Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara

Ercole I d'Este, KG (26 October 1431 – 25 January 1505) was Duke of Ferrara from 1471 until 1505. He was a member of the House of Este. He was nicknamed North Wind and The Diamond.[1]

Ercole I d'Este
Ercole I d'Este, possibly by Dosso Dossi
(Galleria Estense, Modena)
Born(1431-10-26)26 October 1431
Ferrara, Duchy of Ferrara
Died25 January 1505(1505-01-25) (aged 73)
Ferrara, Duchy of Ferrara
Noble familyHouse of Este
Spouse(s)Eleonora d'Aragon
FatherNicolò III d'Este
MotherRicciarda da Saluzzo


Ercole was born in 1431 in Ferrara to Nicolò III and Ricciarda da Saluzzo. His maternal grandparents were Thomas III of Saluzzo and Marguerite of Roussy.

He was educated at the Neapolitan court of Alfonso, king of Aragon and Naples, from 1445 to 1460; there he studied military arts, chivalry, and acquired the appreciation for architecture all'antica and the fine arts, which would result in his becoming one of the most significant art patrons of the Renaissance.[2]

In 1471, with the support of the Republic of Venice, he became Duke on the death of his half-brother Borso, profiting of the absence of the latter's son, Niccolò, who was in Mantua. [3] During an absence of Ercole from Ferrara, Niccolò attempted a coup, which was however crushed; Niccolò and his cousin Azzo were beheaded on 4 September 1476. Ercole married Eleonora d'Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand I of Naples, in 1473. The Este alliance with Naples was to prove a powerful one.

In 1482–1484 he fought a war with the Republic of Venice, which was allied with Ercole's nemesis, the Della Rovere Pope Sixtus IV, occasioned by the salt monopoly, the War of Ferrara. Ercole was able to end the war by ceding the Polesine at the Peace of Bagnolo, and Ferrara escaped the fate of destruction or absorption into the papal dominions, but the war was a humiliation for Ercole, who lay sick and immobilized while the besieging army destroyed Este properties in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

After this, he remained neutral in the Italian War of 1494-1498, and tried for the rest of his rule to improve relations with the Papal states. He reluctantly agreed to the marriage of his son Alfonso to Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, a marriage that brought notable territorial donations.

His subsequent career as a patron may be seen to some extent as compensation for the early military setback: significantly, Ercole was the only Italian ruler who characterized himself as divus on his coinage, like a Roman emperor.[4]

The scale and consistency of Ercole's patronage of the arts was in part a political and cultural statement. He hosted theatrical representations with elaborate scenery and musical intermezzi, some of the first purely secular theatre in Europe since Antiquity[5] and was successful in setting up a musical establishment which was for a few years the finest in Europe, overshadowing the Vatican chapel itself.[6] For the next century Ferrara was to retain the character of a center of avant-garde music with a decidedly secular emphasis. In music history Ercole was one of the Italian nobles most responsible for bringing the talented Franco-Flemish musicians from northern Europe into Italy. The most famous composers of Europe either worked for him, were commissioned by him, or dedicated music to him, including Alexander Agricola, Jacob Obrecht, Heinrich Isaac, Adrian Willaert, and Josquin des Prez, whose Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae not only is dedicated to him, but is based on a theme drawn from the syllables of the Duke's name.

Ercole is equally famous as a patron of the arts, as much an expression of his conscious magnificence as his cultivated aloofness, grave and stern as befitted the new ducal rank of Ferrara (Manca 1989:524ff). He made the poet Boiardo his minister, and also brought the young Ludovico Ariosto into his household.

Under Ercole Ferrara became one of the leading cities of Europe; it underwent substantial growth in the Ercolean Addition, approximately doubling in size, under Ercole's direct guidance, producing the first planned and executed urbanistic project of the Renaissance. To enclose it, he extended the city's walls, hiring architect Biagio Rossetti for the work.[7] Many of Ferrara's most famous buildings date from his reign.

Ercole was an admirer of church reformer Girolamo Savonarola, who was also from Ferrara, and sought his advice on both spiritual and political matters. Approximately a dozen letters between the two survive from the 1490s. Ercole attempted to have Savonarola freed by the Florentine church authorities, but was unsuccessful; the reformist monk was burned at the stake in 1498.[8]

In 1503 or 1504, Ercole asked his newly hired composer Josquin des Prez to write a musical testament for him, structured on Savonarola's prison meditation Infelix ego. The result was the Miserere, probably first performed for Holy Week in 1504, with the tenor part possibly sung by the Duke himself.[9]

Ercole died on 25 January 1505, and his son Alfonso became Duke.[10]

Family and issue

Ercole and Eleonora had six children:

Ercole had two illegitimate children:

See also

  • List of Dukes of Ferrara and of Modena


  • Chiappini, Luciano (2001). Gli Estensi. Mille anni di storia. Ferrara.
  • Gardner, Edmund G. (1904). Dukes and Poets in Ferrara: a Study in the Poetry, Religion and Politics of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. London.
  • Gundersheimer, Werner L. (1973). Ferrara, the Style of a Renaissance Despotism. Princeton.
  • Lockwood, Lewis (1984). Music in Renaissance Ferrara, 1400-1505: The Creation of a Musical Center in the Italian Renaissance. Oxford.
  • Macey, Patrick (1998). Bonfire Songs: Savonarola's Musical Legacy. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-816669-9.
  • Rosenberg, Charles M. (1997). The Este Monuments and Urban Development in Renaissance Ferrara. Cambridge.
  • Tuohy, Thomas (1996). Herculean Ferrara: Ercole d'Este, 1471-1505, and the Invention of a Ducal Capital. Cambridge.


  1. Sloan, John. "ISABELLA D'ESTE GONZAGA". Archived from the original on 2009-11-23. Retrieved 2009-02-19.
  2. Manca, Joseph (1989). "The Presentation of a Renaissance Lord: Portraiture of Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara (1471-1505)". Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte. 52.4: 522–538..
  3. Bertazzo, Claudia. "Il principe umanista". Medioevo. 11 (142): 78.
  4. Manca 1989; pp. 525, 529
  5. L. Zorzi, Il teatro e la città: saggi sulla scena italiana (Turin) 1977, pp 10-50.
  6. Lockwood, Lewis (972). "Music in Ferrara in the Period of Ercole I d'Este". Studi Musicali (1): 101–131.
  7. Zevi, Bruno (1960). Biagio Rossetti, ferrarese: il primo urbanista moderno europeo. Turin..
  8. Macey, p. 186
  9. Macey, p. 184ff.
  10. Bietenholz, Peter G.; Deutscher, Thomas B., eds. (1995). Contemporaries of Erasmus, A–E. I. University of Toronto Press. p. 444. ISBN 0-8020-2507-2.
Preceded by
Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio
Succeeded by
Alfonso I
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