I drove west from Venice airport while I waited for the GPS to catch the satellites. It did, but its brains were scrambled. The nice digital lady gave me directions, but she clearly suffered from Autoestrade Alzheimer’s and I knew I was lost.

I pulled into a gas station to buy a map. The guy looked at me as if I was from outer space. There are no longer any maps. I drove on. I knew I needed to head southwest, and the sun was setting, so I followed it west toward Milan.

Soon the signs for Bologna were pulling me south. As I neared Ferrara, the sun sinking to starboard of my small Ford, the GPS suddenly started working.

You’re never far from history in Italy, and nowhere more so than in Ferrara. As soon as you pass the industrial outskirts of the city you enter a long avenue, and suddenly, to your right, a magnificent structure looms—a medieval castle, complete with four towers and a moat: the Castello Estense.

The Castello Estense, home to the Dukes of Ferrara.

The Castello Estense, home to the Dukes of Ferrara. Savonarola rants in the foreground.

From the castle onward bicycles rule, and the buildings succeed each other in greatness, so that the old city is quietly magnificent. One side of the town is medieval, with cramped narrow streets, and the other shows the spirit of the renaissance, with wide avenues and ornate gardens.

Copernicus lived here, and Savonarola was a local boy. Opposite the castle, where Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander, once lived, Savonarola’s statue holds forth against corruption, degeneracy, and vice.

The d’Este family were emblematic of all three. Fra Girolamo Savonarola was burnt at the stake in 1498, three days after Vasco da Gama made landfall at Calicut.

Niccolò III, bastard son of Alberto d’Este, epitomizes the morals of the time. In May 1425, he executed his second wife Parisina and his illegitimate son Ugo. The two had been having an affair—both were twenty years old.

The dungeon where Parisina was kept before being beheaded is a long, narrow passage, with a stone seat in the corner.

The dungeon where Parisina (Laura) Malatesta was held before her execution.

The dungeon where Parisina (Laura) Malatesta was held before her execution.

The door to the cell is the height of a small child—I bent double and walked through the rectangular opening, past the dungeon door—a sturdy wooden piece, lined with thick iron sheeting. To my right, near the door, a window tapers to the outside. It has four sets of bars, and by the time you reach the outer wall, only a cat could pass through.

I sat on the stone. I imagined Parisina in the last days before her death. I put myself in her place. I could see that door close. I checked my cellphone. No signal.

On the record, Niccolò had children by eleven different ladies. In reality, the Prince of Este is reputed to have entertained more than eight hundred women, giving rise to the popular saying di qua e di là del Po son tutti figli di Nicolò (either side of the Po they’re all children of Niccolò).

Cross the old town toward the southeast, past the fantastic cathedral, and you pass the Jewish quarter—there’s a plaque on the wall donated by Israel in memory of the Jews of Ferrara deported by the Nazis to concentration camps. Continue to Via Pergolato toward the University of Ferrara, one of the oldest in the world.

But before you get there, you find the Clarissine monastery of Corpus Domini, which contains the tombs of several members of the d’Este family, most notably Lucrezia Borgia.

I rang the bell. A nun from the order of the Poor Clares opened the door, and I explained my intentions. She replied in French.

“L’autre porte, à cotê.” Go to the other door, I will be there to open it. And she was, but quickly disappeared after pointing me in the right direction. The nuns are not meant to engage in conversation with the lay—this is a contemplative order.

In the chapel of the convent are five graves—the remains of Lucrezia Borgia are in one of them, along with those of her husband Alfonso d’Este. Lucrezia died at age thirty-nine, and is one of the more infamous figures of the renaissance—it’s unclear how much of her story is true, but it’s certainly fascinating.

Her Spanish father was a cardinal when she was born—mistresses were a common element in the life of high clergy, as of course were children. His name was Borja, but he quickly italianicized it. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia became pope, he took the name Alexander, and swiftly married his daughter off to Giovanni Sforza—in such circles, marriage was a blood alliance, a business proposition generally divested of love.

Presently, Sforza became irrelevant to the Pope, and the pontiff called for the annulment of the marriage on the grounds of impotence, which required a signed and witnessed confession from Sforza. Lucrezia’s husband refused, and in turn accused his wife of incest—with both her brother Cesare and her father.

During this time, Lucrezia apparently had an affair with Perotto, the pope’s chamberlain. Under threats, Sforza finally consented to the annulment, and his wife retired to a convent over this period. Rumors abounded that she was pregnant. Whether true or not, a child named Giovanni was born to the Borgias in 1497.

Perotto and a maid were conveniently found dead in the Tiber, and in 1501 the four year old boy was recognized as the son of Alexander through a papal bull. After the pope’s death, the youngster went to live with Lucrezia in Ferrara as her half-brother.

Lucrezia’s second marriage, to Alfonso of Aragon, was all too brief. After two years her husband was murdered in Rome, allegedly by his wife’s brother Cesare, the pope’s son, who had himself been a cardinal.

With this pedigree, she was well-suited to the Princes of Este—in 1502 she duly married Alfonso d’Este, grandson of Niccolò III. There is a text in the rooms of the Castello Estense explaining that the title of Duke of Ferrara was granted to Alfonso’s father Ercole by the pope in exchange for the commitment to marry Alfonso to Lucretia. Unfortunately the dates on the text are all wrong—1471 and 1571 are indicated, but Alexander only became pope in 1492, and Lucretia was only born in 1480.

Unsurprisingly, both partners were blatantly unfaithful from the start. By 1503 Lucrezia was engaged in a passionate affair with her brother-in-law, the Marquis of Mantua. In parallel, she also had another servidor, to use the Spanish expression: the poet Pietro Bembo—clearly a lady of considerable appetites.

The affair with her brother-in-law ended when Francesco Gonzaga contracted syphilis, sometime before 1510. This attests to the rapid progression of the disease, if we credit the crew of the first voyage of Columbus with introducing syphilis to the European continent—Martin Pinzon, captain of the Pinta, died from it in March 1493.

Deep in the dungeons of the castle of Este is a large cell where Alfonso’s brother Ferrante d’Este, and his half-brother Giulio, were imprisoned in 1506 for conspiring to overthrow Alfonso. Both men stayed in the Torre dei Leone for what the castle visitor text euphemistically terms ‘quite a long time.’

Ferrante was released after forty-three years, and Giulio was set free in 1559. The accounts of the time state that the still energetic eighty-one year old proceeded to walk through town in clothes that were in fashion half a century before, to the raucous laughter of the populace.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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