnight later the nuptial contract was signed at Ferrara. The union of the two houses was celebrated by solemn processions and thanksgivings throughout the duchy, and the infant bridegroom was carried in the arms of his chamberlain to meet the Milanese ambassador, who appeared on behalf of the little three-year-old bride. Seven years afterwards, Duchess Leonora sent a magnificent doll with a trousseau of clothes designed by the best artists in Ferrara, as a gift to the little daughter-in-law whom she had not yet seen.

In 1480, Lodovico Sforza formally asked Ercole to give him the hand of his elder daughter Isabella, then a child of six. Lodovico himself was twenty-nine, and besides being a man of remarkable abilities and singularly handsome presence, had the reputation of being the richest prince in Italy. Duke Ercole further saw the great importance of strengthening the alliance with Milan at a time when Ferrara was again threatened by her hereditary enemies, the Pope and Venice. Unfortunately, his youthful daughter had already been sought in marriage by Federico, Marquis of Mantua, on behalf of his elder son, Giovanni Francesco; and Ercole, unwilling to offend so near a neighbour, and yet reluctant to lose the chance of a second desirable alliance, offered Lodovico Sforza the hand of his younger daughter, Beatrice. The Duke of Bari made no objection to this arrangement, and on St. Georges Day, Ercole addressed the following letter to his old ally, Marquis Federico:


“This is to inform you that the most illustrious Madonna Duchess of Milan and His Illustrious Highness Lodovico Sforza have sent their ambassador, M. Gabriele Tassino, to ask for our daughter Madonna Isabella on behalf of Signor Lodovico. We have replied that to our regret this marriage was no longer possible, since we had already entered into negotiations on the subject with your Highness and your eldest son. But since we have another daughter at Naples, who is only about a year younger, and who has been adopted by his Majesty the King of Naples as his own child, we have written to acquaint His Serene Majesty with the wish of these illustrious Persons, and have asked him if he will consent to accept the said Signor Lodovico as his kinsman, since without his leave we were unable to dispose of our daughter Beatrice’s hand. The said Persons having expressed themselves as well content with the proceeding, out of respect for the King’s Majesty he has now declared his approval of this marriage, to which we have accordingly signified our consent. We are sure that you will rejoice with us, seeing the close union and alliance that has long existed between us, and beg your Illustrious Highness to keep the matter secret for the present.


Ferrara, 23rd April, 1480.

It is curious to reflect on the possible changes in the course of events in Italian history during the next thirty years, if Lodovico Sforza’s proposals had reached Ferrara a few months earlier, and Isabella d’Este, instead of her sister Beatrice, had become his wife. Would the rare prudence and self-control of the elder princess have led her to play a different part in the difficult circumstances which surrounded her position at the court of Milan as the Moro’s wife? Would Isabella’s calmer temperament and wise and far-seeing intellect have been able to restrain Lodovico’s ambitious dreams and avert his ruin? The cordial relations that were afterwards to exist between Lodovico and his gifted sister-in-law, the Moro’s keen appreciation of Isabella’s character, incline us to believe that she would have acquired great influence over her lord; and that so remarkable a woman would have played a very important part on this larger stage. But the Fates had willed otherwise, and Beatrice d’Este became the bride of Lodovico Sforza. Her royal grandfather, old King Ferrante, gave his sanction to the proposed marriage, although he refused to part from his little grandchild at present, and when, five years later, Beatrice returned to Ferrara, she assumed the title and estate of Duchess of Bari, and was publicly recognized as Lodovico’s promised wife. She had by this time reached the age of ten, and her espoused husband was exactly thirty-four.