The Bishop's Grand Palace

Written by  Sergio Raimondi

The splendours of the Villa Mensa, rich in history and memories, are being revived.

Built in the Copparo area close to Sabbioncello San Vittore, sheltered on the left bank of the Po di Volano, the great Episcopal Palace of Ferrara still displays its majesty even today after over five hundred years of history. The palace is still standing largely thanks to its location on one of the mounds inexplicably present in the area since ancient times. More commonly known as the “villa of the mensa”(being part of the property belonging to the “mensa”, that is to say the revenues then owed to the prelates of the Church), it is known that the palace-come-castle was commissioned in 1482 by Bartolomeo della Rovere, then bishop of Ferrara, a pious Franciscan friar who was the nephew of the pontiff then ruling, Pope Sixtus IV. The bishop decided to construct the villa right there in Sabbioncello rather than anywhere else since that was the location of the majority of the property which formed his revenue. It was also easily and quickly reached from Ferrara, travelling down the Volano river in a state galley. A further advantage was that many of the most important noble families of the city had long held villas or summer dwellings sited on the lands bordering on the chosen location. But in choosing to build on this precise spot the Bishop of Ferrara was also making a provocative gesture, seeking to reaffirm his own inalienable rights of ownership and authority over territory which for centuries had been, and remained, the subject of continual arguments with the adjacent Archbishopric of Ravenna over the delicate question of boundaries. This quarrel had created a strategic importance for Sabbioncello which the small town would otherwise never have achieved. Constructed in order to act as a home for its founder and also to act as a “working court” for the bishop’s staff, the villa also developed a notable history of its own. Through the centuries it offered “bodily comforts and spiritual peace” to a long series of personalities, both famous and not (many ecclesiastical, other secular), as amply documented by the records which remain to us. For some of these individuals, far from the image which has been constructed in the popular imagination, Villa Mensa more often than not actually provided an excellent opportunity to take part in formative encounters or to dedicate themselves to their own spiritual exercises. In this way, as for others, it enabled people to gain some rest as well as some relaxation, perhaps through hunting or fishing, or perhaps through the entertainments which were organised there from time to time. Among the many important guests there have been those who, as revealed by several sources, chose to spend the last days of their lives in the villa, finding it to be an oasis of peace (one - but by no means the only such example - was Cardinal Filippo Filonardi who died there in 1834). Others, on the contrary, have taken advantage of this beautiful and isolated residence to hold sumptuous receptions or cheerful slap-up dinners - as in the case of Ippolito I d’Este. Though remodelled several times over the centuries, the “Villa Mensa” still boasts an unmistakeable fifteenth century facade, elongated by two crenellated walls which enclose various internal courtyards. It has a polygonal form with a great central cloistered courtyard, harmoniously enriched by a chapel (called “the chapel of Pallegrino”) and by a high watchtower, subsequently used as a dovecote. The main entrance is under a generous portico with six arches. It leads via a staircase to the upper floor where the room of honour stands out, along with the delegation room and what was once the bishop’s private chapel. The remains of the antique décor is still to be found in various rooms, demonstrating that the villa was enriched by a series of frescoes, some of which – according to certain sources – were carried out by Girolamo da Carpi as well as by the Filippi brothers. The villa was almost totally ruined by the ravages of time and man’s neglect, but it was nevertheless placed on the UNESCO list of ‘heritage to rescue’ and in 2002 two willing buyers were finally found in the form of the Comune di Copparo and the Provincial Administration of Ferrara.

This providential joint commitment has not only enabled the cessation of the processes of decay and devastation of this monument, but will also enable the fifteenth century “villa della mensa” to become a precious and functional testimony to Ferrara’s history.