Isabella d’Este by Rubens

Isabella d’Este learnt the prestige value of artistic patronage, and she indulged it when she became the Marchioness of Mantua. Before her, the Gonzaga family were noteworthy patrons. Their court artist, Andrea Mangegna, created some of the most striking series of frescoed rooms incorporating portraits of the Gonzaga family. The most important room, the state bedchamber, is frescoed with intimate scenes of the Gonzaga family of every generation. Young children holding a parent’s hand while an older sibling is welcomed back from study abroad or a diplomatic journey. There they could lie in bed and contemplate a painted oculus with cherubs peeping over and clouds passing by – scenes to slip into their dreams.

It is strange to us now that bedchambers for centuries were the room of display by great families. They symbolised the continuation of one’s line and, for those serving them in the palace, marketplace or countryside, the symbol of sustenance and security. We serve you if you protect us and ensure our survival. Spreading out for the Este castle is a medieval network of streets to the city walls, a crucial defence in the time of inter-city rivalries.

Ercole I d’Este laid out this medieval city of cobbled streets that we tread, somewhat painfully, today. It became a thriving city on that network of trade routes that attracted a considerable Jewish community. Many were deported to concentration camps in World War II, their names inscribed on the Synagogue wall.

Ferrara is also a city with a strong literary tradition. The Este court welcomed the great poets Ariosto and Torquato Tasso, stars of Italian literature, and recently, at the end of the last century, the poet and novelist Giorgio Bassani, from the city’s Jewish community.

I met Giorgio Bassani towards the end of his life. He was a quiet, gentle, courteous presence, a generous observer of people, and have started to reread his short stories set in Ferrara. It reminds me of when I went outside Nottingham in the English Midlands to see ‘the landscape of my heart’, as the coalminer’s son, D.H. Lawrence, wrote. As I walked along the straight cobbled road named after Titian’s great patron, Ercole d’Este, I relived the pages in Bassani’s great novel of fragile adolescence love, like Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’. Somewhere down this street, in reality or imagination, behind high walls, comes the sound of ball on racquet, the smell of summer heat on pine needles and imagine the youth and passion of the young tennis players in the ‘Garden of the Finzi-Contini’.

Ferrara