Slanting across northern Italy between the Alps and the Apennines is the Val Padana is the plaIn where the river Po flows through probably the most extensive cultivation of rice in Europe. After the disintegration of the Roman Empire from the fourth century A.D. onwards, or the Modern Era, barons or bishops ruled over territory owing allegiance to the Guelf party, which sought protection from the Papacy, while other cities and their surrounding territory were Ghibellines who sheltered in the shadow of the Holy Roman Emperor based in Aix or Aachen or another powerful north European city.
Loyalties changed; local wars between rival states were endemic. Rulers flaunted power and prestige building redoubtable castle palaces and commissioning the best altarpieces for their favourite church from the most prestigious workshop in their city with painters and sculptors to rival those so admired in the Ancient World. So what was seen as the rebirth of great art happened and was, in the nineteenth century, called The Renaissance.
In the 1200s and 13400s families, enriched by trade between Christendom as Europe was then known, and Asia, such as the Este family in the north Italian city of Ferrara on the river Po, seized control of their city. The Este family built their formidable castle palace in brick joining four towers with suites of rooms in several floors reached by a marble staircase as well as a sloping corridor rising from one floor to the next to carry donkeys or ponies with young or elderly inhabitants who could not manage the stairs as well as loads of every sort of supply. Courtiers in luxurious robes would have passed servants carrying slops from the night before and donkeys loaded with fruit, vegetables and meat for the kitchens. One large room could lead to a smaller one, such as a chapel with walls clad in different coloured slabs of marble. Now the rooms are empty, except for tourists. One had to imagine the rich tapestries and the great paintings by Titian that Ercole, the Este ruler in the early 16th century, commissioned and collected so eagerly. They are now scattered throughout the world’s major museums when once they would have adorned Ercole’s ‘studiolo’ in the castle and impressed the young princesses, Isabella d’Este and Beatrice d’Este. Ercole would have discussed his paintings with a group of Ferrarese scholars. Isabella and her younger sister Beatrice grew up in this vast edifice. They must have had their own tower or floor apartments with a suite of servants. Perhaps they played in the hanging garden with orange trees as now recreated between two of the towers.
And so one wanders from one room to another, the servants sliding along the tapestries carrying clothes, kitchen supplies or slops to tip into the moat. Imagine the two little daughters of the prince descending from their quarters on the upper floors, not open to the public, to the ‘piano nobile’ or first floor where their parents lived and entertained and their guests, well clear fo the moat at street level but without too many steps to climb. Soon, when still young children, they were betrothed, and their adult life mapped out for them – Isabella to marry into the Gonzaga family of Mantua, and Beatrice into the Sforza one of Milan.