The city of Ferrara is situated on a branch of the beautiful Po River in Northern Italy. Its location makes the charming town an ideal stop for visitors exploring the countryside via river cruises. Italy is famous for its ancient towns steeped in intrigue, romance and drama – and Ferrara is no different! Read on to uncover this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s thrilling medieval past.
The Medieval Magic of Ferrara
The Ancient City of Ferrara
Ferrara provides a fantastic example of a medieval European city, complete with palaces, churches, charming cloisters and outdoor courtyards. Though now an ideal location for beach holidays, culture breaks and river cruises, Italy was once a dangerous melting pot of influential families vying for power. The city of Ferrara owes both its fascinating history and much of its beautiful architecture to one specific family – the House of Este.
The House of Este and the Castello Estense
In the twelfth century a noble Italian family, known as the House of Este, set up their court in Ferrara. After the locals rebelled against tax in 1377 the family fortified their palace, creating an impressive military stronghold to defend themselves against angry citizens. With four towers and a deep moat, even the most violent of rioters struggled to put a dent in the brick fortress called the Castello Estense.
The family founded a university in the city a few decades later which was a key step in heightening their power and influence. Soon members of the Este Court could be found in the most important circles across Europe. However, the family was made infamous by a certain young boy called Nicolò III who became head of the household in 1393.
The Legend of Nicolò III
Nicolò became master of the family at just 10 and got married at the tender age of 14. Despite his age, marital fidelity was not his style and he is said to have kept an astonishing 800 mistresses. Even with so many women around, Nicolò only had about thirty children all of which were brought up in a ramshackle manner in Castello Estense.
Nicolò’s cheerful, chubby cheeks disguised a jealous and controlling disposition. After catching his beautiful wife in the arms of her stepson son – Ugo – he had them both brutally beheaded in the dungeons of his castle. This thrilling tale was famously immortalised by the British poet, Lord Byron.
Difficult family relations seem to be a tradition for the House of Este, with two of Nicolò’s grandsons blinding their brothers in a fit of jealousy. The two blighted siblings plotted to take over the throne and were thrown into the cells beneath Castello Estense for their troubles – they were left there for years and years!
In Ferrara you can see the sites of these dramatic historical happenings with your own eyes. Take advantage of the area’s wonderful river cruises – Italy has many fantastic route options – and arrive in town by boat before exploring the Palazzo Municipale, the ancient churches and cloisters, and of course the dungeons of the Castello Estense where many of the House of Este met their end!