Mesola: Fragments of the History of a Ducal City

Written by  Francesco Ceccarelli
A colossal architectural project whose real strategic purpose has never been examined until now.
Along the course of the Po in the second half of the 16th century many large, high quality construction sites were being opened: small cities, aristocratic settlements, well supplied strongholds on or close to the banks of the river.

These Italian "low countries" witnessed a proliferation of construction projects, promoted by aristocratic clients committed to reclaiming and governing territories dangerously exposed to the water hazard and the risk of flooding. It was above all along the middle course of the river, between Casalmaggiore and Guastalla, that this reinforcement of the territory grew denser and stronger to give form to a mosaic of little states and small "capital cities": Sabbioneta, Pomponesco, Bozzolo, Brescello, Gualtieri and Guastalla.

In the world of the Estes, especially during the government of Alfonso II (1559-1597), many architectonic and urban "novelties" were promoted and in part created as a result of the ducal will: the complete restructuring of Gualtieri, later completed with magisterial skill by Aleotti; the towns of Ficarolo, Stellata and Bondeno (reorganization schemes); but the most important projects involved the state capital and the Po delta area.

In Ferrara, the circuit of the fortifications was updated in the "modern" manner and enlarged to include the borough of San Luca while in the Mesola a colossal architectonic project was underway whose real strategic purpose has never been examined until now.

To understand the duke's plans we need to provide a sketch of the delta landscape, which has changed radically since those days. Mesola was an island standing at the mouth of the Goro and Abbate branches of the Po, at the start of those waterways that set off thence towards Ferrara. Its geographical position made it an enormously important site from the point of view of its commercial potential.

Alfonso II had his own ideas about settlements on the river, and it was no accident that he chose a site near the mouth, at the crucial cross-roads between the plain and the sea where the various sea-routes for the continent began. And in fact in the years in which work on the great Polesine reclamation scheme was coming to a close, a new construction site was opened, right where the outfall drains of the reclamation scheme arrived at the sea.

In the spring of 1578 work began on the island of Mesola. The designer and supervisor of most of these works was Marcantonio Pasi, the ducal engineer following the death of Galasso Alghisi.
Hundreds of forced labourers were obliged to dig canals and, above all, to build a very extensive circle of walls (over 11 kilometres) that was planned to embrace the whole island and beyond it, to the south, to include the eastern stretch of the Abbate Po.

Five years later, in 1583, construction work began on the ducal palace (better known as the "castle OF Mesola"), of the semi-octagonal "LOWER court" nearby and various other buildings. Work was still underway in 1586 but then it came to halt and was not resumed until much later.

Twentieth century historiography has dwelt on the Mesola's aspects as a "pleasaunce" and attention has been focussed on the Este palace, still extant, more than on the surroundings, which have been profoundly transformed in the last two centuries. The disappearance of the walls has certainly altered the perception of the environmental picture and discouraged any study of the entity of that circuit and the nature of what it was supposed to circumscribe. And yet that immense enclosure, which had so impressed contemporary "chroniclers", is our best guide to the duke's most privy intentions.

In the mid 17th century this enclosure and its potential functions were dealt with by Alberto Penna in his Compendiosa descrittione dello stato di Ferrara: «The purpose for which it was built was to construct a city therein, which by serving as a port for all the merchandise that might pass along the Po, would very soon grow populous and at the same time enrich itself and likewise the state of Ferrara, and it did also take this form that it might be a game reserve».

The walls, which enclosed a regular network of roads and canals, were therefore described by Penna as the primary infrastructures of a far larger design: to circumscribe a reserve of land potentially suitable for building, prior to the founding of a great city. But political conditions, and above all the hostility of the Venetian Republic, were to frustrate Alfonso's plans, dooming all to remain unfinished.

The strategy for urban development outlined by Penna is very clear, but up to what point is it true? Documentary analysis has revealed the duke's intentions in all their complexity, despite his notable discretion. The importance of his initiative emerges from a wealth of diverse documentary sources: construction site records and architectural drawings, but that is not all.
The project was described in detail by Tasso in a laudatory madrigal and even in the unpublished manuscript of the dialogue de la nobiltà, or the Forno; but above all it was mentioned in numerous dispatches written by informers in the pay of Venice and discussed by the Senate of the Republic. These sources highlight the import of a project considered seditious: the first phase in the construction of a "new Venice"; the birth of a rival city for the Serenissima.

The Venetians decided to divert the course of the Tramontana Po towards the south-east with a view to choking the Ferrarese ports with sand and thus "burying" Mesola by frustrating its viability as a commercial port. The creation of the Taglio novo (new cut) was in fact debated by the Venetian Senate in a politico-military and anti-Ferrarese spirit, with the explicit intention of thwarting the Este's hegemonic designs.

The operation was launched right after the transfer of power in Ferrara from the Este family to the Papal States. In the following decades this idea for a city that was both maritime and fluvial virtually slipped into oblivion. The structures that had been built steadily deteriorated along with any expectations of a demographic increase.
All that remained of the duke's ambitious ideas were the fragments of an unfinished project.