Ancient splendours, vicissitudes of a Renaissance pleasaunce

Written by  Anna Maria Visser Travagli
The troubled history of the palazzina of Marfisa d'Este.
At the bottom of corso Giovecca stands the Palazzina of Marfisa d'Este: a noble and harmonious building, its architecture is imbued with a sense of moderate, contained rhythm. It was built in the mid Seventeenth century by order of Francesco I d'Este, the third son of Alfonso I and Lucrezia Borgia.

The structure was part of a grand urban plan boldly conceived by Francesco d'Este. Already the owner of palazzo Schifanoia, with the construction of the Palazzina on via Giovecca and the subsequent acquisition of Palazzo Neroni on via Cisterna del Follo, Francesco's plan was to integrate the gardens and green spaces linking all three buildings thus imposing a rational organization on the whole south-eastern side of the city, still largely innocent of buildings.

Today the Palazzina stands isolated after some lamentable demolition work carried out in the late Nineteenth century, the greater part of the garden was occupied in the Thirties by the courts of the Marfisa tennis club, and the gardens of Schifanoia have been virtually obliterated; it is therefore difficult to recognize this extraordinary scheme, a project of the highest quality designed to be part of a garden city.
The imminent restoration of Palazzo Bonaccossi and the re-opening of the passageway through the Loggia del Cenacolo towards the Palazzina will give us back, even if not entirely, the quality of the architectonic scheme and the sense underpinning the whole arrangement.
Tradition has identified the Palazzina with Marfisa, Francesco's elder daughter, who is portrayed as a child together with her sister Bradamante inside frescoed medallions in the Loggia dei Ritratti, which gives onto the garden. Marfisa loved this house - which she inherited from her father - and she lived in it permanently until her death in 1608, ten years after the Este duke's enforced departure from Ferrara whence it had been ousted by the papal powers.

Marfisa did not wish to follow the duke and the court to Modena, choosing to live a withdrawn life in her house in Ferrara. She was one of the great Este ladies, very beautiful, proud and independent. The name Marfisa derives from legend and she was to become a legend herself. By the late Nineteenth century, without any historical grounds for the idea, she was popularly believed to have been a diabolical lover and her ghost was said to leave the Palazzina nightly in a fiery coach followed by the ghosts of the lovers she had allegedly murdered, a ghastly vision that reputedly disappeared at dawn.

The decline of the Palazzina began right after Marfisa's death; the heirs, the Cybo family of Massa and Carrara, did not live in the building and installed an administrator who looked after maintenance. After 1756 the rooms were rented out or sold and the premises changed hands on several occasions until purchased by the town council in 1861. The council intended to use the building as the seat of a planned school of hydraulic engineering but this scheme came to naught and the Palazzina was invaded by the homeless.
The decorated ceilings were very severely damaged; around 1890 a blacksmith had set up his smithy in the reception rooms, the smoke blackened the tempera work on the ceiling of the Banqueting Hall and an outbreak of fire destroyed the vault of the Sala di Fetonte. It was the darkest day in the history of the Palazzina. In 1643 the building at the bottom of the garden was sold to the counts Bonaccossi while the houses adjacent to the Palazzina were rented out to families of modest means; the Loggia degli Aranci was also rented out and used as a workshop, storage space for fodder, foundry and soap factory.

At the end of the Nineteenth century the deterioration had reached such a point that the Council ordered the evacuation of the unsafe premises and decided on demolition, the sole exceptions being the Palazzina and the Loggia degli Aranci. A few "elect spirits" conceived a plan for the complete restoration of Marfisa's house and began to promote the initiative.

Foremost among these was Giuseppe Agnelli, the most outstanding Ferrarese scholar and intellectual of his day. After having succeeded in organizing the restoration of the frescoes in the Sala dei Mesi in palazzo Schifanoia and in transforming that building into a museum, he devoted his energies to saving Marfisa's Palazzina. In 1906 he founded the association known as Ferrariae Decus, a society devoted to the safeguarding of historic monuments and art, and in 1909 he obtained the Palazzina as his headquarters and restoration work began.
He also managed to begin the task of restoring the decorated ceilings and it is touching to read his reports to the Society in which he describes the rediscovery, under cobwebs and various layers of dust, of the portraits of Marfisa and Bradamante as children. The skilled restorers also brought back to life the ethereal compositions a grottesche in the Sala Grande, the splendid vases full of flowers under a green pergola supported by caryatids in the Sala del Camino, and the mythological phantasmagoria in the Sala delle Imprese.

The missing parts were filled in mimetically, by reproducing the decorative modules of the originals, which were the work of the Filippi atelier. Some of the work was that of Sebastiano, known as Il Bastianino, the great founding father of the Ferrarese school of the Sixteenth century.
Then everything was brought to a brusque halt by the outbreak of the Great War and, after 1918, Agnelli struggled to raise funds for the Palazzina. The garden area, formerly occupied by a gymnastics association, became a tennis club in 1930.

It was only the association with Senator Pietro Niccolini, the Chairman of the Cassa di Risparmio, that made it possible to resolve the situation and in fact it was Nicolini who, to celebrate the centenary of the Cassa di Risparmio in 1938, decided to have the Palazzina restored and to purchase all the fixtures and fittings.