'Delizie' in the Time of the Este

Written by  Francesco Ceccarelli
Villa architecture for a travelling court
Over a period of more than a century, from the 1400s until the Devolution of the Duchy of Ferrara, the ruling Este family scattered the countryside around with palaces, country houses and gardens which are known to historians as 'delizie'.
This system of suburban and out of town residences made it possible to coordinate the administration of farms, forests and hunting reserves on a grand scale, covering the territory with bastions of Este power.It was at the Este court in Ferrara, and not, as was once thought, in the Florence of the Medici, that the new humanistic culture of country house living began to spread in the first half of the fifteenth century. It was at this time that houses of a new type began to be built, intended for the prince and for influential members of Ferrara's aristocracy. A typical case is the magnificent Belriguardo palace, built by Nicolò III d'Este near Voghenza.

Constructed from 1436 onwards, the Belriguardo palace is recognised as one of the most original architectural creations of the early Renaissance. It was the engineer-Pietrobono Brasavola who produced a regular planimetric design that appears to hark back to the 'Greek house' as described by Vitruvis in De architettura, and his work at Belriguardo must have been influenced by the humanist circles that surrounded Leonello II. The suburban Belfiore residence was also the subject of much attention, after 1447, from Leonello who introduced a bath house and areas of the greatest refinement such as the celebrated 'studiolo', intended strictly for the prince's personal use. After Belfiore, the Schifanoia residence was also renovated during the reign of Borso, who paid a good deal of attention to the palaces and residences scattered across the territory, updating their architectural features and their functions, as happened at Quartesana, Benvignante, Fossadalbaro, Ostellato, Copparo finally Sassuolo in the province of Modena, the 'delizia' he preferred for hunting, which today only retains some slight traces of its transformation in that lively period.
By way of contrast, his successor Ercole I pursued magnificence by developing the city, implementing the major projects for renovation and expansion in Ferrara itself for which he is famous. His great 'Herculean Addition' brought within the walls part of the Barco territory and vast possessions, including Belfiore, creating the conditions for urban expansion on an unprecedented scale in which aristocratic houses and more modest artisans' homes would be built among extensive gardens, meadows and orchards. In the early sixteen century Alfonso I played a crucial part in realising prestigious new palazzos with splendid gardens along the perimeter within Rossetti's enclosure from the Porta di San Benedetto alla Montagna to the Porta di Sotto. It is to him that we owe the creation of the Ragnaia and Barchetto ducal gardens, the reshaping of the Castellina palazzo near Porta San Benedetto, and the planning of the 'delizia della Montagna' which his son Ercole II finally completed almost twenty years later. It was also Alfonso who was responsible for building the Boschetto delizia, better known as the Belvedere, on a sandy island in the Po along the southern walls of the city.
These 'delizie' built by Alfonso were subsequently altered by Ercole II, who employed the architect Terzo Terzi to redesign the surroundings. There were two architectural project within the city, once again close to the city walls, which the fourth Duke of Ferrara supported with particular interest: the 'palazzina della Montagna' (1538), and the Rotonda or 'casin del Barchetto' (1550).
But the suburban residence preferred by Ercole II was certainly that of Copparo, situated some twenty kilometres from Ferrara, in an area famous for its hunting.
Here, from 1540 onwards, Terzo Terzi carried out a project echoing the layout of the Belriguardo residence, with the succession of two regular courtyards perhaps surrounded by a rustic gallery and dominated by a high crenellated tower.
In the late sixteenth century, during the reign of Alfonso II, the Este residences outside the city received fresh attention partly as a result of the new territorial policies introduced by the sovereign but also because of the Este's great reclamation project, which created the conditions for the 'new lands' which were made available on a large scale. The easternmost areas of the duchy were increasingly the preferred destination of an itinerant court travelling along the extensive network of waterways towards the valleys of Comacchio, teeming with fish, and the dense littoral woods on the delta with their deer, hares and wild boar protected for the ducal hunt.
The later delizie were primarily built as hunting and fishing lodges, but their ultimate purpose remained that of protecting the territory, particularly vulnerable along the coast and at the borders of the state. The Cassette palazzo near Comacchio was renovated, while on the nearby chain of dunes in the Eliceo woods, the delizia at Vaccolino was equipped for falconry; further north, in the Polesine di Ariano on the border with the Venetian republic, the woods of Mesola were enclosed to create one of the largest hunting reserves in Europe. However, it is extremely likely that Mesola was designed with a very different end in view, that of providing the embryonic core of a future town on the Delta, given the geopolitical importance of the site and its location, at the mouth of the Po, which could have been equipped as trading centre and port, capable of directing maritime traffic inland.