Ferrara is a down to earth sort of city. Built of solid red brick and rarely above two storeys high, its buildings, even the grandest Renaissance palaces, have none of the marble facings of their Venetian companions to the North, nor the great stone arcades of Bologna or the external flourish of Florence and Padua. Settled in the flatlands of the River Po’s delta, Ferrara has little of the magnificent art of its powerful neighbours, partly because its ruling family’s male line died out in 1598 and authority passed to the Archbishop of Modena. However, for centuries before that, the Este family had made it a centre of humanism and gently pragmatic governance. I mean, how else do you survive in a red brick castle?
That atmosphere still pervades, as does the winter climate of river mist and fog rolling inland from the sea. When the sun comes out the pavement tables come into their own. There is not the frenetic hooting traffic of Rome or Milan. The streets are wide without becoming smart boulevards, the cafes full without crowding. There is barely a tourist in sight. For all that sobriety, the city’s glory days of the century between 1490 and 1590 are centred around the alliance between the Este family and the most notorious of the age, the Borgias. Rodrigo Borja, the Catalan church administrator who took holy orders at the late age of 38 and became Pope Alexander VI, was Lucrezia’s father.
Ferrara comes into the story when he chose its prince, Alfonso I, to be her third husband, when she was still only 22. The marriage meant that Alfonso was able to stave off the attentions of the voracious Venetian Republic and turn his court into a literary and musical centre with influence way beyond the city’s size (its university had already been around for 200 years). She died at the age of 39 from complications giving birth after her tenth pregnancy. She is buried in the Convent of Corpus Domini in the Este vault, in a private room where the nuns hold their services behind the altar of the public church (open to view 4 hours per day if you ring the bell and ask nicely).
My fascination, though, is not so much with Lucrezia but with her daughter Eleonora (1515 – 1575). She was only four when her mother died and, instead of being brought up in her father’s castle apartments, she was given into the care of the convent. When she was older she weighed the options (marriage, loss of independence, being a pawn in the Borgia power games) and decided to stay. The convent grounds were much bigger and more pleasant then – these days the unglamorous buildings of the city’s college of commerce take up most of the site – and they included one of the most beautiful Renaissance mansions in Ferrara, now the Casa Romei Museum. Her father and then brother were the dukes, her other brother was Cardinal and she became the Abbess at only 18. It was hardly an existence without influence.
Eleonora had her mother’s drive too but it was channelled to music. Recent research suggests that she became a composer of extraordinary gifts, writing for the women’s’ voices of the convent in a polyphonic style that was comparable to her great predecessor, Josquin des Prez. She was a generation older than major figures like Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Vincente Galileo (father of the astronomer). It seems likely that she was the author of a book of motets published in Venice in 1543, when she was 28. The church at that time was deeply suspicious of women performing ‘unseemly’ complicated music but she had her cardinal brother on her side. If (and my qualification is entirely precautionary) the book is by her it would make Eleonora probably the first woman composer to have her work published. There is an album of the music on Obsidian Records by the splendidly named groups Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens.
The strange thing is that neither the Casa Romei Museum, nor the kind nun (there are only 11 left) who showed me Eleonora and Lucrezia’s shared grave had any idea that she was a musician, let alone of her potential significance. It is sad because the Museum has a beautiful painted hall where chamber concerts are held occasionally. It is not impossible that, since the building was part of the convent used by her brother and guests, that Eleonora and her fellow musicians performed in it, since Ferrara at the time was a much more liberal place than some of the more austere city states. Dropping in to pay a little homage to her, then ambling back across town to glory in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Janine Jansen’s music making from our own time in the plush Teatro Communale was my idea of pilgrimage.
Image: Vanni Lazzari