Eleonora's Livestock

Written by  Diane Ghirardo
The topography of buffaloes in Renaissance Ferrara.

Buffaloes played an important part in the life of the House of Este for many years. The first indication of their presence is noted in the financial records of Eleonora of Aragon in 1481, although she had most likely brought the buffaloes with her from Naples. Her daughter in law, Lucrezia Borgia would do the same thing twenty years later, bringing buffaloes from the countryside surrounding Rome. The buffaloes were not used for agricultural work, but rather to produce milk and delicious cheeses such as ricotta (povine) and mozzarella. Even though historians believe that buffaloes had already arrived in Italy by the sixth or seventh century and Crusaders and travellers encountered them in the Middle East and Hungary, there are no actual records of buffalo farming or buffalo milk cheese until the fourteenth century. The spun curd cheese-making technique seems to have originated in the Middle East, but became common in parts of Italy through the work of monastic communities who were already selling a cheese called “mozza” in the fourteenth century. Although not an indigenous species, buffaloes did well in the more marginal natural environments, and more especially the marshlands of the Po delta before the great land reclamation projects of the late seventeenth century. The buffaloes therefore integrated very well into the economy of the delta, producing milk, cheese, leather, and meat. Eleonora kept her buffaloes near Finale di Modena (Finale in Emilia) and also in the Barco area, right outside the walls of Ferrara. Her buffalo-herder Cristofaro da Bergamo kept 43 buffaloes and 14 young female buffaloes born between 1481 and 1482, and the Merlo brothers kept 59 in 1483. The number rose to 67 in 1484.

In 1485, Eleonora signed a contract with Pietro Nigrisolo regarding 26 buffaloes kept in Barco, at the Belfiore Delizia which was a suburban residence built by the House of Este. The contract specified that the buffalo could graze in the Duke’s fields and take shelter in the sheds provided by the Duchess in winter. Pietro had to look after the buffaloes and make cheese with the tools provided by the Duchess, and she was given “povina” in return at market prices, in addition to mozzarella for the old Italian currency of one lira and five soldi. The Duchess had rights to one fifth of the buffaloes born, including those lost, but profits from the sale of the buffaloes were divided with Nigrisolo. No records remain to recount what happened to the buffaloes after the death of the Duchess in 1493, but we know that her daughter Isabella, the Marchioness of Mantua, still kept a small herd of five buffalo in 1502. Despite the lack of references, Lucrezia definitely had a herd too, because the buffaloherder, Andrea Zoane was part of her staff until 1517 at least. Apart from the production of cheese, the Duchess also obtained income from the skins of the buffaloes when they died, and she ordered buffalo horn handles for the fans of her ladies- in- waiting. By 1517, most of Lucrezia’s buffaloes would have moved between the reclaimed areas of La Redena and Diamantina, according to the season. There are few reports of the buffaloes by the time she died, but map indications would seem to show that they were concentrated in the Mesola area at the end of the sixteenth century. When Alfonso II died, and Ferrara was incorporated into the Papal States, the buffaloes disappeared, leaving the buffalo pastures behind them to fall into disuse.