Renaissance and Reformation Ferrara and the Este
Dennis Looney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0348


The history of Ferrara in the Renaissance is inextricably bound up with the history of the Este dynasty, the aristocratic lords of ancient lineage who governed the city and its territory from the 13th century to 1598. In 1264 the church and various Guelph allies recognized Obizzo II d’Este as lord of Ferrara, making Este political power dependent upon church authority, which ultimately would lead to the dynasty’s political downfall at the end of 16th century. With Ferrara as their base, the Este expanded control over other towns and areas in the vicinity during the Renaissance, including Modena, Reggio Emilia, and the Tuscan Apennines. Ferrara enjoyed a remarkably stable political rule at its height in the Renaissance. For example, three sons of Niccolò III, who ruled from 1393 to 1441, governed in peaceful succession after his death: Leonello (b. 1441–d. 1450), Borso (b. 1450–d. 1471), and Ercole I (b. 1471–d. 1505). Political stability enabled the burgeoning of Este artistic patronage, and the arts in turn celebrated the Este patrons in their princely magnificence. When Alfonso II could not produce a legitimate male heir at the end of the 16th century, the government of the city devolved to the church and the Este were forced to move to Modena, from where they ruled a territory greatly reduced in size and importance. To this day, the impressive library of Ferrarese Renaissance literary culture, the Biblioteca Estense, and the vast majority of archives and records of early modern Ferrara are housed in Modena. Renaissance Ferrara has been somewhat marginalized as a case for study when compared to the scholarly dialogues that have thrived around Florence, Rome, and Venice in Renaissance studies. The Ferrarese poets Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso, whose narrative poems have consistently been a focus for the investigations of literary and cultural historians over the centuries, are exceptions to that fate. But a new generation of scholars tracking cultural production of various types—architecture, art, literature, music, printing, urban planning—is now making a convincing case for the validity of the study of Ferrara as an innovative center of unique cultural works in the 15th and 16th centuries.

General Overviews

Benefitting from the genealogical and historical research of Chiappini 1967 and the works of other Italian scholars, Gundersheimer 1973 provides a groundbreaking cultural and historical study of Ferrara in the Renaissance, with attention to history, politics, patronage, and art; Gundersheimer 1990 suggests that more archival research will take Ferrarese studies in fruitful directions. Prosperi 2000 and Looney and Shemek 2005 include many essays that respond to that charge. Folin 2001 deepens and perfects the methodology in Gundersheimer 1973, with a focus on the intersection of political and artistic culture in Ferrara. Papagno and Quondam 1982 and Salmons and Moretti 1984 are collections of essays that demonstrated the growing interest in Ferrara in the 1980s. Pade, et al. 1990 bears the mark of a conference but contains much general information that is useful. Dean 2002 examines the economy that allowed medieval feudal landholders to become powerful lords of an emblematic early modern city.

  • Chiappini, Luciano. Gli Estensi. Varese, Italy: Dall’Oglio, 1967.

    The fundamental historical and genealogical study of the Este dynasty.

  • Dean, Trevor. Land and Power in Late Medieval Ferrara: The Rule of the Este, 1350–1450. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Tracks the way the Este rulers consolidated their power in the centuries following the establishment of their lordship in 1264 through the practice of careful land management in and around Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio.

  • Folin, Marco. Rinascimento estense: Politica, cultura, istituzioni di un antico Stato italiano. Rome: Laterza, 2001.

    Detailed examination of the administrative, cultural, and political structures of the Estense government apparatus during the Renaissance. Helpful graphs and tables on university graduates, positions in the court, positions in the ducal government, income, and the social status of Estense governors in the provinces, among much else.

  • Gundersheimer, Werner L. Ferrara: The Style of a Renaissance Despotism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

    Foundational monograph (available in Italian as Ferrara estense: Lo stile del potere) on the study of Ferrara and the Este court. Makes the case for Ferrara’s vitality as a cultural center in the long 15th century, focusing on the cultural continuity created during the extended reign of Niccolò III and his three sons, Leonello, Borso, and Ercole, from 1393 to 1505.

  • Gundersheimer, Werner L. “Ferrarese Studies: An Agenda for the Future.” In La corte di Ferrara e il suo mecenatismo, 1441–1598: Atti del convegno internazionale. Copenaghen,21–23 maggio 1987. Edited by Marianne Pade, Leene Waage Petersen, and Daniela Quarta, 353–361. Modena, Italy: Panini, 1990.

    Proposes new directions for the study of Renaissance Ferrara, arguing for the value of more attention to the historical archives.

  • Looney, Dennis, and Deanna Shemek, eds. Phaethon’s Children: The Este Court and Its Culture in Early Modern Ferrara. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005.

    Collection of fifteen essays that examines different aspects of Ferrarese culture during the Renaissance, including literature (Ascoli, Bruscagli, Clubb, Looney, Quint), music (Lockwood), art (Colantuono), as well as historical genealogy (Bestor, Tristan), women (Ghirardo), urban chronicles (Dean), religion (Bonfil, Smarr), epistolography (Shemek), and the reception of Ferrarese culture itself (Gundersheimer). Ample bibliography with suggestions for future study.

  • Pade, Marianne, Leene Waage Petersen, and Daniela Quarta, eds. La corte di Ferrara e il suo mecenatismo, 1441–1598: Atti del convegno internazionale. Copenaghen,21–23 maggio 1987. Modena, Italy: Panini, 1990.

    Multilingual volume of twenty-two essays on the variety of cultural production sponsored by the Este court from the interaction between Leonello and Guarino Veronese in the 1440s to that between Alfonso II and Torquato Tasso in the 1580s and 1590s.

  • Papagno, Giuseppe, and Amedeo Quondam, eds. La corte e lo spazio: Ferrara estense. 3 vols. Rome: Bulzoni, 1982.

    Thirty-five essays based on work presented at the Center for “Europa delle Corti” in Ferrara in the early 1980s. Essays consider Este culture from the perspectives of material space, cultural space, and courtly space.

  • Prosperi, Adriano, ed. Il Rinascimento: Situazioni e personaggi. Vol. 6, Storia di Ferrara. Ferrara: Corbo, 2000.

    Encyclopedic volume, part of a larger series on Ferrara, which contains seventeen fundamental articles that focus on the Este and their associates in the context of key topics such as government (Folin, Ricci, Turchi, Guerzoni), genealogy (Bestor), geography (Donattini), religion (Franceschini, Dall’Olio, Raffaelli, Leoni), music (Fabbri, Lockwood), publishing (Perini), astrology (Bacchelli), humanism (D’Ascia), crime (Folin), and the devolution (Biondi).

  • Salmons, June, and Walter Moretti, eds. The Renaissance in Ferrara and its European Horizons. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1984.

    Bilingual volume of seventeen essays (eight in English, nine in Italian) with some attention to the influence of Ferrarese Renaissance culture beyond Ferrara. Not a cohesive volume but important for the attention it cast on Ferrara at the time of its publication. Copublished by Edizioni Girasole (Ravenna).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.