I've been to Ferrara several times, and while I always thought of it as a pleasant city, I wasn't overly enthusiastic until I delved into the history connecting Ferrara (Emilia Romagna) and Mantua (Lombardy). This made both cities take on a whole new dimension. It felt as if events from the 15th and 16th centuries came to life, and the buildings I previously saw as rather boring, opened doors to a lavish lifestyle I hadn't seen before.
Both Ferrara and Mantua owe much to an illustrious Italian family whose name is well-known throughout the country, the d'Este family. Ferrara was largely built by the Este in the late 15th century. Archduke Ercole I was an art-loving ruler who not only collected paintings, antiques, and books but was also responsible for palaces that he liked to give endearing names, like Schifanoia, which literally means 'escape from boredom'. And it's certainly not boring! (Schifanoia is closed indefinitely for restoration).
Italy's 'First Lady'
Ercole I's daughter was Isabella d'Este, dubbed 'the Primadonna of Italy', undoubtedly one of the most important women of the Renaissance. At 16, she not only married the man she was promised to as a child but also one she loved, a rare combination at the time. Her husband was Francesco II Gonzaga from Mantua, thus connecting the two duchies. Starting on her wedding day, Isabella set her tone for life. She was beautiful, and though rumored to be a bit overweight, she was a woman who turned heads.
She was raised by her boredom-loathing father; artists, writers, scientists, and progressive thinkers were always present at the court where she grew up, setting a precedent for her later ambitions in Mantua's court.
Her husband rarely engaged in state or other matters, duties which Isabella gladly took over. Over 28,000 of her letters have been preserved, revealing her to be what we'd call a 'control freak' today. She introduced new fashions, including a hat-hair combination seen in some of her portraits.
The boudoir in Ferrara’s City Hall
In what is now the city hall of Ferrara, you'll find the Camerino delle Duchesse, built, or rather furnished, for two daughters of Duke Ercole II around the mid-16th century. Miraculously, it has remained virtually unchanged for nearly 500 years. Back in the day, it was used as a boudoir for the young princesses, where they could retreat and gossip to their heart's content while changing clothes.
The Palazzo Marfisa d´Este dates back to 1559. Don't be fooled by its modest façade; inside, it brims with luxury and art in the classic Renaissance style, with painted ceilings and walls, extensive use of trompe l'oeil, and views onto a typical Italian loggia. It's these delightful courtyards that make Ferrara so charming. Wander the streets and catch glimpses of intimate spots with covered loggias hidden behind medieval alleys through open doors.
In Via Savonarola, a must-visit street in Ferrara, stands the Casa Romei, built for Lucrezia Borgia, a contemporary and sister-in-law of Isabella d´Este. Lucrezia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, might not have been as wild as legends suggest, but she surely was a lively woman who enjoyed parties. If we believe the rumor-mongers, she was once the lover of Isabella's husband, which probably didn't exactly make them best friends. Casa Romei was built in 1445 around a small courtyard with a gallery that provided cool relief during the hot summer months. Today, it's a museum.
From metropolis to provincial town: Ferrara and Mantua in the 16th century
When Isabella moved to Mantua around the turn of the century, she went from an avant-garde city to a place where time had seemingly stood still—a medieval town lacking any structure. Young as she was, she took on the task of modernizing Mantua. She rallied architects and urban planners to reshape the city and welcomed every artist, from the young and unknown to the old and famous, decorating her palaces with all sorts of art. The Palazzo Ducale in Mantua boasts 500 rooms, with the Hall of Mirrors being the most famous.
The Secret of Ferrara and Mantua
Their palaces may seem unassuming from the outside, possibly discouraging the casual visitor. But this is the secret of Ferrara and Mantua, concealed unless you take the effort to open a door. Inside, the interiors and courtyards showcase unparalleled artistic wealth, imagination, and deep pockets, making both cities centers of the Renaissance era. No notable person would miss appearing at the court of Isabella, her father, or her sons.
Titian painted her several times, and Leonardo da Vinci also made an appearance. Isabella wished for him to paint her, but da Vinci only seems to have made a preparatory sketch before quickly departing for Florence where he soon after painted the Mona Lisa. The portrait unexpectedly surfaced in 2013 in a private Swiss collection, according to the English newspaper The Guardian. Comparisons abound between Isabella and La Gioconda, suggesting the two Renaissance icons might have had a complex relationship.
Palazzo Te, the erotic pleasure palace
Of her 8 children, Federico II was the one who ruled Mantua. He too was a great lover of art, although his taste might have been too distinct for everyone to appreciate. To see what he left behind, you need to step outside of Mantua; a short walk brings you to Palazzo Te, a villa he had built for his mistress by Giulio Romano, which is considered one of his masterpieces. The most vivid imaginations were unleashed on the interior. The wall, and especially the ceiling paintings, are grotesque, erotic, and surreal.
Dining in Mantua (Quistello)
An intriguing spot, designed by Giuseppe Gorni, a beautiful monument honoring the first farmers' league. This is also the location of the so-called Floating Park 'Parco delle Golene Foce Secchia'. But the real attraction here is The Embassy, a restaurant run by the Tamani brothers. For 40 years, they've been at the forefront of Mantua's gastronomy with an outstanding kitchen known for innovation. The restaurant boasts a Michelin star.Via Martiri di Belfiore 25 - Quistello 46026, Phone: +390376619169, Email:
Antica Trattoria Cento RampiniPiazza Erbe 11, Tel. 39 376 366349 - Website: www.ristorantecentorampini.com
Casa del Pane - Osteria del MangioneVia Giuseppe Verdi 65 Tel. +39 0376 321378 - Website: casadelpanemantova.it
Il Cigno - Trattoria dei Martini
This upscale restaurant has been open since 1969 and was the first in the city to introduce the modern Mantua classic: sweet-sour duck breast. Another specialty is Riso alla pilotta, prepared with pork mince and Gran Pandano.Piazza Carlo d'Arco 1 Tel. 39 0376 327101
Hotel Ristorante Canneviè is housed in a former fisherman's home in Parco del Delta del Po. If you arrive by train, the hotel offers complimentary pick-up from Codigoro station, a 10-minute drive away. All rooms at Hotel Canneviè offer views of the hotel's private park and are equipped with air conditioning and mosquito nets. The restaurant specializes in seafood dishes. The hotel is located 2 km from a private beach where guests receive discounts on sunbeds and umbrellas. Comacchio is a 10-minute drive away.