The Troubled 'Serenissimo'

Written by  Luciano Chiappini
A profile of Duke Alfonso II d'Este, during whose reign Bastianino lived and worked.
Bastianino was born around 1532 and died in 1602; he was about twenty-seven when Alfonso II d'Este became duke of Ferrara, and was to outlive his lord, who died in 1597, by around five years. And so he spent virtually all of his working life under Alfonso's rule.

At that time, Ferrara was going through a political, social, and economic crisis and Alfonso was called upon to deal with some worrying problems. On the one hand, the steadily growing difficulties involved in holding on to power in a small state, in a Europe dominated by powers like France, Spain, and the Empire. And on the other, the obsessive drive to ensure the Este family's hold on the duchy, a succession threatened by the political manoeuvring of the Holy See, determined to recover lands it had granted in fee. Finally, there were the personal difficulties created by a character driven by unbridled ambition.

The volte-face carried out by Ferrarese diplomacy around 1560, when it abandoned its traditional friendship with France in favour of the Empire, represented an attempt to ensure more consistent support and a chance to widen the duchy's sphere of influence.
The sore point was the need to be able to count on a direct line of succession, in order to avoid the terms of the famous bull issued in 1567 by Pius V that made it impossible to invest ecclesiastical fiefs, as Ferrara was, in relatives or illegitimate children. Alfonso had no offspring, nor could he have any.
All in all a man not insensible to culture, committed to promoting a good level of intellectual life both at court and in the city; expert in politics, arms, and diplomatic relations, Alfonso was nonetheless more attracted to the tourney and other pleasures of life than to a ruler's duties.

He married three times, always in search of an heir. The first marriage with Lucrezia de' Medici; the second with Barbara of Austria, the daughter of the Emperor; and the third with Margherita Gonzaga, who outlived him, did not provide the desired result, but Alfonso did not show any understanding of the meaning of a deep relationship, involved as he was in the problems that obsessed him.

Such as the matter of so-called "precedence", in other words Alfonso's claim to count for more on the chessboard of Europe than the lords of Florence, who were powerful and wealthy, but unable to boast really ancient noble titles.
Alfonso's vanity was such that, when the Emperor Maximilian II made him a "duke OF the Empire FIRST class", he insisted on being called "Eccellenza" no longer but "Serenissimo", on a par with princes of the blood.
The imperative to safeguard and enhance the honour of his House drove him to make extreme decisions. His sister Lucrezia, legally separated from the Duke of Urbino Francesco Maria della Rovere, fell in love and was loved in turn by Count Ercole Contrari, but the relationship was brought to Alfonso's attention. The unwitting count was invited to the Castle, where he was strangled with a silken cord.

But in the mind of Alfonso, his own grandeur and that of his family demanded the assumption of roles at the highest levels, even on a European level.
His ambition led him to assume overall command of a crusade against the Turks, when, under the leadership of Suleyman the Magnificent, that people was on the verge of invading the plains of Hungary with a view to taking Vienna.

The undertaking drained the coffers of the rulers of Ferrara and further aggravated the already wretched condition of the common people. The epilogue to the adventure was disappointing. With the death of Suleyman, the Emperor Maximilian ordered the retreat and Alfonso returned to Ferrara leaving the Hungarian countryside scattered with soldiers exhausted by disease and fatigue.
His plans for greatness surfaced once more when, in 1595, Sultan Murad III expressed his intention to wipe out European Christendom. Emperor Rudolph II gathered men and arms for the defence and proposed nominating Alfonso II as his lieutenant general.
The Este duke did not waste a second. But the army of five thousand men mustered for the occasion never left, owing to the duke's exorbitant economic conditions.

On the other hand, a little less than twenty years before, Alfonso had tried and failed in a bid to obtain no less than the crown of Poland, which was elective and not hereditary.
Nor was it enough for Alfonso to make a few isolated gestures aimed at ensuring the city's affections during the terrible situation caused by the earthquake that struck the city in 1570, while the same holds for the ruinous attempt to establish in the Mesola a great mercantile centre and a port to rival that of Venice.

It is emblematic that, on Alfonso II's death in 1597, his mortal remains were transported at night by coach to the tomb in the Corpus Domini.
Lying in a simple wooden coffin, his body was accompanied only by two friars, two footmen, and a handful of clerics, without a funeral oration or a sign of gratitude or regret on the part of a single soul.